Love in the Age of iPods

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Rachel Cohn and David Levithan aren't the sort of authors who need complete silence in order to be creative: they prefer to rock out to the music on their iPods as they write. According to Levithan, "It'd be hard to find either of us without our iPod earphones in. It's a totally constant soundtrack."

It's fitting, then, that their book, Summer 2006 Book Sense Children's Pick Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (Knopf), features characters that love music ... and begin to fall for each other during a music-filled all-night adventure. With iPods going strong, the authors wrote the book via e-mail, sending the chapters back and forth until the story was complete (he wrote the chapters narrated by Nick, and she wrote Norah's).

Rachel Cohn

Credit: Anna Orchard

David Levithan

Credit: Anna Orchard

The co-authoring idea originated with Cohn, who said, "I was writing a book and it was the first time I'd used alternating narrators, with a male narrator.... While I was writing, I kept thinking I got the [male character's] voice okay, but he was making all the wrong moves. If I wrote it with a guy, the moves would be all different. In writing Nick & Norah, that's exactly what it was: the moves."

Those guy-moves did occasionally cause Cohn some stress: "I'd send the characters in a certain direction, and David would send them in one I'd never expect. For example, on a date, Norah leaves thinking Nick really doesn't like her, so I'm thinking the next chapter would have Nick saying, 'She's cool, how can I make her like me?' Instead, he sent me a chapter where Norah threw herself at Nick!"

Levithan said, "Well, they both throw themselves at each other.... I was constantly trying to make it more interesting, to twist and turn the story in the ways nights like this go. It was fun in that it was challenging, to follow each other." Stress aside, Cohn added, "His doing that always made my responses even better."

Nick & Norah is a boy-meets-girl story, but their introduction at a Manhattan music club is unusual: Nick asks Norah to pretend to be his girlfriend for five minutes so he can show his ex-girlfriend (who's just strolled in with another guy) that he's moved on. Norah's response to his request sets off an adventure set against the backdrop of a near-dawn New York City peopled with teenagers devoted to -- and united in their boundless appetite for -- music.

Nick and Norah are smart, good kids who love music because it makes them feel transcendent, part of something big, excited, and deliciously exhausted (in no particular order -- and often, all at once). The connection between the two teens feels exhilarating and strong, too, but it's initially marred by uncertainty due to a combination of lingering exes, miscommunication, and self-doubt. The teenagers eventually navigate their way through the city, and Nick and Norah find their way to each other in an ending that's sweet, but far from sappy (or certain).

Levithan and Cohn said they, too, connected because of music. "We found out about our Nick Hornsby-style obsessiveness while we were writing Nick & Norah. It bonded us, and it did bond the characters," Levithan explained. He added, "Female readers in particular have told us they liked reading about a boy and girl bonding over music, but not having identical taste. We wanted it to be fully idiosyncratic, and show how those idiosyncrasies can connect."

Cohn agreed, adding, "It's very easy to pigeonhole teenagers and say they only like what's on "Total Request Live" [a top-40 music show hosted by Dick Clark heir-apparent Carson Daly], but they do have eclectic taste. They like alternative indie rock and Patsy Cline, for example."

Cohn and Levithan are tuned into their readers' musical preferences not the least because of their web savvy: Cohn and Levithan have individual sites, there's a Nick & Norah site, and both authors have MySpace pages. This makes it easy for their readers to contact them and check out the authors' playlists -- and it's also handy for informal market research.

Levithan said, "If you look at the MySpace profiles of our readers, they all have 200 favorite bands and at least 12 favorite books.... I sound like an old man, but kids today have so much more access to music than we did. They can sample whatever they want, whenever they want. It helps define their musical taste so much more easily than those who had to, God forbid, listen to the radio."

Cohn added, "Every YA author out there sees a huge amount of feedback from their books about how readers take the books personally, and relate to them. It's a great way to keep a book alive. I feel like I get to meet each reader." And, she said, "Several kids have said it's so great there are gay characters in the book, and they like that lots of different teenagers are represented."

Fortunately, despite that realistic representation of modern-day teens (some of them are gay, some of them make out with each other, many of them stay out late, lots of them swear, etc.), the authors say they haven't encountered any controversy or censorship challenges to Nick & Norah.

Levithan said, "I did come up against censorship with Boy Meets Boy -- gay teen literature is particularly in the crosshairs of book-banners right now. But the only pushback we've gotten with Nick & Norah is the use of the word 'fuck' so often in the book." Cohn added, "Any pushback hasn't been about the content, but the words."

But, Levithan said, "You have to put it in context. Nick and Norah are straightedge and very considerate, thoughtful, good kids. The fact they say 'fuck' doesn't matter in context, and if you try to sugarcoat things, you're not going to get through to teen or adult readers. Chris Crutcher has said in order to reach teens, you have to speak their native language -- and that's the language they speak. It's not done in an offensive manner or against anyone in a harmful way. I've been excited because it seems most people get that."

On their book-tour, however (BTW caught up with them during a break from activities in Austin, Texas), the authors took pains to be sensitive to their surroundings. Levithan explained, "We pull back if a store puts us in the kids' section with children running around: we substitute the word 'frock.'" Said Cohn, "Yes, on tour, the question has been 'To frock or not to frock?'"

Levithan said he thinks the book's positive reception is "a testament to where we're going [in YA literature], that the queer aspects and sexual aspects haven't been the lightning-points. And we didn't write those aspects to be controversial -- we just wrote them because they are true to the story."

Any reader who's been a teenager will recognize the truth of the story, as will anyone who's been to New York City. Cohn moved there at age 17 to attend college, and still lives there today. Levithan grew up in nearby Short Hills, New Jersey, and now resides in Hoboken. However, the authors both say their spot-on descriptions of the city after dark don't all come from personal experience -- as teenagers, anyway. Levithan said with a laugh, "If this was autobiographical, the story would've all taken place on the TKTS [half-price Broadway tickets] line, maybe with a trip to Sbarro afterward. I get to be so much cooler as an alter ego."

Nick and Norah really are cool -- readers will root for them to continue their conversation and connection. And if the characters' names sound familiar, that was intentional: Levithan says the characters were written with the Nick and Nora characters from "The Thin Man" movies in mind, "or any of the 1930s and '40s comedies that had characters engaged in rapid-fire banter.... We had to be rapid-fire with ourselves within the text, and there had to be banter between the chapters, with us one-upping and planting things, and challenging each other."

The challenges are continuing for Cohn and Levithan: the pair is two-thirds through their next book, Naomi & Ely's No-Kiss List. This time around, whoever takes a character can go wherever they want with it, and choose any point of view from which to tell the story. Cohn explained, "We're making it up as we go along -- but we did talk about a moratorium on new characters."

The authors also are tackling solo book projects and pursuits. Levithan will continue his work as editor of Scholastic's PUSH imprint; an anthology he edited with Billy Merrell, The Full Spectrum: A New Generation of Writing About Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Other Identities, was published by Knopf in late May; and his book Wide Awake is due out in the fall.

Cohn is multi-tasking as well: "I can't do two books at once -- there are too many voices in my head. But the way deadlines are going, I'm going to be schizophrenic this summer." Up next for her: the spring release of Cupcake, which features a character from her previous books Gingerbread and Shrimp (Simon & Schuster Children's).

In preparation for writing Cupcake, Cohn said, "I did a lot of market research in New York City on cupcakes. Really, I [wrote the book] so every book-stop I make will have cupcakes!"

Levithan added, "That's right -- my next book will be Cinnamon Roll..." and Cohn said, "...and then I'm writing Orange Julius." --Linda M. Castellitto