Twenty years ago, when David Levithan was starting out in publishing, "YA," or young-adult fiction, was a niche understood and respected by a limited audience. In the years since, the category has exploded, appealing to readers young and old, and yielding wildly popular books and movies.
Levithan’s been a major force in that transformation. He got his start as an editor at Scholastic. Today he’s vice president, publisher, and editorial director of the house, where he has shepherded such books as the Hunger Games trilogy and the multi-platform work 39 Clues. He’s also an award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author (or co-author) of 19 novels (that’s right: 19). Books like Every Day, about a teenager who wakes up each morning in a different body, living a different life, and the National Book Award-longlisted Two Boys Kissing, a fictional conversation between two generations of gay males, have established him as a pioneer in telling stories about LGBT teens and an innovative tinkerer of storytelling forms (Levithan’s 2011 book Lover’s Dictionary laid out a romance entirely in dictionary definitions, from A to Z—and he’s kept up a daily Twitter version since).
The editing and writing are two distinct careers, and either one would be impressive on its own. Here, Levithan explains how he maintains both and where he finds the time to be so prolific.
The boundaries between writing and editing are much more fluid now than when he started out in the business, says Levithan. "I think that 20 years ago, if you were interviewing for an editorial job you were not to mention your writing at all. You were not to mention any aspiration because they would believe—not without merit—that you were just trying to get into publishing as a way to gain connections to publish your own work." Luckily for him, the New Jersey native had interned at Scholastic while still a student at Brown University. "I’d proven my dedication to editorial, so I don’t think that was a suspicion."
But he really did keep them separate. "I would write for my friends but I didn’t think about writing novels." When, as an editor at Scholastic, Levithan was seeking writers who could execute his idea for a book series called Disaster Zone, he kept hitting a wall. Then his boss, Craig Walker, suggested Levithan write it himself. "He surprised the hell out of me." And so he did it. But he would never have done so without the validation. "I needed that legitimization, him telling me it was okay."
Levithan wrote two Disaster Zone books and started writing TV tie-ins and movie novelizations. "Those used to be the stepping stones to YA," he says. "They used to be so popular but now they’re very, very rare." He also started writing a series of stories that he would give to friends on Valentine’s Day. At a certain point he came to two realizations about them: One, that they were becoming a YA novel; and two, that he wanted to have the book published by a different house than Scholastic. "I wanted my author life and my editor life totally separate, which everyone was on board with." The stories became his first novel, Boy Meets Boy, published by Knopf, which has been home to his "author life" for the 11 years since.
"There are actually a lot of editors at Scholastic who write books, some for Scholastic, some for other houses. We support each other very well," Levithan says. "It’s not by design. It’s just the talent we attract and the work that we do being creative is really important so it’s a natural offshoot that some of us would want to write. I think they realize that our work is totally based on ideas and generating ideas and being creative, whether it’s us having ideas or and finding authors, or working with authors to bring out the best in their ideas. You have to be a storyteller in some sense. Whether you’re helping someone else tell a story or you’re telling your own I think your sense of what makes a story good is consistent throughout editing and writing."
"I ask, ‘Why did you do this here? Does this part really have to be here? Do you want to pick up the pacing here?’ Or simply, ‘I don’t understand what’s going on; I know that in your head this makes sense to you but based on what I’m seeing on the page it’s not making sense yet. Can you please fill it out a little more?’"
That’s Levithan on how he edits an author’s work. "You don’t dictate anything," he explains. "It’s all the fine art of suggestion. Ninety percent of the time the author will take the suggestion. ‘Oh yeah, I didn’t see that,’ she’ll say. Ten percent of the time they’ll push back and can easily convince me."
When he’s writing his own novels, Levithan starts with questions for himself. "I usually have a sense of what questions I want to answer by writing the book. For my book Every Day I knew I had this premise of a person who woke up every morning in a different body in a different life. I knew that the questions I was going to attempt to answer were a) What would it be like to be a person not defined by their body…no gender, no race, no parents no friends; just who you are is exactly who you are? On the flip side, what would it be like to fall in love with someone who changed every day, basically, could love conquer all? Those were the questions I had no idea what the answers were. That was the journey."
Levithan might be one of the few people with both a very successful day job and an equally successful second career. "Mostly for me it’s really easy. I basically spend the week on other people’s words and the weekends on my own. Or I’ll take a week off and go to somebody’s house and sit at their kitchen table and write but I do have to actually clearly delineate the time. I can’t work on somebody’s book during the day, come home at night, have dinner and pull out my book and work on it. I’m usually sick of words by that point and I just want to keep everything separate.
"I write best in the morning so usually I can get up at like 7 on Saturday and start writing and by the time afternoon comes around I’m done so I can go out with friends at night.
"I do the old writers trick of always stopping one step before I run out. If I see the story going to a certain point, I will stop short of that point so I basically have a runway when I pick it back up again. So there’s always something to be written and usually once I get started I can write more. I definitely think about what I’m going to write during the week, either consciously or not so that usually when I sit down something’s there. I also enjoy it, which is a rarity among some of my friends. I love sitting down to find out what the story is. I don’t outline. I just do it to find out what the characters are going to do."