Jeff Zentner is the author of the New York Times Notable books The Serpent King and In the Wild Light. He is also a winner of the ALA’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry, Brittany Cavallaro is the author of A Study in Charlotte and the Charlotte Holmes novels. We asked the duo to discuss their new YA novel in verse, Sunrise Nights, about two teens who meet on the final night of sleepaway camp and form a powerful connection.

Brittany Cavallaro: Jeff, I’m so excited to be talking with you about Sunrise Nights. Can you kick us off by describing what the book is about?

Jeff Zentner: Sure thing, Brittany! Sunrise Nights is a young adult novel in verse and conversation. It’s about Florence, a dancer, and Jude, a photographer, who meet on the final night of Harbor Arts Camp, a sleepaway arts camp in the fictional lakeshore Michigan town of Harbor City. The final night is called Sunrise Night because the kids get to stay out all night (with occasional check-ins) and watch the sunrise together. Florence and Jude meet by chance at the kick-off bonfire and make a spontaneous decision to go explore the town together. They end up talking all night and forging a deep connection. They have such a good time, in fact, that they decide not to stay in contact at all during that next year and instead meet up at the next Sunrise Night. You’ll see why. That’s what the rest of the book is about—the connection these two young and hungry artists make with each other and how that evolves and deepens over the years. And yes, it is a tribute to the Before Sunrise film trilogy.

Cavallaro: We came up with the idea of writing a novel in verse together when you were working on your last young adult novel, In the Wild Light. That book (which I love) is about a boy who goes off to boarding school and discovers that he loves poetry. You knew that I teach poetry at a boarding school, Interlochen Arts Academy, and came out for a few days to sit in on my writing workshop. I had so much fun talking about poetry with you, and swapping our favorite poems by our favorite poets—it felt really natural to decide to write a novel in verse together. And then, since we’re both obsessed with dialogue, that snuck in too.

Zentner: I’m so glad you came up with the idea of cowriting a novel in verse, because I never would have presumed to approach you. You’re a serious poet, with an MFA (and PhD) in poetry and multiple published books of poetry. I’m... a big faker. But hey, sometimes you fake your way into a really cool situation, which is what I did.

One of my favorite parts of this cowrite was slowly getting to know Florence, one of my favorite characters I’ve ever read. Can you talk a little bit about who Florence is and what influenced some of the most important aspects of her character and struggle?

Cavallaro: I loved writing Florence. She’s a serious dancer who’s dealing with a degenerative eye condition that’s robbing her of her balance. I have that same condition, and I wanted to explore the unsteadiness—literal and emotional—that comes along with it in a way that felt very visual. Florence knows she’s a great dancer, and she knows she could lose that part of herself at any point; she’s ambitious and prickly and vulnerable and proud. She’s worried about being Too Much for other people. When she meets Jude, a lot of that has come to the surface for her—and it’s with Jude that she begins to work it out, that she finds her counterpoint in another person.

What was it like writing Jude?

Zentner: I loved writing him. Jude, like all my characters, has a piece of me in him. I have a deep love for summer youth arts camps. In fact, the whole reason I write books for young adults comes from my time as a volunteer at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp and Southern Girls Rock Camp, which made me want to make art for young adults. There’s a real magic that happens when you get smart, sensitive artist kids all together in one place and let them create together. I very much identify with Jude’s fascination with the natural world and how he uses photography to preserve beautiful moments. I also identify with Jude’s struggle with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder and how the act of creation helps him manage them. Oh, and I made Jude hail from Dickson, Tennessee, because I love that town.

But speaking of things we share in common with our characters, we didn’t know when we started that there was a real-life love story that would attend the writing of this book. Do you want to talk about that?

Cavallaro: Yes, I love this story! As we were writing Sunrise Nights, I was falling in love with my now-husband. We got married a few summers ago, and Jeff was one of my “best dudes” at the wedding. Right after the ceremony we got the notification that Sunrise Nights had been picked up by our wonderful imprint Quill Tree—lots of reasons to celebrate that night! I had such a blast writing this with you, Jeff, and I can’t wait for it to come out into the world.

Zentner: We hope you’ll read Sunrise Nights and be able to sense the glowing love we felt for this story and these characters. We wanted it to read like one of those hazy, firefly-lit summer nights when you’re young, but on the cusp of adulthood, and everything feels endless and full of possibility, when you connect with someone and it seems like the entire universe turned on its axis to make it happen.

Sunrise Nights by Jeff Zentner and Brittany Cavallaro. Quill Tree, $19.99 July 9 ISBN 978-0-06-332453-4