By MANDY TE
We recently reviewed Holding Up the Universe, the latest guaranteed bestseller by Jennifer Niven. She’s no doubt a busy lady, what with All the Bright Places about to be unleashed in movie form, but she kindly set aside some time to answer our questions. Read on for the full interview!
From writing All The Bright Places (which will soon be hitting the big screens – I personally can’t wait!) to recently releasing Holding Up The Universe… What has the experience been like?
At first, it was difficult to get into the minds of new characters, even though this story was also a personal one. Between working on All the Bright Places and touring with it, I’ve been living with Violet and Finch for the past three years. I especially had trouble with Jack, my male protagonist in Holding Up the Universe, because Finch kept getting in the way. I think he was being a bit territorial, actually.
I also got a bit intimidated because there’s inevitably this feeling of, “What if the new book doesn’t measure up? What if I let readers down?” Eventually, I had to push all of that aside—including Finch—and move into this new world of these new characters and this new story. The thing that helped most was creating playlists for Jack, Libby, and the book as a whole. It’s the first book I’ve written to music (usually the words of songs get in the way of the words I’m trying to write). Music allowed me to drop into the emotional world of Jack and Libby and stay there.
What inspired you to write Holding Up the Universe?
Three things: my teenage struggles with my weight. A conversation with my 15-year-old cousin who has prosopagnosia, or face blindness, which is a neurological condition that keeps him from recognising faces, even his own. My cousin finds the people he loves by remembering them by the important things, “like how many freckles they have and how nice they are.” That is really the theme of the book: seeing and being seen. The third thing that inspired me to write the book was hearing from readers all over the world that All the Bright Places showed them they aren’t alone. That they matter. I wanted to write a story to tell them, you are wanted.
You don’t seem to shy away from making your characters what could be considered “imperfect” – how important is it for you to create characters who are diverse and multifaceted?
Incredibly important. We live in a diverse world, and I want my characters to reflect that. I want readers everywhere to be able to see themselves on the pages. I don’t want to write perfect characters because those people don’t exist in real life. I want to write characters who are flawed, who are human. I want to show readers—teens especially—that it’s okay to not be perfect. It’s okay to be flawed. That doesn’t make you any less wonderful or special. That doesn’t make you any less loveable.
What was the experience like, when it came to developing Libby and Jack into the people they are?
Libby has a lot of me in her, and Jack began with someone I know who has prosopagnosia. But, as characters always do, they quickly became their own people. From the start, Libby inspired me. She was so bold and her voice was so strong. But I knew that it took a lot of work for her to get there because by the time we meet her, she’s already been through so much. She has anxiety. She’s been bullied by her peers and by the media. She’s lost the person she loves most in the world. But she’s a survivor.
I wrote the book in the wake of my mom’s death, and wrote so much of my own grief into Libby’s story. I gave her my wonderful, amazing mom. Jack was trickier. First and foremost, I knew he had to do a bad thing, a thing that was utterly horrible. But I needed my readers to not give up on him, to show that he could change and learn and grow from this terrible thing he does. That he could be redeemed.
What do you like most about Libby and Jack – both as individuals and as a couple?
I like that Libby is who she is, no matter what. I like that she’s grown into a thoughtful, strong, independent person, despite what she’s been through. I like that no one can stop her from dancing. I like that Jack loves his little brother. I like that he has a conscience. I like the way he grows in the book and learns who he is and what his real identifier is. I like his swagger. As a couple, I love that they are friends first, and that they overcome their differences—and this terrible thing Jack does to Libby—to see each other, really see each other. I love that Libby challenges him, that she doesn’t let him get away with things. I love that he sees her for who she is and not her weight, which is what she is used to being judged by. I think they’re two strong people on their own, and they don’t need anyone to validate who they are. But I love that they see each other in a way no one else does.
Once you’ve come up with a story plot or idea, what is the writing and research process like for you? Is it long and arduous or does it all seem to fall seamlessly into place? Or is it a bit of both!
It’s definitely a bit of both. To me, the hardest part of the process is creating the characters, the world they live in, and the story itself. Before I start writing, I want to know my characters as well as I can, and I know the general direction of my story. I always equate plotting a story to taking a road trip—I know where I’m starting, I know where I want to end up, and I know the overall route I’ll be taking to get there. But I also know the importance of leaving myself open to unexpected detours along the way. Once I begin the writing, I write really quickly. But I almost always have to do that lengthy prep work beforehand.
You’ve written books in a variety of genres. What do you like about writing young adult fiction in particular?
I love how brave and creative YA fiction is. I love that authors are tackling serious, sensitive topics that need to be tackled. We are starting discussions about mental health and other issues that are necessary. We are letting our readers know that they aren’t alone, that they matter, that they are seen.
Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Write. Read. Don’t be afraid to write garbage—you can go back and edit your words to make them shine. Write the story you want to read. And don’t ever doubt yourself or your work. My mom used to tell me, “There are enough people in this world who will tell you no. Don’t be one of them.”
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