interviews Author, Ned Vizzini|
By Steven Hansen
Though he'd be the first to deny it, Ned Vizzini is
exceptional. At the tender age of 23, he's already published
two books and written more feature stories than you can read
in a gazillion New York Minutes. A native of the Park Slope
section of Brooklyn, you can find him reading at open mics in
cafes and book stores or talking to kids in schools throughout
the city. His most recent novel with the cool title, Be More
Chill, was recently optioned to become a movie. Though he's
loathe to admit it, this guy is hot. I was lucky enough to
catch up with him on a slow Wednesday evening in late May over
Steve Hansen: You started writing columns for the
alternative paper, New York Press, at the age of 15.
That's pretty ambitious for a kid just starting high school.
Who or what gave you the ambition?
Ned Vizzini: When I started writing for New York
Press, I was motivated by a fear of death and intense
jealousy for the successes around me. People seem to think
that 15 is young--no, in American media time, 15 is
old. I was watching Anna Kournikova and Britney Spears
turn into successes before my eyes, and I thought--I'm not hot
and I can't dance. I'd better do something. Writing
became that thing. It didn't hurt that I had a lot of
grievances with the world and I needed a place to get them
out. It also didn't hurt that I was inspired by the people
writing for New York Press at that time: George Tabb,
Jim Knipfel, Amy Sohn, Jonathan Ames. That was a wonderful
time in my life.
SH: Fear of death at 15? You gotta be kidding me,
NV: Absolutely not. Childhood ends early on in
America now. You're pressured to be immortal starting at 4.
Don't you watch TV?
SH: No kidding. The socio-economic subtexts of
Sponge Bob Square Pants are crushing the youths' souls, no
doubt! I guess writing was your way to stay sane?
NV: I actually sat for a year plus on a Sponge Bob;
I used him as a cushion while writing. Anyway, it's those
ads--they're not just for the Trix that change color in milk;
they're for personal microphones/video studios that enable you
to justify yourself to your four-year-old public. I do think
there's intense consumer pressure from a very young age in
America and that's something I'm writing about in my next
book. It certainly weighed heavily on me.
As for writing keeping me sane, absolutely. It was
something I could do that I was actually good at. In
10th grade, my English teacher stopped class so I could read
one of my stories aloud, and when I was done everybody clapped
and I sat next to my one friend and he said "Dude, you could
have sex with any of the girls in this class now." Of course I
SH: And what's the process like for you. Do you do
much rewriting or do you carry a story around in your head for
so long and then it just comes spilling out fully formed or
NV: When I write, I do a lot of rewriting as I go
along. I have days where I plow ahead and days where I start
off reading the book from the beginning and change words here
and there. The advantage is that when I turn a piece in,
people are usually shocked at how polished it is. The
disadvantage is that I have fits of confidence as I go over
things--but I suppose everyone does. I'm a big fan of testing
material out in my head or verbally, when out with friends,
before putting it down. I'm a picker. I wouldn't call myself
prolific, but I get it done. I find that people like to call
you "prolific" when they don't see you between book parties.
SH: Speaking of book parties, how'd yours go last
night? Anything funny or profound happen?
NV: Last night was great. (If my friends were
reading this interview, they would immediately insert a
comment about "your mom.") It wasn't my book party, though--it
was my bi-weekly reading series at Barbes, which right now is
called, curiously enough, The Reading Series at Barbes. It
happens in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
We had a packed house and we also had BCAT there--that's
Brooklyn Community Access Television for the uninitiated. The
reporter kept telling me how diverse it was but I think that
was because of the three older gentlemen (long-time Park
Slopers) decided to support me and come down and drink beers
in the back. BCAT kept pointing the camera at them to
highlight the "diversity."
Then the reporter told me that at every other reading she'd
been to, she felt like the readers were part of an elite. I
told her I've never been part of any elite in my entire life
and I certainly wouldn't want to run my reading series that
At the Reading Series at Barbes, we have people ask
questions about their readings once they're done, and if an
audience member gets a question right, they get a free prize
(usually a free drink). That really fosters participation.
People had a good time last night and I was happy with it.
We're open even in the summer. If you're interested in coming
to or reading at the series, hit up www.nedvizzini.com. We're
open even in the summer.
SH: You're a local boy. Grew up in Park Slope, went
to Stuyvesant (forgive the spelling!) High and Hunter College.
Have diverse, beer-loving friends who are definitely not
elitist twits. Now you have hit it big with Be More
Chill, have a Web site, have a movie deal, there are Ned
Vizzini fan clubs and Web sites popping up on the Internet.
How are you dealing with this meteoric success? We all think
we know the upside (money, babes, notoriety), but what are
some of the more crappy aspects of it?
NV: I grew up with the "success=sucks ass" model of
success, first in the world view of Kurt Cobain and then in
that of Eminem, both of whose work I love.
I have only found this view confirmed. People think that
I'm a "success" now; let me tell ya: Right now I am under a
loft bed in an apartment in the Park Slope Barrio, where wild
cats shit on my deck, with no air conditioning. I live with
two roommates, both of whom have their own very severe
problems (most of us are MIA most of the time). I'm pretty
sure that the futon I sleep on is made of lead. I have no land
line and when people call the cell phone, I have to run
outside and squeak open the iron bolt on the outer door to get
on the deck and get reception, where I pace and kick away
aforementioned cat shit.
I didn't react well to selling Be More Chill and
getting ready for its release. I'm sure a lot of more normal
people would have relaxed and had some fun and taken part in
aforementioned "babes" and "notoriety." Well, very soon after
the book got sold, I hooked up with a new girl and it turned
out to be a baaad idea. So that was enough of that. I find
that it's hard to be with women who are overt fans of my
writing. They're trouble. My current, very kind girlfriend,
Naomi, is totally level-headed about the whole thing.
Since the publication of my first book with an independent
publishing company in Minnesota, I have learned that an author
always has to do incredible amounts of work to promote a book
and the fact that I'm with Hyperion/Miramax does not change
that. I am working harder than I ever have to get Be More
Chill out there with my street team, Web sites, e-mails
and phone calls. I don't have time to think about its success.
The worst part, really, is the expectations. People expect
me to be rich, now--I see it in their eyes. I'll never be
that. The money that I've already gotten from the book, I'm
terrified of--I keep it in the bank and invest very
cautiously. If I can help it, I'll always be a scrappy little
guy no one cares about, giving you a flier to try and get you
to come to my reading. That's how I started out and that's the
attitude I always want to have. That's the attitude that gets
other people to write, and that's what's important.
SH: A good model to follow if you want to keep your
writing front and center is Hemingway's dictum, "Butt to
seat." Anyhow. I like your attitude. So-called success has
ruined a lot of so-called successes. What I find ironic is
that in your novel, Be More Chill the protagonist
Jeremy Heere only becomes a "success" after the super computer
in his brain starts directing him to disrespect his friends,
befriend his enemies and play sexual mind games to win over
the girl of his dreams.
NV: Thanks, I like that: "Butt to seat." It's what
I've been doing all day, and to some extent, all my life. It's
worked out for me.
As to Jeremy's success in Be More Chill, I'm not
sure how ironic it really is--don't people actually screw over
lots of people and hurt everyone they can in order to be
successes? That's certainly what we're told. Maybe, like all
the worst ironies, it's ironic because it's true.
I patterned Jeremy's success after the success we're all
told will happen when we get a certain product. It doesn't
have to be a squip. It can be a watch that gets stock quotes.
What's the difference, really? They're physical items that are
going to make us more desirable as human beings. Right?
SH: Squip is the nanocomputer that Jeremy (and
others in the book) implant in their brain by taking a pill.
It's like a Big Brother lobotomy you can only get rid of by
drinking Code Red. Aside from the law suit the Mountain Dew
Company (PepsiCo or Coke?) is going to slap on you, what's the
underlying theme here?
NV: Let's add to the lawsuit quotient: the squip was
inspired by a piece of music. A great indie band called Drunk
Horse has a song called "AM/FM Shoes" about a guy who's a big
loser with no money and no job, except when he straps on and
plugs into his special shoes that play the radio, he's the
coolest guy around and all the ladies love him. I heard this
song (it was released in 2001) and started thinking, what if
there really was a product that could make you cool?
How popular would it be, and how much money would they make
My studies in computer science at the time led me to the
stunning possibilities of quantum computing, which are very
real. The squip was born. And I do believe that we'll have
this technology, or technology very similar, in our lifetimes.
Implantable computers are already here and scientists have a
very good understanding of how to get electrodes to
communicate with the human brain. Pretty soon you'll be able
to put a phone number in "memory" without pulling out your
As to themes, I like to leave that kind of stuff
open-ended. Some people have said the squip stands for drugs,
some for technology, some for old-fashioned success. I didn't
have any particular theme in mind when I wrote it. All of the
SH: You're an inscrutable man, Vizzini. The "All of
the above" reminds me of a Henry Rollins' lyric: "It doesn't
matter what you say/Because they'll always find some meaning
in it anyway." Which leads me to your propensity for wearing a
burlap potato sack at some of your readings. What the hell is
that all about?
NV: Ah yes, the potato sack. I came up with that
idea with my friends during a band photo shoot. I said I could
wear anything and make it look cool, even a burlap sack. It
was supposed to come with a spear, but I lost a little bit of
motivation on the project.
Anyway, there I was in Central Park for the photo shoot
wearing a burlap sack, and it was like I'd discovered a
secret--the one thing you can wear in Manhattan that will make
people stop you on the street and ask for your photograph. So
I held on to it. (I made it by stitching together a bunch of
burlap sacks from the local coffee shop.)
Then it came time to read from Be More Chill around
New York. I decided the sack did a good job of expressing the
hopelessness of being a dork in high school. I wore it at a
reading and said as much, as an intro: "Some of us forget what
it was like to be weird in school. With this sack on, I
Well, it went over great at the first reading, but at the
second one they'd just passed the Bloomberg
can't-smoke-in-bars law, so I while I gave my intro about
being weird in high school, people were out smoking defiantly.
Then they came back in and there I was--some idiot reading in
a sack. It didn't have any context. Bad move.
Now, I've brought the sack back. I wear it for a new
reason: to protest the American consumer system that makes it
its business to make me feel inadequate. It's my icon on
livejournal and people seem to have taken to it. No disciples
yet, but you never know with some of the fans...
SH: Is there any validity to the argument that you
are at once condemning consumer culture and using it to your
advantage? You're actively selling books, right? Can there be
moral equivalence between Be More Chill and an episode
of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
NV: I could see that. A little like the Rage
Against the Machine argument--how can you be condemning
capitalism on Sony Records?
Here's the difference: I don't sell as many CDs as Rage
Against the Machine does. What I'm putting out there is
probably the most content-rich, image-less, least
unit-shifting product in America--a book. What's useful about
it is what it puts in your mind, not what you can carry around
on your hide. (I know there are people who carry around
certain books to try and look cool, but that's a very small
percentage of people and they're hopelessly misled.) Books
don't make you cool and they don't make money; they just give
you something to look at and go "yes--a new way of handling my
I think it's tough to lump Be More Chill with the
sorts of products I'm poking fun at in Be More Chill.
SH: You're only 22-years old, plenty of productive
"butt to seat" years ahead of you. What can we look for in the
future from you? What do you see in your crystal ball?
NV: As for the future, first of all the future is
now because I'm 23, not 22. (Birthday in April.) Secondly, I'm
going to be writing more that is for sure. I am working on a
new book now, and by now don't mean now as in "in general", I
mean right now in the other window on my computer. It's going
to cover some of what I've been going through recently and
will turn my attention away from Coolness and towards cold,
hard cash and how it screws with young people in this country.
I also am going to be doing a lot more speaking at schools,
which I enjoy immensely and which is maybe the most rewarding
part of my "job." I'm going to move forward in the New York
reading community which has given me a lot of support. That
means continuing to host at Barbes and attending lots of
readings and spearheading new initiatives to help young
writers get their work out there.
Anybody out there could be me. I'm common. And I don't
Visit Ned Vizzini's Website
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