January 23 2013

Justin Time

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine hits shelves February 5th.

If you’re a fan of words strung together into funny sentences, you’re probably familiar with the work of Teddy Wayne, whose high-concept brand of comedy is featured regularly in The New Yorker and McSweeney's. His new novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, tells the story of an 11-year-old pop star whose career has seen better days. It’s extremely clever, and alive, and "richly observed," as they say, and Justin Beiber should definitely not read it without his therapist present. We spoke to Wayne about playing ventriloquist, and the pressures of good satire …

STANDARD CULTURE: You're a grown-ass man. Why did you decide to write a novel narrated from the point-of-view of a prepubescent pop star?

TEDDY WAYNE: My friend and frequent humor-writing collaborator, Mike Sacks, emailed me one morning in October 2010, asking if I had any ideas for a book we could write together. I’d seen a sixth-grade girl I was tutoring in the 826NYC after-school program reading Miley Cyrus’s “memoir,” Miles To Go, so I suggested we write a parody of that sort of book. An hour later, I realized this could make an interesting novel, if rendered with seriousness instead of easy parody that could also say a lot about contemporary culture. Mike and I abandoned the parody idea, but I started writing it that day, and six months later had a rough draft.

Did you find it more challenging than "adult" prose?

If by “adult” prose you mean the dialogue I write for porn films in my side gig, then, yes. That stuff tends to write itself, once you introduce the pizza guy. As for literary-adult prose, I tend to do a lot of ventriloquism in my writing; my first novel, Kapitoil, was written from the perspective of a Middle Eastern computer programmer who learned English from his financial and technological work. So I’m used to slipping into different voices. The challenge here was not to make Jonny’s kid-speak too infantile, and to incorporate his marketing-savvy jargon seamlessly and plausibly.

What did you enjoy most about the process?

Discovering his voice—that combination of ad exec and 11-year-old—was enjoyable, as was reminding myself of what it’s like to be a young boy. Not that Jonny is based on me, but I did have to reach back to get into his head.

You write him with a good deal of empathy, acknowledging that he's a cog in a larger machine, but mocking him just the same. As a satirist, was that difficult to balance?

They always say that you shouldn’t judge your characters in fiction because it makes them reductive—and, of course, the point of satire is that you should judge people and institutions. If anything seems ludicrous in Jonny’s world—his song lyrics, his merchandise, his fans—Jonny typically mocks it himself, or finds it absurd, which seems like a reasonable response a smart child celebrity might have. Otherwise, I did my best to let the world he inhabits stand on its own and serve as its own source of humor without exaggeration. With his songs, for instance, I tried to write lyrics that could be real pop lyrics. When his fans Tweet at him, it’s no different from what his real fans write. And for Jonny, I did my best to depict him, as you say, with empathy, as a regular boy with one otherworldly talent who’s been thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

The book is packed with details about the inner workings of Hollywood, and the music industry in particular. How deep into that world did you go?

I read a number of child-star autobiographies and biographies—including, yes, Miles To Go—as well as some critical literature on celebrity, the most useful of which was The Cultural Significance of the Child Star, by Jane O’Connor. I’m a music and movie lover, so I’ve picked up a fair amount about the entertainment industry over the years simply through my fandom, and from working as a journalist, but I did spot-research whenever possible to find out about things like what the inside of a tour bus looks like.

He's got quite a bit in common with Justin Bieber. Has there been any feedback from his "camp"?

Well, the book isn’t a roman à clef, but is inspired by the general phenomenon of pop-stardom. So, nothing from his camp yet, though I would welcome a response.

Have the Beliebers gone after you yet? Would you like them to?

I’m not sure they’re aware of it yet, and I’m not sure if it would be desirable—Michael Jackson’s fans recently torpedoed a biography of him.

Someone who knows nothing about your book other than the subject matter might suggest he's an easy target. Discuss!

The world I’m depicting is, indeed, an easy target. I tried to write it without going for the obvious jokes and criticisms, to write from the inside-out of what it might be like to be a globally popular 11-year-old singer, and to render the industry in cold, business-like detail, not as perfunctory satire.

How long did it take you to write Jonny’s hit song “Guys vs. Girls”? Are there any tracks that didn't make the cut?

I’m an intermediate guitar player, so I strummed along and came up with the lyrics, which I did over time for the different verses, and which are presented piecemeal in the book. I wrote shortened lyrics for other songs, too. I can’t remember if anything got cut, but I recorded an acoustic version of the song as an MP3. For the record, I’m still unsigned.

How do you feel about Bieber generally? As an artist? Will we ever see his like again?

He’s coming into his own. His early work is not aimed at someone of my age and gender, but “Boyfriend” has something going for it, and he’s clearly talented—he’s not just a singer/dancer, but a real musician. I also developed more empathy for him in the course of writing this. He’s handled his fame as well as anyone could, and if I had to bet on it, I think he’ll avoid the fate of so many other child performers before him. We’ll surely see another entertainer like him again, though; someone else gets pushed out—not necessarily him—and we need a new product to fill the void.

What's next for you?

I’m gearing up for my own Jonny Valentine-like national tour, through New York, LA, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Boston. In the meantime, I’m working on an original screenplay with the writer Amber Dermont and a TV pilot with her and director/screenwriter Yaniv Raz. And I’m trying to option the movie rights to Miles To Go.

Wayne will be reading from his new novel at Skylight Books in L.A. on February 13th at 7:30 pm. For more information, click here.