Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Interview - Jandy Nelson (The Sky is Everywhere)

Jandy Nelson's debut novel, The Sky is Everywhere, is released in stores today. I have been very fortunate to interview Jandy about this book, one that really depicts grief in a way that I haven't read in YA before. It's a fantastic read (you can read more of my thoughts here) and is definitely a book to get your hands on.

How has being a literary agent informed your writing?
This is an interesting question. When I first read it, I thought to myself that while being an agent has absolutely informed my experience of being published, it really hasn’t affected the writing itself, however, when I thought more about it, I realized that wasn’t true. Ironically, agenting has hammered into me the idea that you must write the story you need to, without paying attention to the market, to trends, to an audience, that you must try to be true to your own voice and vision and just pour yourself onto the page. It may sound corny to say that, but when you’re an agent, you see, again and again, writers trying to write for the market rather than for themselves and most often that’s a mistake. When I was writing SKY, I didn’t know if anyone would ever read it and didn’t really think about it. I just thought about telling Lennie’s story, and that was very freeing. So, I guess my years working in the industry taught me not to pay attention to my years working in the industry!

This is your first published novel. Has this been a long time coming?
Yes and no. I’d never written fiction before SKY. I’d always written poetry: ridiculously long prose poems that had lots of characters and multiple storylines—this should’ve been a clue! But it wasn’t, strange, especially because I’m a voracious novel reader and for years, I’d been reading and editing novels for a living. My theory is I got tricked into fiction with SKY because in the beginning I thought I was writing a verse novel. But anyway, once I started writing this story, I wrote pretty much nonstop, it spilled out of me—it was almost like Lennie burst fully formed through the roof of my office with her clarinet and worn copy of Wuthering Heights and said, “Hey, you there at the keypad: Follow me.” So in that way it was kind of sudden, but in another way, it was indeed a long time coming because the themes in SKY are ones that compel me deeply, ones I’ve been thinking about for years, so, the underlying story elements had been percolating for a very long time.

What is your writing process like day to day?
Well that’s about to change because I’m going on sabbatical after thirteen years as an agent. But the last couple years, I’d write in the mornings, early, usually from 5 am to about 9 am and then whenever I could throughout the day (sometimes on napkins in restaurants, scraps of paper in the car, like Lennie actually, except I keep all scribbles) and I’d write again at night, and all day on weekends. Basically, I was a shut-in. There were many times when I was writing SKY and on a roll where I’d go sixteen hours or more at a time. It’s a bit lunatic, that feeling of urgency, of needing to get the story out. I love when it’s like that, when your fictional life overtakes your real one. It’s amazing.

Where did the concept of The Sky Is Everywhere come from?
Years ago, like Lennie, I suffered a devastating loss. I wanted to explore this kind of cataclysmic and deeply transformational life event, wanted to delve into the intricacies and complexities of the grief experience, how it just batters but also enheartens you, bringing you closer than you’ve ever been to the beating pulse of the world. But being a devout romantic, I wanted to explore this through a love story . . .or two—because what’s a love story without a little complication? I think I wanted to write a story in which joy and sorrow cohabitate in very close quarters.

Despite Bailey's death, the strength of the sisters relationship comes across really strong. Was this influenced by your own relationships?
Most definitely. I am extremely close to my brothers and drew on those relationship a lot when thinking about Lennie and Bailey. I’m the youngest in the family, so I know intimately what it’s like to adore and idolize and orbit around older siblings. I also have women in my life with whom I’ve been friends for over twenty years—absolutely sisters to me, so I drew on those relationships as well.

Poetry is an important facet of the book's structure and it's conclusion. What was your process in the writing of these poems and the method in which they are ordered throughout the book?
As I mentioned, when I first started writing SKY, I thought it was going to be a verse novel. I had this picture in my mind of this grief-stricken girl scattering poems all over town. So it began with poems, but when I realized the story needed to be told primarily in prose (which was very early on), I wrote both simultaneously. I wrote a ton of poems actually, many that never made it into the book. I’d have an idea of what I wanted where and when, and then would just kind of weave the poems in as I was going. I liked that I could reveal things about Lennie, things about her relationship w/Bailey, w/the boys in this way—it allowed me an extra layer of expression/meaning.

Which YA authors do you believe have had the biggest role in influencing your writing?
I hadn’t really read much YA until I went to Vermont College of Fine Arts to study children’s and young adult literature and writing. The first novel I read there was Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons and it blew me away—that novel, though middle grade, is a huge inspiration to me. And there are countless others. For sheer brilliance with voice, I love Laurie Halse Anderson and John Green. For genius with language, I really admire Francesca Lia Block. For innovation with story concepts, I love Gabrielle Zevin. For all around amazingness, I adore the Canadian writer Martha Brooks, especially Confessions of a Heartless Girl. Really, I could go on and on. I am continually so inspired by the work of contemporary YA writers. It’s a very exciting literary community to be a part of.

Have you envisioned a future for these characters? Do you know what happened to Bailey and Lennie's mother?
Oh no! I wrote out a whole long and rambling answer to this cool question but just deleted it because I realized I can’t answer it without giving away the end to those who haven’t read it!

The Fontaine Brothers seem too good to be true....they wouldn't happen to be real are they?
Man oh man—sure wish so! Wish the troupe of them lived next door to me, but no, alas, not quite real. I feel that all characters are kind of a mish-mash of many people you know, including yourself. I do know a pair of brothers who have drop dead insane smiles and outrageous musical ability who were often on my mind while writing the Fontaines and I know quite a few families of boys, including my own, where brothers kind of monkey and shine around each other. But, with the Fontaine boys, I just loved the idea of their irresistibility. This idea that they could turn a town over with their charm and looks and music. Actually, I might have to take it even further in another book. The idea delights me for some reason.

And sorry had to ask...Jandy is an unique name. How did your parents come to name you that?
It’s hard to get a straight answer out of anyone in my family on that! They all claim responsibility. I was born Janice, but my mother says right away she didn’t think I looked like one so she made up a less serious name for me. My brothers say it was their doing. My father, the same. So really, I have no idea, just know, after a few weeks on earth, I was Jandy forevermore.

A big thank you to Jandy for making the time to answer my questions. It was her first ever interview and I feel honoured to be the interviewer!


Anonymous said...

Great interview, you asked a lot of interesting questions. :) I'm very much looking forward to reading this book.

Angiegirl said...

What a lovely interview, you two. I just posted my review today. Picked it up because of your rec, Adele. :)

It's so funny you should mention Martha Brooks and TRUE CONFESSIONS OF A HEARTLESS GIRL, Ms. Nelson. Because I was thinking of that book the whole time. It is one of my very favorites as well.

Loved THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE. I'm very much looking forward to anything else you write.

Steph Su said...

A first interview... and a marvelous one! You asked great questions, Adele. I'm going to have to step up my game. =P I bought SKY the other day partially because of the buzz and partially because I enjoyed the first chapter, and so I'm excited to read it.

Robby said...

These were phenomenal questions, Adele! I loved the answers. I cannot wait to read this book. :]