In the first decade of his career, Ned Vizzini has attained the sort of success that many writers spend a lifetime chasing. By the age of twenty, he’d already garnered acclaim for his first book Teen Angst? Nah…, a collection of essays originally published while working as a columnist for The New York Press, a gig he landed at the age of fifteen. Vizzini’s second book, the novel Be More Chill–a biting satire of teen culture–was chosen as a Today Show Book Club pick and as one of Entertainment Weekly‘s Top Ten Books of 2004. Vizzini’s third book It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2006), a semi-autobiographical novel based on his brief stay in a Brooklyn psychiatric hospital (he has written candidly on his blog about his struggles with anxiety and depression) was made into a feature film in 2010 that starred Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts and Viola Davis.
Although he recently became a father (Ned and his wife Sabra welcomed son Felix last May), Vizzni has no intentions of slowing down. His upcoming novel The Other Normals is slated for release in September 2012 and he just announced that he will co-author (along with Harry Potter director Chris Columbus) a new series of YA novels called House of Secrets. We caught up with Ned a few weeks back to chat about the writing life, movie adaptations, and variations on the F-word.
Praxis: What’s your writing process like?
Ned Vizzini: I don’t have a regimented writing process. I am motivated by guilt and fear. I write when I have to. I need to have deadlines. If they aren’t imposed by other people, I impose them myself. I work in the morning or late at night.
P: Do you remember the first story you wrote?
NV: When I was in second grade, I wrote these stories called “The Poor Old Wizard” in a writer’s workshop class. They were adventure tales about this wizard who was very powerful but very destitute because he lived in the modern world and no one wanted his wizard skills anymore. So he had to live in a cave with a bear for a roommate. And he fought an enemy named “Vicious Vampire.” Sometimes I think this was my best work.
P: How did you land the gig writing for The New York Press when you were fifteen?
NV: I started my career by writing an essay about my high school–which was later published as “Stuy High” in 1997–and sending it to New York Press’ slush mail address. The slush mail address, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the tiny address that newspapers publish at the beginning of the paper, like their business address. People actually do read the mail that comes to that address—and the editors liked my work and asked me to contribute.
P: You wrote a series of reports from the set of It’s Kind of a Funny Story where you talked about watching the actors shoot the “Under Pressure” scene. Having witnessed it performed live right before your eyes, what was it like seeing it on the big screen? And now (two years later) what stands out the most about your time hanging out with the actors and film crew?
NV: That “Under Pressure” scene looks better on the big screen than it did when it was being filmed. Of course it looked cool then, but when you hear the music being piped in and see the actors taking their positions, you peek behind the curtain in a way you can’t with the finished product. In terms of what stands out the most: filming on the Brooklyn Bridge. I had a date with me when I visited the set that night and she’s now my wife.
P: What was the movie premiere like?
NV: The movie premiere was great. It happened in Toronto and people clapped after the “Under Pressure” sequence and after the closing credits, and then the cast came up and did a very funny Q&A. I really just enjoyed it as an audience member.
P: In Be More Chill, I’m curious about a plot point that hinges on the (fictitious) death of Eminem. Was your editor worried about including that in the novel? Did you catch any flack from Eminem or his “people” about killing him off, so to speak?
NV: I have never gotten in hot water with Eminem for killing him fictitiously in Be More Chill. My editor didn’t have a problem with it either. Satire offers you a lot of protection against slander. What I was more worried about was that ten years later no one would know who Eminem was, but it seems that he’s remained on the cultural landscape enough for the joke to work.
P: I noticed something interesting about your first and second books: in Teen Angst you mentioned that you weren’t allowed to use the word “fuck” in the book (using “eff” instead), but the word “fuck” is used quite frequently in Be More Chill, although you found a clever way to sort of “bleep” it from the character’s inner monologue. Can you give us a bit of background on why the language changed between Teen Angst and Be More Chill, and (subsequently) your character’s self-censoring in the latter book?
NV: When I started out at New York Press, I was entranced by profanity. I used it whenever I could. But I learned that often times if you have a character saying something is “fucking great,” it works just as well if the character says it’s “great.” Better, even. The profanity makes it seem like you’re trying too hard. So I challenged myself to use it less, and in times when it was called for, I found workarounds. I consider the “effs” in Teen Angst? Naaah… and “_u__s” in Be More Chill two ways to tackle the same problem.
P: Tell us about your upcoming book The Other Normals.
NV: The Other Normals is about a kid named Perry Eckert who is really into role-playing games—so into them, in fact, that his parents send him to summer camp to make him interact with actual human beings. Once he gets there he falls into a fantasy world called The World of the Other Normals, where he has to put all his RPG knowledge to the test against real monsters, and he thinks he can handle it, but he can’t until he opens himself to actual maturation in the real world. So it’s about becoming a man—and it gave me a chance to write about Dungeons & Dragons and 21st-Century American race relations and the Chicken Dance.
P: What can you tell us about the House of Secrets series you’re working on with Chris Columbus?
NV: It’s called House of Secrets, not House of Spoilers, so I can’t say much about it!
P: In Teen Angst you wrote about the months you spent cramming for the Stuyvesant High School entrance exam: “My summer was a lot like Stand and Deliver, without the pop music.” If you could liken your life to a movie right now, which movie would it be?
NV: Moonrise Kingdom, since I’ve got a book coming out about summer camp.
P: You also speculated that “I’m going to be that idiot who has to show his ID when he’s thirty, not because he looks young and virile but because he’s so doofy no one will believe he’s an adult.” Now that you’re thirty, what’s it like? Do you ever feel like “that idiot”?
NV: Being thirty is better than I expected. I’m doing well creatively. I’m not bored. I’m not depressed. I have a family. And people read my books. I do still feel doofy and idiotic sometimes. But I’ve made a career out of those feelings, so I can’t complain.