Teddy Wayne Goes Pop

Teddy Wayne Goes Pop

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine book coverTeddy Wayne worships J.D. Salinger and David Foster Wallace. In writing his first-person, pop-driven novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, he also caught Bieber Fever.


Zola: Both your first novel Kapitoil and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine are written in the first person. Is there something about that form that particularly appeals to you?

Teddy Wayne: I do feel I have greater empathy as a reader, and particularly as a writer, for the protagonist when a novel is written in the first person. While there are inherent limitations to the first-person voice, I enjoy working within that circumscribed range; there’s something sleekly efficient about it. Both of my novels’ narrators also have idiosyncratic speech patterns—Karim, in Kapitoil, is a Middle Eastern computer programmer who has learned English through finance and technology, while Jonny Valentine is an 11-year-old pop star who speaks in a mash-up of regular-kid grammar and vocabulary and marketing-executive jargon. These were hugely fun voices to write in (though they took some time to develop).

Zola: Throughout the novel, Jonny strives to find his artistic voice amid pressures from his “momager,” Jane. Was your mother supportive of your writing career?

TW: Fortunately, yes; she’s an English professor, so I have her (and my father, an avid reader) to thank for bringing reading into my life at a young age and being supportive of me as a writer. Jane, on the other hand, has coerced Jonny into the music industry, both as a means to make money for them and to raise her own social status so that she, too, can feel “special.” This is often the case with parents who groom their children at a young age for performance-based fields, such as sports, and with helicopter parents in general: the desire to live vicariously through their kids’ success.

Zola: How much research did you do about the music industry as a whole? How different is it, in your experience, from the publishing industry?

TW: I’m a music fan in a variety of genres, so I’ve had a lifetime’s worth of exposure to it without having had to do any explicit research, but I did do a fair amount of targeted digging into how it operates behind the scenes. For example, I spent several hours looking at different models of luxury tour buses for musicians. John Seabrook’s articles in The New Yorker about music production were useful, as well.

Music is quite different from the publishing industry: independent labels aside, it primarily considers its artistic material a “product,” whereas few publishers or authors would say that about books. And, of course, far more money and publicity goes into music. I hope publishing survives this period of contraction and does not devolve into a version of the music industry, in which the big labels generally put out mediocre music (with a few high-quality stars) and the better artists are relegated to lower-profile labels.

Zola: Your novel begins with two juxtaposed epigraphs, Justin Bieber’s “no rules” and the Clash’s “Complete Control.” Which motto do you lean toward when you write? Do you let yourself run free, or do you obsessively outline, edit and polish?

TW: Well, the Clash lyric—“Complete control, even over this song”—is about their record label controlling them (even for the very song in which they’re describing their manipulation), and Bieber’s line about wanting a world with no rules and no parents says the same thing, in a less self-aware way. My process for novels tends to be that I get a vague idea about a character, a world, and a story, then start writing a little bit to get a feel for the character (and the character’s voice), and once I have that in place, I outline the rest of the story in more depth. Once I have a basic skeleton of the narrative, I write in earnest, allowing myself to fill in the gaps in the structure as I go along, either through the actual prose or by continuing to add to the outline. It’s a combination of control and freedom; I wouldn’t work well at the extremes of excessive planning or total improvisation.

Zola: Additionally, can a fan of the Clash also be a fan of the Bieb?

TW: The Clash was my first musical love and I still enjoy them, and I’ve gotten into Bieber’s “Boyfriend,” so it would appear so.

Zola: Jonny Valentine admires Michael Jackson’s art above all others. Who is your literary MJ, and why?

TW: Probably the two writers who have exerted the most influence over me are J.D. Salinger and David Foster Wallace (so, my MJs would be JDS and DFW). Like Jonny’s idol, they’re both cautionary tales: all the genius in the world didn’t prevent one from becoming a recluse and the other from cutting his life short. Yet they left behind some remarkable works of art, which, like Michael Jackson’s music, have provided comfort and joy to others that they seemed unable to give to themselves.

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.