Interview with John Corey Whaley, 2014 National Book Award Finalist, Young People's Literature

John Corey Whaley

Noggin by John Corey Whaley John Corey Whaley Noggin

Atheneum Books for Young Readers/ Simon & Schuster

Interviewed by Adina Talve-Goodman

Adina Talve-Goodman: Noggin is the story of Travis, a boy who undergoes a head transplant. Or, rather, is it a body transplant? Either way, it’s not your typical boy-meets girl or boy-grows-up story. Where did you get the idea for a full-body transplant? Where did this story come from?

John Corey Whaley: It's hard to say exactly where the actual idea for the head transplant came about, but it was a result of my challenging myself to write something absurd, but to ground that absurdity in realism.  As a Vonnegut fan, I've always wanted to take a ridiculous premise and give it a strong sense of humanity, one that can be related to by any reader.

ATG: You take on so many complex questions and ideas in this book—loss from so many perspectives, coming out, survivor guilt, living adequately as a “miracle,” soul mates, etc.—and yet you do it all with tremendous grace and empathy for each of your characters. Writing-wise, what was the most challenging aspect of this book? Did you do any research?

JCW: The most difficult part of writing Noggin was finding and sustaining a healthy balance between comedy, drama, and science fiction.  While I did do some research into cryogenics and head transplants, I purposefully limited the amount of technical or medical information that I provided about these things within the story.  I never wanted this to be a science fiction story, so I had to make sure there was just enough to move the plot along without making readers stop and question the reality of it all. I also wanted this to be a story that was surprisingly meaningful, but, at times, wacky as well.  And finding the right place for humor and tragedy in any story can be a challenge. 

ATG: One of the most interesting aspects to me about this book is that while the premise is outrageous, the heart of the story is classic YA: it’s about growing up and learning to live with the hand you’re dealt. What do you hope young people take away from this book? Or, put differently, what would you like to sit sixteen-year-old Travis down and tell him?

JCW: I hope young people, Travis included, can take away the message that Travis himself sends toward the end of the story―that maybe you can grow up and change, we all can, and maybe we can still have the people who are closest to us, but just in different ways.  I wanted this book to be about relationships and how they are affected by time and, most importantly, the inevitability of change, good or bad.  

ATG: This is a bit of a silly question, but after writing this book and exploring all the questions surrounding Travis having his head surgically removed and then frozen to be transplanted onto a new body five years later, would you do it? Would you get a body transplant?

JCW: I always say it depends on whose body they'd give me. Brad Pitt's?  Okay.  I'm in. 

ATG: What are you working on now?

JCW: I don't usually share too much about what I'm working on, but I will say that it centers around a character with extreme anxiety and takes places in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

Adina Talve-Goodman is the managing editor of both One Story and One Teen Story.