Today’s 5 Under 35 honoree is John Corey Whaley, author of Where Things Come Back, the first YA novel to be selected for this award. The book’s sweeping scope tackles everything from the unrequited crushes that plague our youth, to the history of forgotten portions of the bible, to zombies.
Cullen Witter is seventeen years old the summer his little brother, Gabriel, goes missing. It’s the same summer that his small town, Lily, is sent into a tailspin with the sighting of a bird believed extinct, a turn that distracts everyone from his family’s plight. Interspersed with Cullen’s story is the dramatic saga of Benton Sage, who stumbles upon The Book of Enoch. The Book is a portion of the bible—once prominent, and now found only in the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible—that reveals shocking facts about the origins of hell and mankind’s legacy. This discovery collides with Cullen’s story in an unforgettable and profound way in the book’s final pages. Told with humor and heart, Where Things Come Back is a lovingly-told tale of the delights and perils of being young.
I really loved the book even though I’m not normally a YA reader. Well I appreciate that. I get that sometimes. And I actually had no idea the difference between the two when I wrote the book.
Oh really, so you didn’t have a YA audience in mind? You were kind of just writing a story, and then that’s how your publisher wanted to send the book out into the world? Yeah, it kind of worked that way. I guess I just didn’t pay that much attention to the varying audiences. I don’t know, I guess I just wanted to write a book (laughs).
Do you read any YA yourself? There’s a lot out there that had a wide appeal for adults. The Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games. I’m more into coming-of-age fiction. I like movies that are sci-fi but I rarely read the books. I wanna say that I read like one of the Harry Potter books when I was in college. But as far as the paranormal, dystopian stuff, I haven’t read The Hunger Games yet. Which everyone hates me for (laughs)! They’re like, “You can’t be a YA author and not read The Hunger Games!”
Sure you can! They’re on my list, but my list is ever-growing. But yeah, I’ve been really preoccupied for years, probably since I was seventeen or eighteen-years-old, with the coming-of-age stories—teenagers, especially boys, trying to grow up in different situations. So I think it was just a natural thing for me to write a book about that. And I wanna say—and this is not to knock YA at all, it’s not that I think it has a stigma or anything like that. I’m proud to be part of that community. It’s been very open and accepting to me. It’s just that I’m glad I wrote the book without that in mind, because I think that it possibly could have affected the way that I told the story. If I thought I had to aim it toward a particular group of people. So I try to wipe it out of my mind even now that I’m working on my follow-up novels.
So you’re not sure who the audience will be for your follow-up novel? Well actually, my second and third novels will both be YA, mostly because when you’re trying to establish yourself in publishing, you want to establish an audience, and my audience is pretty much set now. My two follow-ups are not a not a trilogy or anything, but they’ll both be YA.
I see from your bio that you’re a teacher, and I’m curious if your students have read the book, and what they thought of it. I’m actually not a teacher anymore. June 1st was my last day. I’m doing the full-time author thing, or at least trying. I taught for five years. For most of them I was trying to get my book published and the plan was, when I got my book published I would try to just be a writer for a while. When I stopped teaching I was teaching eighth-grade gifted English, and a few of my students read it. I got a little local publicity, so everyone knew about the book at the school where I taught. A lot of the other teachers and friends knew about it. But yeah, the kids liked it for the most part. If they didn’t they sure didn’t share it with me (laughs). I’m in my hometown now and at the high school two classes are reading the book, and I’m supposed to give talks to them at the end of the month.
That must feel good—to have something you wrote be kind of a staple for your town’s curriculum? Yeah, it’s really, really crazy (laughs). It’s strange, the thought that it’s being read in five classrooms. I actually talked to a college class that read the book a few weeks ago. It was a childhood English education class. I know the teacher and she thought the book would be a good thing for them to read, as a little extra bonus assignment. They all read it and invited me to come and visit and threw a little party. It was great. It was really fun. I’m enjoying myself for sure.
Well, switching gears a little bit, in the book religion causes a lot of trouble. You know, there’s Benton Sage’s death, and Cabot Searcy kind of goes crazy on account of it. I’m wondering if you think there’s a lesson in there for a YA audience—or, now that I know it was written for everyone, for people in general—about the perils of overzealousness in religion? Was that something you had in mind as you were writing the book? Yeah, absolutely. I’ve read a few reviews that want to focus on the religion part—and one review in particular that kind of accused me of beating up religion and Christianity—and I’m glad that you worded it that way you did: the overzealousness, and the misinterpretation of religion and faith. That definitely plays a big part. I grew up in a small, conservative town in the South, where religion plays a major role in, I would say, 99.9 percent of everyone’s lives. And I grew up observing how different groups of people saw things differently, and sort of grew up as a little bit of an outsider. I’m very open-minded and liberal for this area of the country. And I think what I want to give to the reader from that, even outside of religion, is the idea that this one little thing that the character Cabot Searcy picks up from his roommate, he takes it and he just completely explodes it out of proportion. And to me that speaks to a lot of situations in the world. And I wanted to show how seemingly disconnected things can all have an effect on one another because of the way one person acts.
Hand in hand with this is all the Book of Enoch stuff. I had never heard of it before, even after going to Catholic school for most of my life, and I thought it was so interesting. How did you stumble upon it? Did you do a lot of research? I did a lot of research on the Book of Enoch. It was a really strange coincidence. The original draft of the story did not have the second narrative with Benton. I wrote ten or so chapters with just Cullen Witter narrating his summer. I wrote it in a month and a half. Which will never happen again (laughs).
I was gonna say. That’s impressive! Yeah—I’ve gotta quit saying that! I’m gonna jinx myself. People are gonna think I can write books really quickly. But it was an idea I had had for about a year and a half, and I just knew I had to do it, so I just kind of took that month and a half and really, really worked on it. The story was there, I just had to find it. So anyway, back to your question, I was talking to a friend, and we would exchange writings back and forth and it just became habit that everything I wrote I would send her and vice versa. She would read every one of my chapters and give me notes, and was just sort of like a writing partner, which was a really good thing to have. And I remember having a conversation with her when I got to a certain point saying, “This needs something else. I’m not gonna be able to finish it if I’m not able to bring something else in that adds a little mystery to it.” But I found myself getting a little . . . not bored, but I just didn’t know where I could take the story at that point, and I was talking to her about it. My original idea was to bring in a religious cult. And she said, “Well, a cult’s a good idea, but . . .” And she explained that she had read an article or seen a documentary about this Book of Enoch, and that it really struck her interest, and she sent me a couple of links, and as soon as I read the first few paragraphs of the Book of Enoch I was just like, “Oh my God, this is it.” The allusion to the angels. The Nephilim, which are like monsters, but they immediately reminded me of the zombie visions Cullen has throughout his narrative. I read the whole Book of Enoch a couple of times and just saw that the religious allusions tied in with the story. And then it all harkened back to the idea that this missing kid’s name is Gabriel, a very innocent and angelic character, and it all sort of seemed to fit together. And so I started writing the second narrative, and to be quite honest with you, that was actually the most tiring part of the initial editing process—going back and interspersing the two plots, combining chapters and condensing chapters down. Figuring where to pick up with one narrative and pick up with the other to build on the suspense of the story. Because originally there wasn’t going to be any suspense. It was going to be about one teenager’s experience of being sort of left behind when his brother goes missing. I’m always telling people—and a lot of people think it’s sort of cheesy, but—I’m really big into things happening for a reason. Things are destined and it all came together in this magical sort of crazy way, and I can remember sitting there typing thinking, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is working right now.”
It’s that moment every writer longs for. Exactly! And that every writer tries to recapture when they write something. Which is sometimes fun and sometimes frustrating. But you know, I’m really proud the way that it turned out, and I’m glad that it worked. I remember reading the first typeset pass with the chapters all rearranged—I had done it, but I hadn’t had time to sit and reread the whole thing—and I couldn’t imagine it being the way it was the first time I wrote it.
You’ve mentioned that you’re from a small town, and I was impressed the way you captured the town of Lily. Because it is a small town, it’s very recognizable as a small town—Anywhere, America—but at the same time it didn’t feel cliché. I’m curious how many details were taken right from your hometown and how the people in it reacted to that portrayal, and if you’ve gotten feedback from them. At the outset of writing the novel, it was the reappearance of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker that got me started thinking and writing, and that actually happened in a town called Brinkley, in Central East Arkansas. And I’ve actually never been there. Still. Originally the whole town was gonna be that town. I was gonna go up there; I was going to research; I was going to talk to people; and I was gonna get a real sense of that place. And then I started writing and I realized, “No, this place should just be my town, but put in Arkansas. That’s a place that I know.” I could go up and do all this research, but I think I would still end up needing to work out some of those issues I have. Any writer can tell you, and I’m sure you know this, especially with your first work, you’re working out a lot of that inner turmoil.
Free therapy. Exactly! The best free therapy on earth. So a lot of it was just me working out some of those issues with growing up in Spring Hill, Louisiana. The first draft of the novel had a lot of things reflective of Spring Hill. The description of City Park and things like that. The big difference is the river, because the river is not here, though we have some bayous and things like that. We’re right on the Arkansas state line. I could walk to Arkansas with you on the phone right now. So I grew up very close to that, so I kind of had a feel for small town Arkansas, too. So it is sort of a combination of those two places. I swam in the river that’s mentioned in the book several times throughout my life even though it’s not in my hometown. The character aspect, the idea that the town is another character in the novel, initially came from my editor. She said, “We need to make this town more present.” In the first draft I kind of took for granted that I knew this place so well. So I went back and re-tooled a few things and paid more attention to it. It’s so funny, the response has been—I mean, at first, I’ll be honest, I was nervous that people in my hometown would be reading it and would be thinking, “My God, Corey really knocks this town and makes us seem like close-minded, crazy people.” But it really hasn’t been like that at all. After the book came out and people read it and liked it and identified with it, it helped me grow to accept where I’m from. It’s very refreshing and extremely surprising. It’s been one of the most surprising things about this whole book journey for me. I finally feel as if, I don’t know, maybe I’ve overcome a little bit of the immaturity that I had and that semi-selfish blaming of a geographic location for life. It’s a very immature way to think. And a lot of that was worked through when I wrote the book, and even more of that was worked through in seeing how people reacted. It’s been overwhelmingly good and supportive. It hasn’t been an isolating thing.
I’m sure a lot of the issues you raise a lot of other people have had problems with, too. And sometimes it just takes that catalyst to start the conversation. Maybe a lot of people were almost relieved that it was something there was discussion about all of a sudden. Absolutely. And another thing I was surprised at was the reaction from outsiders. People from big cities and small towns all across the country. When I talk to those people, I realize that this teen-angsty emotion and this whole coming-of-age thing—the reason people read and write YA— it’s ever-present everywhere. It’s not specific to small southern towns. It’s not specific to inner-city Brooklyn. It’s a universal thing—people’s struggle with the way they were raised.
Another thing about this small town setting is that a lot of people who live in this small town want to leave it, but something that I think is really nice about it is that you don’t judge those who don’t leave it. You’re very sympathetic in your rendering of those people, and I think that’s important. That the going and staying are equally valid options in the book. The idea that I wanted to make sure is present was that Cullen’s turmoil was in his head. It’s not as if he needs to outwardly rebel or judge anyone else. Yes, he’s angsty and there’s a lot of that “world-against-me” thing, but I didn’t want him to come off as this hateful kid who thinks everyone around him is stupid. There’s some of that, because, you know, he’s seventeen. A lot of the things he says that are borderline immature are there for a good reason. I read something that said he was very inconsistent in some of his viewpoints and I’m like, “Yeah, have you met a seventeen year-old?” (laughs). Because I didn’t know what I thought about anything when I was seventeen. But I knew I knew it the day I thought it. And then the next day I changed my mind. Seventeen-year-olds are crazy. They’re insane. They don’t know how to respond to the world around them.
You mention that you’re still in your hometown. But now that you’re an established writer, do you ever harbor dreams of moving other places? The only reason I’m here now is that I’ve been traveling so much with the book since May. It didn’t make any sense to move. I was living and teaching about an hour from here, in a pretty large town called Shreveport. It’s a pretty major city in Louisiana. But I’ve been gone for most of the past five months, so it didn’t make sense to continue paying rent there. So I basically just stay here where I grew up in the house where I grew up, which is very strange as I’m working on new books. But I’m in the process of making that decision. It was New York for awhile, but I just got back from seventeen days on the West Coast in southern California and it sort of won me over. There’s such a great writing community, and everyone was just so quick to say, “Get my phone number,” or “Get my email.” “When you come out here we can hang out!” I love New York. Love, love, love New York. I’m so excited that in a week I get to see it again [for the 5 Under 35 event]. It’ll be my fourth time in two years, which blows my mind. My first trip to New York was to meet my editor and agent, and to go to the Simon and Schuster building. And it was very surreal. And now I’ve been several times and will probably end up living there someday because it just feels right. But as soon as I got to LA I was just like, “Oh! But this seems pretty right too.”
Life is long. You can make a life on both coasts, I’m sure, before it’s all said and done. You’re young. Absolutely. I’m not even thirty yet!
John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back is available from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
CAROLINE ZANCAN is the fiction and interviews editor and a contributing writer to the [tk] review.More Posts by Caroline Zancan