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An Interview with Ned Vizzini

by Scott Neumyer

Ned Vizzini began writing for NEW YORK PRESS at the age of fifteen. At seventeen he was asked to write a piece for THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, which led to the publication of TEEN ANGST? NAAAH..., a memoir of his years at Stuyvesant High School. Now twenty-two, Ned lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Ned Vizzini is the author of TEEN ANGST? NAAAH... and BE MORE CHILL.


BE MORE CHILL is the story of Jeremy Heere your average high school dork who gets a squip. A supercomputer in pill form, the squip communicates directly with your brain to make you cool. By instructing Jeremy on what to wear, how to talk, and who to ignore, the squip transforms him from a complete into a member of the social elite. Soon he is friends with his former tormentors, has the attention of the Hottest Girls in School, and is working on getting the beautiful Christine the girl of his dreams to go out with him. But Jeremy discovers that there is a dark side to handing over control of your life and it can have disastrous consequences.

Set to be released on June 1, 2004, BE MORE CHILL is an intelligent and hilarious novel that has the potential to be a crossover success. It has already received rave advance reviews from the likes of PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, as well as from authors such as David Benioff (THE 25th HOUR, the movie TROY), Megan McCafferty (SLOPPY FIRSTS and SECOND HELPINGS), and Jonathan Ames (WHATS NOT TO LOVE? and THE EXTRA MAN). The Weitz Brothers who wrote and directed AMERICAN PIE have signed on to develop BE MORE CHILL with Steve Pink (HIGH FIDELITY) into a movie.

I sat down with Ned to talk about his new novel, the squip phenomenon, SPACEBALLS, Nintendo, and a whole lot more.

THE BOOK...

SCOTT NEUMYER: How did the publication of BE MORE CHILL come about? After the success of TEEN ANGST? NAAAH... were you contacted by Miramax/Hyperion to do a novel or did you already have BE MORE CHILL finished and decide to shop it around?

NED VIZZINI: BE MORE CHILL was published in a standard Cinderella way. I had this first book, TEEN ANGST? NAAAH..., that was doing well around the country, that had what book companies like to call a "cult following" which basically means it didn't suck. Then I got drunk at a wedding and started talking to a guy about TEEN ANGST? NAAAH...--the guy turned out to work for William Morris. I went into William Morris a month later (I remember sneaking around, hurriedly photocopying my articles on their machines) and got hooked up with my agent there, who is still my agent. He told me, when I told him the BE MORE CHILL idea, that I should write it myself and then shop it around. So that's what we did. We went with Miramax/Hyperion a day after meeting them.

SN: I assumed your background in computer science laid the groundwork for your creation of the "squip," but where did the general idea for BE MORE CHILL come from?

NV:BE MORE CHILL and the squip came out of my studies at Hunter College, where I was getting a computer science degree in the early 00's and also taking English classes. I drafted the concept in a short story class. The spark, though, was a song by an indie band called Drunk Horse. They have a tune called "AM/FM Shoes" about a guy whose life is terrible, but he has special shoes that play the radio. When he plugs into his AM/FM shoes, all the ladies love him. Well, I thought: what if there really was a device that made you cool? How much would American Mega Media Enterprises make off it? It would be the ultimate product. And I went from there.

SN: Clearly the biggest theme running through the book is that of autonomy and being true to oneself (also the inevitable failure of technology). How much of an emphasis did you place on this particular idea as you were writing the novel?

NV: I didn't try to give BE MORE CHILL any particular theme when I was writing it. Themes emerge in editing. I just tried to keep it funny. I think when you try and have a theme from the beginning, that's how you end up with a cookbook.

SN: After reading TEEN ANGST? NAAAH... and BE MORE CHILL, it's pretty clear that there's probably a little bit of you in Jeremy Heere (hell, there's probably a little bit of every guy who isn't the typical jock/star-high-school-quarterback). How much of your own experience did you put into Jeremy's character?

NV: There are parts of jocks in Jeremy Heere--his problems are pretty universal. As for me, The part of BE MORE CHILL where Jeremy Heere has a make-out session interrupted by a girl's infected nipple ring... that happened to me. In my first kiss ever. The part where he takes ecstacy and gets violent, that happened to me, although I just listened to heavy music; I didn't fight with anyone. I'd say about 65% of him is me.

SN: You know Metuchen, NJ is right near my neck of the woods. It's literally about 15 minutes from where I live in Spotswood. Why New Jersey? You grew up in Brooklyn, so why choose to place the novel in suburban, central New Jersey? And you seem to know quite a lot about it. How did you manage to research the area?

NV: Suburbia seemed like the right place for the novel. I've always kind of liked the suburbs, been able to enjoy them in a way that only city kids can. One side of my family is from Trenton and for years I visited my girlfriend at college in suburban Philadelphia so that provided the familiarity. It was a challenge to write something non-New York centric and I tried to step up to that challenge.

SN: How hard was it for you to go from writing the memoir-ish creative non-fiction in TEEN ANGST? NAAAH... to writing the fiction in BE MORE CHILL? Which, do you think, comes easier to you and which, if either, do you prefer?

NV: Fiction is harder to write than memoir, for sure. That's the party line but it happens to be true. I prefer fiction, however, because the possibilities are endless and the rewards are greater. When you write about your own life--and I've seen this happen to other writers--you start out fine but trap yourself into having to do interesting things just to write about them. And then they end up seeming fake. When you write fiction, you end up with something that is applicable to more people--you aim higher. I want to write fables.

SN: BE MORE CHILL is clearly a book that can be entertaining and fun enough for a Young Adult audience, but is also substantial enough that it can branch out into the masses and find a more adult audience. I know you have two different divisions working on marketing (one for YA and one for adult), but did you have a clear sense, as you were writing it, that you wanted it to appeal to everyone? Or did you set out to write the novel saying 'This is going to be a YA novel' or 'This is going to be an adult novel'?

NV: Thanks for saying that BE MORE CHILL can be a crossover success. Of course, the $200m question (uh, that's what J.K. Rowling earned last year) is whether BE MORE CHILL is YA or adult or both. I don't really care: I wrote it for myself when I was 20/21, right at the cusp of the two classifications, and I didn't put it into any box. I don't draw distinctions between YA and literature. HATCHET by Gary Paulsen is better than 99.9% of adult literature. Meanwhile, THE GREAT GATSBY is read exclusively by 7th graders. Where's the line?

BE MORE CHILL is due for release by Hyperion on June 1, 2004.


SN: If it's good writing, is there really a difference between the two? Should there be?

NV: The great joke of great literature is that it ends up getting read by children. People in the literary world don't understand that. And education in Shakespeare, for most people, begins and ends with high school. AP English classes teach ULYSSES. There's a lot more maturity in what high schoolers read than in a lot of what gets published in the adult market. And there's a nice thing about having young readers--they take longer to die.

SN: The one thing about BE MORE CHILL that irked me as I first read through it was the way the F_ _ k _ _ _ curses were presented most of the time. It bothered me, especially when it's in Jeremy's narration and not the dialogue. Then I finished the book and realized why you'd done it and now it doesn't bother me so much. It works as part of the narrative of the novel. I do, however, still have a nagging suspicion that it was done after the fact. That originally you'd wrote the book with all the curses in there. Was this a result of Miramax asking you to clean up the book a bit for the YA audience?

NV: About the cursing in BE MORE CHILL, I defer to St. Kurt, who toned down In Utero to get it into Wal-Mart. When confronted about it in interviews, he said "There are a lot of places in this country where you can't get a CD except in Wal-Mart." I feel that way about schools. There are a lot of places in this country where the idea of going into a bookstore is off the scale of social undesirability, or there aren't any bookstores. So it's important to me that my books are available in schools. With that in mind, I thought, what can I do with the curses, so I did the same thing that MTV does--I bleeped them out in such a way that it's completely clear what's being said. (I think the whole bleeping thing is really ridiculous. Is "uck" such a powerful syllable?) Once I started using the dashes, I found a lot of humor in the _ _ _ k _ _ g things; some of my favorite parts of the book utilize them. The narrative explanation for them came later; I didn't have that planned from the beginning. The _ _ _ ks were in the book when I handed it in to Miramax.

SN: Was there ever any pressure from Miramax/Hyperion to tame the novel down a bit for that audience? I mean, there is some fairly explicit high school sex in there, but it's never over the top and it always seems to work.

NV: The editorial process was a constant give-and-take on what could be in the book and what couldn't. But I think that's typical. I picked my battles, fought hard, and I'm really happy with the result. I also made some changes in editing that made me see the book in a whole new light. My editor was fantastic.

SN: The ending of book is both surprising and well done, but it's definitely a bit open-ended. Do you ever see yourself writing a sequel to BE MORE CHILL or at least carrying on these characters stories in some way?

NV: I never intended to write a sequel to BE MORE CHILL, but here we are, more than a month away from pub date, and I've already gotten several letters (one from Germany) asking about a sequel. That's going to be hard to ignore.

THE MOVIE...

SN: The Weitz Brothers (AMERICAN PIE) have signed on to develop the book and Steve Pink (HIGH FIDELITY) is working on the screenplay. We all know how these things work in Hollywood. Reading the novel, it became clear to me that it could fairly easily be translated to the screen. It could definitely work as a film. Do you think it has a good chance of making into theaters?

NV: The key to making the BE MORE CHILL movie is that the people involved (Steve Pink and the Weitz Brothers) are really committed to it. They have stayed committed to it as we went into pitch meetings and dealt with the fact that Hollywood is VERY edgy right now about making a teen movie with a pill ("that's drugs") and a teen movie with R content (which a lot of the book is). The personal commitment of the people involved makes me confident that the movie will get made.

SN: I know you're working with Steve Pink on the screenplay, but how much input are you ultimately going to have on the film?

NV: I have a fair, friendly amount of input on the BE MORE CHILL movie. People listen to me and take what I have to say into account; then they do whatever they have to do to get the movie made.

SN: There are, however, a few things that would, of course, have to be changed for Hollywood. Is there anything that you'd really hate to have to change?

NV: I write books--not movies. (Not yet.) Therefore I'm not really concerned about changing things in the BE MORE CHILL movie. Of course if they wanted to make the squip a giant banana that levitated behind you... No, see, that would be pretty cool.

SN: Do you have anyone in particular in your head right now that you'd like to cast in BE MORE CHILL? Who do you think would make the perfect Jeremy and Christine?

NV: I'm friendly with Danny Franzese who was in BULLY and MEAN GIRLS, so let's say he gets the Jeremy role. For Christine, let's put in my girlfriend Naomi because she's pretty.

SN: You joked on your website about getting paid in SPACEBALLS DVDs. How sick are you of that movie now?

NV: I love SPACEBALLS! I watched it again with my friends recently. Probably Mel Brook's finest hour-and-a-half. A lot of the jokes that I didn't get when I was eight are really hilarious now.

THE WRITER...

SN: How long did it take you to write BE MORE CHILL, from idea to finished product?

Teen Angst was published by Laure Leaf in August 2002.


NV: It took me nine months and nine days to write BE MORE CHILL. Factor in some original preliminary ideas and figuring stuff out at the beginning, and maybe a year.

SN: Do you have a set writing schedule or ritual that you adhere to?

NV: I write based on guilt. When I feel guilty for not writing, I write. That ends up being every day.

SN: Judging by your website, the internet is clearly an important promotion and marketing tool for you (and for many other writers). Do you see it becoming even more important in this way? In what ways can it be used even more effectively than it already is?

NV: My website is an essential part of what I do as a writer, because it allows people who like my book to email me. That sounds simple but it's an incredibly effective way to give people something extra. For BE MORE CHILL, I am launching "The Squip Phenomenon" which is an unprecedented interconnected array of sites about the squip. It's still under construction, but you can get into it at http://www.squipnews.com/.

SN: You have a take a very DIY approach to your publicity. You host readings, hand out fliers for your books, run contests on your website, etc. Why do you work so hard? And do you think a lot of other writers don't do enough to promote their books?

NV: I work hard to promote because I have to and because I always have. Playing in bands around New York has taught me how important DIY promo is. Not only do you send the right message to your book company, you end up meeting very, very interesting and talented people. As for other writers, shhh... let's let them keep doing exactly what they're doing now.

SN: In 2002, GQ selected you as a young author to watch for in 2003. You've sold tons of copies of TEEN ANGST? NAAAH... and you've gotten great advance blurbs on BE MORE CHILL from the likes of David Benioff, Megan McCafferty, John Strausbaugh, Zoe Trope, Melvin Burgess, and Neal Pollack. Are starting to feel at least a little bit like a rock star now?

NV: I'm pretty far from being a rock star. I got slammed in taxes this year and since then I haven't been going out as much. I'm in work mode about this book, doing everything I can to get it out there in the right way. Plus rock stars get lots of girls, which definitely used to get a goal of mine, but these days, like a lot of people in my generation, I'm just really just happy to have one girl. I don't feel famous at all. I am in danger of feeling successful.

SN: What's next for you? I know you're working on something now. Could you tell us a little bit about it or do you like to keep these things close to the vest until you've worked them out completely?

NV: I am working on a new book. It's not a sequel to BE MORE CHILL. It's good, though! It's very funny and it builds on what I've done already.

SN: Do you see yourself writing more novels that are YA friendly or do you plan to steer away from that?

NV: I plan to move into full-on adult literature. But high school is such an arena for drama--it's tough to ignore. High school looks to be the setting (or a partial setting) for the next couple of books I do.

SN: Any advice for the aspiring writers out there?

NV: I have lots of tips for aspiring writers on my website:
www.nedvizzini.com/faq/

SOME ODDS AND ENDS...

SN: I noticed how cleverly you slipped the CONTRA 30-man code into the novel. What's your favorite original Nintendo game?

NV: My favorite original Nintendo game is the original FINAL FANTASY--incredibly challenging and involving. Plus the game always crapped out on me and lost my saved file when I got towards the end--an additional level of challenge. The "CONTRA" code in BE MORE CHILL is actually the Konami code and has been commented on by lots of people.

SN: Would Naomi (your girlfriend and sometimes fan) still be with you if your squip was no longer functioning? I know my girlfriend wouldn't.

NV: If I didn't have a squip, Naomi would drop me and end up with one of those army guys that she likes me to resemble. Sniff.

SN: Who is the first celebrity you'd make a beeline for if you actually had a squip?

NV: I think Rachel Leigh Cook is pretty hot. But if I had a squip, I'd have to use it to get an extra $800,000 before I could hit on anyone in Hollywood.

SN: You kill a very famous hip-hop star in BE MORE CHILL. Did you decide to kill him because he's the person who would have the biggest effect on the age group of your characters or just because you've wanted to kill him for a long time?

NV: I decided to kill a very famous hip-hop star in BE MORE CHILL because it was funny. And because I think he should die to preserve his artistic integrity.

SN: What have you read recently (or are currently reading) that's just blown you away?

NV: I have been blown away by a lot of contemporary literature, much of which I read because of my DIY promotion principles--I figured if I was going to go to a reading to give out flyers, I had better read the guy's book! Recently I enjoyed Kyle Smith's LOVE MONKEY--there's a book that'll teach you to hold onto your girlfriend. Kinda like "SWINGERS."

SN: And because I know fellow Word Riot Interviewer (and author of NAUGHTY SWEET BOY) Ryan Robert Mullen would be upset if I didn't ask: What's your favorite office supply?

NV: My favorite office supply is the paper clip, because you can turn it into little shapes. I'm a big fidgeter. My legs are shaking all the time (i.e. right now).

SN: Anything else you'd like to add?

NV: Visit
http://www.nedvizzini.com/!

SN: Thanks so much for doing the interview, Ned. Best of luck with BE MORE CHILL.


About the author:  
Scott Neumyer lives and writes in New Jersey. He has written reviews and commentary for DVD Angle. His fiction has appeared in 3AM Magazine, Burning Word, the-phone-book, Word Riot, Hobart, Pindeldyboz, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and Snow Monkey. He can be reached at
http://scottwrites.blogspot.com/


 2004 Scott Neumyer