From middle school teacher to National Book Award finalist

A couple of summers ago, my husband, pre-teen granddaughter and I had one of those near-perfect vacation evenings in Los Angeles. Sitting on a patio on a lovely night, we visited with friend John Corey Whaley, who had moved to California to follow his writing dream and was writing his second novel, “Noggin.”

A California visit with Corey Whaley
A California visit with Corey Whaley
Former Louisiana teaching colleagues lined up for the release of "Noggin"
Former Louisiana teaching colleagues lined up for the release of “Noggin.”

The book, he told us, would be about a teenage boy who volunteers to have his head cryogenically frozen and wakes up five years later attached to another teenager’s body–a story about letting go of the past and coming to terms with the way people change.

Talk about change!

Corey’s fantastic real-life story gives “Noggin” a run for its fairy-tale money.

This week “Noggin” was named a Young Adult finalist for the National Book Award.

Corey, a friend since his days as a middle-school teacher with my husband, is one of the hottest young adult novelists in the United States.

He gave up teaching English and has become a discussion topic in those same classes. He writes with an offbeat spirit and deft turn of phrase. Reviewers mention his “oddball” and “madcap” style–and his unique ability to connect with readers.

His debut novel, “Where Things Come Back,” is a Southern story about a missing teenager in Arkansas and the reappearance of a thought-to-be-extinct woodpecker, a la the Ivory-billed.

That novel, released in 2011, changed Corey’s life. It won the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Fiction and the William C. Morris Award for Debut Young Adult Fiction.

What he’s learned since writing his first book:
“I’ve learned to be more patient with myself–that sometimes I need a lot of time to develop characters and ideas and that writing a book isn’t about racing against the clock, but about making sure the story I want to tell is the one I take the time to actually put down on the page.”

Surprises in the writing life:
“I think the biggest surprise about being a full-time writer is how unbelievable other people find it–always asking ‘that’s all you do?’ But I always explain that it’s the only thing I’ve ever been very good at, so it’s the only thing I can do.

Advice to someone who wants to write a novel:
“Just write it already–if you have the right idea and the talent, the book will happen for you the way it’s supposed to. It’s true to write what you know, but also don’t be afraid to research what you don’t know for inspiration. And just know that every writer/author has to edit and change pretty much everything he/she writes, so there’s no perfect first draft–don’t beat yourself up trying to write one.”

How about you? Have you ever followed a dream? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

3 comments

  1. anemulligan says:

    You know I did! And you know the results. 🙂 It’s been a wonderful ride! I’m tickled for Corey that he chased his while he ‘s young. I didn’t know I wanted to do this until I was in my 50s. But then, I didn’t have anything to say until now. ;o)

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