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Q&A

What's it like inside a teen pop star's head? Ask Teddy Wayne.

February 12, 2013|By Jasmine Elist
  • In his new novel, "The Love Song of Jonny Valentine," author Teddy Wayne looks at celebrity from the perspective of an 11-year-old singer.
In his new novel, "The Love Song of Jonny Valentine," author… (Christine Mladic )

What signifies fame 2013-style more than a teen pop megastar with a momager? In his new novel, “The Love Song of Jonny Valentine” (Free Press, $25), author Teddy Wayne takes a look into the heart of celebrity through the perspective of an 11-year-old singer.

"Love Song" follows young Jonny as he faces the manic highs and the claustrophobic lows of pop stardom. Jonny thinks and speaks in a language comprised of tween naivete and marketing lingo picked up from an industry to which he is bound.

Wayne, who won a Whiting Writers' Award for his 2010 debut novel "Kapitoil," chatted by email about getting inside the head of an 11-year-old, his character's passing resemblance to Justin Bieber and our culture’s endless fascination with celebrity.

On Wednesday, Wayne will be reading and signing at Skylight Books at 7:30 p.m., and then on Valentine's Day, he's participating in a Literary Death Match at Busby's East.

What was it like writing in the voice of an 11-year-old boy? How did you go about establishing a voice for Jonny?

My own arrested development, sadly, facilitated getting into the head of an 11-year-old. In my defense, the earliest pages did smack too much of an adult straining to replicate the voice of a preadolescent, so I had to temper it.

For about two years, on and off, I wrote a weekly New York Times business column about the media and marketing. I’d interview people in the field who invariably sprinkled their speech with the 21st-century terms of their industry — “the digital space,” “building our brand,” etc. I thought it would be interesting to write in the voice of someone who had so deeply internalized this jargon that it infected his thought patterns. But rather than make the narrator an adult, I felt that the opposite of a predatory marketer who wants to sell you something you don’t need is a naïve child who wants only your love. The key to Jonny’s voice was merging this cynical patois with the innocent, run-on grammar and emotional comprehension of a sixth-grader.

What spurred your interest in writing on fame and pop stardom?

When my first novel, "Kapitoil," came out in 2010, I went through what I imagine every writer (and every person who puts out something personal) goes through: the intense vulnerability of seeing your heretofore private thoughts and work made public. It was certainly gratifying, but there were times — negative or nonexistent reviews, poorly attended readings — that it was more distressing than enjoyable. If I got this distraught over a bad Amazon review that no one would see, I wondered how celebrities handle the much broader and snarkier scrutiny. And if I had this much trouble as an adult, how would a young celebrity cope?

But it goes beyond real celebrities; as a culture, we’re all turning into entrepreneurial narcissists, publicizing our private lives on Facebook and constantly self-promoting (just like I’m doing in this interview!). Celebrities fend off paparazzi while they vacation; we paparazzi our own vacations by posting photos on Instagram for everyone to see.

Why do you think Americans have such a great obsession with fame, celebrities and stardom?

In the absence of believing in the Olympian gods or other deities, we need to feel that there are some humans out there who seem superhuman. So we deify them, worshipping their preternatural talent (and, usually, good looks) as a means of redeeming the rest of the human project. When you’re staring at Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on the red carpet, it’s easy to forget that 46 million Americans live below the poverty line or that 36% of us are obese. (To their credit, they’re two celebrities who use their fame for numerous causes.)

What type of research did you do in order to create an accurate representation of the music industry?

I’m an avid music fan, so some of it I knew already, and as a working journalist in New York, I’ve had some exposure to how the media and arts operate behind the scenes. But I read articles and essays on the music industry whenever possible — John Seabrook at the New Yorker has had several engaging ones recently on music marketing — as well as books about musicians. Margo Jefferson’s book, "On Michael Jackson," and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay on him were both valuable; an academic text, "The Cultural Significance of the Child Star" by Jane O’Connor, was my most useful resource; and even various pop-star autobiographies (Miley Cyrus’s "Miles To Go", Justin Bieber’s "First Step 2 Forever: My Story") and tabloids were necessary.

I will say that, as a thirty-something man, you attract a lot of unwanted attention in Barnes & Noble when you’re leafing through a stack of issues of Tiger Beat.

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