Whether on a book tour or in the pages of a novel, John Corey Whaley’s métier is building connections. So when he had a “complete anxiety breakdown” during the tour for his second young adult novel, Noggin (2014), Whaley knew it was time to write about a subject that he’d wanted to address for a long time: mental illness and his own experience with chronic anxiety.
“I have the opportunity in my writing to explore this thing about myself that I ignored for a decade, to understand my own anxiety more and help people understand it,” says 32-year-old Whaley (who goes by Corey) in a call to his Southern California home. “It’s also about just being ready to tell my readers this isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s something you can figure out a way to survive with.”
In Whaley’s third novel, Highly Illogical Behavior, 16-year-old Solomon’s world is bounded by the walls of his house. He’s agoraphobic and has been living indoors since middle school, when his anxiety and panic attacks culminated in his submerging himself in a fountain in front of his school.
Sol doesn’t see his current reality—taking classes online, limiting his exposure to stressors, relying on his supportive and kind parents—as anything negative or even unusual. After all, he reasons, “All he was doing was living instead of dying. Some people get cancer. Some people get crazy. Nobody tries to take the chemo away.”
If you’re Lisa Praytor, though, you try to leverage Sol’s life into material for your college essay. Lisa desperately wants to escape Upland, California, and she views Sol as her ticket out: cure him, write an essay about it, get into college, get out of town. She knows it’s an unethical plan at best, so she doesn’t share the details with her boyfriend, Clark, right away. What could go wrong, anyway?
Of course things go wrong, but in a way that’s nuanced and affecting. For one thing, Sol is aware that he’s not like his peers, but he also accepts himself in a way that’s refreshing and appealing. He’s initially skeptical about Lisa and Clark but is open to beginning a friendship. And he’s kind to and respectful of his grandma and parents, who offer him unstinting support and frank conversations.
“There are lots of bad parents in YA, so it’s important for me to show that there are good parents that exist,” says Whaley, who considers himself lucky for his own parental lot. “Any writer is still going from those original sources of pain or inspiration or even love.”
Whaley’s debut novel, Where Things Come Back, was a 2012 Printz Award winner, and Time magazine named it one of the Best YA Books of All Time. His second book, Noggin, was a National Book Award finalist, and he’s the first YA author named to the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” list. Despite his success, Whaley isn’t quite accustomed to his life as an author.
“It’s so strange and surreal, still,” he says. “My third book’s about to come out, but it still feels like it’s 10 years ago: I’m just out of college in Louisiana, and I’m going to be a schoolteacher for five years. Half my brain is still back there because it’s all happened so fast. It’s overwhelming.”
Although Whaley says he “hated being a teacher,” those five years of teaching sixth- through 12th-graders gave him as much confidence for touring as it did fodder for writing. He immensely enjoys visiting bookstores, industry conventions and schools, where “I get to do my favorite part of being a teacher—talking [to students] about their lives, stories, the world, with no expectations attached. . . . It’s very powerful and meaningful to get to interact with teenagers. Their stories are the way I still try to understand the world.”
That translates nicely to Highly Illogical Behavior: Sol, Lisa and Clark spend lots of time sitting and talking or playing games, but connections grow, issues are gradually faced, and ultimately, motivations and deeper feelings are revealed, from Lisa’s need for escape (and its parallels to Sol’s situation) to what it means—and what it takes—to love someone. These revelations are sometimes explosive, sometimes much quieter, but their discussions always feel true and real, whether it’s some dawning comprehension or the details of a particular “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode.
Whaley, a “Star Trek” fan since childhood, notes, “Art inspires art, and things like pop culture references or board games can seem silly on the surface, but they’re things people find solace in, and comfort and connection.”
That’s just one of the many ways that Whaley creates connections—sometimes straightforward, sometimes complex, always worthwhile—in Highly Illogical Behavior. And as we learn from Lisa, Clark and Sol, reaching out is all it takes.
“We’re all so much alike,” Whaley says. “You can forget that when you start growing up, but [many teenagers] have so much more clarity of thought than a lot of adults I know, if you just have a conversation with them.”