About a Boy Band: An Interview with Teddy Wayne

Teddy Wayne’s 2010 debut novel, Kapitoil — in which a Qatar-born oil futures phenom enters the cutthroat world of Wall Street high finance — evoked themes of capitalism and innocence juxtaposed, with the allure of wealth and power at odds with our simpler desires. With The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, Wayne extends Kapitoil’s sharp-edged focus on twenty-first-century American ambition — in particular, the will to win found in the nation’s increasingly multitasking youth. Love Song chronicles the titular eleven-year-old pop star, who might remind you of a certain real-life teen heartthrob with angelic pipes and impossibly good hair. Grade-schooler Jonathan Valentino becomes millionaire Valentine when his supermarket cashier mom, Jane, uploads videos of his crooning to YouTube and effects his miraculous translation into celebrity. Now his full-time manager, hyper-driven Jane sings Jonny lullabies over the phone, monitors his diet in an effort to keep his body childlike, and watches her son seek refuge in an immersive role-playing video game. Yet the book’s sharpest asset is its avoidance of simplified character clichés. Jonny and Jane confront stardom’s harsh realities not only as savvy, oft-obsessive fame seekers, but also as a nurturing mother and her devoted child.

It seems possible that Wayne might relate to his invented prodigal sons. A winner of the Whiting Writers’ Award for Kapitoil, he is at age thirty-three an accomplished author and journalist, as well as a wickedly incisive humorist. His satirical work has appeared in McSweeney’s, this site’s “Grin & Tonic,” and in The New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs” — a venue Wayne parodies in the pages of Jonny Valentine itself.  In a conversation via email, Teddy Wayne offered some insights on the origins of his interest in pop wunderkinder, the effects of media marketing on both his writing and our culture at large, and offered up a generation-spanning playlist that suggested pop music is no laughing matter. —Bill Tipper


The Barnes & Noble Review: There are two initial surprises, I think, in store for most readers of your novel. The first is that eleven-year-old Jonny Valentine – a child pop superstar who shares a number of attributes with the slightly older real-world singer Justin Bieber – is so immediately sympathetic. The second is that he’s not just a musical prodigy but clearly an intellectual one as well.
Teddy Wayne: Your protagonist need not be likable (contrary to the wisdom of book publishers) but must simply be interesting. Yet as an author, it does help to like your main character, if only because of the sheer amount of time you spend with him. Although Jonny is not without his flaws — he can flaunt his power over others, engages in perverse sexual fantasies, and has a dismissive attitude toward his fans — he’s fundamentally a vulnerable little boy who wants to love and be loved. That’s a drive all of us can relate to, even if we don’t understand what it’s like to perform on a global stage.
Nearly all child narrators in adult literature are wiser than their years, and a high percentage are, in fact, prodigies of some stripe, often verbal. This is because an actual child’s voice is seldom compelling enough to maintain an adult reader’s attention over an entire novel (there are exceptions, of course, such as Emma Donoghue’s Room). I didn’t want to write about an eleven-year-old who speaks like a creative-writing professor, so I came up with a hybrid voice for him: half naïve child, half marketing-savvy professional. The tonal opposite of naïveté is someone who wants to sell you something you don’t need, and I enjoyed writing about this collision of voices within one person.

BNR: That “marketing savvy” permeates Jonny’s world and produces some counterintuitive effects. Jonny may be a performer – and clearly a talented one – but he’s also throughout this book a keen observer of the people around him, though he applies the peculiar lens of the show business world he’s adopted to almost every interaction.

TW: Jonny’s “marketing” voice was inspired in part by writing, on and off for two years, a now-defunct short business column about media and marketing for The New York Times called “Drilling Down.” Each week, I’d interview someone who would un-self-consciously rattle off phrases like “develop our assets in the digital space” or “build a corporate identity.” This seemed like an emblematic idiom for our entrepreneurial and narcissistic era in which regular people, let alone celebrities, refer to their “personal brands” and recreate the experience of fame by documenting their lives on social media.
What makes this mode of thought and behavior pernicious, I think, is that it can bleed into interactions that should have nothing to do with selling or broadcasting yourself. (Which is something most of us have to do some of the time, such as me, right now, in this interview. Our age is also defined by its hypocrisy.) It’s most explicit when you see two people at a table in a restaurant, both texting on their phones, or when someone would rather take a photo of his hike and post it to Instagram than savor it as a private experience. In Jonny’s case, he no longer has any sense of how to engage others as a regular person, so it’s easier to slip into his default mode as an entertainer hawking his most salable product — his celebrity.

BNR: But he’s not just a marketing savant — he’s also legitimately and pretty passionately interested in how pop music is made. At one point he breaks down Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” in a completely convincing analysis of why it’s a song that “anyone with a pulse loves” —  and more or less humbly admits he’d be grateful if he could ever create something like it himself.

TW: It was important for Jonny to have some musical authenticity buried deep under the Top 40 exterior to mirror the real human being trapped within the media-friendly persona. And though most mainstream pop is an exercise in corporate production, with pronounced division of labor, mechanical alteration of the original sound, and heavily backed marketing, the occasional genius, like Michael Jackson, still manages to express his personal vision and create lasting art. Jonny comes to recognize that he’s not getting the chance to do so and is simply a cog in the machine, a slave to his masters — both his label and the fickle public.

According to my research, Michael Jackson really did work for three weeks on the bass line to “Billie Jean.” As Jonny would say, that’s consummate professionalism.

BNR: In a way it’s a whole world of “consummate professionalism” – Jonny’s own frightening absorption into the craft of hitmaking and media spectacle, his coterie of specialized handlers, and his manager-mother Jane. Did it require a lot of research to put yourself within that very insulated world?
TW: A fair amount of my information came from simply being an avid, longtime fan of music, and keeping one ear open when celebrity gossip crosses my path. It probably helps that I’ve worked as a journalist for a number of years and live in the media epicenter of New York. Beyond that, I read various child-star memoirs and biographies, as well as works about specific aspects of the music industry. Yet a fiction-writing maxim is to do as little research as possible — not out of laziness, but because you don’t want facts to get in the way of your imagination or to serve as proof to the reader that you’ve done your homework. I’d rather invent something that is moving and aesthetically engaging than plug in the true-to-life, inert detail. No one loves a novel because of its unerring accuracy. That said, I did ask some people who’ve worked in the music industry to vet the manuscript for anything that felt too outlandish.

BNR: In terms of its excesses or strangeness, did reality ever outstrip your imagination of the life of a child celebrity?
TW: Drew Barrymore’s childhood, among others, was rife with excess, and Michael Jackson’s upbringing sounds none too fun. But to saturate the novel with sex and drugs would simply play to our “behind-the-music” preconceptions about celebrity and detract from the small, less flashy moments that underscore Jonny’s loneliness. I dislike it when fictional portrayals of lifestyles of the rich and famous focus so heavily on the reckless glamour inherent in these worlds and end up romanticizing that which they are ostensibly condemning. More compelling to me are the human details and episodes that exist outside the spheres of money and fame: for instance, Jonny playing a video game in his hotel room to ward off his isolation. Such a scene might not warrant inclusion in a biography of a real child star, but, to me, it defines a person’s character more clearly and originally than a cocaine binge at a nightclub does.

Nonetheless, it’s been strange to see various scenes from the novel see their equivalents in real life, from the lighthearted to the frightening.

BNR: Let’s talk about the portrait of Jonny’s mother, Jane –  a character at least as complex as her son. Jane is a former supermarket cashier and single mother who  seems to have shrugged off her former life to embrace her role as Jonny’s manager as if she’d found her life’s work. The first conversation we overhear between Jane and her son involves Jonny, sleepless in his hotel room, asking her for a lullaby over her cell phone, which she delivers, along with the suggestion that he use a pharmaceutical sleep aid. I think in that exchange we see the uneasy dynamic between care and neglect, between business dealings and human love, that characterizes much of her mothering.

TW: The stage mom is nothing if not a hoary trope by now, so I was conscious of the need to depict Jane as a real mother whose hunger for fame — even more so than money — is in constant combat with her maternal instincts. There are moments she exhibits genuine tenderness and love for her son, and those need to be there for the reader to accept her overweening business ambitions. She wants to leave behind her former identity and life completely except for the sole fact that she remains Jonny’s mother. He has a more uneasy relationship with his new persona, clinging to bits of his pre-fame past. She’s monstrous at many points, but I hope there are enough times when we see the cracks in her facade and her own pains. Both of them are seeking love, but Jane is more comfortable using the public for her sense of self-worth than Jonny is.

BNR: Did your conception of her change over time as you wrote the novel?

TW: As with most characters, she was less fleshed out in the early drafts, and my many readers helped round her out more. To me, she embodies the direction our culture has shifted the last ten to fifteen years. We increasingly view fame as an antidote to whatever ails us, and deem it worth pursuing at any price — whether it’s eating live insects on a reality show or subjecting one’s child to a lifestyle that isn’t necessarily in his best interests. I also thought of Jane as a Tiger Mom of sorts, albeit not one academically inclined. My view is that childhood nowadays has far fewer freedoms than it once did. Parents fret far more than they used to about their children’s safety and health and over-prepare them for the future in ways that are often counterproductive. Their offspring’s independence is compromised, as is their ability to make and learn from their mistakes — one of the privileges of childhood. A friend said that this novel is like an American version of Donoghue’s Room, but with the mom as the captor. That seems like an insightful (and flattering) assessment.

BNR: What’s your sense of Jonny’s future?  Are you optimistic for him?

TW: I don’t want to give anything away, but I like endings in which the story that’s been told is definitively wrapped up, but there’s still some open-endedness that projects beyond the narrative conclusion. It’s my hope that different readers will have varying responses to the end, as they seemed to have with my first novel, Kapitoil.

BNR: I’m imagining that writing this book made you listen to pop music differently – but is that in fact the case?

TW: A little bit. Research on these songs are made — how manufactured and produced they are — gave me more respect for the amount of work put into them, even if I didn’t enjoy listening to them any more, or continued believing that their creation stems from cynical, market-baiting impulses, and not always the desire to make lasting art. I also found a few very poppy songs I confess to liking, such as One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful”; I remain a sucker for a good, simple I-IV-V chord progression (as in Grease’s “Summer Nights,” which the opening of their song sounds suspiciously similar to). And Bieber’s “Boyfriend,” at least the rapping part, feels like a quantum leap forward from his previous songs, as would any song that includes this rhyming couplet: “Swag, swag, swag, on you / Chillin’ by the fire while we eatin’ fondue.

BNR: Did you listen to music while writing?

TW: Usually, yes, though it helps if it’s music I know well enough that I’m not distracted, such as Bob Dylan. For this book, though, I frequently went back to the Clash, my first musical love, which Jonny gets introduced to by his older opening band.

BNR: Can you give us a short list of your favorite songs?

TW: The aforementioned Dylan alone would eat up several paragraphs, and the list grows each month, but I’ll quickly go through my iTunes library now, listing just a few, one song maximum per artist, that have meant a lot to me over the years, even if I may not listen to them that much now:

The Be Good Tanyas, “The Littlest Birds”
The Beatles, “Twist and Shout”
Bob Dylan, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”
Built to Spill, “Strange”
Carla Bruni, “Quelqu’un m’a Dit”
Cat Power, “Empty Shell”
Chuck Brodsky, “Radio”
The Clash, “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais”
The Crystals, “And Then He Kissed Me”
Dan Bern, “Chelsea Hotel”
The Felice Brothers, “Frankie’s Gun”
Heartless Bastards, “All This Time”
The Jackson Five, “I Want You Back”
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, “Braver Newer World”
Kath Bloom, “Love Makes It All Worthwhile”
Keren Ann, “Not Going Anywhere”
Kid Cudi, “Pursuit of Happiness”
Led Zeppelin, “Over the Hills and Far Away”
Leonard Cohen, “So Long, Marianne”
Little Joy, “Don’t Watch Me Dancing”
Liz Phair, “Polyester Bride”
Lucinda Williams, “Side of the Road”
Neutral Milk Hotel, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”
Okkervil River, “Red”
Pavement, “Summer Babe”
The Pixies, “Where Is My Mind?”
Prince, “Kiss”
Regina Spektor, “Fidelity” (especially a stripped-down version she played on NPR years ago)
The Rolling Stones, “Beast of Burden”
Sex Pistols, “Anarchy in the U.K.”
Tom Waits, “Cold Cold Ground”
The Troggs, “Any Way That You Want Me”
Tommy James, “Crimson and Clover”
Vashti Bunyan, “Come Wind Come Rain”
The Velvet Underground, “Heroin”
The Wheel, “My Hanging Surrender”
Wilco, “Hesitating Beauty”

That was more than I intended, and I left off too many favorites. I really like making mix CDs for friends.