November 17, 2017

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Portrait of an Author: SLJ Chats with Jandy Nelson About ‘I’ll Give You the Sun’

photo by Sonya Sones

photo by Sonya Sones

Already optioned for film, former literary agent Jandy Nelson’s sophomore effort, I’ll Give You the Sun (Dial, 2014), is making waves in young adult literature world. Her portrayal of artist fraternal twins Jude and Noah is told not only in alternating narratives but also in alternating time lines. SLJ caught up with the author to talk about her unique writing process for this book, love of magical realism, and casting wishlist for the optioned film.

I’ll Give You the Sun is told from the perspectives of Noah and Jude, who are artistic fraternal twins. It’s hard enough to get the voice just right in a novel with one point of view. How did you accomplish that with two narrators and two different time lines?
For me, that was one of the biggest challenges in writing this book. I really wanted to make sure that their voices and their emotional and psychological lives were distinct. I realized fairly early on that in order to do that, I would have to write their stories separately. I wrote Noah’s story from start to finish. And then Jude’s story from start to finish. While I was writing one side, I sometimes wanted to cheat, so I had to lock the file of one twin while I worked on the other twin’s file. I really wanted to stay in the world and time frame of the character. That’s one of the reasons the book took so long to write, because in some ways, it was three novels. My vision had always been to have the two stories be a braid and have the time periods and narratives intertwine.

Your debut novel, The Sky is Everywhere (Dial, 2010), focused on the power of poetry to help a person overcome grief. Your latest focuses on the power of art to unite people. What inspired you to write this tale about artists?
I love visual art. I’m really crazy about it. That was definitely the inspiration for the focus—my passion for it. I do believe in the power of art to help people heal and unite. It can really change the world. For me, the characters just showed up fully formed, name included. And these protagonists all had complicated relationships with art. While I was writing, I felt like Art was another character in the novel. I love writing love stories, and not only stories about romantic and familial love. In a way, this is a love story between each character and Art.

Do you base the sibling relationships in your work on your own experiences growing up?
I grew up with brothers and I’m really close with them. I definitely draw on my relationship with them and our really profound love, interconnectedness, and camaraderie. I’m the youngest in my family and the only girl. And the closest brother to me in age is five years older. And I feel that because we are such different people with distinct interests and passions, we’ve been able to have much more sibling harmony rather than sibling rivalry in our lives. For many of the characters that I write about, that is not the case. Their family situation and sibling dynamic lean much more toward competition than in my family.

I just love writing about siblings and families because they are mini-civilizations without the parents. It’s such rich fodder—loaded, layered, and intricate. No one fully gets you like a sibling or can really get to you like a sibling.

As a twin myself, I was fascinated with your portrayal of the protagonists. Especially poignant is the pair’s sometimes-cruelty toward each other. However, they also share such a bond of interconnectedness. Do you think this type of connection is unique to twin-hood?
It’s probable that the incredible interconnectedness and even rivalry exists among all siblings. Specifically in this novel, Jude and Noah have very jealous natures. Grandma Sweetwine says to them at one point, “’You have enough jealousy in your palms to ruin your lives 10 times over.’” Noah also believes that they have rattlesnakes in their bellies. These particular twins have that [jealousy] in their natures. The clincher here is that their mother is a dynamic, charismatic woman who is also very withholding in a way and little bit distracted, and I think all of that together created this perfect storm for their relationship to go awry.

There are threads of magical realism in this novel: Jude’s book of superstitions and her belief that that she’s communicating with her grandmother’s ghost. How did you decide to add this extra layer in Sun?
Jude came to me as a superstitious 16-year-old girl, so I don’t even think I decided that for her.  But I felt that she was this girl whose world had gone completely out of her control and this was her way to exert some control, however illogical it might seem to other people. This also came about quite naturally because I’m insanely superstitious. And my whole family is, too. Like Jude, I had a grandmother who was superstitious. So within our family, we have members who walk around with charms in our pockets and we’re always searching  for four-leaf clovers.

As far as her grandmother’s ghost, that surprised me as well. Grandma Sweetwine just wouldn’t shut up until finally, I received a huge revelation. Of course Jude is talking to her dead grandmother! She was the one person who made Jude feel safe and hopeful. I remember when it happened because I made a new file for the book and labeled it “Holy Crap.”

i'll give you the sun

Once that revelation came to you, did you refer to any other magical realism writers?
I grew up reading authors of magical realism. Gabriel García Marquéz is a god to me. I love the genre; there are elements of it even in Sky. I’m very interested in walking the line between realism and magical realism. I feel like it’s a good interpretation of life. Real life is full of magic.

Noah struggles with accepting his sexuality, and Jude goes back and forth between trying to be “that girl” that her mother warns her about and attempting to hide the markers of her sexuality. Why do you think it’s so important to include this aspect of teen identity in YA lit?
I think for teens, navigating sexuality and the way it relates to identity can be confusing and challenging. So for me, exploring it becomes a natural part of coming-of-age stories, especially in the books that I write. To date, I’ve been writing love stories, and I think that the confusions, joys, and complications of love come to the forefront. The teens in my novels tend to have these raging hormones combined with a big, hopeful wanting to fall in love. Whether they’re gay, straight, male, female, they’re all trying to figure out how to be a sexual person in the world. It’s confusing for everybody, adults and teens alike, in its catastrophic mess and sublime joy. I’m interested in exploring it.

I feel like one of the metaphors that took me through writing the book was Michelangelo’s idea that the statue was in the marble and he just had to carve until he found it. In terms of all the characters in the later time frame story, they’re kind of trapped in a stone prison—a lot of it having to do with their identity. If they could just break out of all the societal and familial expectations, they could find a way to be true to themselves and their hearts. And this involves their sexuality in most cases—and them trying to find a way to break out of the prisons they’ve concocted for themselves.

Noah imagines painting portraits in his head whenever he’s experiencing a strong emotion. What kind of portrait is he most likely creating in his mind at the novel’s close?
That was my favorite part about writing this story. I just loved creating those paintings; it was a total joy for me. There’s one part of the novel where Noah says, “this is the painting, painting itself.” I feel like at the end of the novel, the painting would be every color in the universe exploding onto a canvas at once.

Paranormal romance and dystopian genres are waning these days. Do you think there’s a resurgence of the realistic fiction genre?
I absolutely think there is. There’s a real renaissance of realistic fiction going, and it’s expanding to include works that aren’t solely realistic. There are some clear successes such as Rainbow Rowell, John Green, and Gayle Forman’s books. I think publishing is incredibly cyclical. Who knows what’s around the corner? After a time people want something else—with so much dystopian, people have a hunger to see their physical world represented. I’m excited to see what’s around the corner.

Congrats on I’ll Give You the Sun being optioned for film. Any news on that front? If you had the ability to do it, who would you cast as the main protagonists?
No news yet, because it was so recent. It was one of the most  exciting days of my life. Right now, they’re looking for writers and directors, but [there’s] no talk about cast yet. I’m hoping they go for young unknowns. I will say that I hope Javier Bardem will play Guillermo. So fingers crossed.

Can you tell us a little bit about the research that you did for the book?
I took a stone carving class with Barry Baldwin, and that was fascinating. I’m awful by the way. But I’m glad that I did, because I had this idea that sculpting was very Michelangelo-esque: tap, tap, tap. It’s completely different. You’re working outside, and you have these badass tools and drills. It was so interesting to hear the professor talk about the stone as if they were lovers.

Reprint edition of Nelson's first book, The Sky Is Everywhere.

Reprint edition of Nelson’s first book, The Sky Is Everywhere.

How was the writing process for this title different from how you wrote Sky?
I don’t know how it started, but by the end, I was writing in a room with the only light coming from the computer screen, earplugs in, and a sound machine blasting. It became this portal into the story. It was the best writing experience of my life. I felt so deeply immersed in the world of the story and so intimate with the characters. I wonder if part of it was the dark chamber aspect. It completely blocked out my world in a way that I’ve never done before.

Do you think you’ll try that for the next book?
I think I will. I’m sort of addicted to it now. Every book sends you on a different journey. The new book is also about siblings. The working title is Fall Boys and Dizzy in Paradise. It’s about two brothers, a sister, and their father, who mysteriously disappeared 16 years earlier. The story takes off when a very enigmatic girl shows up and throws a bomb into their lives. It takes place in a Northern California dusty town.

Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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