[Here’s an early look at Ilene Cooper’s interview with John Corey Whaley, winner of both the 2012 Michael L. Printz and William C. Morris awards, announced earlier this week at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting. The full interview will appear in the March 1, 2012, issue of Booklist.]
On January 23, 2012, at the Youth Media Awards announcements at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in Dallas, John Corey Whaley was named the winner of the William C. Morris YA Debut Award. A few moments later, the audience heard his name again; his first novel, Where Things Come Back, had won the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature. This was the first time in the awards’ history that the same title had been selected for both prizes. When I introduced myself to Whaley later that day, he had the look of someone who suspected that he might be in a dream. How was he doing a few days after all the excitement? We caught up with him to find out.
BKL: I’ll start with the obvious. This is a heady time for you. What’s it been like?
WHALEY: The last couple of days have definitely been a whirlwind. I’m not quite sure the initial shock has worn off yet, but I have, finally, had some sleep. I think I’ve been afraid I’d wake up and find it was all make-believe. I’m still just so surprised and honored. I keep repeating to myself, I won the Morris. Cory, you won the Printz. It’s mind blowing.
BKL: Can you tell us a little about how the calls came in? And what was it like to keep all that news to yourself?
WHALEY: I got the Morris call on Saturday—I was at a friend’s house and missed it, so I had to call back. The committee was yelling on a speakerphone that I’d won, and I was so overwhelmed I think I told them I wanted to hug them all. It was just so crazy! Then, the marketing director at Simon & Schuster called and asked me to come to Dallas to accept the Morris in person. So I left on Sunday morning to drive the 259 miles to Dallas from my home in Louisiana. I was told to hide out, because if anyone recognized me, they might suspect I was there because I’d won something. While I was driving, I was speaking on the phone with my father about who might have won the Printz, and I got a call from a strange number. I exited the interstate to stop at a convenience store, and spoke to the chair of the Printz committee, who said that they wanted to give me a great birthday present (my birthday is January 19) and informed me that I was the winner of the 2012 Printz Award. That’s when I really started shaking. I said, “No way, are you pranking me?” I’m not really sure how I managed to avoid driving into that store.
BKL: Let’s talk about your book. The plot of Where Things Come Back is looped and multilayered. Can you take us into your writing process for this book? Did it start as a more linear story? Which came first, a brother lost or a woodpecker found?
WHALEY: I first heard about the ivory-billed woodpecker’s possible reappearance in 2006 when I was a senior at Louisiana Tech. I knew after hearing interviews with the townspeople of Brinkley, Arkansas, that I wanted to set a novel in a place like that. So, the original idea was to write about about a boy who sees the bird in his town and causes a media storm. Then, as I began writing, I realized that the idea of a multilayered story, of things coming back, of second chances, could be developed into a much more meaningful story. That’s when I got the idea that the main character had to be searching for something more important to him than a bird. Cullen’s brother had to go missing. My original intent was to have Cullen tell the entire story, just one narrative. Then, about10 chapters in, I realized I needed something to tie in the religious symbols and themes I’d already brushed over to make them more visible to the the reader.
BKL: I thought you did a terrific job of bringing in the religious material. Can you tell me more about how that came to find its way into the story?
WHALEY: I friend suggested I read The Book of Enoch, an apocryphal text found in the Ethiopian Orthodox bibles. As soon as I read it, I knew I had to use it. I saw so many allusions and possibilities for my story. For one thing, it had the angel Gabriel in it—which was already the name of the narrator’s missing brother. Then I read how Gabriel the angel was sent to destroy monsters created by fallen angels breeding with humans, and I immediately thought, zombies! I had already written many of Cullen’s zombie daydreams into the other narrative, and this just seemed crazy and wild enough to work. I can’t believe it did, looking back on it.
BKL: The religious aspect really becomes its own story.
WHALEY: Yes, I decided to make it a separate narrative in the novel, one involving a young missionary, also searching for something (faith), who stumbles upon this odd, little-known text and whose journey coincidentally ends up affecting someone else and starting a chain of events that ultimately ties the entire story together. Did I know it would work when I stopped writing about Arkansas and put a new character in Ethiopia? Heck no. But, somehow, it all fit.
BKL: How much of the book is autobiographical?
WHALEY: There aren’t many specific events or scenes in the novel that are autobiographical, but the town of Lily is definitely a reflection of my hometown of Springhill, Louisiana. The most autobiographical aspect of the novel is the attitude that the narrator, Cullen Witter, has toward his town —he is cynical by nature and feels out of place, but he also has a slight, almost subconscious pity and concern for everyone around him. A lot of his views of the world and people are definitely the same as I had as a teenager, and some of those views are still present in my mind today, I’m sure.