Monday, February 13, 2012

David Levithan Interviews Pete Hautman about "The Big Crunch"

David Levithan, who was the editor for The Big Crunch, is also the author of several books for teens, including Boy Meets Boy, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (with Rachel Cohn), and Will Grayson, Will Grayson (with John Green). Following is an interview I did with him a few months ago.
David Levithan: I would first like to publicly apologize for all the hell I put both of us through trying to come up with a title for this book. Ultimately, of course, we stuck with the original title: The Big Crunch.  For people who haven’t read the book yet, can you explain what the big crunch is, and how you think it applies to love?
Pete Hautman: David, I completely understand why you were reluctant to use a title that sounds like the name of a sugary breakfast cereal! 
“The Big Crunch” is a cosmological event that might take place a few billion years from now, when the expansion of the universe that started with the Big Bang reverses itself and the entire universe shrinks to a pea-sized node and everything—time, space, matter—ends. Crunch.
I wanted the title because to me, that’s what falling in love feels like: one tiny node of super-intense, incredibly dense oneness—and everything else goes away.
DL: I know this is a frequently asked question for any book, but I realize that I don’t actually know the answer, so I’m going to ask it anyway: Where did the idea of this book come from? What made you start this story?
PH: I have Stephanie Meyer to thank for that. A few years ago I read Twilight, and while I liked it well enough, it left me with the question: Why do we need vampires and werewolves to tell a story about love? I mean, there is nothing more intense, more consuming, more loaded with drama and raw emotion than falling in love—especially falling in love as a teen. So why do we need monsters and murders and dragons and death? Was it possible for me to write a book about two young people falling in love without all the bells and whistles and explosions that most love stories use to pump up the volume?
The only way I could think of to answer that question was to go ahead and do it. That’s one of the things that drives me as a writer. I love jumping into unfamiliar territory—that combination of fear and excitement is galvanizing. It keeps me from getting bored.
DL: One of the things I love about the book is how it rings utterly true, and how it’s a story about love rather than a love story. When you were writing it, were there reference points – other books, movies, real-life stories – informing you, or were you simply lost in June and Wes’s lives?
PH: Wes and June’s story comes out of my own life. Not so much the specific events, but the emotions. Before I wrote the book I read a lot of romances and love stories—from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence to Nora Roberts, mostly so that I could avoid rehashing what other writers had already done. In a sense, The Big Crunch is a contrarian novel—whenever I felt the story moving down a familiar-looking street, I hit the turn signal, reminding myself constantly that the story was not about what happens physically, but about the emotional journey.
And yes, I was lost in Wes and June’s lives, deeply.
DL:  feel you’ve nailed Jerry’s character; he reminded me a lot of an aspiring politician we had in my high school. It begs the question – did you ever run for class office? Or were you a friend’s campaign manager?
PH: You can find me hiding within all of my characters. To some extent, I am them, and they are me. But Jerry contains only the smallest fragments of my DNA—a few stray nucleotides. I was as uninvolved in school politics as it was possible to be.  Therefore, for building his character I had to look outside myself a bit more than usual.
I was thinking about adult politicians, many of whom tend toward phoniness, extreme self-confidence, and situational ethics. I wondered what they were like when they were teens. A couple of my high school classmates went into politics, and I remember them as teens being extremely idealistic, earnest, and vulnerable—almost the opposite of how we think of politicians. That’s how Jerry came to be, and why we see him taking those first steps to becoming President of the Universe…or whatever. We see his idealism beginning to crumble in the face of pragmatic realities, and we see him using his political persona to create a sort of armor for his vulnerable side.
DL: Even though the book is third-person, it definitely has a voice to it. I’m curious – when you’re writing, is there a voice you hear? Are you listening to the words as you write them?
PH: Oh yeah, voice. When I first tried to write fiction, I was obsessed with voice. How do I get one? Man, I wanted voice so bad.
I tried writing flat, Hemingwayesque dialogue, baroque Faulknerian sentences, prodigious Jamesian paragraphs, bewildering Pynchonian concatenations…I tried it all. It took a long time for me to realize that what worked for me was to get as deep as I could into my characters’ heads, try to see things through their eyes, then write it down as clearly and unaffectedly as I could. How to Steal a Car, I think, is a good example of doing that in first person. The Big Crunch was trickier, because there is definitely an authorial voice that runs through both Wes and June’s points-of-view. That voice is the sound of me trying, with limited success, to stay out of the way of my characters.
I don’t consider myself a particularly aural writer—I tend to think in images—but I do listen carefully to dialogue, especially in a book like this. Usually I hear the voices in my head as I’m writing. Sometimes, if I’m not sure about a scene, I read it aloud into a recorder and listen back.
DL: Since you mention it in the acknowledgments, I figure it’s fair game to ask you: What went through your head when your (ahem) editor told you the book had to be much longer? Did you have any idea where it was going to go at that point, or did you have to write those extra seasons to find out?
PH: That was definitely one of the oddest writing experiences I’ve ever had. Naturally, when you suggested that I keep writing for another hundred-plus pages, my reaction was homicidal suicidal displeased. Being a professional, I decided to wait a day before doing anything rash. The next morning I reread the manuscript and thought, Aaargh! He’s right! As soon as I realized that, I knew exactly where the story had to go.
But next time I send that editor a manuscript, I’m submitting only the first half.
DL: Again, I think The Big Crunch is one of the most clear-eyed, dead-on books about teenage love that I’ve read. Are there any others that you’d recommend?
PH: Endless Love, by Scott Spencer. It's not YA, but the protagonist is a teen, and it’s one of the most intense stories of young love I have ever read. Another good non-YA love story is Leaving Cheyenne, by Larry McMurtry. In the YA realm, John Green’s books are quite good. David Levithan is not so bad either. ;°)


Anonymous said...

I definitely agree that this is one of the truest YA novels about teen love out there. The last page made me cry unexpectedly. Such a beautiful novel and it took its time letting the love unfold and grow. Wow. John Green's books aren't in league with this one. The Big Crunch is about real love, not idealization.

Daughter Number Three said...

I love that you were motivated by reading Stephanie Meyer. Thank you for giving teens (and all of us) a story that illustrates love without vampires and sparkles.

Anonymous said...

I love this book. It felt true in the way the best fiction is true. The way the relationships formed, dissolved and reformed was realistic and yet, it was the best reality I've ever come across. I love the Twilight books, in part because they possess the spirit of Jane Eyre. I love The Big Crunch because it manages to capture the passion and beauty of first love without forgetting that it isn't easy, even if neither of the lovers are undead.
Also, please don't dis John Green. His work may not be for you, in the sense that there are only two kinds of books:those that are for you and those that aren't. As for me, I like most of his work. I love some of it. One of his books is not for me. Not all of his work is about idealization. Some, maybe even most, is about the reality of other people and how when we love them, sometimes we get glimpses of who they really are, even if we never get all of them.

Pete Hautman said...

Wait...when did I ever dis John Green? I think he's amazing.