Literary agent-turned-author Jandy Nelson follows her critically acclaimed debut, The Sky Is Everywhere with I’ll Give You the Sun (Dial, Sept.), a tale of tragic misunderstandings, betrayal, love, and loss, told from the alternating perspectives of a brother and sister – teenage twins named Noah and Jude. PW spoke with Nelson from her home in San Francisco.
You’re not a twin yourself, are you?
No, but I have always wanted to be. I’m just interested in siblings in general, and I’m really close with my own siblings. We get along fine.
Where did the idea for the story come from?
These characters – Jude and Noah – pretty much crash-landed in my brain, almost fully formed. They brought with them this tragedy and their “first love” stories. Guillermo, too [a sculptor who becomes Jude’s mentor] just showed up. All of that was there, right at the beginning. The challenge became how to tell their really complicated story, because there is a lot going on between and among all these characters.
Was it always a story about art?
Well, I have had this longstanding interest in going back to school to get a PhD in art history. I was especially interested in exploring this idea of the “ecstatic impulse” in an artist. Noah experiences it – his visual sensibility transports, delights, and sometimes even overwhelms him. It rockets him right out of his skin at times.
You must really like going to school. Don’t you have multiple degrees already?
It’s true: A B.A. from Cornell [in comparative literature], an MFA in poetry from Brown, and another MFA from Vermont College, which is a low-residency program. I was still working full-time as an agent when I did that. But I do have a tendency to want to go back to school at all times in my life. Maybe I’ll do the PhD in art history when I’m 50, or maybe divinity school. I like teaching, too.
Both of your books are set in California, and you now live in San Francisco. Are you a native?
I was actually born in New York, and spent some of my childhood in Boston. But my family moved to San Diego when I was 12 and I went to high school here. Right after college, I drove west with some friends and we stopped when we could drive no longer. That was 27 years ago, and I am still madly in love with Northern California. I feel like it’s a kind of mythical place.
Does Lost Cove, the town in which I’ll Give You the Sun is set, actually exist? Is it a model for some real place?
The towns in both my novels are not real towns but they are almost as important as the characters to me. They each have an almost magical quality that I hope is reflective of the emotional life of the characters. In my mind, I picture Lost Cove as being about an hour north of San Francisco, but it’s a totally made-up town. That way I can make the landscape even more dramatic than it actually is, like the fog in Sun which can get so thick people disappear into it or need to use leashes so they don’t lose their children.
Talk about how you came to write novels rather than sell them to editors. Are you still working as a literary agent?
No, I’ve been on sabbatical for years. It has been an incredible experience to make the transition. I often have to pinch myself to remind myself that this is happening to me. I mean, I loved being an agent and having the opportunity to champion the work of great writers, but getting your own deal is even sweeter.
When you worked as an agent did you represent a lot of YA authors?
None. I handled literary fiction and narrative non-fiction.
Wow. So where did the idea to write YA come from?
It’s a little odd but I became obsessed with picture books. I’d go into a bookstore and find myself drawn to the area with the picture books. I made up my mind that I wanted to write picture books. I have written poetry my whole life – I never even thought about writing fiction. But to satisfy this picture book itch, I enrolled in Vermont College’s MFA course on writing for children. The first night I was there, I read some of my poetry aloud because that’s what I write and [Philomel executive editor] Jill Santopolo said, ‘You should write a verse novel.’ A verse novel. Even though novels have been written in verse since the time of Homer, I had never considered this.
So did you start a verse novel?
What I did first was start reading YA verse novels, and then I read some YA prose novels – Weetzie Bat, Looking for Alaska, Speak – and I just flipped out. As an agent, you’re always looking for voice-driven fiction and I was floored. How did I not know about this? So although I started writing my first novel [The Sky Is Everywhere, 2010] in verse, I realized after about two weeks that the main character, Lennie, would write poems and leave them all around town, but I was going to have to write the bulk of the novel in prose. I almost had a frickin’ heart attack.
But you did it!
Well, my first mentor at Vermont College was Deb Wiles and she held my hand and told me I could do it. She was amazing and that semester with her changed everything. I thought I was going there to learn how to write picture books but I came out with a novel. Two novels, actually. In a lot of ways, I wound up writing Sun instead of getting the PhD in art history. It explores the ideas that I was interested in going to school for and it was much cheaper. I had to do a lot of research for this novel and one of the things I did was take a sculpting class. I had this idea that sculpting was all Michelangelo, all tap-tap-tapping, and I was so wrong. It’s totally butch and badass. The class was held outside and there were power drills and electric saws and gas masks. It gave me tons of insight into Jude and Guillermo, and how sculptors are looking for the art that is trapped in the stone. That became a metaphor for the novel – the need to break free. Find the angel in the marble and set it free.
Are you as superstitious as Jude is? Do you rely on a bible of folk charms like the one she’s inherited from her grandmother?
I am insanely superstitious. All the woman in my family are, beginning with my grandmother who would leave red ribbons under the beds and taught us how to find four-leaf clovers. I’m also a hypochondriac, as Jude is.
Any little-known remedies for preventing writer’s block? What’s your process?
The Sky Is Everywhere I wrote like a normal person, but for this book I wrote the entire thing in a pitch-black room with earplugs in. The only available light was the light coming from the computer screen. The UPS guy would ring the doorbell and I’d appear with these huge eyes. He probably though I was a mole. This went on for more than three years.
Was the idea to eliminate distractions?
Probably. I’m not sure. Really, I have no idea, but it worked. I was able to completely block out my life and that allowed me to get so deep into Jude or Noah’s point of view and make sure each voice was completely distinct. I wrote Noah’s story, start to finish, and then Jude’s story, start to finish, without referring back to Noah’s. I actually locked Noah’s file so I wouldn’t go in it. There was something about being in that dark room like a lunatic, not letting my world in at all, that allowed me to stay in their story.
Interesting method for a book with the word “sun” in the title, and with such a cheery cover.
Oh, the cover. You know, it’s always scary when you open that file and see your cover for the first time, but I literally jumped out of my chair. It was like I had won the cover lottery.
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. Dial, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-8037-3496-8