Talking Coincidences, Writing, And Her Latest Book With YA Author Jandy Nelson

There is voltage in this work. That’s what really turned me on to YA fiction.
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There is voltage in this work. That’s what really turned me on to YA fiction.

One of the best parts of my job is, no lie, getting to talk to authors I love, and I wish I could do it more often. Every time I pick up the phone for an interview, I never know quite what to expect -- and for authors on publicity tours dealing with multiple interviews a day while trying to manage their lives, I imagine the experience gets a little dull. I try to have a little fun with the authors I chat with, asking them questions that are a little off the beaten path, but Jandy Nelson ("The Sky Is Everywhere") totally took me by surprise when I rang her up to talk about her life, writing, and her new book, "I'll Give You the Sun."

"Are you in Sonoma?" she asked, as soon as we'd finished the awkward greeting phase of the call. 

"Uh, no, I'm in Fort Bragg," I said. 

"Oh my gosh, I LOVE Fort Bragg," she gushed. "It's so beautiful up there!" 

Over the course of the next few minutes, we established that she was intimately familiar with local geography, had spent time writing up here, and wanted to live here eventually -- and also that she was totally jealous of me for getting to live here. The strange snarl of coincidences that entangled us didn't stop there -- she'd recently spent three months living in the same tiny town my grandparents do, she lives in San Francisco (right across the Bay from my Oakland home), and "Every single time my plane lands in Northern California, I get this really crazy kind of heart-bursting joy."

I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels that when my plane touches down. Every time those wheels hit the tarmac, my heart swells. 

Photo: Craig Line/Courtesy Penguin

Photo: Craig Line/Courtesy Penguin

It was like it was meant to be, which is fascinating, since her books are all about not just the families we're born with, but the families we build, and how we come to call a place home. Both of her books are set in Northern California (a third upcoming novel will be set on and around a winery), and they incorporate a mixture of very real places -- for those who have read "The Sky Is Everywhere," the bed in the woods really does exist and it's actually quite near my own house! -- and magical realism to create a totally fascinating, larger than life world. 

Jandy herself is larger than life, so it makes sense that her books are that way, but she articulated the reason why quite beautifully when we started talking about the intensity and hyperbole of young adult fiction. 

"I’ve always been a huge fan of magical realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is kind of a god to me...I think that’s because that’s the way life is. We are in this very realistic world, but we’re also living in a world that we perceive. I perceive there being a lot of magic in the world, and that’s how I experience life…when I write about teenagers and being teenagers, it lends its way to that hyperbolic way of seeing. When you’re that age, everything is more urgent, and exciting, and terrible, and joyous, all at once. For me, the emotional life of the characters is kind of suited for that way of writing."

She speaks to the intensity of being young, something older readers may sometimes forget: "Falling in love for the first time, experiencing loss for the first time, these are earthshaking events anyway, but for your first time experiencing them, it’s even more so."

And she has some thoughts on why so many adults are reading YA: "There is voltage in this work. That’s what really turned me on to YA fiction. It was alive. And also we know that more than half the people that buy YA are adults, and they’re reading it for some reason."

Photo Courtesy Penguin

Photo Courtesy Penguin

With years of experience as a literary agent before she started writing, and a late introduction to YA itself, she cut to the core of the radical renaissance happening in young adult fiction today, and how reading it opened up a whole new world for her.

I feel like because I hadn’t read YA until I was older, an adult – I read Judy Blume as a kid, and loved her, but there wasn’t this whole burgeoning, amazing culture – but when I first read YA novels, I went crazy. I could not believe how lively and exciting the voices of these novels were. As a literary agent, this is what I’d looked for. Every time I opened a query, I’d look at the first page of a query, looking for that voice. There was an urgency to the narration, and a propulsion, and I think that there’s incredibly literary work going on in YA, I really do.

Speaking with Nelson was particularly interesting because many of the YA authors I read and interview are young, in their 20s and 30s, which positions the genre as a young one, but Nelson didn't actually start writing fiction, let alone young adult literature, until she was 40. 

"I hadn’t even written a short story," she told me, explaining that her writing focus had always been on poetry before. "It just never occurred to me. It never occurred to me that this was something I would do. I came to writing fiction in this crazy circuitous route -- I got a masters in writing for children and young adults, because I was obsessed with picture books…but then I started writing 'The Sky is Everywhere.' I thought it was going to be all in verse, all Lenny’s poems….and then I realized I’d have to write it all in prose. I got tricked into it."

Yet, like many adults reading young adult fiction, she sees a great deal of universality in it, and not just in the sense that many of us are drawn to stories with dynamic narratives -- or in the sense that YA is just as diverse, complicated, and wonderful as adult fiction. One of her focuses as a writer is on families, especially siblings, something she didn't consciously notice until someone pointed it out. In both of her novels, communication and family dynamics play a key role in the narrative. 

Don't be fooled by this cozy reading spot. Nelson works in a cave: "The one everyone loves, because this is the truth, and it works: For whatever reason in the universe, I wrote this book in a completely pitch-black room, with ear plugs in and a sound machine on, for three years. The computer was like this portal, the only light in the room was the light coming from the computer screen…it allowed me to get so close to the characters, and so into the world. Now I’m addicted to it, now I’m not convinced I can write a novel outside of the dark chamber."
Photo Courtesy Jandy Nelson 

Don't be fooled by this cozy reading spot. Nelson works in a cave: "The one everyone loves, because this is the truth, and it works: For whatever reason in the universe, I wrote this book in a completely pitch-black room, with ear plugs in and a sound machine on, for three years. The computer was like this portal, the only light in the room was the light coming from the computer screen…it allowed me to get so close to the characters, and so into the world. Now I’m addicted to it, now I’m not convinced I can write a novel outside of the dark chamber."

Photo Courtesy Jandy Nelson 

"I really like writing about families," she explains. "I like writing about siblings, about all the familial ties. In general, families are very complicated. Communication within families is very complicated, especially when you’re young. These are issues most teenagers deal with. How to relate to their family members [in a total] pressure cooker environment...Families are just wonderful for stories. They’re just loaded and layered with love and complication and treachery and loyalty and joy and just everything." 

 Her themes of family also explore built and constructed families, and the worlds we create for ourselves through family connections. In the case of "I'll Give You the Sun," there's an important chosen family that I won't give away, but you'll know it when you see it -- and you'll see how Nelson's ideas of family, sense of place, and culture intersect to weave a really fascinating world. 

We got so caught up in a conversation about our own families -- her move from the East Coast and subsequent love for California, my experiences growing up on a small farm in Elk -- that I completely forgot to ask her my trademark question. Here's hoping Jandy can tell us in comments whether she prefers cake or pie! 

"I'll Give You the Sun" is out 16 September, and if you're impatient or your local book purveyor doesn't have it in stock, you might as well pick up "The Sky Is Everywhere" while you wait.