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small.spiral.notebook 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 some e-mails.

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, right?

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 didn't.

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 what?

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 way.

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 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 selling it?

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 cell phone.

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 above!

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 remember."

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 world."

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 forget that.


Visit Ned Vizzini's Website
Steven Hansen's Review of Be More Chill

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