Friday, July 27, 2012

Super Special Edition: Interview with (Gold Medalist) John Corey Whaley (and his tattoo)

It is Friday! It is summer, if you live in the Northern hemisphere!  Olympic funtimes (officially) start today!  You're clearly not doing work while at work, googling pictures of Olympians, thinking about how you're going to spend your weekend on the couch, watching them sweat while you are eating junk food.   Or you are not at work, like me, wondering whyohwhy it is mandatory for the Olympic mascot to be creepiest looking thing ever.  Good thing I care about BOTH the abdominals of the United States swim team, AND your literary ponderings.  I think this calls for a super special edition post, don't you?
Drum roll puh-lease...

Interview with (Gold medalist) author John Corey Whaley!

After I grievously bungled my bird identification in a review of his Printz and Morris award winning book, Where Things Come Back, and expressed deep Art History major/Sunday School dropout confusion over the religious symbolism befuddling me, the gracious and bedimpled Mr. Whaley, former English teacher, offered to answer my hard-hitting questions (which, let's be honest, are anything but).  Luckily, our author and friend is a class act and gamely rose to the challenge.  (Another) Gold medal for John Corey Whaley!  His answers are below in bold. 

1)  You have mentioned that an NPR story inspired the Lazarus woodpecker part of your novel.  I Freudian slipped it up and dubbed it a mockingbird in my review, but ornithologically speaking, why a woodpecker as opposed to some other kind of bird (or another type of critter entirely)?

I wish I had a more complex answer for this one, but I mostly used a woodpecker because that was the type of bird that actually was allegedly seen in Arkansas in 2005.  I almost just went with calling it by its actual name "The Ivory-billed woodpecker," but thought that creating my own, slightly bigger version of it would benefit the story.

2) The Book of Enoch is not quite so...common.  It's a bit tricky to find a copy without, say, a college library or the Internet.  How did you come across it?

I actually hadn't ever heard of it until I was discussing with a friend of mine how I wanted to try and incorporate some sort of religious cult or something into the novel.  She had recently seen a documentary or read an article about the Book of Enoch and thus the idea was born.  So, she gathered up some links and sent them to me while I was on a camping trip in Arkansas and trying to finish the book...I remember parking in a motel's parking lot and using my laptop on the dashboard to steal their wifi so I could check my email and get the links for research.  Haha.

3)  Okay...bear with me through my literary and religious symbolism verbal meltdown round deux.  Your novel is like a duck swimming, with all the little symbolic tidbits churning away under the surface.  I know I picked up on a few potential ones, which seem somewhat linked, in Gabriel, Lily, and Lazarus, but I'm still wicked confused about whether or not human Gabriel is the Lazarus bird, or whether I'm going into the deep end without floaties while thinking that maybe Ada is partially a Magdalene.  Could you elaborate a little on why you chose to use certain symbols or allusions, and straighten a sister out without giving up all your secrets?

HAHA!  First off, I really like that analogy and will quite openly be stealing it from you.  So, thanks for that.  Second, it was always my intent for Gabriel's disappearance and the Lazarus bird's reappearance to serve as parallels to one another--as a way to not only show Cullen's reactions to both unique, crazy situations, but also to serve as an overall message with a (hopefully) deeper meaning behind it: that sometimes we're looking for something that is quite the opposite of what the rest of the world is looking for.  As far as them being the same being, not so much. And I actually never once imagined Ada as Magdalene, but I can totally see how that would be popping into your brain.  I've learned SO much about this book through talks and interviews, etc.  It's been crazy.  I only wish I were as clever as some people think I may be. 

4)  You are a former English teacher.  How would you go about teaching this book, and what, if any, advice do you have for any kids who might have to write an essay about it?

Oh geez.  These are hard-hitting questions!  Umm...first, I would NEVER dare teach my own book.  I have ego issues...but none that dangerous.  But, were I someone else teaching it, I'd approach it the same way I always approach a novel--discussing the importance of the setting, the characterization, and the overall theme.  I would definitely tie in some cross-curricular activities involving extinct species and missing children and I would, most certainly, throw a Lazarus Burger party at some point.  You know, just to liven things up.  An essay?  I have no advice save for this: Always ask yourself who is telling this story and why the reader gets to know certain things and not know others.  I think there could be some good discussions there.  (Ed. Good discussion AND good snacking.  Who else wants to sign up for his English class for Lazarus Burgers?)

5) The story of Benton Sage is so heartbreaking (I just wanted to give him a hug), but I was particularly drawn to his emotion and confusion on his mission trip.  Is this kind of trip an experience you are familiar with?

Not really, but I was raised in the Bible Belt and in a very conservative, small town in the South where religion plays a major, daily role in most people's lives.  I've always heard of people going on "Missions" and I guess I was fascinated by the idea of traveling half way around the world to convert impoverished people to Christianity.  I'm not critiquing this at all, but I always feel strange when I hear people say that these people all over the world have no chance of getting to Heaven unless Christians find and teach them about Jesus.  I wanted to explore a character who had this similar mindset and who loses his faith because of it. 

6)  Lucas Cader: one of the most loyal best besties I've read.  Is he based on someone you know or is he just the perfect best friend for Cullen?

  Thanks.  Lucas is actually a complete work of fiction.  I wanted to give Cullen a comic relief at first, then I realized I'd written a character who was pretty much the best guy friend I always wanted and never had as a teen. 

Where things get a new paperback dress.
7) Let's talk about your awesome book covers.  The paperback has such a fantastic throwback vibe!  Do you realize how lucky you are (times two)?  They could have both wound up with like... a sad, photoshopped, pouty teenage boy in the rain on the cover.  I realize you probably didn't have much say in them, but were you at all involved in the process?

I am SO LUCKY!!!  I have heard so many horror stories about covers and was just recently told that loving both of my covers is a rare occurrence.  I will say that my editor and designer at Atheneum definitely took my interests and idea to heart when pursuing cover ideas.  We discussed indie rock band posters for the hardcover and they knew I wanted the bird in a sort of iconic pose on the front and voila!  And, with the paperback, the designer knew I was a huge fan of Jonathan Safran Foer's covers and I feel like that partly took him in the right direction. 

8) Tattoos! According to School Library Journal (a source I don't normally associate with tattoo news), you have a woodpecker tattoo, which is based on the book cover.  When did you get it, and can we see a picture?

It's true!  I got it last July in Virginia when I was visiting some close friends.  I will attach a photo! 
John Corey Whaley's woodpecker tattoo
9) Best snack to eat while writing: describe.

I like cereal because I can set the bowl very easily between myself and the laptop.  I also like almonds and granola bars.

10) Last, totally serious question, by popular demand*. You've spent a lot of time at librarian events in the past year.  I attended my first ALA National conference last year in New Orleans, which was tremendously fun, but also 1001% overwhelming at times.  Which made me wonder: is having serious dimples while being a dude at a librarian event a blessing or a curse?
     You know...with great dimples comes great responsibility.  Therefore, I see them as nothing but a blessing.  I'd have never made it in this world without them, I think. Haha. 

Big snaps and thank you's to the only man who knows if the Lazarus is extinct or not!  In short, John Corey Whaley is a delight, and I was thrilled to be able to ask him some questions.   I'm looking forward to reading more of his books in the future!
*Seriously.  I ask for questions, and that's all I got.  Dimple questions**.  Should have seen it coming. 
**(Which is probably why we are friends, ladies who submitted these questions.)

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