John Corey Whaley on Being a Morris Award Finalist

Each year, YALSA awards one debut novelist with the prestigious William C. Morris YA Debut Award. The winner will be announced on January 23, but the finalists are in right now: Rae Carson, with The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Jenny Hubbard with Paper Covers Rock, Guadalupe Garcia McCall with Under the Mesquite, Ruta Sepetys with Between Shades of Gray, and John Corey Whaley with Where Things Come Back. We’ll be running Q&A’s with all these talented writers in the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned!

Today we’re sitting down with John Corey Whaley, author of Where Things Come Back. It’s a story that follows a high school senior as he passes a summer in his small, stifling Arkansas town where a thought-to-be-extinct woodpecker has made an astounding reappearance, his cousin has overdosed, and his brother has disappeared. In addition to being a Morris Award finalist, John Corey Whaley is also the first-ever young adult novelist to be honored as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35.

Congrats on being nominated for such a prestigious award! How does to feel to be a William C. Morris finalist?

It feels AMAZING! It was such a nice, humbling surprise and is made all the better by the outstanding finalists with whom I share the list.

What do you like about writing for teens?

I like being able to explore the confusing, awkward, and enlightening aspects of growing up. I always write with a certain goal in mind, especially when writing for teens–I want to be able to point out specific things they may be noticing or thinking about. I like it most when teens respond to my work by telling me that they hadn’t known someone else thought like they did–that personal connection to a story is something teenagers possess that I think gets lost on adults sometimes.

What advice can you give to aspiring young writers?

My biggest advice, as cheesy as it may sound, is to be persistent, patient, and completely obsessed with what you’re writing. I have to fall in love with a story before I really do it any justice when I start writing . . . I want to live and breathe those characters and not be able to sleep because of the flood of ideas I have for them.

Your bio tells us that, like the fictional Cullen, you spent your teenage years in a small, Southern town. How much did your own experiences growing up influence Cullen’s story?

I’d say my own youth in a small, Southern town (in Louisiana) inspired most of Cullen’s thoughts toward his town. He never feels quite right there, always out of place, like he’s just waiting for something to happen that will take him away forever. But, he also has this engrained attachment to it—to his family and his friends—that makes him have this hope that it can get better, and this need to protect it from the outside world. I think I was like that, though I may not have known it at the time. As soon as I went off to college, I was terribly homesick and I never, ever thought that would even be possible. So, Cullen represents that part of me that has this bitterness toward his town that he can’t seem to reconcile with his attachment to and need for it.

You write that Where Things Come Back is “a novel about second chances.” What about the idea of second chances attracts you?

Well, when I first heard the story about the ivory-billed woodpecker’s possible return from 60 years of extinction in a small Arkansas town, I was completely enthralled and immediately saw the religious connections–the idea that things, whether they be physical like the bird or abstract, like hope or peace, can come back once they seemed to have been lost forever. I think I’m not so much attracted to the idea of second chances as I am to exploring how different kinds of people respond to them. Cullen, for instance, sees his town’s “second chance” as something that will only further drive it into obscurity–he thinks it’s all false hope. And then we have another character who is given a second chance and isn’t sure what to do with it. So, second chances look different to us all, and I’m very much interested in writing about the different ways we can all see one particular situation, however grandiose or miniscule.

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