The Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture: David Levithan — WORD Christchurch

Imaginary things, once properly imagined, will grow as powerful and lucid as if they were true. —Margaret Mahy, Memory

Growing up David Levithan didn’t see himself in literature, or if he did, it was with an undercurrent of unease — queer characters were often sidelined, or the subject of tragedy. Levithan seeks to address that with his engaging, often humorous stories of young love between boys, and he’s not alone, if the growing movement of We Need Diverse Books is anything to go by.

David Levithan. Image supplied
David Levithan. Image supplied

The cure that literature can offer, the panacea or the help that we can give, the hope that we can give, is empathy. It is the notion of a common humanity. It is the notion that another human being has so much more in common with you than difference with you.

Empathy becomes even more important when faced with today’s prevailing political winds, closing borders and minds as it blows. Fiction at its best provides other perspectives, other contexts for living. Levithan believes that inherent in Young Adult literature is a belief that there is an ability to change things, not just a diagnosis of a problem but providing the compass pointing the way out. Even bleak books such as M. T. Anderson’s Feed and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War try to provoke action in readers where the characters themselves might despair.

The co-writing process — an exercise in trust

Cover of You Know Me WellLevithan is very non-monogamous literarily. Co-writing brings out something unexpected in his writing, and he approaches every collaboration with the spirit of experimentation. He always maintains his own chapters, honing his own character while having only limited control over the story. This can provide difficulties for his collaborators; Levithan recently discovered that Nina LaCour usually writes her books out of sequence, which made the chronological narrative of You Know Me Well a little challenging. Levithan publicly declared his intention to continue joining forces with other authors, his next release (The Twelve Days of Dash and Lily, co-written with Rachel Cohn) being released in October.

Making characters real

One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers can make is to think that conflict has to be Conflict with a capital C in order to be worthy of a story. Smaller conflicts can be just as compelling, such as fighting with your best friend. To make characters real, try writing out the thoughts of your characters, as flat characters don’t have thoughts. It’s important to establish what the main character is thinking even if this doesn’t make it into the final text.

Cover of Two Boys KissingTwo Boys Kissing

When asked to be part of an anthology about queer teens, Levithan decided to explore the dimension of history. Two Boys Kissing is therefore narrated by a Greek chorus of the gay men of the AIDS generation, of his uncle’s generation, while looking down on the generation below Levithan — the current gay teens with their (relative) freedom. The plot came from hearing about Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello, who’d just broken the Guinness World Record for Longest Continuous Kiss.

Why do you do what you do?

For the readers. The books aren’t important; it shouldn’t matter what book is better than the other. What authors want is not to win awards or earn money (although I’m sure they wouldn’t say no), but for their books to matter to a reader.

Sometimes teens need someone on the outside to help them work out what they’re feeling on the inside.

Not just teens, David Levithan, not just teens. Thanks for visiting Christchurch.

Suggested reading

More WORD Christchurch

Speaking Proud – WORD Christchurch

It’s too early to say that Speaking Proud was my favourite WORD session, since it’s the first I’ve attended so far, but for now it is. First time I’ve been back in the COCA gallery since 2010 (for shame!) and it was filled with cool, talented young people with great hair. I was as impressed by the local poets as I was by international writers David Levithan and Ivan E. Coyote. I highly recommend attending their other sessions this weekend, and also supporting the amazing work of Q-topia, Canterbury’s local LGBTQIA+ youth organisation.

David Levithan
David Levithan. Image supplied.

Isla Martin (master of words):

the thing is, I know God

and she doesn’t want us to clap our hands together in prayer,

she wants us to clap and keep clapping for every one of us still fighting and still here

Sophie Rea (funny, heartfelt):

If I ever have a daughter, I will dress her in rainbows.

Later when she’s older I’ll let her pull her wardrobe apart

and let her decide what to wear herself

and she’ll go to kindy in stripes and spots,

pastels and glitter, superhero masks and fairy wings

if she wants.

She’ll go to kindy in cut-off jeans and sneakers, monster truck t-shirts

or pink dresses and clip-on earrings or a mixture of it all

if she wants.

(I will make sure she is warm.)

Kimberley Holmes (tongue in cheek and heart in mouth):

Should I cut off my hair, be a better stereotype

do I owe you, be a better warning of what I happen to be

which team I play?

I’m not some teen boy’s party trick.

I wasn’t playing a game.

David Levithan, reading from Two Boys Kissing:

Love is so painful, how could you ever wish it on anybody?

And love is so essential, how could you ever stand in its way?

CoverIvan E. Coyote, reading from their upcoming book:

I’d have these panic dreams about boys waiting under the backless wooden stairs that led into the portable trailer next to the school where my kindergarten class was held.

I’d have these sweaty, fear-stained dreams of laughing boys looking up my skirt and I couldn’t even kick them properly, because have you ever tried to do a high kick in a long dress? The harder, the higher you kick the faster your one raised leg pulls the other leg out from under you, hot tears on my cheek, my bare thigh all torn up by the gravel and I am quite sure I know many people, even in this room tonight who have perfected a technique to account for the high kick in a long dress phenomenon. But I never did.

Ivan E. Coyote. Image supplied.

If you’re upset you missed out on these great words, don’t despair! Sophie Rea, David Levithan and Ivan E. Coyote are speaking at a number of other events this weekend, listed below. I look forward to seeing you there.

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WORD Christchurch

Age Is No Barrier


This has been an eventful day – up the SkyTower (my chosen venue to prepare for the William Dalrymple interview), a walk to Lionel  Shriver’s hotel so that I know where to go tomorrow and 45 minutes with  David Levithan reading from two of his books:  Will Grayson, Will Grayson and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. What strikes me after just three Festival events is how multi-talented writers are. Not only is Levithan a writer of renown, but he is also a lively speaker and a kind man who responded to the questions from the young audience with sensitivity.

Truth to tell, it was hard to ignore the audience attending this event as the group immediately in front of us was made up of thirteen beautifully kitted out young students who arrived late, fussed terribly about who they were going to sit next to, took giggling to a whole new level – to the point where their teacher who had given up glaring at them actually (and I never thought I would see this) threw a book at them – well a notepad, but still.
They were responsive to the point of irritation yet it was clear to me that were loving every minute of Levithan’s racy dialogue and sexuality. When he read from Will Grayson, Will Grayson, they mimed the tender scene with the shoulder massage. They knew the book alright.

And here’s the thing, although Levithan’s books are classified as Young Adult he freely admits that he does not write with that specific age group in mind and instead sees age as a continuum. This made me feel much better about the fact that I am now determined to read some of his works – and we all know how old I am.

A strange thing is happening to me at the festival – doors that had remained resolutely closed, like children’s and young adult fiction are swinging wide open and refreshing blasts of newness are blowing my mind. The next bastion to fall will be Zombie books but I’m still holding firm on that. I’ll leave it there as Bronwyn will be giving you more detailed coverage of this event and the interview that she is having with Levithan even as I tap away at the keyboard in my room.