In conjunction with July’s Reading Road Trip hosted by I Like These Books and Icey Books, I am hosting the state of Arkansas. In keeping with the Arkansas theme, I was lucky enough to interview author John Corey Whaley whose book Where Things Come Back is set in Arkansas. Don’t forget to enter the RRT GIVEAWAY. Click on the RRT link for instructions on how to enter. Now…TO THE INTERVIEW!
AUTHOR: John Corey Whaley
TITLE: WHERE THINGS COME BACK
Length: 228 pages
Publisher: Atheneum Books (Simon&Schuster)
Release Date(s): Hardcover-May 3, 2011/Paperback-July 24, 2012
1. How did the idea forWTCB come to you? Was the story already there or did the AR woodpecker incident spark the story?
I’d been looking for a coming-of-age story for years, having tried my hand at starting and failing to complete dozens of books while in college. Then, one day I hear a radio story on NPR about the Ivory-billed woodpecker in Brinkley, AR, and BAM! I had my setting and I knew where to tell the story I’d been wanting to tell.
2. In the past few years the YA genre has exploded and short chapters have become a noticeable trend. Did your shorter chapters come about organically or were they created during editing?
Great question! I’ve actually always been a huge fan of short chapters—mostly because of my attention problems (haha). I actually combined and lengthened most of the chapters in WTCB during the editing process. They were much shorter originally. What I’m working on now has very short chapters throughout and I love it.
3. What did you come up with first: the characters or the plot?
After I heard the NPR story about the bird, I immediately knew I wanted to center the novel around a teenage boy trying to grow up in a small town where something crazy and ridiculous is going on. So, I think it’s fair to say that I started with setting and characters and then structured a plot (or two, actually) around them.
4. Knowing that you’re from Louisiana, what prompted you to set the story in Arkansas?
Well, I grew up literally on the Louisiana/Arkansas stateline, so I spent much of my childhood in Arkansas camping, fishing, boating, etc. I’ve always loved the mountains, lakes, and rivers in Arkansas and sort of felt like it was my state too.
5. Do you have any personal ties to Arkansas?
As above mentioned, I spent weeks and weeks out of every summer as a child camping in Arkansas and I think that had a huge influence on this story.
6. I suspect that many of the characters’ names (Cabot Searcy) are also Arkansas towns’ names. How many characters have an “Arkansas” name? Why did you do this?
Correct! I don’t have a count off hand, but there’s Mena Prescott, Lucas Cader (last name), Benton Sage, Cabot Searcy, Alma Ember, Fulton Dumas, Cullen Witter (last name) , Russell Quitman, and Vilonia Kline. So, yeah, at least 9 of them. Why do this? Why not? Haha. I was trying to find a unique way to use the character names to amplify the setting and I’d already taken “Ada Taylor” from road sign for two towns in Louisiana, and “Cullen” from another, so I thought I’d try to do the same with Arkansas towns.
7. Cullen has an interesting habit of imagining scenarios to remove himself from the reality of what’s happening around him. Some readers might find this use of “third-person-removed” narration a little off-putting. Why did you decide to write Cullen’s imaginings this way?
Cullen’s third-person daydreams are my way of doing two things:
1) Showing that the traumatic situations that Cullen faces are causing him to somewhat mentally detach. He’s lost his cousin to drugs and then his brother goes missing, so, naturally, he’s going to react to the stress and trauma in ways that can’t always be explained.
2) To remind the reader that Cullen, who often observes and speaks of the world in a beyond-his-years manner, is still a teenager. This is why I have him imagine zombies—to show his detachment and also to show that, at the end of the day, he think about the things other teenage boys might think about as well.
8. What was the inspiration for including The Book of Enoch in the story?
Once I’d decided I wanted to add a second narrative, I mentioned to a friend that I was considering the inclusion of a religious cult and she, instead, led me to the Book of Enoch, which she’s read about somewhere. As soon as I read it, I knew it belonged in WTCB—angels, monsters, and the angel Gabriel (who shares a name with Cullen’s younger brother). It was meant to be.
9. Why the Lazarus woodpecker angle?
The bird represents hope and maybe even false hope to a town full of downtrodden people…I saw an immediate religious connection there that I wanted to explore and only after considering the idea that a bird could come back from the dead did I decide to make the story about the parallel story of the search for a missing kid and, also, the search for faith.
10. What do you hope readers take away from WTCB?
I hope, ultimately, that readers take away some sense that despite the crazy, ridiculous, terrifyingly hilarious world around us, that we’ll all be okay, that we’ll make it. With WTCB, I wanted to explore the misinterpretation of faith and, I think, of life itself, and I hope that maybe readers will see why looking at the world the wrong way can change everything.
1. Have you always been a writer? If not, when and why did you start?
I started writing when I was eleven or twelve and I just really liked it—I always liked the idea of creating stories and seeing what I could come up with that I hadn’t seen or heard or read somewhere.
2. Do you have a particular writing schedule or routine? Could you briefly describe it?
I can’t describe it because I don’t have one, really. I wish I were more disciplined sometimes, but I find that when I try to make myself write, I write really crappy stuff. So, I just wait until I become obsessed with a story and then I usually can’t keep myself from working on it until it’s done. It’s frustrating sometimes, but I have a lot of fun being a writer and doing things my own way.
3. Where do you write? Why?
I say I can write pretty much anywhere, but that’s sort of a fib. I need a quiet (silent, really) room and a desk. No music. No TV. Just writing and getting up to pace around the room and talking to myself.
4. What is the hardest part of drafting for you?
I’m usually fairly quick to come up with the first third of a book and, in doing so, realizing what I want the last third to include. It’s the middle third that gives me trouble sometimes. I usually have to take a break and reassess when I get to the half way point.
5. How did you originally come to be published? (long road or short?)
I queried agents and publishers for about 3 ½ years while I was teaching public school English in Louisiana and, finally, after many manuscript requests that fizzled out, an agent loved my work, read it in one day, and called to say he wanted to represent me. After that, it all happened really fast—the book sold to my publisher about two months later and here I am.
6. How do you handle criticism/rejection/bad reviews?
I think I handle criticism pretty well, as long as it’s founded on some intelligible argument. I’ve been slightly frustrated with a few “bad” reviews that I thought were a bit melodramatic and off-base, especially concerning the use of religion in the book. For the most part though, I’ve learned to laugh off the really mean stuff and shake it off.
7. What is one part of writing craft every aspiring author ought to thoroughly understand?
Like my editor says: There are only about 5 stories in the world and the important thing is to find a way to tell one with your own brand of originality and passion. I think that’s important, especially when you struggle for inspiration.
8. Do you read other authors’ books while you have a work in progress? Why or why not?
I do, but it usually needs to be something fairly different from what I’m writing. I’m reading mostly adult fiction right now as I’m working on finishing my second YA book. I think reading things with similar themes, characters, etc., can sort of accidentally get into your brain and make you question too much about your story.
9. What is the most rewarding part of writing?
I think the most rewarding part is the idea that the things I write can have some impact on someone. I never really imagined that readers would respond to my writing the way that some have, so I take a lot of care and time into writing stories that try to be honest and meaningful and I’m so grateful that I get to do my dream job and have such a great time with it.
10. Are any of the characters or MC modeled after real people?
Only two of them—Cullen and Gabriel. They’re modeled after the same person at different ages. Can you guess his name? He has Cullen’s initials. Hint, hint.
11.What has been your favorite part of the book launch?
It has to be all of the amazing people I’ve met—especially my teen readers and librarians all over the country. I’ve met so many interesting, passionate people while book touring and I can’t imagine a more fun job.
PBJ or ham & cheese? PB&J
Coffee or tea? Coffee
Summer or Winter? WINTER!
Typing or longhand? Typing-I have the worst penmanship on Earth.
Which comes first: plot or character? Character
Emails or letters? Emails, but letters can be fun too.
Sugary or salty treats? Sugary
Dogs or cats? Dogs. I’m allergic to cats.
Indoors or outdoors? I love both, but outdoors in nice weather.
Beer or wine? Neither, I don’t drink. (Coke Zero?) haha.
Mac or PC? Mac. For sure.
Outline or fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants? FBTSOMP for sure. Outlines are scary
Coke or Pepsi? COKE (Diet or Zero…hahaha)