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A teacher's opinions on YA literature and the state of public education in America.

Interview with Tom Leveen

Thanks so much for allowing me the interview, Tom. Reviewing books I like is one of the highlights of my self-proclaimed reviewing career, (volunteer career, but whatever). And I must say, I really loved and appreciated PARTY. And I’m looking forward to your answers, so here we go!
1.) As far as I can tell, you are pretty big—and by “big” I mean knee-deep—in visual and performing arts. Could you tell me how you transitioned from theatre to writing literature?
I began writing in second grade and never really stopped. I began acting in eighth grade, directing in tenth, and again — just never really stopped. So the two have very much been a part of my life from the start.
But I see what you mean by the question. The thing about theatre and writing fiction is that both are about storytelling. They essentially follow the same rules. I do believe working for so long in theatre is what helped me with writing dialogue, but as a result, I don’t think very highly of my description skills.
On stage, you might have to be quiet while someone else has a monologue, but you still have to be “in the moment,” as they say. Writing fiction in some ways is simply the process of recording both the spoken monologue or dialogue, as well as what you (the character) are thinking or feeling. It’s a printed-word picture of the rhythm and flow of the stage, including the unspoken.
2.) Voice is one of the foundations of YA literature, and I must say, PARTY is full of some of the best voices (eleven unique voices!) I’ve ever read. So, similar to my first question, how has thespian society and instruction influenced your seemingly-flawless understanding of voice? 
After directing 35 plays and acting in as many in the last 22 years or so, I think I got used to so many “characters” being around…both on and off stage. Theatre is so collaborative, you meet and work intimately with so many personalities, it’s great exposure to different ideas, cultures, thoughts, etc. And that’s just the actors. Add to that the variety of characters these actors are working on through a rehearsal process, tweaking this, changing that . . . you have to keep up. One of the beauties of theatre is it’s never the same show twice, whereas a book or film will always be that book or that film.
There are plenty of plays, too, where the actor plays more than one role. I was in a show in high school where I played five or six characters. We had to be able to switch roles on a dime, create brand new physicalizations, expressions, voice qualities — the works. This was also true in speech competition, doing interpretation of literature; you have to come up with different voices, postures, etc., and transition from one to the next quickly. I’m certain that training and experience comes into play with my fiction.
3.) What kind of story-boarding, giant-post-it-notesing, or otherwise-confusing-linear-brainstorming did it take to plot a storyline through eleven points of view?
Oh, man. It was a trip. For PARTY, I used Excel sheets, listing the chapters; which characters were in that chapter; and what time during the night the chapter took place. That way I could keep track of, say, where Beckett was during Anthony’s chapter, or where Ryan disappeared to in Daniel’s chapter. It wasn’t easy, and it took several revisions to get the timeline right.
4.) At any point, did you, or your agents/editors, worry that YA readers wouldn’t be able to follow because of the changing characters?
My agent and editor never voiced anything like that to me. I didn’t worry much about it, because really, most teen readers are used to information coming and changing a lot faster than any book could hope to do. These are readers who don’t know what life is without the Internet, without text messaging. They’re used to things changing rapidly, and adjusting quickly to those changes. Maybe twenty years ago, PARTY couldn’t have worked? I don’t know. But it was never a big concern that I’m aware of.
5.) What has been your biggest success with PARTY?
Yikes. Depends on how you define success. The fact that Random House picked it up at all is a success. That we sold at auction was another. That PARTY was the lead title for Spring 2010 was yet another. We’re in our fourth printing, so that’s a success. When I wrote the book, none of that was on my mind, all of it has been a surprise to me.
But really, for me, the biggest success is that by virtue of being a full-time YA author now, I get to meet students. In classrooms, libraries, bookstores — I love meeting teens. They are, in my opinion, made up of nothing but potential, and they have so much positive energy. They also get shafted a lot by grown ups who should damn well know better, and I love being able to meet these students and tell them they can do anything, and to not let anyone tell them otherwise. Teens are awesome, and not enough adults tell them so.
6.) Since readers’ responses would have to be one of those successes, can you tell us about some of the responses you’ve gotten for this book?
I love getting positive responses on my Facebook page, Twitter, and on blogs, or comments left on the YouTube book trailer page. A few people have written me notes saying they’ve already read the book twice, and passed it on to friends (or their mom!). Several have asked when my next book was coming out, which I think is about the highest compliment a writer can get. A couple of bloggers have compared PARTY to John Hughes movies, and as a product of the 80s myself, that’s a huge compliment, whether they meant it to be or not!
7.) I am a big-promoter of books that force kids to evaluate their biases in effort to prevent stereotyping and political ignorance. So, when I met Azize, and then when I found the source of Anthony’s inner turmoil, I was like—and I quote J–“Wow. This guy is good.” How important was it to you to promote the message of tolerance and acceptance? And how difficult was it to remain balanced in your perspective?
Thanks! That means a lot to me, no kidding.
I don’t think I was trying to promote “tolerance,” per se. For me, tolerance is something you have with a sick baby. You just have to put up with it and wait it out. For PARTY, I hope what people take from it is that tolerance isn’t enough (although it’s a great start). I have to step in your shoes, I have to know “from whence you came,” before I can go casting my judgment on you. It was very important to me to stress this “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” idea. I don’t think it’s enough for us to say to our enemies, “I’ll put up with you — I’ll tolerate you — because it’s the nice thing to do.” No, I need to know who you are, why you are the way you are, look for similarities before looking for differences.
As for how difficult it was . . . I don’t recall it being too hard.. Azize’s story — and that of his father — is, sadly, based on a real event in my home state, the first racially motivated fatality directly attributed to the 9/11 attacks. About a week after 9/11, a Sikh in our town, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was murdered because he was wearing a turban, which is part of their culture and belief system. So because he was wearing a turban, it got him killed out of paranoia, fear, and rage. I wanted to show what it might be like to be senselessly hated for how you look. And then while I was writing PARTY, one of my best friends was serving the first of two tours in Iraq, and we all worried about his safety. How would we respond if he’d been injured like Antho’s brother? If the violence hit so close to home, would we want revenge, too? There weren’t and aren’t any easy answers, and I was interested in digging into those conflicting emotions.
So in writing the Azize and Anthony arc, it was a matter of staying focused on the character’s state of mind at the time. Now that I think about it, though, I never worked on their chapters in the same day. I did need some distance between writings to get into their heads. I didn’t want to take sides.
8.) Speaking of perspective, your characters are so real. What kind of work did it take to characterize this many for one work? And when did you start thinking of these kids?
PARTY is, largely, a total and utter accident. Many of these characters existed before PARTY, and in fact, the setting (and thus the title) was little more than the thread I chose to link them all together. PARTY was borne from several incomplete short stories. I had the idea to try to link them all together just as a test, a writing exercise, to see if it could be done.
Apart from that, there are definitely elements of all my friends and loved ones in these characters. There’s no cut-and-paste about it; you can’t definitively point to a character and say, “That is Person X!” Similar, maybe, but not lifted right out of real life. And, of course, there’s a part of me in all of them, too.
In theatre — and now in any writing class I teach — there’s a technique called Emotional Memory. Let’s say you’re playing Hamlet; you can’t very well say, “Well, I’ve never killed my uncle who married my mom after killing my dad, so I can’t play this role.” Instead you ask, “When have I felt an emotion similar to what this character might be feeling?” I’ve never been an African-American football player, or a Middle Eastern pizza guy, or a girl who’s lost her mother. But I have felt intense and senseless rage as a teenager; I have felt isolated and alone; I have wondered if anyone knew who I really was. So you take these memories of an emotion, and bestow them on the characters.
Often I would sort of “act out” scenes that aren’t in the book, or listen to certain songs linked to the characters in my mind. I had to really assume Morrigan’s brattiness or Max’s nervousness to get in the mood to write them; I had to hear their voices out loud to remind me of their cadences, their patterns.
9.) As a writer, can you tell me what your day looks like?
It’s pretty awesome! I generally do a little new writing or revision in the morning or early afternoon, before 2 p.m. or so, when my mind absolutely shuts down. I’m useless from about 2 or 3 pm till about 5. I try to get chores and errands done in the morning. I’ll try to set up stock signings or school visits, and update all my various Internet sites, or rehearse my book talk. I go to school a couple days a week. I tend to do revisions and research during the day, and fresh writing at night. I’m a total night owl. I hang out with my wife after she gets home from work; we’ll have dinner together while watching some TV show on DVD or talking about our days. If we’re not going out to dinner or to hanging out with friends together, then usually by about 8 or 9 p.m., I’m back at my computer working on a new story. Even then, by 10 or 11, I’m back to work writing.
10.) Out of all the literary characters you’ve undoubtedly encountered, which is most like you? Why?
Whew. This is tough. I know an English teacher who will laugh at this, but I’m going to say Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby. We’re alike in that he, too, is more of an observer. Almost to a fault. He doesn’t speak up when he knows damn well he should. I wish I spoke up more often than I do. Perhaps blushingly, also Tibby from Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. We’re a lot alike.
Okay, this is the bonus round:
Favorite Shakespearean character?
Currently, Juliet. She is an exquisite creation. Strong, decisive, romantic, and practical all at once. She’s one of Shakespeare’s best creations, I think. I also like Macbeth’s devotion to his wife; I think the Macbeths are among Shakespeare’s greatest romantic characters, really.
Best memory ever?
So many to choose from! Apart from my wedding, which was totally kick ass, I would say opening night of the first play my first theatre company ever did. It was a one-man show I wrote and directed, one of my best friends played the role, and another was my technical director. We performed it on a homemade stage in my dad’s backyard to about 60 people each night, for two nights. And the first night, we got a standing ovation. That probably changed the course of my life. We’d assumed it was a one-shot deal, just something fun to try. Instead it was the basis of a theatre company lasting thirteen seasons.
One teenage regret?
Heh. None whatsoever. No, okay . . . dropping out of the speech team my senior year. That, and how I generally treated people who were not my best friends. I very much had an Us and Them mentality, and I regret that attitude.
Worst domestic chore?
Picking. Up. Dog. Crap.
#1 pet peeve:
People not using their turn signal to switch lanes or turn! ARGH! It’s right THERE, you can hardly avoid it as you turn the wheel! Come ON! How hard is it?!
Thanks, Tom. I’ve loved hosting you at For the Love of YA. I can’t wait to read whatever you crank out next. Do keep us updated!

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