Interview with David Levithan

David Levithan began his career writing for the young adult genre a decade ago with Boy Meets Boy.  He has since written several acclaimed novels such as The Lover’s Dictionary, Every Day, and, most recently, Two Boys Kissing.  Two Boys Kissing made the National Book Award’s long list for 2013.  The book interweaves several stories of gay teenagers with the tale of two young men looking to break the world record for longest kiss.

Levithan has also co-written books with John Green (Will Grayson, Will Grayson) and Rachel Cohn (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist).  He teaches at the The New School and works as an editorial director/publisher at Scholastic.  12th Street Online Editor Tolly Wright asked him about young adult fiction and his books.

Street: You have written primarily Y/A fiction.  What about the genre speaks to you?

Levithan: I love the emotional truth of it.  There is a meaningfulness to the storytelling – both in how it’s told and how it’s read – that I love.

Street: Two Boys Kissing was based on the true event of two young, gay men setting out to break the world record for the longest kiss.  Were you one of the people watching online while Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello attempted this feat or did you learn about it afterward?  How much did you research into their experience for the book?

Levithan: It’s actually an amazing story of how inspiration begets inspiration.  I had heard about the kiss on the news, but I didn’t really focus on it until Matty dropped me a Facebook message to tell me he and Bobby had just done this thing, and that while he was doing it, he had thought about my book Boy Meets Boy, which had been really important to him when he was figuring out who he was.  I immediately wanted to hear more, so we had lunch – and I was completely floored by what Matty and Bobby had done.  I had wanted to write a big gay YA book to mark the tenth anniversary of Boy Meets Boy, and suddenly this story was right in front of me.  But I also wanted to be sure that I was telling the story of two separate characters who did what Matty and Bobby did – Matty and Bobby’s own story is theirs to tell, not mine.  Although there is plenty of footage of Matty and Bobby, I decided not to watch it until I was done.  And Matty didn’t read the book until I was done – and then he corrected some of the things I’d gotten wrong with the rules of the kiss.

Street: Your narrators for both Two Boys Kissing and Every Day allowed for you to write about the human condition from outside a singular physical identity.  What inspired your choice?

Levithan: It’s one of those funny things that I didn’t do consciously – my string of (for lack of a better term) bodiless characters.  It actually started with The Lover’s Dictionary, where the lover’s gender isn’t specified (although the narrator’s is).  Then came Every Day, and waking up every day in a different body.  Then Invisibility, where my character was born invisible.  And then the narrators of Two Boys Kissing, who are a contrast to the physicality of the other characters.  Again, it’s only with distance that I see this as a theme; as I was writing the books, I did so with very specific things in mind, not a general plan.  With The Lover’s Dictionary, it was to explore how relationships aren’t as defined by gender as they used to be – than in a certain circle, a male-female and a male-male relationship could be indistinguishable.  With Every Day, I wanted to see what wisdom would come from not being defined by your body’s characteristics.  In Invisibility, I wanted to tap into how lonely an invisible existence would be.  And with Two Boys Kissing, it was the idea of having a chorus of the gay generation before mine look at the gay generation after mine.

Street: One of the major tenants of the Riggio Writing Program is that words hold the power to affect change.  Do you feel characters in YA fiction have the ability to affect change?

Levithan: Of course.  There is nothing so powerful as recognizing yourself within a character, or understanding someone in your life more because of a character.  And that happens all the time with YA.

Street: Many believe that what we read as children and teenagers has a profound effect on our identity. With this idea in mind, are there any trends within Y/A and teen literature that you find troubling?

Levithan: It’s always a little strange when there’s explicit consumerism without an accompanying critique – but I have to say that’s pretty rare.  There was a time when people bemoaned all the brand names in Gossip Girl – but if you actually read the books, you can see that the author was actually playing a somewhat clever game with them, and the books were much smarter than they were being credited as.

Street: It has been said before that writing novels is solitary work, yet you have written several novels in collaboration with other authors.  What is it like writing with another author?

Levithan: It’s fantastic.  It’s so much more fun than writing alone, because you have to let go of any expectation of where the story is going to go.  You’re along for the ride.

Street: Do you have any projects you are currently working on that you can speak about?

Levithan: Right now, I’m working on a companion novel to Every Day, told from Rhiannon’s point of view.  But that won’t appear until 2015.  Next year is my year off!