Clearly author Jennifer Niven likes to mix things up: her books include a series of historical novels set before, during, and after World War II; a memoir; and an account of a disastrous 1913 scientific expedition to the Arctic. Now she’s written All the Bright Places, the story of high school seniors Finch and Violet. It tackles heavy topics such as depression and suicide, but also romance and the many unsung wonders of the state of Indiana. Niven spoke with PW from her home in Los Angeles about her personal connection to the story and how she came to tackle yet another genre: YA.
You’ve written adult fiction, nonfiction, a memoir, and now this, your YA debut. What made you want to write YA, and does it feel different from the other kinds of writing you’ve done?
I’ve always loved reading YA and for years I thought it would be wonderful to write a YA someday. I’ve dabbled in different genres, and all the while I was thinking about doing a YA. And last year when I was thinking about my next book – I’d come out of writing a series, so for the last five or six years, I hadn’t been able to think about what I would really love to do next – I kept thinking about YA, and when I thought about this particular story I thought it belonged there. Years ago I knew and loved a boy who in many ways reminded me of Finch, and I’d always thought about that experience and knew that I wanted to write something about it. It was so personal and so close that I didn’t know if I would be able to, but I really wanted to write something I was passionate about, so I said, “Let me see if can do this.”
In All the Bright Places, Finch has an undiagnosed mental illness: why did you write him this way?
It was connected to the person I knew, and other people I’ve known who have battled either undiagnosed or diagnosed mental illness, and seeing the everyday struggle it takes for them just to be in the world sometimes. I knew that Finch would have undiagnosed bipolar – undiagnosed because a lot of teens don’t get diagnosed until they’re much older. So many people brush it aside as the typical teen moodiness and “just being a teenager.”
I did a lot of research and also spoke to people about their own experiences, but the thing that really gave me the most insight was knowing that particular person and seeing up close over a period of time all the ups and downs, the frustrations and disappointments and heartache, and the highs as well.
As Violet and Finch work on a geography project, they visit many of the “wonders” of Indiana. Was it important to you to depict places that readers may not know much about?
I grew up in Indiana, and my attitude when I was there was very much like Violet’s; I just could not wait to get out. But I think in retrospect that it was a really lovely place to grow up in a lot of ways, and I‘m glad I had that experience. That aspect of the book is kind of my begrudging homage to the place I grew up. And all of the places Finch and Violet visit are real, except for the bookmobiles.
Your memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries, is set in a large high school in a small Indiana town. Was writing a memoir relevant to writing a YA?
It’s kind of the closest I’ve come so far to writing a YA, although it’s very different in that it’s a very cheery, sunny little book. But it does talk about Indiana.
What made you want to write a memoir?
I was in Russia, in the high Siberian Arctic, and I met a high school girl who was our guide, and she was talking about what high school was like, and she was saying, “I wish that these girls weren’t so mean, and I wish that this boy knew I existed, and I really can’t wait to get out one day and go to the big city. I guess high school is very different where you come from.” I said, not really. So I started thinking about the universality of high school, and I thought, what if, and I had a reunion coming up....
I understand that you wrote All the Bright Places in just six weeks. How did that happen?
When I was starting to think about the book, I wanted to see if I could write something in a male voice, and I said to myself, just sit down and write a chapter and see what happens. Finch’s voice just came out, and I could see him, and it happened very quickly. I’m always a fast writer, but it took over and once I got started, I couldn’t stop. I was also writing out of necessity, because my wonderful literary agent, John Ware, had passed away unexpectedly and I was suddenly faced with finding a new agent. I couldn’t imagine finding another agent who would live up to John, both as an agent and as a person. He was a true champion of all my work, was wonderfully gruff, yet funny and brilliant, and he cared deeply about his clients.
In the aftermath of his death, I was approached by several agents and I approached others. In my query letter, I mentioned my idea for a young adult book. The response was immediate – they couldn't wait to read my book. Which didn’t exist! So I went to work. I wrote the first draft in six weeks, and shared my first 50 pages with the agents I was most interested in. One of these was Kerry Sparks of the Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. I did a round of phone calls with agents, and Kerry was the last one I spoke with. Before I talked with her, I was wondering how I would decide because they all seemed great, but the moment Kerry and I got on the phone, I just knew.
In the book, Violet starts a web magazine for high school girls called Germ, and now Germ exists in real life. Can you tell us about it?
As I was going through one of the edits of the book, I thought, what if there was a real Germ? We launched it last year, and now we have a staff of 45. Everyone’s a volunteer, mostly between the ages of 14 and 25 or 26, and they’re amazing. Germ deals with a lot of issues, like one of our staff members wrote a very honest piece about what it was like to go to an outpatient facility. We do a lot of opinion pieces and news features, and we have a literary component. We’ve received submissions from all over, from India, and China, and Europe. It’s wonderful seeing the talent that’s out there.
Your mother was a writer, and you’ve said she was a big influence on you. What did she teach you?
My mother has been the major influence in my life, in all ways, not just writing. When I was little, we would have writing time. My mom would write at her big desk, and I would write at my little one, and she taught me to find the story in everything. Without her I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. She passed away in August, and as I put words on paper, I feel like I’m still that little girl writing, and I wouldn’t be here without her. Writing’s always been an outlet for me, a wonderful cathartic outlet, and now in the wake of my mom’s death – the writing, it saves you.
All the Bright Places has been sold to the movies; will you be involved in the film version?
Like a lot of authors, I always cast my books as I write, and the person I always saw as Violet was Elle Fanning, and so that fact that she’s been cast to play Violet is so exciting. I’m thrilled. I have a happy relationship with the producers and they’ve been nothing but welcoming. I told them I wanted to be as involved as I can be without getting in their way, and they said that sounded perfect. I’m not adapting it; everyone would prefer to have a big-name screenwriter, and I’m all for that.
Aside from it being a good read, is there anything you hope this book will do?
I’m hoping the book will be a good read, but I’m also hoping that it will get people talking about these issues. There’s such a difference between losing someone to suicide and to cancer in terms of the reaction you get, and I think that stigma has kept people from talking about it. I think there’s kind of a mentality that if we don’t talk about it, it won’t exist. And as we know, that just doesn’t happen. If people feel like there’s help out there and know that they’re not alone, that will be such a good thing.
The response from teens has been enthusiastic: they’ve thanked me for not dumbing it down, and they’ve confided that they identify with Finch. One girl wrote me and said, “I just finished your book and the first thing I did was give my mom a hug, and now I want to look for all the bright places and really appreciate the things and the people around me.”
One of the best things that’s happened is that early readers have been sending me their “bright places” or posting them on Twitter or Instagram, a picture of a place or a word or something that they love. Random House started doing it for the All the Bright Places Tumblr, and it’s so nice to see that, because, as we know, the world is too hard.
Do you have any other books for teens in the works?
What I can tell you about my next book is that it’s about a boy who can’t recognize faces and a girl who is very visible but feels very invisible. It’s told from alternating points of view.
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. Knopf, $17.99 Jan. 2015 ISBN 978-0-385-75588-0