In late 2005, on his drive home from Louisiana Tech University, John Corey Whaley heard a story on NPR about singer songwriter Sufjan Stevens. Stevens traveled to a small town where an ivory-billed woodpecker, previously thought extinct, possibly appeared and thousands of people flocked in to see it. Like his main character, Cullen Witter, in his YA novel Where Things Come Back (Atheneum), Whaley had a history of coming up with possible titles that he developed to varying degrees. "And in that 20 minutes, just like that," he says, "after coming up with book ideas that never really went anywhere since I was 12 years old, suddenly I knew this was the plot of a novel that I could finish."
Whaley worked intensely to adapt the story as his own. "I thought: what if I were 17 and it was my small town of Springhill, Louisiana? How would I feel if people started flooding in to see some bird?" The story revolves around main character Cullen Witter, a missing child (Cullen's brother, Gabriel), and a disillusioned (and unstable) former missionary, Benton Sage.
Though he finished the novel, then titled Good God Bird, by 2007, the road to publication proved rocky. Ultimately social media played a key role in finding an agent. "I tell people Facebook literally saved my life," says Whaley. After more than 50 rejections, he was selected as one of the top 100 Amazon Breakthrough novels. Then a Facebook friend suggested he try WEbook.com, where the agent in-box connected him to Ken Wright at Writers House in October 2009. Wright told Whaley he would read the book in six to seven weeks. Instead, Whaley got a call that Sunday and before he hung up the phone Wright was his agent. And by that Christmas Atheneum acquired the novel.
Editor Namrata Tripathi worked with Whaley not only to craft a new title, but also to heighten the atmospheric sense of place, now one of the novel's strongest elements. "I know what it's like to be from an incredibly small town, and the oppressiveness of it and the desire to get out," he says. "But I didn't realize that readers in Seattle, New York, and San Francisco might not get that so instinctively." What has the hometown reaction been? Overwhelmingly positive, Whaley says.
The two narratives that merge in the novel, Cullen's coming-of-age story and that of Benton Sage, came out of Whaley's desire to play with time and structure, to make the story about more than a missing child, and "so that the reader didn't get tired of Cullen's angst. I like Cullen and I want the reader to like him, and his sarcastic voice, too, but I've read so many YA novels with whiny protagonists and I wanted to avoid that."
For now, Whaley has quit teaching English to write fulltime. He is currently revising his second novel, set in Louisiana, about a teen who becomes a suspect when his best friend is murdered. "I've never been happier in my life," he says. "I love meeting readers and booksellers, and am beyond overwhelmed and gratified at the reception. Each day feels like an adventure."