Photo by Jake Hamilton
July 2, 2009
He’s only 36.
Yet Short Hills native David Levithan hasn’t just written 11 young adult novels, contributed to 11 anthologies, and appeared in a cameo in a film based on one of those novels (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist).
He’s also executive editorial director at Scholastic Press — the publishing powerhouse that brought Harry Potter to the United States — where this literary dynamo edits fiction, oversees the house’s ambitious charge into multimedia projects, and manages his own young adult imprint, PUSH.
And Levithan gets it all done while still getting six to seven hours of sleep a night — with no plans to give up any of it — of course.
“I love editing just as much, if not more than writing,” Levithan says, speaking by telephone from his office in New York City. “I started as an editor. Becoming a novelist was an offshoot.”
This energetic author-editor spends his workweek on “others’ words” and his weekends on “my words,” cranking them out in an “unglamorous way,” he quips, “at a desk a full foot from my bed.”
Children’s publishing was never exactly an aspiration for Levithan, but the Hoboken resident has always been drawn to words.
“I grew up in a very Jewish book culture, with books always talked about, not just in conversations, but in rabbis’ sermons too, with everybody reading all the time,” he says.
Levithan worked on both his high school and college newspapers, graduating from Millburn High School in 1990 and Brown University in 1994, where he majored in English and political science.
His parents, Beth and Allen Levithan, still belong to Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, where Levithan became a bar mitzva. Beth Levithan is a past president of NJJN’s board of trustees.
A serendipitous visit to the career services library when he was 19 led to an internship at Scholastic — and that’s where Levithan has been ever since.
That first summer Levithan worked on the bestselling Babysitters Club series — and because his boss’ assistant had recently left, he did meatier work than most interns, from providing cover copy to plotting some of the franchise’s titles.
A clear mannequin while on a stroll in Union Square captures Levithan’s imagination.
Photos by David Levithan
“It’s not always easy to strike a balance,” he says of his double life as author and editor. “But if I’m stuck only with my words, I feel incomplete.”
Besides, it turns out having a hand in both fields is an unexpected asset to two occupations.
“As a writer, I know what my editor is going through much more, and as an editor, I know what my writers are going through much more,” he says. “I like to say I always knew what it was like on the other side, but living through it has been an immeasurable help.”
Levithan has achieved one of the most coveted milestones on the literary wish list of modern authors — a major feature film adaptation of one of his books. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, co-written with Rachel Cohn in 2006, was brought to the silver screen in a 2008 film starring Michael Cera and Kat Dennings.
“We were very, very nervous,” Levithan says. “Every author worries when his book is translated into another medium that its spirit will be lost.”
Happily, however, “We were really, really happy with the results. We loved it.”
So much so, in fact, that he and Cohn were outright scolded for their noisily expressed enthusiasm right after viewing the movie.
“We were in the screening room at Sony, and at the end of the movie, we both turned to each other and said, ‘Wow!’ Then, later in the lobby, we were talking to our film agent on speaker phone, and we were cheering and laughing and crying, and a guard came over and told us we were being loud and disruptive,” Levithan remembers with a laugh. “And I thought, well, that’s a good sign, we were so excited about the movie that we made too much noise!”
Sweetening the deal was a chance for the two authors to appear in cameos. The film was shot in New York City.
“We’d always joked with each other that if there was ever a movie we’d play the ‘older couple’ sitting behind the main characters in the diner scene, because the story has no other adult characters,” Levithan says. “And that’s exactly what happened!”
There was a slight glitch. “I was scheduled to go on vacation, but the filming had been moved up unexpectedly, and I got a call telling me I needed to be on the set the next day,” says Levithan.
Levithan cancelled the vacation and showed up for his close-up.
“We started filming at 5 p.m., because it’s a night scene, and didn’t finish till 5 a.m.,” he says.
Levithan’s parents also visited the set. “We got up and walked past the main characters — that was the ending of our scene — and we heard them speaking the dialogue that we’d written as we left; then I saw my mother wearing head phones, listening to everything, and I thought, ‘This is one of the happiest moments of my life! This is as good as life gets!’ I mean, from a family point of view, a creative one, a literary one — all at the same time.”
Levithan’s latest novel for teens, Love is the Higher Law, is scheduled to be published in August by Knopf Books for Young Readers.
A production still from Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Entertainment
It takes this prolific writer anywhere from six months to 11 years to complete a book.
(In the case of the 11 years, Levithan shaped a short story on and off into a book-length work that eventually became Are We There Yet?, his third book.)
“It wasn’t continuous work, but I definitely needed that amount of time for it to become what it became,” he says.
Levithan typically writes between one and two drafts, editing as he goes along, with his hard-driving “inner editor” guiding the process.
Yet he counts himself among many publishing professionals who believe ground-breaking changes in technology will transform the venerable book industry known for its long-established — and perhaps outdated — business practices.
“We’re redefining reading to include on-the-screen just as well as pages,” he says, foretelling that “books on printed paper between bound covers won’t exist in 10 years.”
“There will always be books — they won’t be obsolete, they’ll be very desirable — but, if not the majority, then a significant number of people will use handheld devices that simulate books,” he says.
The game changer, according to Levithan, will be a built-in accessory — a “reader” — on devices that people already use now – cells, iPhones, BlackBerries – instead of a separate reading device, such as Amazon’s highly popular Kindle.
“I have my own biases — I prefer a paper book personally — both as an author and a publisher,” Levithan says. “But we’re story providers — whether it’s on paper or a screen — in the mind it’s the same. We’re still providing a story.”
The digitization of books will require an entirely new cost model for the publishing industry — one expected to be much less expensive.
“It’s revolutionary,” Levithan says. “Environmentally, it will make a huge difference. Shipping will be lessened. And, access, especially in areas that are not hospitable, like my books, like gay books, or those that have the kind of words that are in Nick and Norah, will be virtually fulfilled, and that’s really exciting.”
Levithan should know. In 2002, Scholastic’s teen imprint and Levithan’s baby, PUSH, which does edgier material than Scholastic had heretofore published, released debut fiction about, among other things, self-mutilation (Patricia McCormack’s Cut), acid trips (Brian James’s Pure Sunshine), and growing up homeless in the Bronx (Coe Booth’s Tyrell).
PUSH gave Scholastic access to a demographic, 13- to 18-year-olds, that it hadn’t been reaching. In addition to all his regular editing duties, Levithan is heavily involved in Scholastic’s ambitious multimedia project, The 39 Clues, a 10-book series that launched in September 2008.
Levithan’s career as an editor took a giant leap forward on the same day — February 8, 2002 — he officially started his second life as an author. After a friend passed along his manuscript to Knopf — the manuscript became Boy Meets Boy — Levithan got a call during the launch party for PUSH telling him Knopf was taking him on.
Levithan snaps a photo a day, including this one of actress Kat Dennings on the set of Nick and Norah.
Photos by David Levithan
“It was funny, because I didn’t want to tell anyone at the PUSH event; the day belonged to my authors,” he’s quoted as saying in a Feb. 18, 2008 article in Publishers Weekly. “I didn’t wanna be like, ‘Hey, guys, I got a book deal too.’”
It’s not surprising, given his schedule, that Levithan’s life revolves around “reading, writing, sleeping, and taking a photo a day.”
That last interest, an intriguing hobby, is a type of journaling activity that Levithan has pursued for almost eight years. He literally takes a picture a day, chronicling everything from plants to people. (Two of his photos are featured here.)
What else can we tell you about this multitalented, down-to-earth novelist, editor, and documentarian?
Whether exploring Jewish identity, as in Nick and Norah or his sixth book, Wide Awake, or doesn’t feature a Jewish theme at all, Levithan’s humble, unassuming, and overall goal is to “fit comfortably in Jewish American literature.”
And his favorite food is pizza. (“I could eat it every day.”)