November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

2016 Margaret A. Edwards winner David Levithan talks about his work and craft

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Photography by Marty Umans

National Book Award longlister and Lambda Literary Award winner David Levithan is willing to go to great lengths for his craft. Even if it means taking an un-air-conditioned bus ride all the way to Queens. Back in the early 2000s, the publisher and editorial director at Scholastic and a New School faculty member volunteered to visit my Young Adult Literature class at Queens College in the middle of a hot New York summer. We rode the sweltering city bus together to the campus, where I discovered that the air-conditioning in my classroom was also defunct. If my guest had decided to hail the nearest cab back to Manhattan, I wouldn’t have blamed him. But like the calm, collected, and engaging speaker I have always known him to be, he not only kept up an entertaining chatter to and from school but also delivered an enlightening lecture and Q&A on LGBT books for teens that my students will never forget. Levithan was recently awarded the 2016 Margaret A. Edward Award, given by the Young Adult Library Services Association of the American Library Association and sponsored by School Library Journal. Levithan is the 28th recipient of this honor (and fourth youngest to receive it) in recognition of a “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.” We sat down in his Scholastic office in Soho, chuckled over that long-ago sweaty day, and then got straight down to business.

Your first novel, Boy Meets Boy, came out in 2003. Was it difficult to get that book published?
It wasn’t hard to get it published, because Nancy Hinkel, who’s been the editor for most of my books, was just really gung-ho about it from the beginning. Certainly, there were more concerns about it then than there would be now, because it was the first clear [LGBT] book that Random House’s children’s division had published. What’s so interesting about 2003 is that so many great queer YA books came out that year—Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club, Lauren Myracle’s Kissing Kate, Julie Anne Peters’s Keeping You a Secret, and Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys. We were all writing books that we wanted to put out into the world, and they all came out within an 18-month period and really changed everything.

1606-Levithan-PQ1At the time, publishers were willing to publish them but there was a concern that they wouldn’t sell or there would be protest or that kids would be too afraid to pick them up. And then, collectively, the books proved them completely wrong; there was a huge audience for them, and it wasn’t just gay teenagers, although certainly they were there. There were plenty of straight teenagers who were interested in reading about these characters, and there was also the crossover to adults. Within a year or two of all of these books coming out, things had changed. By proving that these books had an audience, publishers could publish more of them with much more security than they had before.

These are the six titles cited by the Margaret A. Edwards Award committee.

These are the six titles cited by the Margaret A. Edwards Award committee.

How has your role as an editor affected your role as an author? Do they overlap, or are they in two separate buckets?
They cross-inform each other. I think it is very, very, very good that I was an editor for a decade before my first serious novel was published, because I needed to learn how to play with other people’s words before my own voice developed. I learned from everyone I edit, and certainly every author I work with teaches me something. I never in a million years would have written The Realm of Possibility in verse had I not been editing Billy Merrell and Eireann Corrigan. It would have never occurred to me to write in verse. By working with authors who were doing it and showing me how to express it, and also introducing me to other poets that I was reading to edit the books, that kicked in. Did that mean that I wrote like Billy Merrell? No, not at all. But the idea was planted, and the skill set was developed.

You’re extremely prolific by anybody’s standards. You’ve had a book or an anthology come out every year since 2003. What’s the secret to your productivity?
I don’t quite know. If you look at just my solo books, it’s [a book] every two or three years. The collaborations go much quicker because there is something amazingly transporting and energetic about bouncing chapters back and forth with another person. It is a totally different writing process because it is spontaneous. So that makes it speedier. I also know how my writing mind works and that if I carve out the right amount of time I can write fairly quickly. But it’s taken awhile to figure that out.

Why do you seek out working with other authors? Does it reenergize your own solo writing, because it’s such an energetic back-and-forth process?
Well, in complete fairness, the idea [for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist] was initially Rachel’s [Cohn]. One day we were just talking, and she said, “I want to write a back-and-forth novel with a guy writer.” In that one conversation, she said she wanted it to be two kids named Nick and Norah, she wanted them to be from New Jersey, and she wanted them to be in New York for a night, and then she told me to go and write the first chapter. I wrote the [first] chapter in one sitting and emailed it to Rachel before I could think too much about it. And then a day or two later, there was Chapter 2 in my inbox from Rachel.

And you just responded?
Just responded. Not knowing what I was getting into, I realized that when you write a book like this, you are almost like the characters. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. They don’t know what’s going to happen next, and isn’t that the fun of life? I could not have sat down at my computer in my apartment and written Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List or Will Grayson, Will Grayson or Invisibility on my own. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me. Those books exist because of the spark between myself and the other author, and I love that.

One of the other titles that was cited by the Edwards committee was Wide Awake, which is about the fictional election of the first gay Jewish American president.
I am sitting here waiting for Bernie Sanders to come out. I got half the equation [right]. (LAUGHTER) Come on, Bernie, be gay! And then, boy, does my book become timely. What’s so fascinating about Wide Awake is that it was a protest novel after the 2004 election. I just could not believe that George W. Bush was reelected, and was jealous of bands like Green Day or Bright Eyes that could produce a protest album. They could do American Idiot. They could do Wide Awake, It’s Morning. I wondered what the novelist’s equivalent of that was. And actually—the weekend after the election, I don’t know if you were there or not, but Suzanne Collins and I did an event at the New York Public Library for librarians.

1606-Levithan-PQ2Yes! I remember it. I was there.
We both scuttled our speeches to talk about what had happened. The two quotes in my head were Avril Lavigne’s “It’s not like we’re dead,” and my favorite poet from YA literature of all time, Virginia Euwer Wolff’s line “We must rise to the occasion, which is life,” from True Believer. That’s what was going through my mind, and I basically just talked about protest songs and how we need protest novels. I left there,and told myself, you just talked about writing protest novels. Do it. That’s where Wide Awake came in. I really saw it as an extension of Boy Meets Boy. If Boy Meets Boy is about an ideal town that is next to this very nonideal town, what if you wrote about what is the ideal America?

As someone who’s written about queer youth for as long as you have, do you consider yourself an activist?
Oh, truly, yeah. I don’t think there is even remotely an obligation of an author to be an activist. I respect any colleague who does not want to do that, but for me, that’s always been part of my writing. If you believe that books can help make the world better, then I’m totally up for getting out there and doing that. 
I am constantly seeing authors who are worried that they will be seen as political or they will be seen as having a worldview. I think that we’ve been conditioned to not want to offend anybody or be preachy. But we are. If something’s important to you, talk about it. There is nothing wrong with that.

We don’t want to go back to two-dimensional writing in which the novel is a device to get your point across. Nobody wants that. But to sincerely show a worldview and try to make things better, I think that is a valuable thing. If you are doing that, there is no shame whatsoever in admitting it.

What do you think about the current “We Need Diverse Books” movement?
What I really love about “We Need Diverse Books” is that there is a deep understanding of intersectionality and that diversity isn’t just putting race in this column, sexual identity in this column, class in this column. I really believed for a while in the mirror/window distinction. And while I think it’s valuable and I don’t think it’s wrong to use that, I think there is a danger in saying that some books are windows and some books are mirrors, because that totally negates the fact that the best mirror in understanding yourself is a window into other people.

I think that’s what we’re working toward: that understanding others helps you understand yourself and understanding yourself will certainly help you understand others. It’s complicated, and you can’t just say, “Oh, yes, this is a race book,” or “This is an LGBT book,” or “Oh, this is about physical ability.” Diversity is an incredibly intricate and multifaceted issue, and our challenge is to be as intricate and multifaceted as we can.

What does it mean to you to win the Margaret A. Edwards Award at this point in your career?
After confirming that I wasn’t being punked or pranked—I looked at the list of the previous winners, and it’s astonishing company to be in. It is a profound relief to me that I am not the youngest.

Because you’re not done yet?
Yeah, I’m not done yet, nor is Jackie Woodson, nor is Markus Zusak, Laurie Halse Anderson, or Francesca Lia Block. Understanding that it’s just a recognition at a certain point in time, and then going on to do other, hopefully worthy, things would feel great.

So where do you go from here?
I just keep writing and editing and working with new authors and finding other voices to get out there. I mean, I am in such an incredibly privileged position to be able to put my own voice out there and to actually help other voices be heard.

Whose voices have influenced you over the years?
The lion’s share of credit, for most of the books that I’ve written, would go to Nancy Hinkel, my editor. I sent out Boy Meets Boy to my friends as a Valentine’s story, and Shana Corey, a friend of mine who’s at Random House said, “Can I send it to a friend of mine who does YA?” And I was like, “Sure!” I’d never met Nancy before. She ended up calling me with the offer for Boy Meets Boy on the day that PUSH, my imprint at Scholastic, launched. It was a really good day.

If you had asked me after we had finished working on Boy Meets Boy, will you work on 17 more books with Nancy or whatever the number is now, my answer would have been yes. Which is incredible, because so many things shift in publishing and you come up with an idea and wonder, “Oh, is my editor really the right person for that?”

I have never ever had that hesitation. I don’t have a reading group. I write the book, and Nancy is the person who reads it first. She is a huge influence, primarily by not influencing what I’m writing. I don’t have an internal Nancy that says, “Oh, you can’t write this,” or, “Oh, don’t you really want to do this?” She is wonderful in her beautiful neutrality about what I choose to write and then in her opinion once I do actually get it down and we’re grappling with the 1606-Levithan-PQ3editing.

Since you mentioned it, could you talk a little more about your annual Valentine’s Day story?
Sure, because it leads to me being here. In my junior year of high school, I was bored in physics class and decided to write a short story about romance, applied to physics, titled “A Romantic Inclination,” and gave it to my friends.

The next year, my friends asked, “Hey, you’re going to write another story for Valentine’s Day, right?” And I had no intention of doing it, but peer pressure being a beautiful thing sometimes, I wrote another one. And now it is, oh, goodness, math—28 years later.

And this all predates Boy Meets Boy? This is something that you’ve done every year?
Literally, since—it would have been 1989. Whenever I’m asked who is your audience, my answer is “I’m writing for my friends.” That has never changed, and that goes back to being a high school writer. The only ironclad deadline I have every year is that I have to write a Valentine’s story, and some of my novels—including Boy Meets Boy, The Realm of Possibility, and Are We There Yet? started as Valentine stories.

I can’t conceive that my 16-year-old self would have necessarily seen the jump from there to this interview. But it’s a very clear through line from then to now. You have to respect your teenage self and the crazy flights of fancy that your creativity takes, because that is the launchpad. You don’t necessarily know where you’ll end up, but you launch, and then you go from there.

Swan-Jennifer-Hubert2_ContribJennifer Hubert Swan is the middle school librarian and director of library services at the Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School in NYC.

This article was published in School Library Journal's June 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Comments

  1. Loved this interview. Congrats on the award, David. Cheering you on!