-Sometimes real life has the most interesting and powerful stories. I first came across your work in 2001 when I read your non-fiction book for adults about Arctic exploration and the Karluk, and now I’ve just read your first fiction book for young adults, All the Bright Places, which is strongly influenced by some of your own personal history. Can you share with us a little bit about the interplay between real life and fiction in your writing career?
A story is a story, no matter the genre, but if there’s something additional that connects all of my work it’s that I love writing about ordinary people who battle the odds to do extraordinary things. Some are historical figures, some are fictional but based on real people, and others are inspired by people I know. I wrote All the Bright Places the summer of 2013, following the death of my literary agent of fifteen years. The last time I saw him, I was nearing the end of a series of books I’d begun writing in 2008 and was feeling depleted and ready—creatively— for something new and different. He told me, “Kid, whatever you write next, write it with all your heart. Write it because you can’t imagine writing anything else.” Years ago, I knew and loved a boy. The experience was life-changing. I’d always wanted to write about it—I just wasn’t convinced I would ever be able to. But that summer of 2013, I thought again about this boy and that experience, and I knew in my heart that it was the story I wanted to write and that I wanted to write it as YA.
-And continuing on from that, how writing non-fiction differs in terms of writing techniques, and how you stay true to real-life events and emotions even when you fictionalise them?
When I first made the transition from non-fiction to fiction, I was full of confidence. After all, I had written two strenuous non-fiction books. I created a detailed outline for my first novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive, just as I did with my non-fiction books. My mother was an author, and before I began the writing, she asked me how I was feeling about it. I said, “Oh great! I’ve got everything outlined and figured out and now I just have to write it.” She said, “Hmmm.” One week later, she asked how it was going. I said, “It’s terrible! The characters are taking off on their own, going where they want to go. The plot is changing daily. Nothing is doing what I thought it would. I’ve had to get rid of the outline completely.” She said, “Welcome to fiction.”
The fact that this story was personal and inspired by something that happened in my life made it at once easier and harder to write. For me, it’s not important to stay true to real-life events when I fictionalize them. If we’re talking about historical facts and settings, yes. But characters and story, no. What is important is that the emotion is authentic. A young writer asked me recently, “How did you write All the Bright Places without crying over it?” The answer is that I did cry while writing it, but I also knew that it was okay to cry because that meant I was tapping into all of the emotion that was going to help me write what I needed to write. As I told that young writer, and others like her, you need to be willing to let yourself cry, knowing that you will write your way through it, and knowing that you will have something on paper which is real and honest. More so than any of my previous books, All the Bright Places proved to me I could do that.
-Where do you think the boundaries are (if there are any) when writing for teenagers / young adults? How do you find the right tension between discussing issues that are of such importance, without seeming to “glamorise” them? As I read All the Bright Places, I found myself comparing it to Melvin Burgess’ Junk; I can imagine some gatekeepers of reading will be concerned about the content of your new book, even though, like Junk, I think your is full of compassion and creates a thoughtful space for understanding issues and circumstances which are often brushed under the carpet because they are difficult to talk about.
First, I love being compared in any way to Melvin Burgess! He’s one of my favorite young adult authors because he isn’t afraid to address the tougher issues head on. To me, the greatest challenge of writing for a YA audience is that there’s a terrific responsibility that comes with it. These aren’t jaded, world-weary adults you’re writing for—these are teens. You have a responsibility—especially when writing about sensitive issues like sex, bullying, mental health, suicide—to write as honestly and vigilantly as possible. In many ways, the teen audience is the most discerning. Just because they’re young doesn’t mean you should talk down to them. They can spot fakery a mile away, so the voice and the characters need to be authentic. One reviewer said, “I want to buy all the copies ever of this book and give them to all of my friends– my undergraduate peers in the psychology department, the friends and coworkers with mental illnesses, the friends and family who are survivors of death and suicide. I want them to see that it is possible to write and read a book that touches upon these subjects exactly how it’s experienced, and yet treats them with love and respect and dignity.” I like to think that’s what I’ve done here. Suicide is something we need to talk about. I hope All the Bright Places will help inspire discussions about teen mental health. We need to stop being afraid of talking about the hard stuff so that we can make people feel safe enough to come forward and say, “I have a problem. I need help.” If we don’t talk about suicide or depression or mental illness, how can we expect anyone to reach out for help when they need it most?
-What’s your ideal set up for a day of writing? Where do you work best? What helps you have a great day of writing?
I’m not a writer who can sit at Starbuck’s with her laptop and get anything done. I work best at my desk in my home office. My ideal day is one with no outside distraction—no phone calls, emails, messages, texts, as lovely as they can be. A morning workout, followed by a cup of hot tea at my desk. Just the computer and me, maybe a literary kitty or three. There is so much other book-and-author-related work to be done all the time that days like that are amazingly few and far between. But you truly cherish them when you get them.
-What are you working on now?
I’m working on my second YA novel now, which is an unconventional love story of a boy who can’t remember faces and a very visible girl who feels invisible. It’s about seeing, being seen, and learning to recognize what’s important. It’s about what makes us love someone.