YA authors John Corey Whaley, Sabaa Tahir, Jennifer Niven, and David Arnold dished about their research techniques, thoughts on social media, and preference for plotting vs. “pantsing” (as in writing by the seat of their pants) during a Q&A held at the Book Stall in Winnetka, Ill., on Friday night, May 13.
Niven also shared some big news: this fall, shooting will begin on the movie version of her 2014 novel All the Bright Places, probably in Illinois. Elle Fanning will star as Violet Markey, who meets a boy who asks, “Is today a good day to die?” Niven, who also penned the screenplay, said, “I pictured Elle when I was writing Violet’s character.”
She wasn’t the only one with a film in the works. Tahir said she had just talked to the screenwriters who are working on the script for the Paramount movie version of her first novel, An Ember in the Ashes. “I’m very excited,” she said. “They’ve been very cool.” (In August, Razorbill will publish the Ember sequel, A Torch Against the Night.)
Moderator Jeff Giles, a former editor at Entertainment Weekly and author of The Edge of Everything (Bloomsbury, Jan. 2017), kept the questions unpredictable and the discussion lively.
How did the panelists feel about social media? Good, actually. “It is more awesome than it is overwhelming,” said Mosquitoland author Arnold, whose novel Kids of Appetite (Viking) will come out in September. (He, Niven, and Tahir wore KOA wristbands.)
“I love that every single day, you can have some new insight from a total stranger,” said Whaley, who grew up in Springhill, La., on the Arkansas state line. “I never met an author until I was a published author.” (Last week Whaley, a former teacher who won the 2012 Printz Award for Where Things Come Back, released Highly Illogical Behavior, starring a 16-year-old who hasn’t left his house for three years.) Niven, too, praised the power of social media. “It really keeps you in touch with the people you’re writing for,” she said.
The authors also recalled their childhoods, with Tahir noting that she was a “bookworm” who would sneak into the bathroom at night and turn on the light to read. Niven, the only child of author Penelope Niven (Carl Sandburg: A Biography), grew up with books everywhere. “She would sit at her desk, and I would sit at my little desk next to hers,” she said. (Penelope Niven died in 2014. She wrote four other books and co-wrote the 1993 autobiography of James Earl Jones.)
Arnold discovered Maurice Sendak’s Pierre when he was five or six, and then moved on to the Hardy Boys and Jurassic Park, which he loved so much that he sat at his father’s computer and started typing out all the words.
Whaley confessed to being “the opposite of a bookworm.” Instead, he fell in love with storytelling through TV and movies, he said.
The authors also said their amount and type of research depended on the story. For a character in Kids of Appetite, whose face is paralyzed because of Moebius syndrome, Arnold reached out to an association and connected with people with the condition. For her forthcoming Holding Up the Universe (Knopf, Oct.), Niven researched a character with prosopagnosia, or face blindness. She got in touch with a research group and drew on what she knew from a cousin and uncle with the disorder.
For An Ember in the Ashes, Tahir interviewed “modern-day warriors” like an FBI agent. For A Torch Against the Night, she researched inmates and read a human-rights report on prisons in Syria.
Whaley said he learned a lot about woodpeckers for Where Things Come Back. For Noggin, about a 16-year-old who died of leukemia and becomes part of a medical experiment that involves freezing his head, he researched cryogenics.
As for their writing process, the authors joked about plotting vs. “pantsing.” With Mosquitoland, “I just pantsed my way through it,” said Arnold. “A lot of that was me not knowing where I was going.” With Kids of Appetite, he needed an outline.
“Every book wants to be written differently,” said Niven. Before she wrote All the Bright Places, she was dealing with the death of her agent of 15 years and was feeling tired and wanting to take a break. “You need to write,” her fiancé told her.
“They usually start out without a very structured plan,” said Whaley of his novels; he later added that he sometimes writes standing up in the kitchen or lying down on the couch.
As for neat vs. messy desks, tidy seemed to win. Tahir puts a “lucky rock” from her son and some organic chocolate on her desk, which looks “shabby chic” because she left it outside.
To help out future writers in the audience, Giles also asked the authors, “Who should they fall in love with?”
“A patient person,” said Niven, who said she told her fiancé, “I don’t clean, I don’t cook, and I work all the time.”
Whaley’s boyfriend is a musician who also works in theater, he said. “We both tell stories in very different ways.”
As for Tahir, she recommended “someone who believes in you... That is the only thing I really needed from my husband.”
The authors also bantered about favorite words (Niven likes “sunshine,” and Whaley likes “defenestration”) and about TV shows (Niven loves Supernatural, about two demon-hunting brothers).
After the panel discussion, the authors – celebrities to their self-described “author-struck” fans – signed books.