Interview: April 2012
Aaron Karo’s first young adult novel, LEXAPROS AND CONS, follows Chuck Taylor, who struggles as a social outcast due to his OCD habits. But as graduation approaches, he has one last chance to win back his best friend and, just maybe, the beautiful new girl at school. In this interview, conducted by Teenreads.com’s Norah Piehl, Karo shares the various things he has in common with Chuck. He also reaches into the depths of his memory to recall his favorite childhood book and reveals his noble reasons for writing in the YA genre.
Teenreads.com: LEXAPROS AND CONS is your first YA novel. What made you want to write for teens?
Aaron Karo: My three previous books were all nonfiction. I really wanted to move into fiction. But the market for male-focused adult fiction is pretty limited. I realized there was an entire world of YA that I had yet to explore and that was hungry for an awesome dude book.
So the short answer is: money.
TRC: Chuck, the hero of LEXAPROS AND CONS, has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Although much of the book is very funny, you take a pretty serious approach to this condition. Was it tough to balance the novel's tone?
AK: As a comedian, I have a lot of experience balancing the funny and the serious. It’s just in our DNA. I’m the guy cracking jokes at funerals. The way I balanced the novel’s tone was by not thinking about the tone or balancing it, and just writing what felt right. I have learned to trust my instincts.
TRC: Why did you choose OCD as the subject of your debut novel?
AK: It was the affliction that felt most personal to me and therefore I could get the most mileage out of.
TRC: What did you obsess about when you were a teenager? Did you feel like you could relate to Chuck's condition on some level?
AK: Well, Chuck Taylor is basically me. All of the OCD symptoms in the book I have suffered from at some point. I actually counted how often I masturbated for an entire year (luckily that was in ninth grade and I don’t do it anymore!). All of the stove checking and the obsession with hand sanitizer --- those are all things I do now.
TRC: Chuck gets very irritated when friends and acquaintances tell him they also have "a little OCD." Why does he get so angry about this?
AK: Actually being clinically OCD, like Chuck is, is a lot different from being really neat or anal, or being really picky about one particular thing. Chuck thinks it minimizes his condition when people say they have “a little OCD” because it’s really not the same thing. You’d never meet someone with cancer say, “Oh, I have a little cancer, too.”
TRC: What do you hope readers who have OCD or other mental illnesses take away from your novel?
AK: There is always someone weirder than you out there.
TRC: And on the other side, what do you hope that readers who know people who have OCD or other mental illnesses take away from your novel?
AK: To be honest, I’m not much of a crusader nor is LEXAPROS AND CONS “about” OCD as much as it’s simply a coming-of-age love story. Readers who know people with OCD might appreciate Chuck’s plight a bit more, but I just hope they laugh and enjoy the book.
TRC: Chuck's narrative voice is really, really funny, but it's also --- to put it bluntly --- pretty darn crude. Did you get any resistance from anyone along the way about the novel's explicit language and raunchy humor?
AK: Fu-- no. Let’s see if Teenreads caves and bleeps out that curse word ha ha!
The bottom line is that kids curse. Have you ever heard a group of teenagers talk? They are filthy. The book probably isn’t raunchy enough.
TRC: The romance plot, which is pretty traditional and really quite sweet and charming, is a pretty striking contrast to Chuck's vulgar guy-talk. What were you hoping to convey about teen guys in his complicated, sometimes almost contradictory, character?
AK: It’s not contradictory at all. Guys can be sweet and charming and also talk like guys. Teen guys can fall in love and have their minds in the gutter at the same time. In fact, most do.
TRC: At the end of the novel, Chuck has made a lot of progress, but he still has a ways to go. What would be your biggest hope for Chuck as he graduates from high school and starts his life away from Plainville?
AK: I hope he doesn’t fall back into his old habits. College can be a tough place for someone with OCD. At the same time, he’ll be exposed to all of his triggers on a daily basis. I think it will be terrifying and exciting for him.
TRC: You're best known as a stand-up comedian and humor columnist. Can you comment on how the process of writing a novel is different from your other comedic writing?
AK: I’m also a screenwriter. To me, writing a novel is not that much different from writing a movie script. In fact, I outlined LEXAPROS AND CONS as a movie first --- three-act structure, midpoint, plot points, the whole nine yards. I’ve always been platform agnostic when it comes to comedy. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a novel or a script or a stand-up act. They are all just templates for being funny.
TRC: What were your favorite books to read when you were a teenager? Did you read any contemporary YA as you were preparing to write LEXAPROS AND CONS?
AK: Wow, I just had to do a really in-depth Google search in order to remember the name of my favorite book when I was a kid. It’s YOU KNOW WHO by John Ciardi. It’s a poetry and picture book. I loved it. I’m sure I still have a copy somewhere.
Publishers sent me every contemporary YA under the sun when I was preparing to write LEXAPROS AND CONS. I didn’t read any of them. I don’t like to be influenced or accidentally copy someone else’s style. I like to figure it out myself.
TRC: What are you reading now?
AK: I happen to be writing this from my parents’ house where I grew up. Guess what? I found YOU KNOW WHO buried in my closet! So right now...I’m reading that.
TRC: What's next for you? Will we see more YA lit from Aaron Karo?
AK: That question just went into third-person for some reason! I hope there will be more YA lit from Aaron Karo, yes. He really enjoys writing it. As for what’s next for Aaron Karo, his third stand-up album, I Need to Tell You Something, comes out April 30th (INeedToTellYouSomething.com)