Springhill native will autograph new book Thursday
John Corey Whaley's award-winning first novel, "Where Things Come Back," is a story of second chances.
On Thursday, March 21 at 4 p.m., Webster Parish Library patrons will have a first chance at a local book signing for the Springhill native author.
The book was originally published in 2011 and Whaley said he has been busy since winning the American Library Association's Printz Award and William C. Morris YA Award in January 2012.
"It was nice," he said, "I felt very lucky and blessed. It was completely unlikely to happen with the first book I ever finished."
Working on his degree in Secondary Education at Louisiana Tech in 2005, Whaley came upon the idea for "Where Things Come Back" while listening to a National Public Radio story during the commute between Springhill and Ruston.
"It was about Brinkley, Arkansas where they had recently reported discovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker," he said. "I thought I should write a book in a place like that and change the facts around."
Whaley then held onto the idea as he graduated and began to teach seventh grade English in Springhill. He said those nine-months inspired him to renew his efforts.
"I set a goal to finish it," he said. "It took about five to six weeks once I sat down and said, 'You do this. You do this because you know you don't want to keep being a teacher.' Then, of course, I taught for four more years while trying to get someone to read the book and publish it. And I taught for a year after I had my publishing deal."
The first step was to secure an agent, who Whaley found in Ken Wright at Writer's House.
"He requested my whole manuscript," he said. "Ken said 'It might take six to eight weeks to get to this. I have a lot of submissions.' Four days later he emailed me a said, 'I just started and read your whole book in one day and I need to talk to you on the phone tomorrow.' We made an agreement, he sent papers and he was my agent.
"Two days before Christmas of the same year we got our first offer from a publisher," Whaley continued. "So he sold it very quickly. It was official in January and they told me it takes about 18 months for a book to go from being bought to the time it's out in the stores."
Being published, according to him, raised the bar from simply being a writer to taking on the role of author.
"The writer is the one who spends most of his time completely alone and working on something," Whaley said. "That's what I was before any of this happened. I desperately wanted to tell this story, so I spent my summer writing it.
"As an author, particularly in today's world, you have to be 'on' a lot," he continued. "You have to get up in front of a lot of people. You have to talk and answer questions and tell your ideas and talk about your process. It's very different from writing. You kind of have to learn: Ok, I'm 'on' for this trip. Then when I go home I'm switching it 'off.' I always say I'm John Corey Whaley and then I'm just Corey. It's like I have two personalities almost – one is just kind of toned up a little."
For Whaley, the urge to write came early – at around eleven according to him. However, he said his path to writing didn't start in a normal way.
"I was really obsessed with stories – on TV and in movies – and I actually had it backwards," he said. "I started reading because I fell in love with the way stories were being told on screen. Once I started reading things like 'Catcher in the Rye' and 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' and 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'Slaughterhouse Five' – these books all made me really know around the time I was in eighth, ninth, tenth grade – that's when I really knew I had to try to do what those authors had done for me.
"My goal was," Whaley continued, "the way that I feel about these stories, I need to do whatever I can to make someone in the future to feel this way through my writing."
Writing of some sort became a way of life for him, entering contests and receiving encouragement to go further.
"I had a teacher, Anita Cooper who the book is dedicated to," Whaley said. "She told me about the Shreveport Writer's Club contest. I went to this meeting that was all grown-ups, there were no other kids who had entered, and I read my story in front of all these writers. It was really strange to get some sort of attention from strangers for writing. I think that validation really helped – helped me realize that it wasn't such a cock-eyed dream to do this."
The problem was, according to him, he hadn't found a subject that connected with him personally. At least not until that fateful drive down I-20 listening to a podcast about a real-life second chance delivered by the potential rediscovery of a thought-extinct bird.
"All the sudden this middle-of-nowhere completely impoverished town of Brinkley, Arkansas became flooded with media attention from all over the world," Whaley said. "All the people in this town had thought they weren't a viable part of the world anymore – that nothing could ever give them some surge in their economy.
"The first thing I thought was, 'What if they never find this bird? That would be so sad for these people,'" he continued. "That's when I realized I wanted to tell a story about a kid who thinks that. He hates when someone from the outside comes in and fills all the people he knows with this false sense of second chance or hope."
On that drive, Whaley found inspiration for more than the plot of his novel; he also found a way to name his characters and solidify the story's southern setting.
"The first name I got was Ada Taylor," he said. "That's the exit off the interstate. I thought 'she sounds like a nice girl; I'll put her in the book.' The next one I paid attention to was Cullen – this was before it became the most popular vampire last name in the world.
"I wanted it to feel southern without banging the southern-ness over your head," Whaley continued. "I think it worked, maybe. I literally printed out a list of Arkansas town names and I drew lines from one to the other."
Despite its southern setting, he found that he needed to stray beyond the bounds of his fictional Lily, Arkansas. This ultimately moved the book from being the first person account of one teenager to having multiple point-of-view characters in multiple locations.
"I wrote half the book, all from Cullen Witter's perspective, before I realized that I wouldn't be able to move on further until I had something else," Whaley said. "The shift in tense and the shift in narrators was the best way. Even though I know it's a frustrating experience for part of the book for the reader, that's the way it's supposed to be. The reader is supposed to feel in line with Cullen's emotions.
"That was the biggest moment in writing this book," he continued. "When I realized no one in the world has written a set of rules that I have to follow in writing this book – that seems so simple to think about, but for years I had been approaching writing in such a different way. When I realized I could create my own rules because it was my story and I control the entire world in it, I could do whatever I want as long as I do it effectively. As long as I make it work. It was fun, it was really fun."
After his book was published, Whaley said he was surprised at the differing backgrounds of people who connected with Cullen's story.
"It's so interesting to see that these characters that meant so much to me so long ago can still do that for other people," he said. "One of the biggest fears I had was, would anyone who didn't grow up in a small town in the south understand this book – or understand how the characters feel? That's been the coolest part about it. No matter where they're from I think people relate to it. A lot of people, people who've grown up in big cities, say that their neighborhoods feel this way. That they feel the same way about their block as Cullen does about Lily."
Still, Whaley said that despite their connection to the story many do have a problem with the ending he wrote. He offered them an answer.
"It's a passing of the baton at the end," he said. "I just spent 230 pages talking about second chances and if they exist or if they don't exist, and giving you examples of them failing and succeeding. You can decide what happens. I think that's more interesting.
"If you're still thinking about my book a week after you've read it," he continued, "then I've succeeded."
Whaley will teach at a Master of Fine Arts program in young adult writing at Antioch University in Los Angeles this summer. His second novel, which he said is very different from his first, is due out next year.