In the second of her guest blog posts, Future8 award winner Amber Kirk-Ford of The Mile Long Bookshelf interviews author Jennifer Niven. Niven’s first YA novel, All The Bright Places, boldly addresses the issue of teenage mental health through the love story of Violet and Finch.
Amber: Before writing All the Bright Places, your previous books were non-fiction, or aimed at adults. What made you make the transition into writing YA?
Jennifer: While I was working on my other books, I was reading YA novels for fun and it was always in the back of my mind that someday I’d write a young adult book. So much of what’s being produced in YA literature is brilliant and daring and fantastically imaginative. In the summer of 2013, I was thinking about what I wanted to write next, and I kept thinking about a boy I knew and loved years ago. The experience was life-changing, and I knew that it was the story I wanted to write– and that I wanted to write it as YA.
What are the main differences when it comes to writing for young adults instead of adults?
The greatest challenge of writing for a younger audience is that there’s a terrific responsibility that comes with it. These aren’t jaded, world-weary adults you’re writing for—these are teens. You have a responsibility—especially when writing about sensitive issues like sex, bullying, mental health, suicide—to write as honestly and vigilantly as possible. In many ways, the teen audience is the most discerning, so the voice and the characters need to be authentic.
In the book, Violet Markey has the idea for an online magazine called Germ- which you launched as a real site. Did you always plan for Violet’s website to be real and accessible to the readers, or was it something you thought of as you wrote?
After I wrote the first draft of the book that I thought: What if Germ were real? The site launched in January 2014 and has grown to have over forty writers, most of whom are between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five. We began in Los Angeles, but there’s now people writing for Germ from all across the US, as well as England, Hungary, and the Ukraine. I’m so inspired by what we’re becoming and where we’re headed, and one of the most surprising aspects of the whole experience is that, very early on, we started hearing from readers in South America, China, Africa, Australia, Russia, the UK. I have no idea how they found us, but it’s the most wonderful feeling to know we’re reaching young people of all backgrounds on the other side of the world.
All the Bright Places features depression, bipolar disorder, bulimia and suicide – what made you decide that these stories needed to be told?
I hope All the Bright Places will help inspire discussions about teen mental health. We need to stop being afraid of talking about the hard stuff so that we can make people feel safe enough to come forward and say, “I have a problem. I need help.” If we don’t talk about suicide or depression or mental illness or bulimia, how can we expect anyone to reach out for help when they need it most?
Is there another book that deals with mental illness that you think people should read?
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write. Read. Write. Read. Work hard. Remember to enjoy it. Don’t forget to play and have fun with your words. Take risks. Don’t get fixated on making it perfect, because there’s no such thing. Learn to love editing, or at least accept it as one of the most important parts of the process. I was lucky enough to grow up with writer for a mother, so I saw first hand how difficult and stressful and unpredictable the business was. I also saw the commitment it took. I’m grateful for that because I think so many people go into the business of writing with unrealistic expectations—not realizing that it is, in fact, a business, and that you have to be ready and willing to do it in spite of everything else. My other advice is to write what inspires you. Write the thing you’re burning to write. Write what you love.
What is one thing that you hope readers will take away from reading All The Bright Places?
I hope All the Bright Places will help inspire others to look deeper at the people and places around them. And I hope it inspires discussions about teen mental health. I want readers to know that help is out there, that it gets better, that high school isn’t forever, and that life is long and vast and full of possibility.
All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven (Penguin), is out now. Read Jennifer’s Top 10 Young Adult books to save your life for Guardian Books and Amber’s review of All The Bright Places on The Mile Long Bookshelf.