David Levithan’s Psychologically Unbalanced Teenagers

10/12/2011 3:13 PM |

Jonathan Farmer, left, with David Levithan
  • Jonathan Farmer, left, with David Levithan

David Levithan sees little of himself in the main character of his latest novel, Every You, Every Me. “He’s really messed up,” he said last night at a panel of YA authors hosted by Powerhouse Arena called “Falling Apart, Coming Together.” The absorbing book, on which Levithan collaborated with the photographer Jonathan Farmer, tells the story of Evan, a psychologically unstable teenager who lost his best friend and has recently begun receiving ominous photographs that provoke his longing for her—and his guilt over what happened.

Levithan enlisted Farmer to help him with his idea for a “photographic novel”: Farmer would send the photos one by one, around which Levithan would construct the story, never sure where he was going next. He wouldn’t let Farmer read any of it so that the narrative wouldn’t influence his photographs; it took five years to finish. (“We did many other things in the interim,” Levithan said.) The photos are printed in the book, often in rich four-color—28 all together, or roughly one for every person who came out to Powerhouse.

Highlighting Evan’s instability, the book is full of crossed out passages: Evan’s self-editing, usually of diversions into memories or overly emotional declarations. When the authors read the book at Powerhouse, Levithan read the intact parts while Farmer read the struck through sections, creating a destabilizing stereo effect that underlined Evan’s fractured psyche. “If it makes out character seems a little crazy or schizophrenic,” Levithan said, “it is deliberate.”

Levithan read anxiously and fast, mimicking the emotional state of his character. But otherwise he was witty and charming. “It’s nice to finally meet you,” he deadpanned to Farmer. “I always pictured you fatter.”

When the authors opened the panel to questions, someone asked how they approached writing young-adult fiction as compared to fiction for adults—did they consciously dumb down the language? “It’s really a publishing decision, not a writing decision,” Levithan said. “You’re not thinking about audience, or you shouldn’t be.” (Fellow panelist Christopher Grant added that the only difference between his published YA novel and his unpublished adult novel is that the main character of the former is a teenage girl.) Levithan went on to mock submissions he sees as a Scholastic editor that are conspicuously trying to sound young, such as those chock-full of Jersey Shore references. “That’s the crap,” he said.

Matt Blackstone, also on the panel, asked his own question. “Why teenagers? We’re all grown men.”

“Because people our age are so boring,” Levithan said. “[It's] not out of autobiography. I’m really fascinated by the way young people behave in their teenage years.” (Later he added, “I will never in a million years write a memoir.” He was flattered by suggestions that his book The Lover’s Dictionary, his adult book about a couple going through problems, was autobiographical because it wasn’t at all, he said.)

Matt Blackstone also teaches high-school English in the Bronx, and several of his students came to the reading. He said that for his book, A Scary Scene in a Scary Movie, he would steal experiences from his students to enrich his younger characters, and from his own experience for that of the book’s teacher.

Christopher Grant said many of his own experiences helped shape his book. But his greatest source of inspiration was riding the subway and listening to the young people talk. Indeed, Grant’s greatest gift—one I spotted when reading a Daily News profile back in February—is for vernacular and authentic voices, a gift that’s pronounced when you hear him read out loud.