NED VIZZINI

Interviewed by Brianne Kennedy

Jazz is blaring through the speakers at the Brooklyn Lyceum and I am worried about two things. The first is that the music is drowning out Ned Vizzini, the eloquent young author sitting across from me, as I awkwardly attempt to record our conversation on my MacBook. The second is whether or not one of the two brownies the waitress brought over is meant for me. Had Vizzini placed a food order for himself or were these random tokens of kindness from the friendly barista?

I grabbed one anyway and subsequently spent the rest of the afternoon mulling over my decision with the same over-analytical intensity that usually serves as a trademark of the protagonists in Vizzini’s books, of which there are three: “Teen Angst? Naaah…,” “Be More Chill,” and “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” soon to be released as a movie starring Zach Galifianakis. At the time of this interview, Vizzini, who began his career writing for New York Press while he was in high school, was visiting New York after a recent move to Los Angeles where he was hard at work completing a new novel.



INTERVIEWER

You’ve been writing since you were really young. Obviously being a writer largely consists of having talent, but I think with a lot of writers the “make or break it” aspect is whether they have discipline. Can you talk about discipline?

NED VIZZINI

I read a quote somewhere, on a reader’s blog. And it was a writer, I don’t remember her name, she said, “I don’t like writing. I don’t feel good when I’m doing it. But I feel a lot worse when I’m not doing it.” I definitely believe that’s true. Writing is really, really hard. It’s really nerve-wracking and when it goes badly it’s like watching something die in front of you. But if I don’t write for a couple of days, I’ll feel really guilty. It’s so easy to wake up and tell yourself, “Oh I’m not going to write right now because I have to send this email out, I have to post this blog entry, I have to find out what happened on Facebook.” But the only thing you really have to do is write the books. I mean, there are people who at least claim in interviews that they sit down at ten o’clock in the morning and then they get up at six o’clock in the evening and I definitely don’t do that. So from that point of view, I wouldn’t consider myself very disciplined. I’m just driven by guilt and fear to write.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever feel like blogging takes away from your fiction writing?

NED VIZZINI

It’s very important for me to be putting content out there for readers. I do my blog a little differently. A lot of people try and do blog entries every day. I can’t do that. I do two a month and they’re long and I try and stay focused on mental health. Yes, it’s entirely possible and there have been times in my life where I’ve let blogging really take over from other writing that should have been more important. I think the way you avoid that is [to not] fall into the trap of thinking that you have to do it every day. You’re never going to really be at the knife’s edge of internet culture.

INTERVIEWER

When you’re blogging and writing about things like mental health and hardships that kids deal with every day, do you ever feel a pressure that they’re going to depend on you for something?

NED VIZZINI

I don’t feel any pressure to do anything other than entertain people. It’s not my job to deliver important emotional or cultural lessons. It’s not my job to save anybody’s life. It’s just my job to entertain people. I have to trust in the writing to be able to do other things on its own. It’s a very hard thing to do, but I think if you set out to write a book and you’re worried about anything other than entertaining the reader, you can make some missteps.

INTERVIEWER

Generally as an author, have you ever felt like you owed your readers anything?

NED VIZZINI

I think that the process you’re talking about, the process of, “What can we do for the reader here?” I think that comes out more in editing. When a manuscript is being edited, that’s when a good editor will ask you, “Hey, do you really need to use this word?” or “You understand that if you put this chapter in the book…” “Be More Chill” had one chapter, it was about three pages, that was a very detailed recounting of the main character, Jeremy’s, sexual activities on the internet. I understand that I’m part of the first generation to grow up with access to internet pornography and I think it’s different. It changes your perspective on life and I wanted to write about it. And so it’s just a chapter of, “I go into my room and I turn on the computer and I go to this chat room and I type this and this and this…”

Well, when we went into editing, my editor on that book, whose name is Alessandra Balzer, she has her own imprint and she’s amazing, she said “Ned, you know, this is limiting. You want this book to be able to be in schools and libraries and you can really have the same kind of effect that you’re going for here by simply saying at the end of the previous chapter, ‘I go into my room and turn on the internet.’ Like, we know.” I think a good editor brings that out. Because ultimately, she’s right. The books are targeted to people who are 14-plus which means they’re being read by a lot of 12-year-olds and yeah, I don’t need to give them the absolute nitty gritty. So I called that “The Forbidden Chapter” and I posted it on my website. I guess that defeats the whole purpose. Point is though, that’s a pull medium. You got to go out and get that; you’re not going to be hit in the face with that as you’re reading the book.

INTERVIEWER

Does that consideration for your youthful audience ever make you feel restricted as a writer?

NED VIZZINI

In terms of content? The things you can get away with writing about in young adult novels are astounding compared to what you can get away with in a PG-13 movie. You can write about rape, suicide, self-mutilation, drug use, gang violence, a kid lighting himself on fire, The Holocaust. You really are not very restricted. I’ve had to make changes, but they’ve all ultimately been changes that I think helped the material. Occasionally, a library or school will get really overzealous about a book and what’s almost odd about it is that it seems to happen to books that have been out for a while. All of a sudden someone decides that they want to ban a book. I don’t think books should be banned. I always thought you should be able to trust the audience to find what it wants to find. By the same token, my books aren’t for 10-year-olds. That’s why it says on the front that they’re for the ages that they’re for and I think that’s fine. You have an audience and you go for it.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve been pretty open anytime something in your life has influenced your writing. Do you ever get worried that you put too much of it into your fiction?

NED VIZZINI

I have a good story. Whenever issues of exposing my own life come about, I always tell this story. This also goes back to “Teen Angst? Naaah…,” which is coming out in a new edition this fall. I’m really excited about it because it’s been a great little book for me. It keeps selling and people keep reading it and I’m just very thankful and lucky. And there’s a story in “Teen Angst? Naaah…” about summer camp and that was taken from New York Press. I didn’t have a good time in summer camp. I wrote about a lot of bad things, I wrote about cigarettes and pot smoking, you know, the sort of social vicissitudes of the camp environment. And I forgot to change the name of the camp. The article comes out. Somebody’s parent reads it, kicks it back to camp. One of the higher-ups at the camp reads it and hell breaks loose. A bunch of counselors get fired and I have a roving group of kids now who want to beat me up—some of whom went to my high school—because I’m the annoying, whiny kid who ratted out the camp. I had to deal with that. Luckily, I was very, very good at avoiding people who wanted to beat me up.

One of them, I don’t know if it was a kid who was trying to beat me up, but he was a kid who was at the camp. He’s the maître d’ of a restaurant nearby. I walked into that restaurant a couple of months ago and it’s coming up on fifteen years, right? It’s still there. The anger is still there. I was worried about my food. So, the lesson is: change names. Change names. I think that if I was operating in a non-fiction capacity, writing a memoir, [which is] not something I anticipate doing right now, it would be one thing. But operating in a fictional world where I can not only change the names but also change things entirely and just use certain character traits of people, I feel pretty safe.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of the other people in your life, family and friends, does that ever become an issue? Like “You can’t write about this” or “Take this out”?

NED VIZZINI

Well, when I used to write for the newspaper I remember coming home and saying, “Mom, the newspaper published this thing I wrote,” and my mother told me, “I don’t need to read the filth that you write!” She is very supportive, but she did say that once. I used to think it was exciting to be able to curse. I mean, you outgrow that. But basically, no. I don’t really have a problem with friends telling me, “Don’t use me in the books.” Part of knowing a writer is understanding that you’re liable to have your…

INTERVIEWER

Life cannibalized?

NED VIZZINI

Yeah. Sorry, I mean, I’m not the first person to make that observation. If I were writing a memoir, I think I would have that concern a lot more.

INTERVIEWER

Have you put a lot of thought into writing a memoir?

NED VIZZINI

The first book, “Teen Angst? Naaah…” is a memoir, it’s true life stories…

INTERVIEWER

But it’s not billed that way.

NED VIZZINI

It’s not. It says, “Teen Angst? Naaah…: A Quasi-Autobiography.” I think we didn’t use the word “memoir” a lot in trying to sell it and I don’t anticipate using that word a lot now. Because “memoir” implies a person looking back on something that happened as opposed to reporting from the scene of the crime, so to speak. I mean, if I were to do any kind of memoir it would have to be about this crazy journey that I’ve been on, career-wise. I went to college and got a computer science degree because I never thought writing would make me any money and then I sold a book and then I freaked out trying to write another book and ended up in a psych hospital and then I wrote a book based on that. But I’m pretty much mining that experience for fiction. I don’t know if it really holds up.

INTERVIEWER

Because of the relationship between your writing and your real life, do you ever use writing to change the outcome of things that you have experienced?

NED VIZZINI

Sometimes I think the primary impulse behind why people write is that moment where you’re at a party and someone says something hurtful to you, and two weeks later you realize the perfect comeback. But when you write you can have the guy say the perfect comeback immediately.

INTERVIEWER

What about the most recent book, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”? That was based on a real experience you had in a psych ward. Did writing that novel stem from an attempt to find a resolution to that time in your life?

NED VIZZINI

I didn’t start writing “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” in order to resolve anything. I started writing it because the first sentence came to mind and then I really couldn’t stop. This is a sensation that writers sometimes describe and it always sounds annoying because it brings to mind “the muses” and “divine intervention” but it really does happen. I wrote most of the first 50 pages in one day in a basement apartment and then kept working for a month and I had a manuscript. I think that once I left the hospital I saw my experiences there as a framework on which I could hang a lot of the observations I’d been having, and I strung those observations and attendant emotions together and the characters talked to themselves and it reminded me why I liked writing in the first place. I added the love triangle because I believe good novels have either love triangles or fire. Or both.

INTERVIEWER

How do you know when something’s finished?

NED VIZZINI

Um, this is going to sound really ridiculous, but I know when a book ends because I have a certain feeling, a tingly feeling that goes through my body. I got it when I was finishing writing “Be More Chill” and “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” As I was sitting writing the last few pages, I just knew: “This is it.” I think when it comes to endings I’ve enjoyed a lot of books that began poorly and ended extremely well. If a book begins poorly and ends well, it can still be a great book. But if a book begins amazingly well and ends poorly, it’s always bad, no matter what. No matter how amazing the beginning is. The ending is very important and I think I’m a sucker for Big Ol’ Giant Hollywood-type—everything explodes, the people kiss. I think that’s just because it’s easy, it’s emotionally easy.

INTERVIEWER

That Hollywood sensibility. Are you pretty aware of the way your writing could translate to film when you write?

NED VIZZINI

I think that prior to the invention of film, writers were picturing things as they wrote them. That’s just part of the process, thinking visually. I’m incredibly lucky to have seen a movie get made based on a book that I wrote. I was on the set, I watched them do it. I never realized how hard it is. I never realized the freedom that I have. If I want someone to explode in a ball of flame, I can just type “Explode in a ball of flame!” If these folks want someone to explode in a ball of flame, they have to light six people on fire. They have to get them all insurance.

I didn’t write “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” or “Be More Chill” thinking in my head: “They could make this into a movie. Let’s make it easy for them to make it into a movie by doing this or this or this.” My agent who does the movie stuff in L.A. is really great. And she told me when I was telling her about my new book, “Look, you just worry about writing a good book. Don’t worry about this. Because if you write a book thinking about how it could work as a movie? It’s going to end up messing up the book.” So I take advantage of this amazingly lucky ability that I have to be able to type “Explode in a ball of flame!” and [have] the reader picture that visual. I take advantage of that and I don’t think about the movie filming aspect as I’m doing it. Working on screenplays is a different thing.

INTERVIEWER

Did you write the screenplay to “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”? Most writers don’t even get the chance to be involved in the films that are based on their books. Their books get optioned and their hands are clean.

NED VIZZINI

I did not write the screenplay to “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” I’ll tell you something, when it comes to authors and movies. I saw Jerry Stahl who wrote “Permanent Midnight” do a reading and talk about the “Permanent Midnight” movie at KGB Bar in Manhattan and someone asked him, “What did you think about the movie?” And he said, “Well, I really liked the check that they gave me. That was great.” He had the experience that you’re describing. They wrote him a check and that’s it, they took everything from there. And you know what? I think that’s fine. I mean, look, it’s an interpretation, right? There’s no way that it’s going to include everything that you loved about your own book. It’s an interpretation and it’s built on the talents of many, many people. You have to trust that those people will add to this beast things you could never think of. They optioned the book. The writing was done by the directing team, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. They wrote a fantastic screenplay. I couldn’t be happier with it when I read it. It really has all the key things in the book and it has got a lot of clever things that I didn’t think of. They just did a great job. It’s tough to adapt your own stuff.

INTERVIEWER

Did you try?

NED VIZZINI

I have tried. I wrote an adaptation of “Be More Chill.” I think, when you’re very close to the material, it’s hard for anybody to do it. I don’t know who finds it easy to write adaptations of their own novels. They really did a great job with the screenplay. And they were nice enough to involve me in little ways that made me feel really important and that I really, really appreciated. I helped out with clearing the rights to a T-shirt that a character was wearing in a certain scene [for the band Drunk Horse]. I sent them music suggestions. I was definitely part of the process. But I don’t there’s anything wrong with just getting the check and sitting back and watching people make the movie. I don’t think there’s a problem with that at all.

INTERVIEWER

The movie for “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is coming out on October 8, 2010. Are you nervous at all? Is there a difference in the kind of anticipation you feel for a novel release from the movie adaptation of your novel premiering?

NED VIZZINI

I’m not nervous about the Funny Story movie. I saw a cut of it and I know it’s great and I think it’s going to make readers very happy and introduce new people to the book. I do see a difference in the level of specificity of anticipation—movies are very much about a specific date. For It’s Kind of a Funny Story, the premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2010 is the date. Saturday night. That’s when the movie is going to be introduced to the world. October 8, 2010 is the next important date. That’s when it comes to theaters across the country. That is the point when ideally it will be on everyone’s minds in the whole world and they all go and see it. With a book you have more time. You can publish the book one year and not really have it catch on for four or five or twenty years and it still has the same amount of legitimacy, if not more. With a movie, you really do have to perform in a small window so everything is intensified.

INTERVIEWER

You recently moved to Los Angeles. Was that in conjunction with…

NED VIZZINI

No. It’s weird right? It’s a weird thing because it’s like, of course that would make sense. But no, it’s all backwards. The movie got made in Brooklyn. I went to L.A. after the movie wrapped. And I really went to Los Angeles because I’ve been in New York my whole life and it was time for a change. And I’d been working with Nick Antosca, who’s a writer of novels and stories for places like n + 1. He recently won a Shirley Jackson Award. He and I, two years ago, started writing some screenplays and working on a TV pilot idea. I have a lot of fun working with him and so we decided, let’s go do it. Let’s go see what happens. I like it. It’s fun. It’s real nice.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve met a lot of writers who, early on in their career, have developed a fear of not being in New York, because it’s so central to the industry.

NED VIZZINI

That’s the wrong way to think. If you’re worried about going and being seen at different readings, you’re not worried about the right things. The proof is in the pages. Content is king. Go write an awesome book and then believe me, you’ll be at the readings when your awesome book is out there. Yes, there are media properties that get made every day because of who somebody knows as opposed to how good they are. But I firmly believe—and I think in order to keep yourself sane, you sort of have to believe—in the primacy of content. The cream rises to the top. The good stuff is going to get done. I think it’s very possible to be a successful writer without being in New York. Maybe it’s impossible to be a famous writer, but there’s a big difference between fame and success, you know? Success is better.

INTERVIEWER

How do you define success as a writer?

NED VIZZINI

For me, the success of the project is really defined before it’s published, in my own mind, based on whether, when I read it over, whether I think it’s good or not. Once you start talking about metrics of success in the outside world, that’s kind of like trying to keep up with writing your blog entries every day. That bar is always going to jump. Is it successful when it sells 20,000 copies or is it not successful until it’s a New York Times Bestseller? Is it successful because you get an email from someone saying that it changed their life or is it only successful when you get 500,000 e-mails saying that it changed someone’s life? My yardstick for success is my own evaluation of the material itself. But once it’s out there, the most important thing, I think, is that it stays in print.

INTERVIEWER

You went to school for Computer Science. What are your thoughts on writing programs and MFAs?

NED VIZZINI

OK, I get this question sometimes and I’m happy to answer it because it’s one of those things where I’ve got like a little story about it. Every time I’m asked by people about writing programs, “Should I go to a writing program?” I always tell them, “Think about Proust and Bukowski.” Marcel Proust lived in his parent’s house until they died, OK? He never worked a day in his life and he’d lie on his mom’s couch and she brought him tea and he wrote and he’s considered one of the great writers of the 20th century. Charles Bukowski, on the other hand, spent ten years during which his primary source of income was betting at dog races. He was given $100 a month by his editor in his later life and he was just an inveterate drunk and gambler and he’s considered one of the great writers of the 20th century. I personally like Bukowski’s writing more than Proust’s, but that doesn’t matter. I respect them both. They’re both great writers, but they’re at complete opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of life experience. That’s what tells me that great writing really can come from anywhere.

For certain writing, especially poetry, I tell people, “Look, the fact of the matter is if you’re really into doing poetry, you’re probably going to end up in academia.” Because that’s where poetry is sold, published, discussed and treated seriously. If you want to write literary fiction? Man, there is an argument being made that you’re going to end up in academia. It’s really, really, really tough to write literary fiction for adults and have it succeed commercially. It’s really hard. There’s nothing wrong with immersing yourself in that community and going into a program. Just don’t do it unless you like it, unless you like working in that kind of environment. Go to a writing workshop first. Test it out. See if it’s for you. But I would be very presumptuous to tell people, yes, go to an MFA program or no, don’t go to an MFA program, because it’s really different for everybody. You gotta find out where you are on the Proust-Bukowski spectrum.

INTERVIEWER

Is there a writer whose career you really admire? If there was one writing career that you could hope to mimic, whose would it be?

NED VIZZINI

I was a big Nirvana fan for a really long time. And it’s unfortunate that as a young person I happened to fixate artistically and really enjoy the music of a group of people led by a guy who killed himself at 27. Because when you really get into art, a piece of art, a body of work, especially the first time you really get into one, you tend to romanticize the artist and think that’s the career path you want. Once I turned 28 and was no longer able to kill myself by the time I was 27, I got a lot more comfortable with the fact that it’s my life. I can do what I want. Maybe one of the reasons people read my books is because I’m not Proust on the couch with his mom. But here I am visiting Brooklyn, living with my family right now. Waking up and pouring bowls of cereal in the night. My mom’s cat scratched me … where’s the scratch? The cat got me here. This is a little bit rambling, but my point is that these are unique experiences. That’s my life experience. To a degree, I have broken free of the need to try and have somebody else’s career. I’m glad I didn’t fixate on Charles Bukowski because I could still be Charles Bukowski if I wanted to try really hard. But I wouldn’t be happy and it probably wouldn’t work out too well.

INTERVIEWER

For your liver anyway.

NED VIZZINI

No, for anything. I’m not good at that kind of stuff. If I tried to act like Bukowski, I’d just end up having to apologize to my mom and it would be bad. I looked at the website of George Saunders a couple of months ago and thought to myself, Wow that’s a really admirable career. It’d be nice to have Michael Crichton’s career without maybe the four divorces or four wives, three divorces. That would be good. But ultimately, I’m not going to have Kurt Cobain’s career, so I’ll just have mine.

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  1. Pingback: Tottenville Review | John Charles Gilmore

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