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This reading group guide forThe Love Song of Jonny Valentineincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Teddy Wayne. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Onstage and offstage, from swanky hotels to celebrity green rooms, Teddy Wayne’s novel pulls back the curtain of pop-stardom to reveal the alternately glittering and grueling reality of eleven-year-old megastar Jonny Valentine’s life. The novel follows Jonny, his hard-charging mother, Jane (who is also his manager), and his entourage as he tours for his second album—a tour that will either catapult him into the stratosphere or leave him fumbling for a new record label. As if the pressures of preadolescence weren’t enough, Jonny must navigate marketing schemes, fans, elaborately staged performances, and the growing awareness that his life is not his own, all while he is faced with a startling revelation from his past. The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is a funny, moving, and unsettling coming-of-age story and a perceptive take on our obsessive and exploitative celebrity culture.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What do you think makes the first-person narration in the novel ring so true as an eleven-year-old’s voice? When does Jonny display knowledge beyond his years and when does he reveal his inexperience and naïveté?
2. How does Jonny regard his pre-music-career life in St. Louis? Is he nostalgic, or conflicted? Does this change after his tour stop in St. Louis?
3. Why does Jane offer Jonny the choice between continuing to tour and going to school? Do you think he’s equipped to choose well? How do you feel about Jonny’s decision, in the end?
4. How do marketing and promotional concerns circumscribe Jonny’s life? How do you think his life would have been different if Jane had not chosen to be his manager? Do you think he would have more freedom to be a kid, or not?
5. Though they are employees, Walter and Nadine both care for Jonny and he cares for them. Why are these relationships so important to him? Why do you think Jonny has an easier time relating to adults than to his peers?
6. What attracts Jonny to the Latchkeys, especially to the lead singer, Zack? In your opinion, were they using him, as Jonny comes to suspect, or was Zack’s big-brotherly interest in him genuine?
7. Jane tells Jonny, “The top person is never simply the most talented, or the smartest, or the best-looking. They sacrifice anything in their lives that might hold them back.” (p 37) Do you agree? After his appearance with Tyler Beats, how does Jonny’s perception of his own talent and work ethic change? Do you think this is a healthy change, or not? Would Jonny have been able to see himself this way at the beginning of the book?
8. How would you characterize Jonny’s feelings about his fans and celebrity? At one point he says, “A celeb is only a celeb if you remember them. It’s like we disappear if no one is paying attention.” (p 96) Do you think he’d prefer to disappear? Or to be loved unconditionally by his fans? If you could choose, would you want to have Jonny’s level of fame?
9. Towards the end of his tour, before his Detroit concert, Jonny thinks: “So screw them. If this is what they were giving me, I wasn’t just going to do a bad job. I was going to make it my worst show ever.” (p 236) What is making him feel this way? Does he deserve to be so angry? Why is he unable to follow through on his intention to deliver a poor show?
10. How does the author use the video game Zenon as a metaphor throughout the book? Does Jonny gain something valuable from the game or does the fictional world of Zenon obstruct his understanding of the real world?
11. Over the course of the book we learn that Jane has concealed from Jonny information both personal and music-related. In your opinion, are her decisions motivated more by protecting Jonny or herself, or by keeping him career-focused? Is she really the bad mother the press claims she is?
12. By the time Jonny finally gets a chance to meet his father, he has built up a number of expectations throughout the course of their correspondence. Discuss how this plays out, and what the result of this meeting means for both Jonny and the novel.
13. Throughout the book, Nadine and Jonny are studying slavery in their history lessons; Jonny’s final essay question is “What does it mean to be the property of another person and what does it mean to be free?” (p 223) Talk about how this theme ties into the book’s larger message. When Jonny claims at the end that he knows how to answer the essay question, do you think he’s right? What does his answer tell you about the journey he’s taken in the course of the book?
14. After reading this novel did your feelings about celebrity culture or the music industry change? Do you think one can have both celebrity and normalcy, or are they mutually exclusive?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Have you ever read a musician’s autobiography? If so, were there any similarities to The Love Song of Jonny Valentine? What about the autobiographies of some current teen pop stars, such as Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus? Ask several members of your group to bring autobiographies to compare to the novel.
2. Set the mood for your book club by preparing a music playlist. What current hits remind your group most of Jonny’s songs? Ask group members to suggest songs for the playlist.
3. Ask each member of the group to recall their favorite musicians when they were tweens or teens. Did any of those bands or singers achieve longevity? Discuss how tastes change and whether stars like Jonny can have lasting careers.
A Conversation with Teddy Wayne
1. How did you come to write this novel? What inspired you?
I wrote a now-defunct weekly column for The New York Times periodically over a span of two years. The focus was on marketing and media, and for nearly every article I would interview an expert in the field, who tended to overuse branding and marketing jargon unironically. Just as my experience editing MBA application essays filled with financial terminology informed the narrator’s voice in my first novel, Kapitoil, I found this a worthwhile source to plunder for Jonny’s vocabulary; it seemed like an apposite metaphor for our culture of self-promotion.
My other interest in writing this book comes from my own tepid flirtation with fame after Kapitoil came out in 2010. I was far from a household name, and literary renown is a pale imitation, but my limited exposure to the public showed me how uncomfortable the process made me (at times; it was also often gratifying)—and how incapable of functioning I would be if I ever had, say, Justin Bieber’s level of celebrity. That, coupled with my lifelong fascination with both gifted children and child celebrities, inspired this novel.
2. Did you do any research for the novel? How did you create such an accurate representation of the music industry?
I read a number of child-celebrity autobiographies and biographies, as well as critical literature on the phenomenon. And I immersed myself in the shallower end of the pool, soaking up celebrity tabloids, concert documentaries and footage, and Internet fan sites. I knew a bit about the inner workings of the music industry from being a longtime fan and about the commercial side of media from my own experiences as a writer, but whenever possible read up on the behind-the-scenes music details, from recording to tour buses to song analysis.
3. Did you listen to pop music while writing? Any favorite artists or songs, now or from your teen years?
I expressly listened to more contemporary pop than I do normally to write this book; typically, I encounter it only through osmosis in public spaces. So while I recognize that such songs can occasionally be fun and energizing, my own tastes run (huge surprise) counter to Top-40 paradigms. When writing, I frequently listen to Bob Dylan, since I know the words well enough that they don’t distract me, and for help in exploring Jonny’s nascent rebellion, reconnected with my teenage musical love, the Clash.
4. The songs in the book are spot on—how did you come up with them? Was it fun?
I’m an intermediate guitarist and singer—I wish I were better, but I don’t have the chops. Over the years I’ve written my own, mostly jokey songs, often in the manner of Zack Ford improvising lyrics for the benefit of friends (mine are likely less appreciative). For this novel, though, I didn’t want to satirize pop lyrics; I wanted to write realistic embodiments of them. If the effect is comic, it should be because they sound like the real thing, which provides enough comedy without embellishment. They were very fun to write, and I have recorded my own version of “Guys vs. Girls” on acoustic guitar. Record labels, I await your call.
5. On the one hand, the novel can be read as a dark, ironic send-up of tween pop stars, but on the other hand it’s a very affecting coming-of-age story. How did you balance that duality?
Although I write a lot of short-form satire for magazines, I don’t enjoy writing or, really, reading caustically satirical novels; I need to feel there’s real heart and lives at stake. The key for any novel is crafting a voice, whether it’s the author’s or a character’s, that makes the reader feel like what he or she is reading matters. Once you do that, a novel set on Mars in the year 2400 can seem more authentic than a warmed-over depiction of a failing marriage in contemporary America.
6. Is there any of your preadolescent experience in Jonny?
Were you not a fan of my 1990 smash hit, “Teddy Time (featuring Tone Loc)”? Most of the novel draws from my and Tone’s now-legendary North American tour as the short-lived T+T Music Factory. Otherwise, Jonny’s preoccupations and anxieties are closer to my current state of mind than to my more unfettered preteen self. Ultimately, the question shouldn’t be how I got into the head of an eleven-year-old boy for this novel, but how do I get out of it in my daily life? Every day is a struggle.
7. What inspired the video game The Secret Land of Zenon? Why is it so integral to Jonny’s story?
Admitting to this childhood hobby will make me sound very cool: When I was around Jonny’s age, I was a fan of Ultima, a role-playing computer-game series. What appealed to me about it was its completist rendering of an autonomous world. If you chose, you could simply live—one could bake bread, sell it for money, buy food, sleep, ad infinitum—as opposed to trying to win the game. Other characters went about their daily lives, too, as if your presence were irrelevant. It was the first time I saw a gaming world constructed in this profoundly nonlinear fashion. I modeled The Secret Land of Zenon off Ultima, as it makes sense why the career-focused, gaffe-fearing Jonny would want to escape into another world in which he can merely exist as a relatively anonymous character, and where he gains “experience points” by exploring different actions, though he doesn’t know what their consequences will be. It’s a metaphor for the kind of childhood which expects little of its participants other than that they should figure out who they are and learn from their experiences, for better or worse—precisely what Jonny’s own upbringing prohibits.
8. Both your first novel and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine are written in the first person. What draws you to first-person narratives? What are the particular challenges or pleasures of creating a character’s voice?
Although third-person novels afford a more epic scale, I have found that first-person novels speak most intimately to me and sustain the strongest illusion that I am inside someone else’s head. As a writer, it is similarly pleasurable to escape my own self through another narrator’s—and, in the process, end up ventriloquizing what is most important to me. I also prefer novels that take big ideas or settings (9/11 and Wall Street, pop-stardom and the gilded cages of a corporate music tour) and funnel them down, quietly, to a highly specific character and viewpoint, as opposed to rendering them in equally sprawling terms (or aiming for a completely hushed story). The challenge is in justifying the first-person voice. If it is a voice that could just as easily be transposed to third person, then it doesn’t necessarily warrant the more limited perspective. Both Kapitoil and this novel employ idiosyncratic voices that draw heavily from professional idioms while cutting them against mathematical and preteen grammars, respectively. It’s difficult to maintain consistency in the writing at first—but then it becomes addictive.
9. Literary novelists don’t command the sort of fame that pop stars do, but being a writer does involve publicity, marketing, and interacting with audiences. How do you balance writing and promoting?
Compared to my experiences promoting even the pre-Internet-age “Teddy Time (featuring Tone Loc),” you’re correct, this is a lot easier. But unless you’re a globally celebrated writer, the publicity demands aren’t that taxing, and to complain about them is a first-world problem among first-world problems. The real complaint should be when no one wants to hear from you, a condition that has afflicted me for lengthy periods (such as last week). So I’m grateful when the public shows any interest in me, and though I’m on various social media platforms, I don’t do it so much that it takes over my life, both out of principle and laziness.
10. Do you see any similarities between the publishing industry and the music industry, though the scale may be different?
While the literary-publishing industry has more integrity than the pop-music industry (and likely an equal amount to the indie-music industry), and privileges intelligence and originality over image and derivative appeal, and sometimes makes knowingly unprofitable decisions, it is nonetheless a business, and functions the way any business must, even one dealing with ostensibly high art: trafficking in promotion and marketing and hype and packaging and positioning. Just as the majority of music hits are fulfilling expectations from their labels, most “big” books are preordained as such, their fates nearly sealed before publication (although there is always room for sleepers, and, of course, many of these fated bestsellers flop). Had I self-published this novel, there is little chance you would be reading it now, and even less chance it would be reviewed anywhere, though it would be the same text, minus my supremely talented editor’s ministrations. It helps to have a polished presentation and a team of dedicated professionals whose job is to disseminate your book to the public. Nevertheless, everyone I’ve encountered in the field of publishing, to a person, believes deeply in what he or she is doing and could probably be making more money elsewhere; I’m not sure I’d be able to say the same about all music-industry professionals. While Valentine Days is Jonny’s second album and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is my second novel, I’m happy to have a less cynical relationship with my own industry, though it is still fair to use the word industry.
Mostly I’m just glad they never make authors do the equivalent of liner notes.
Teddy Wayne, the author of Loner, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, and Kapitoil, is the winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award and an NEA Fellowship as well as a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award, PEN/Bingham Prize, and Dayton Literary Peace Prize. He writes regularly for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. He lives in New York.