Interview: Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
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DARE TO BE INFINITE
An exclusive interview with authors Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
by Little Willow
Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist is not your typical boy meets girl story. Sure, it starts when boy meets girl - but then boy asks girl to pretend to be his girlfriend for the next five minutes, and girl agrees. Over the course of one night, two perfect strangers fall in and out of love with life, music, friends, cars, food, the city, and maybe - just maybe - each other. (Read the rest of my book review.)
Nick and Norah tell their story in alternating chapters, with David Levithan writing for bass player Nick and Rachel Cohn writing for complicated Norah. I recently had the opportunity to interview the authors simultaneously and praise them for this honest, realistic, and daring novel.
Little Willow: What inspired Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist?
Levithan: Well, Rachel had always wanted to write a back-and-forth novel with a guy writer, and I just happened to be the lucky guy writer nearest by. I thought it sounded like a cool idea. We set up some loose parameters -- most involving the fact we wouldn't talk about it with each other as we wrote. Then we were off.
Little Willow: How long have you two known each other and worked together?
Cohn: We met in fall of 2001; I remember the date because it was very soon after 9/11, and we shared war stories about the recent event as much as we talked about series-writing (which was the context under which we were first introduced). It was just before the release of my first book, and I was so ignorant then. David was actually the first person to explain to me
what a kids' series (like The Baby-Sitters Club) even was. Initially we'd get together to discuss ideas for working together, him as editor and me as author, but I guess I just admired HIS writing too much, and so Nick & Norah became our first experience working together.
Little Willow: Admit it - Someone is a fan of The Thin Man! The main characters of the classic mystery series were named Nick and Nora (without the H that the book Norah uses). When and how did you select the names for your characters?
Levithan: We're both fans, but it was completely Rachel's inspiration to namethe characters Nick and Norah. I can't tell you how hard it was to fight the impulse to introduce a dog (or ex-girlfriend) named Asta.
Little Willow: The story is told in two voices, with Nick narrating one chapter, then Norah narrating the next. Did you write the whole novel in the correct sequence - thereby having to wait for the other person to finish his or her segment before starting on your next portion - or did you write at your own pace, tweaking things to match later on?
Cohn: This was a charmed and rare writing experience in that the book seemed to write itself, as if Nick & Norah themselves drove it with their own momentum, independent of us. We started in June 2004 and were finished by the end of August 2004, all of it written in sequence, each waiting for the other before beginning our next chapter. David would write a chapter, email it to me, and I'd add on the next chapter and email it back to him. The final book that's published now is remarkably close to the first draft; lines were tweaked, of course, and the story and characters polished, but structurally, the final product is the same sequence that wrote itself the summer of 2004. (Wish it could always work so smoothly!)
Little Willow: Along the same lines, did you brainstorm together, both knowing and agreeing on the entire story, or surprise each other as you went along? Did you create a timeline or an outline for you both to follow?
Levithan: The whole fun of it was surprising each other. We knew that it would all take place in a night, but that was all we knew. There are certain things I set up in my chapters that we completely diverged from . . . and I'm glad we did. It's a thrill to write something where you don't have to figure out where it's going, since it's not entirely in your control.
Little Willow: Have you ever collaborated on writing projects before? (Not necessarily with each other.) What do you feel are the benefits of writing a novel with another author?
Cohn: I hadn't collaborated before. David, of course, is a celebrated editor as well as author, so he was already experienced with the art of collaboration. For me, the best part of collaboration is the simple FUN of it. When I sent David my chapters, he never volleyed back with chapters I would have expected in return. I was constantly surprised, delighted, enraged, and enraptured by where he'd take our characters after where I'd left them off.
Little Willow: Nick & Norah's dialogue is very real, with the teens' attitudes towards life and love very contemporary. In other words, though they are clean-living kids - Nick states outright that he doesn't drink, smoke, or do drugs - some of the, ahem, situations and the swearing would make the story possibly garner an R rating if it were a film. Did you encounter any boundary issues when editing this book? Did you feel any pressure to make it cleaner - or the opposite?
Levithan: We just wanted it to be real. And if that involves using the word 'f&*$', so be it. At the risk of giving away plot points, I actually thought the characters were going to go farther than they did . . . but I was glad when they didn't. As for language -- who the f&*$ cares if characters use the word f&*$? It harms no one.
Little Willow: For what age level do you feel this story is appropriate?
Cohn: High school age through retirement home age. I think anyone who likes stories about music and love could relate to this book.
Little Willow: David, tell us a little more about your forthcoming title, Wide Awake.
Levithan: It starts with the election of the first gay Jewish president of the United States, and is about two teen boyfriends who work on the campaign and have to join their friends (and millions of other people) in a huge protest when the governor of Kansas threatens the outcome of the election. It's certainly a political novel, but it's also a love story and (I hope) has a sense of humor.
Little Willow: Do you think that we'll ever have a society in which schools and students are as openminded as they are in your novel Boy Meets Boy? Do you think we might already be there, in some ways, in some places?
Levithan: We're absolutely there in some places, and we absolutely have a long way to go in other places. History, I believe, is progressive towards openmindedness and openheartedness. It takes lots of work, struggle, and words to make things better, but there are plenty of us working, struggling, writing, and talking in order to make it possible. The forces against us are strong, but we're stronger. Because we're right.
Little Willow: As a BSC fan from elementary school on, I must ask: What was your involvement in The Baby-Sitters
Levithan: I edited about sixty of The Baby-sitters Club books. I couldn't have chosen a better way to start my career in children's books.
Little Willow: Rachel, fans gobbled up your first novel, Gingerbread, which introduced us to a headstrong girl named after Cyd Charisse. The sequel, Shrimp, continued her story. Will Cupcake, your novel due out next March, truly be the last novel about Cyd?
Cohn: Yes, Cupcake will be the end of the Cyd stories. She's a character like Norah: I love her so much, I feel like I could write twenty more books about her. But I also strongly feel that CC and I have had a great run. She's grown up now, and we're both ready to move on.
Little Willow: Do you plan on writing any more books featuring Annabel, the girl with "a bazillion steps- and half-siblings" from The Steps and Two Steps Forward?
Cohn: I don't have any plans to write another book about The Steps characters - too many other projects competing for my attention right now - but never say never. But I doubt it.
Little Willow: Which of your novels is the most personal?
Levithan: They're all personal, and none of them are about me. Go figure.
Cohn: What he said.
Little Willow: What are your top ten books of all time?
Levithan: You have to know that writers never answer this question! I don't have a top ten. But certainly if you were to ask me for a recommendation, at this given moment I'd say you really should read Virginia Euwer Wolff's "True Believer" and M.T. Anderson's "Feed."
Cohn: I'll answer this question! But please keep in mind I am very fickle, and the list will probably change by tomorrow.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan
Cohn: One might note that I had read an advance copy of The Realm of Possibility very soon before I proposed the Nick & Norah idea to David. And contrary to his statement earlier, it's not true that I'd always wanted to write a back-and-forth novel with a guy writer, and he was the lucky guy nearest by. (1) I'd had the vague Nick & Norah idea for the grand total of time of about a month before I proposed it to him; (2) I hardly knew any guy writers besides David (I think I knew none); and (3) I had a serious literary crush that day we had lunch. It was never gonna be anybody besides him.
Special thanks to Noreen Marchisi for her assistance in arranging this interview, and to the authors for taking part.
Check out the chapter-by-chapter playlist I created for this book.
Read my 2007 interview with Rachel Cohn and David Levithan.