Perry’s Killer Playlist is Joe Schreiber’s second YA novel, a sequel to last year’s Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick. Both are classic stories of boy meets girl (assassin), with the new book taking teenage Perry and his rock band to Europe, home to Gobija Zaksauskas, a foreign exchange student who turned out to be a killer-for-hire. Bookshelf spoke with Schreiber by phone from his home in Pennsylvania about writing for teenagers versus adults, balancing humor and romance with gritty action, and what’s next for Perry and Gobi.
One gets the sense from reading your books that you’re having a lot of fun with them—is that a fair way to describe your relationship with writing?
Absolutely. It came out of a desire to entertain myself. I wrote for an audience of one, at first. If I’m entertained with what I’m writing, I loosen up and the whole experience becomes a lot more fun.
You got your start writing for adults. You’ve written three horror novels and some science fiction set in the Star Wars universe. At what point did you start thinking about writing for teens?
With Au Revoir, it was written at a time when I wasn’t expecting or even thinking about the YA market in particular. I was working on book for LucasFilm, which was taking some time to finish up. There was this part of me that wanted to go in a different direction from wookiees and blasters. Something more fun, like the John Hughes movies from the ’80s, where there’s action but also humor and romance.
At what point did you realize: Oh, I have a YA novel here?
I sent Au Revoir to my agent, Phyllis Westberg, who’s been my agent for a long time, and she immediately started submitting it to YA editors. When Margaret Raymo at Houghton bought it, she told me, “It’s a really friendly atmosphere here [in the YA world]. You’re going to love it.” But at the time I had no preconceived idea at all that I was writing YA. I was writing because it was a story that grabbed me and carried me along.
The premise of the first book—that a meek Lithuanian exchange student turns out to be a gorgeous assassin—is pretty killer, so to speak. Where did the idea come from?
I have always gravitated toward strong female characters in general; it’s something I’ve always enjoyed writing. I wanted Gobi’s character to be surprising and engaging, but also dynamic and unpredictable, as well, with Perry as the reader surrogate, interacting with her, not sure what she’s going to do next. The whole dynamic of the books emerged from these two people—there’s an attraction there, but also a real threat of danger. Gobi would know things about Perry that he didn’t even know about himself, at a pivotal moment in his teenage years. The relationship between them was the big narrative engine of the story, and it was what made me want to jump in and keep working on it.
There’s a lot of travel involved in these books. Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick takes place on the streets of New York City, and in Perry’s Killer Playlist Perry and his band visit Venice, Paris, and other European cities. What’s your relationship to these cities?
My wife and I did live in New York for a while before we had kids. Before that, back in college, I went to school in Michigan, but I had a friend at school in New York. This was back in the ’80s, and we would do these crazy, insomniac, 48-hour road trips to New York. It really informed my sense of how cool New York was, an almost sensory overload experience.
With the sequel, we talked a lot about where it should take place. In talking with Margaret, I said, ‘What if we put it in an even more disorienting environment for Perry?’ And it gave me a chance to take my family to Europe and do some research.
As much fun and as action-heavy as these books are, the consequences of the violence aren’t minimized or ignored, especially where Perry’s family is concerned. Is that something you had in the forefront of your mind?
Yeah, I didn’t want it to be cartoony. There’s that risk, when you’re combining funny or lighthearted moments with action, that you’ll lose the gravity of what’s going on. I wanted there to be consequences, and I didn’t want to push readers out of the book and make them feel like they’re reading a farce. I grew up with movies like Die Hard, which are funny and engaging, but there’s a grittiness to them, too, that makes them classics of that particular genre.
The theme of music is also present in both books. Perry’s band is obviously a major part of his life, and the chapters in the Perry’s Killer Playlist are named after songs from the likes of Green Day, Gnarls Barclay, Van Halen, and the White Stripes. Are readers getting a hint of some of your personal taste in music?
Definitely. I tend to listen to a lot of music, not so much when I’m writing as when I’m editing, but it informs the tone of the book to a greater or lesser degree. Some of the songs in the book are familiar songs, some not so familiar. I find myself hungry for new music all the time. I love iTunes, and how it lets you find a new artist you’ve never heard of and buy the album. I’ll listen to an artist 20 times or more in a day, and have these mini musical obsessions.
So what are your current mini-obsessions, music-wise?
Right now I am listening to a lot of old R.E.M., especially Reckoning. Among the newer stuff: the Mountain Goats and Tame Impala’s new album, Lonerism. It sounds a lot like Revolver-era Beatles, and the lead singer sounds eerily like John Lennon.
Your first middle-grade novel, Lenny Cyrus, School Virus, is coming out next spring. Should we expect a similarly high body count from that book?
[Laughs] No, the only body in that book is the one that Lenny has shrunken himself down into and explores from the inside. There are beating hearts and lymphatic vessels—it’s more of a Fantastic Voyage kind of thing than anything else. No humans were harmed in the making of that book. Humanity fares a lot better in it.
Without giving away too much about Perry’s Killer Playlist, is if safe to say that we haven’t heard the last from Perry and Gobi?
Yeah, I would love to go back to Perry and Gobi one more time. One of the fun things about that relationship is that it still hasn’t settled itself out yet. There are still some bumps in the road to sort out. I think there’s at least one more installation on the horizon for them.
Do you see yourself exploring for younger readers the horror or science fiction genres you’ve written in for adults?
I don’t know, that’s a tough call. I have written horror, and was given a great opportunity with Star Wars, and it’s a lot of fun to do both of those things. But I never know what I’m undertaking until I’m about a third of the way in. Horror is definitely a genre I like, and from telling scary stories to my own kids, who are eight and 10, I know there’s an appetite for that sort of thing. I wouldn’t rule it out.
Perry’s Killer Playlist by Joe Schreiber. Houghton Mifflin, $16.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-547-60117-5