John Corey Whaley is living every debut author's dream. On Monday, his novel "Where Things Come Back" won the American Library Assn.'s prestigious Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults. The story of a teenage boy whose brother goes missing while everyone else obsesses over a woodpecker is "witty," "sardonic" and "groundbreaking," according to the ALA.
We caught up with the 28-year-old author for a phone interview in the town where he grew up and in which his novel takes place: Springhill, La.
You really can’t get any better than what you've just achieved -- winning a top literary prize with your very first book.
You’re telling me. I’m sort of still in a state of shock. It’s completely life changing and unbelievable and it’s crazy. It’s so great.
You were an English teacher for five years before you left the profession to become an author, correct?
In the middle of my fourth year teaching is when I got my book contract -- in 2010. I knew the book would come out in May 2011. My dream had always been that I would teach until I published a book, so my goal was to give myself one year to be an author, and I guess that changed today.
What gave birth to your story?
I grew up in a little town with about 6,000 or 7,000 people. I always knew from 11 or 12 years old that I wanted to be a writer, and I always wanted to write about growing up in a place like that that’s small and you don’t fit into. When I was a senior in college at Louisiana Tech, I was driving home and heard a story on NPR about this extinct woodpecker that someone saw in this small Arkansas town. The townspeople were all talking about how it gave their town this sense of hope because tourists from all over the world were coming to find this bird.
I’d been trying to find a good place to place a teenager -- a kid trying to grow up in that kind of craziness. A story about life growing up as a teenager in a small town you don't fit into developed into a story about are we looking for the right things and do second chances exist, because while everyone in this town is preoccupied by this extinct bird coming back to life, the narrator’s younger brother goes missing. So then the story is sort of a parallel. He and his family are looking for their lives. Everyone else is preoccupied with this nonsense.
You’re living in the town where the story takes place?
In the town it’s based on. It’s really strange. In the book, Cullen Witter is very cynical about where he grows up, like I was as a teenager, but all the support everyone from my town has thrown my way since the book came out -- it’s really made me change my outlook and not be so bitter about it. It’s been a really cool thing to learn about yourself and get older. Sometimes it’s not about the place. It’s about the person. An amazing cool thing that’s come out of this is that so many people are proud to say, "He’s from this place." To have people stop me in the store and say, "Hey. I read that book." It’s like, "What?" It’s really crazy. I am on cloud nine.
Are you at work on another novel right now?
I am. I just recently finished my second novel, and I don’t think it will be out before 2012’s over because there’s no pub date. But I have two more novels coming out with Atheneum.
Are you relieved you finished it before winning the award?
Everyone has been like, "Oh my gosh, I’m so glad you finished that book because you’re not going to have any time to write a book." I was like, "Oh my gosh. I didn’t even think about that." I finished it last Thursday on my birthday. I had planned it that way because I’m kind of cheesy sometimes. I had no idea this was going to happen.
Does your second book have a title?
It's tentatively titled "The Defenestration of Abbott." It’s a story set in south Louisiana about -- I can’t tell you too much about it, but it’s sort of a murder mystery. It’s still a young adult novel, but it’s more concerned with the mysterious death of someone and the aftermath of all of that.
What has today been like for you?
Today has been a lot of congratulatory emails and tweets. My book was a trending topic this morning on Twitter. That’s mind blowing to me. That many people were saying the title of the book.... My publicist has contacted me about several opportunities that have popped up locally where I live before I start traveling. Right now, I’m just going to spend the rest of the day catching up on emails and phone calls. I’ve not talked to anybody via phone except for my mom and dad. I have all these friends waiting for my phone call. I nearly have no voice left.
-- Susan Carpenter
Photos: "Where Things Come Back" cover art, top; author John Corey Whaley, below. Credits: Atheneum Books for Young Readers