Tom Dolby’s The Trouble Boy and David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy came out within a year of each other, and about a year after that, the two debut authors realized they were fans of each other’s work. (Well, Dolby already knew he liked Levithan’s book, and then Levithan sent Dolby a fan letter.) They’ve both recently published new books—The Sixth Form for Dolby, and How They Met (a collection of stories about love, as opposed to “love stories”) for Levithan. Dolby interviewed Levithan for GayWired earlier this month, but Levithan had some questions for Dolby as well, and here we are.
Tom Dolby: In the past week, I’ve been catching up on some of the other young adult books you’ve written: from Marly’s Ghost to Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist to Naomi and Ely’s No-Kiss List, the last two of which you wrote with your friend Rachel Cohn. It’s interesting because those are two very different types of books. Were they different in their conception? Did you always do the guy parts and Rachel did the girl ones?
David Levithan: I think Nick and Norah was the more spontaneous of the two, because we didn’t know what the hell we were going to do. We were just bouncing chapters back and forth. For Nick and Norah, we switched off girl-guy, but for Naomi and Ely, there are other characters, so it was every other chapter. I did Naomi’s part once. We didn’t plot it out. I would write my chapter, I would email it to her, and she would send me back her chapter. Not only did I not know what was going to happen, but I didn’t even know who was going to be speaking. It was a different experience because Nick and Norah is so much about the chemistry between the characters while Naomi and Ely is the opposite of that—it’s about two people who were really close who are falling apart.
So I have to ask you: I knew because of The Trouble Boy that you had a lot of teen fans. With The Sixth Form, were you conscious of thinking about teen readers being let in to a world that they might not have experienced? Sometimes adult books about teen characters are so awash in nostalgia and distance, but you really managed to make it feel contemporary. It had that ring of truth.
Tom Dolby: With The Sixth Form, I became aware of the link between the two books pretty late in the process. The Trouble Boy was this behind-the-scenes look at New York nightlife, and then there was this new book that takes place in a prep school, which very few people have experienced. So there was this feeling of giving an inside look at a hidden world. There’s always this sense of “Let me show you in to this world—let me show you what’s going down.” I was very conscious of writing in the teen voice in the beginning, but it was completely natural for me by the end. I became less self-aware about the process. Towards the end, I knew exactly what they would do in any given situation.
David Levithan: I felt like while undeniably the school plays a part in The Sixth Form, the book was really about the development of the two characters. There was something much more universal about it. There was a very nuanced familiarity with both of the characters. I didn’t meet them and think, “Oh, this is exactly where they’re going to go.” It unfolded very naturally. With Ethan, you basically take a character and put him in the Manhattan milieu that you live in now, but you’re very good about seeing it through his eyes. Did you ever have to say to yourself, “Oh, no, Ethan wouldn’t observe this or Ethan wouldn’t know this?”
Tom Dolby: Well, there’s always a little bit of omniscience in that third person voice where you can give your narrator more knowledge than your character might have. There were some very specific references to interiors that he wouldn’t know, but I’m allowed as the narrator to say that he does know what this or that is called. But overall, in terms of his reactions to Todd’s mother’s apartment, my primary inspiration was this fabulous apartment that a friend of mine’s parents had on Fifth Avenue. I’d always lived in houses, so I never knew that apartment living could be so glamorous. But I love that part of the writing—it’s like decorating in your mind. And don’t we all have that sense of wonderment about new spaces? We pretend that we don’t, but we really do.
David Levithan: You do have such rich descriptions. When you’re writing, do you actually see the place you’re writing about, or is it all words to you? Because I don’t. For me, it’s all about the words. I brought it up in a class I teach of MFA students. In a class of twenty people, five of us didn’t picture the words we’re writing. I don’t feel like my books are very descriptive.
Tom Dolby: I definitely see it in my head. I see the writing visually. With your books, I think the heart of them is the way you describe emotions. Particularly in your short stories, because you’re going through such a complicated set of emotions in each story. To be able to visually describe an emotion is an incredible feat.
25 February 2008 | author2author |