Green (l.) and Levithan, who co-wrote Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Photo Julie Straus-Gabel.
The bestseller list is known terrain to David Levithan, a Scholastic editor with a dozen novels to his credit, including Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, the basis for the 2008 film starring Michael Cera. John Green's books have been there, too, including his third and most recent novel, Paper Towns. So a book co-written by these two carries the weight of great expectation—Dutton is hoping to hit it big with the April release of Will Grayson, Will Grayson.
The idea for the novel had been percolating in Levithan's head since his days at Brown University, when he would often be confused for another undergrad named David Leventhal, now a principal with the Mark Morris Dance Group.
“People would come up to me and say, 'I always thought of you as clumsy and oafish, but I saw you dance last night and you were amazing,' ” recalls Levithan, who is lean but perhaps not lithe. “I always thought there was a story there. What would it mean if, say, he and I were roommates? What kind of chaos would ensue?”
When Levithan finally got around to exploring whether he could spin a novel from an idea about identity confusion, he knew he wanted a collaborator, and the first person whose interest he assessed was Green. This was 2005, before Green had won the Printz Award for his first novel, Looking for Alaska—in fact, before the book had even been published. Levithan had heard the buzz from Penguin; a friend got him an ARC. “I was just a fanboy at first,” he says. “It wasn't until we started talking on the phone that I knew we'd get along well enough to write a book together.” Green happily signed on to the project.
The novel that resulted attempts, as Green puts it, to answer the “great teenage question of identity,” by examining the lives of two teens, both named Will Grayson, who appear, at first, to be identical in name only. Half of the chapters were written by Green (one of the Wills), the other half by Levithan (the other Will).
One Will goes through life trying not to call attention to himself, a goal made difficult by his best friend, Tiny Cooper, “the world's largest person who is really, really gay” and also “the world's gayest person who is really, really large.” The other will grayson (deliberately lower-cased in all his chapters) introduces himself to readers this way: “i am constantly torn between killing myself and killing everyone around me.”
Levithan, whose day job is Scholastic's editorial director, had experience co-writing a novel before he and Green began, having collaborated with Rachel Cohn on Nick and Norah (Knopf, 2006). But he and Cohn wrote “zig-zag,” as he calls it. Cohn wrote one chapter and gave it to Levithan; he added a chapter and returned it to Cohn.
He and Green approached their story very differently. Levithan picked the characters' first name, Green the last. They agreed on only one plot point: the two teens would meet precisely halfway through the novel at Frenchy's, an adult book store on Chicago's State Street (Frenchy's is near the offices of the American Library Association, where Green used to work as a reviewer for Booklist).
“We wanted somewhere completely unexpected for the Wills to meet, and that seemed to be as completely unexpected as it got,” Levithan says. “Also, it's a porn store called Frenchy's. I daresay, if it had been called XXX Chicago, we wouldn't have picked it.”
But every other element of the story was left undiscussed until they read their first chapters out loud to each other with an audience of one: Green's wife, Sarah Urist Green. “That was the only interaction we had,” Green says. “We never saw each other's text.”
Green says those rules allowed him to “play with David's story without being able to refer to it.” Levithan says what he liked best about this method was that it encouraged improvisation. “You get elements you would never have come up with yourself, the biggest one, literally, being Tiny Cooper. I was not anticipating Tiny Cooper. I loved that.”
In fact, though, the identity of who wrote which chapters may be apparent to close readers of both authors' work, Green says: “Many people have gotten it wrong. Nobody thinks I could have given birth to Tiny Cooper.”
“But we both raised him,” Levithan adds. “Two fathers for Tiny. Gay parenting at its best.”
Dutton is capitalizing on the authors' considerable fan bases with a big push on galleys—the promotional copy describes the pair as “superstar authors,” which Levithan, with trademark frankness, calls “marketing bullshit. We're only superstar authors, not superstars. It's not like we have to compete with Lady Gaga or anything.”
Rights have been sold in seven languages and to Brilliance Audio. A coast-to-coast, seven-city tour, including an appearance at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, is planned. Because a large part of the story line involves Tiny's quest to put on a musical about his life (titled Tiny Dancer), Dutton is creating a music video, challenging fans to submit their own, and reaching out to fans of Broadway musicals and the Fox TV show Glee.
Months before publication, the novel has already ignited one small firestorm from a blogger who suggested it be rated “R” for its frank sexual language. Levithan says the book is clearly labeled for teens 14 and up, and though one of the Wills is clearly trying to process his thoughts about sex and sexual identity, the story is really about relationships. “In a world where you are being sold sex at every moment, you have to find love,” he says. “We're writing about every form of love teenagers grapple with—friends, parents, romantic interests. How you navigate all these different forms of love is how you get through these years.”
The tour will not replicate the writing process (which would have Levithan and Green starting, say, on separate coasts and meeting once, somewhere in the middle), though the details are still being worked out. Green's schedule in particular has been complicated by the arrival in January of his and Sarah's first child. “We're not sleeping at all,” he admits, “but we're not doing anything else either.” Though in their acknowledgments the authors weigh repaying the debt they owe their editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, by naming future children after her even if they are boys, Green says, “She gave me express permission to name him Henry.”
One place that won't be on the tour is the spot Levithan suggested for the book launch—the actual bookstore that figures so prominently in the novel. “Strangely, Penguin refused to throw the launch party at Frenchy's,” he says. “Although an after-party there is not out of the question.”