Teen Read Week: An Interview with Ned Vizzini

Serious Side of Ned Vizzini as an adult and as a teen

You’ve probably heard of Ned Vizzini, the New York Times best-selling author of young adult books like It’s Kind of a Funny Story, but did you know that Ned’s first book was published by Free Spirit Publishing when he was just 19 years old? In honor of Teen Read Week, Ned recounted for us the story of how he went from being an average teenager to the mega-famous novelist, journalist, and screenplay writer we can’t get enough of.

Q: As a teen, you had articles published in the New York Press. How did that happen? What were your goals as a young writer?

A: Everyone’s goal as a writer is to defeat death.

I would pass by boxes of New York Press going to school because it was a free weekly newspaper in New York City. I was blown away! I had never read anything like it. This was during the school year 1994–1995, and the first writer that I loved from the paper was Jim Knipfel. Then there was Amy Sohn, who was the first writer I’d ever heard of who was accused of being a man because she was so honest about being a woman.

At the front of the newspaper was a mailing address. I wrote a funny (I hoped) true-life exposé of my high school and added a cover letter and sent it to the mailing address. Six weeks later it came back in the mail. Not enough postage. I put more stamps on and sent it back.

I was just doing homework every day thinking in the back of my mind it might be possible someone would call me. And then I got that call from Sam Sifton, who since has taken over for Frank Bruni at the New York Times, and was told that my writing was good and if I wrote a shorter piece, the New York Press might be able to find a place for it in their “Tinytown” section.

The essay that came back in the mail was “Stuy High” that eventually ended up in Teen Angst? Naaah. The New York Press published it, but they called it “Forced March.”

Q: Fast forward a few years—tell our readers how you came in contact with Free Spirit Publishing.

A: In 1999, I had been writing for the New York Press for three years. The New York Times Magazine at that time was run by Adam Moss, who has gone on to win every award possible in magazine publishing. The Times Magazine was putting together an issue about “Being 13,” and they wanted an essay of advice for 13-year-olds from a 17-year-old perspective.

Teen Angst_NaaahI wrote this essay and I don’t know who at the Magazine titled it “Teen Angst? Nah!” but that’s what it ran as. It’s the essay that gave Teen Angst? Naaah… its title although it’s not included in the book.

Judy Galbraith, the publisher and founder of Free Spirit, contacted me after reading that and asked if I might be interested in writing a book. I told her that I had all these essays from New York Press, 1996–1999. I believe it was Judy who told me that to make the book work, I would need new material, too—material that covered things that had yet to happen. So that’s how “Prom, Prom, Promises” came about. (I take full blame for the title “Prom, Prom, Promises.”)

Q: How did it feel to get that phone call from Judy?

A: That call came out of the blue and I had a lot of horrible crap happening in my life so it was like, great, now I’ve got something I can focus on instead of end-of-senior-year garbage.

Q: Were your parents surprised when you told them someone contacted you about a book deal?

A: My parents are never surprised at anything I do. If you can figure out a way to surprise them, tell me.

Q: Ha! What was it like to come to Minnesota and meet your publisher and editor as a 19-year-old?

Smiling side of Ned Vizzini as an adult and as a teen

A: That was amazing! I can’t believe I never wrote an essay about that. I come to Minnesota and within 15 minutes I’m sitting in front of something called “beer cheese soup.” Nancy Robinson showed me around Minneapolis and she was amazing; she brought me to the big record store where Prince used to shop for records and I remember standing in that record store looking at a biography of Sid Vicious that said on the back: “Nobody at 17! World Famous by 19! Dead at 21!”

After all this I met Judy and she did a wonderful thing: she set me up with media training. This was where I learned basic things about being on television such as to always speak in digestible bursts.

And then I went down to “the exciting Minnesota-Iowa border” (that’s what Wendy and I called it) to work with Wendy Lestina, my Teen Angst? Naaah… editor. Like Sam Sifton and John Strausbaugh at the New York Press, she was terrific. She and I developed a strategy we would call “twisting the knife,” where the essays would be funny-funny-funny-SAD.

Q: Why did you decide to stick with writing for the young adult audience?

A: It was rewarding in three ways. First of all, the letters that you get are different from letters that people get in the adult audience. People in the adult audience don’t often get, “I hated reading, but then I read your book.” Then again what do I know—Elizabeth Gilbert was just in the Times saying that she got that from a 60-year-old woman.

Secondly, young adult books have been the beneficiary of a huge financial explosion since 1999 when Harry Potter broke. Sometimes I feel like I know what it’s like to have been a railroad speculator.

Finally, young adult has been the beneficiary of a huge creative explosion since 1999, and that is what places it in that rare category of cultural phenomena, like the Beatles or Facebook, that may have peaked creatively and financially at the same time. In 1999, Speak, Monster, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower were published. There was an extreme creative explosion and an embrace of content and issues that was not matched by television, books, or movies. That has continued to be the case and I hope it has 10 more good years in it . . . or maybe by 2030 it’ll be Boxcar Children again.

Q: What would grown-up Ned say to teen Ned if he had the chance?

A: How can I answer a question like that? Depends on my mood!

Q: Do you have any other advice for aspiring teen writers?

A: I do, it’s on my website. I know it’s annoying to say, but it’s the truth:

The Other Normals by Ned VizziniNed Vizzini is the New York Times best-selling author of young adult books It’s Kind of a Funny StoryThe Other Normals, Be More Chill, and Teen Angst? Naaah…. In television, he has written for MTV’s Teen Wolf and currently writes for NBC’s Believe, forthcoming in March 2014 from J.J. Abrams and Alfonso Cuarón. His essays and criticism have appeared in the New York TimesThe Daily Beast, and the New Yorker (well, on the website). He is the coauthor with Chris Columbus of the fantasy-adventure series House of Secrets. His work has been translated into 25 languages. He lives in Los Angeles.

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