Her Own Bright Place


WE’VE heard the stories of princesses and Prince Charming, of prom queens and kings, of the handsome boy next door and the girl he woos. Not that these turned from thrilling to stale, but it seems that young adult readers also bank on the happily-ever-afters of our everyday Johns and Janes—the kind that tugs our hearts of the unlikely yet endearing pair of broken teenagers.

Jennifer Niven’s “All The Bright Places” is the story of Violet Markey, distraught by the death of her older sister while Theodore Finch labors under the thoughts of killing himself. The two have a chance encounter at the school’s bell tower and a friendship blooms. Violet surpasses her grief when she’s with Finch, but Finch refuses to mend himself, and that is how their love intertwined. A girl comes to appreciate her life from a boy who intends to lose his. A film adaptation is now in preproduction and is set to be released next year with Elle Fanning as Violet.

The stunning author Jennifer Niven sat with the Play! pool in a riveting discussion on cats, dances, ballet, and her family lineage back from the Father of English Literature, Geoffrey Chaucer; the novelist, Jane Austen; and down to her mother who was also a writer. It doesn’t come as a surprise that Jennifer has a knack for telling beautiful relevant human stories and finds her own “bright place” in the YA genre.

Why do you write about something so personal?

It was very challenging, and it was something I didn’t know that I could do because it was so personal. For a long time, I knew the story of this boy that I loved years ago. I always thought I want to write something about that someday, but I’m not sure that I may be able to.

The spring of 2013, my literary agent of 15 years died unexpectedly. I was left re-evaluating what I wanted to do because it was a new chapter. It was being forcedly done. As I’m talking to my new agents, they’re asking me what my next project is going to be, and I have to think what I want that to be. I thought really hard about it. I’ve always loved writing YA. I loved reading it. What if I turn the story into a Young Adult? I didn’t tell anyone other than my fiancé and my mother that I was going to do it. I sat down at the desk, and I said to myself, if it doesn’t work you don’t have to do it. I heard that first line of Finch’s, “Is today a good day to die?” I suddenly saw him on that ledge and his voice just came out very strong very quickly right away. There were many drafts after that but it was the fastest I’ve written. I wrote it in about six weeks. It was that fast!

How did you find writing from nonfiction to fiction?

It’s interesting. The first was Ice Master. I remember I outlined everything and researched everything because it was historical fiction. I did a little research which I was comfortable with and then I outlined everything the way I had done with nonfiction. I was telling my mother, who is also a writer, “The novel is just going great. I outlined everything. I know exactly what’s going to happen.”

And she said, “Oh okay.” But I could I tell she was thinking something she didn’t want to say it. Then the next week, we were talking about the novel again and she asked how it is going and I said, “It’s terrible. I had to throw the outline away.” (Laughs) The characters are going different places. They’re not listening to me. And then she said, “Welcome to fiction.”

It is a very different in that way, only I still do research. I had to. I write so much of it. I have a general idea of where I am going, and I know the characters really well. But other than that, I can’t have that very specific outline the way I did it with nonfiction. I had to let that go.

JENNIFER Niven at the book signing organized by National Book Store

JENNIFER Niven at the book signing organized by National Book Store  (PHOTO BY EDD BUENAVIAJE)

Does Violet, in some ways, reflect a part of you?

We do have some similarities. We’re both writers. We’re both grew up in Indiana after moving from somewhere else. And of course, we both loved a Finch. But I always say she is more popular than I was in high school. (Laughs) I had to make some separations there, otherwise, it felt too close to me, and I had to have that distance in order to write her the way that I needed to.

How were you able to put yourself writing from a man’s point of view?

I think it really helped that I knew this boy who was a lot like Finch. I knew him in my twenties and we actually lived together for about a year and a half. Just seeing him on close up and how he struggled. He was diagnosed bipolar and we talked about it. He’d really talk about how he was feeling, what he was going through, and I felt like I went through it with him as much as anyone can.

I think I just shut everything out when I was writing that first chapter. Let’s see if I can tap into that voice because it’s kind of scary. I’ve been writing a young woman’s voice for the past four books, the Velva Jean series. But then the voice came out and it was so strong and I loved writing Finch. It’s like oh I’m through with Violet now! (Laughs)

How hard was it not to give in too much to one voice?

It was difficult in the sense that Finch really wanted to take over. It’s hard especially when at the beginning when Violet is more closed off than closed down. She is more, kind of, in her own world, and Finch is more out there in one of his manic high phases. That was challenging because he was overshadowing her in a lot of ways. In some ways, that was fine, because it’s the tone of it and then they switched somewhere in the middle of the book. I also had to rein him in some time like, you just wait a minute! It’s Violet’s turn right now. Let her speak! (Laughs)

How do you feel towards making a movie of your book?

I can’t even imagine! The film’s producer, director and I went to Indiana last April. We wandered to all these places, like Violet and Finch, so they can see. We went to the roller coaster. We rode that roller coaster. And it was terrifying and so much fun! All I could think was, I cannot wait to see Elle and whoever is Finch on this roller coaster. It’s going to be amazing!

What was your reaction when you found out that Elle Fanning will be playing Violet in the film?

I was so thrilled because Elle was whom I picture when I was writing Violet! It’s so rare for a writer to have the person whom she pictured in the book to actually get to play that character. When I got to meet her for the first time I told her, and she was so excited. Elle has been attached to this project for two years because she was attached to it before it ever came out. No one knew! (Laughs)

And what do you think of Elle when you met her?

Honestly, she’s the loveliest girl. She’s so sunny. She seems like she was born in a field of daisies.

Are you the one working on the scripts?

Yes. I’ve already written it so now when I go back on Monday—sadly—I will be working on the scripts on the producer’s notes, and incorporate those in the drafts that we have now. I was a little nervous because I’ve haven’t written a script in a long time but everyone’s happy with the scripts, thank goodness! (Laughs) It will be out next year because we’re filming in the fall. I’m so excited!

What’s the best thing about writing for Young Adult?

The readers, they’re just the most amazing readers. I mean, adult readers are great, however, there’s just something really excited, enthusiastic, and passionate about these young readers. It’s such a wonderful community to begin with. The other authors are so supportive and generous. When one good thing happens for one of us, we all get excited! It’s not like that in the adult world. Then there are the booksellers, librarians, educators, publishers, everyone is so lovely and it’s a wonderful atmosphere. I intend to stay here for a while. (Laughs)

Where’s the best or “brightest place” for you to write?

I love how you did that. (Laughs) I love writing in my office. I have an office at home. My desk and my computer is my perfect place to write. There I can lose myself in the work. I can sequester myself. And I have my literary cats, you know, who are very helpful. (Laughs)

How many?

We have four. There’s Lulu and her brother, Rumi, like the poet. There’s Scout Fench and Minus as the kitten.

Planning to have more or four is fine?

Four is fine. Sometimes I feel that we have about a hundred! But I just can’t resist. I just love them and I would rescue all the homeless cats and dogs in the world if I could. (Laughs)

How much time in a day do you allocate for writing?

Most days, I work about eight hours; most days, a lot more than that if there’s a deadline. It never really stops because there’s always something to put parts of it. There are so many echoes at writing. But there’s also the business, all the emails, and stay in touch with everyone about coordinating this and that.

Also, I run a web magazine called Germ which is in the book and which I love, and so that takes time as well. In terms of my best energy creatively it’s in the afternoon until evening. What I tend to do is to take care of what my mom used to call the “housekeeping” business of writing in the morning. And then I switched and do the creative work after. There are some days when I just do creative work all day long. I take a few days to do the business stuff and the next few days I just do the creative writing. And I love those because I could just immerse myself.

Jennifer with host Mia Ali Faridoon (PHOTO BY EDD BUENAVIAJE)

Jennifer with host Mia Ali Faridoon (PHOTO BY EDD BUENAVIAJE)

What do you do for fun?

When I remember to take time, I hang out with friends, my family. I go hiking. LA is a great place to be outdoors. I love dancing. I have dance lessons that I take. We just moved about a month and a half ago and within walking distance, there’s this great dance studio. They teach all kinds of dance. There’s like a world beat class, a hip-hop class, contemporary class, and I used to do ballet class for a while. I love television. I watch TV when I can – and reading, of course. I don’t get enough time to read, but I love to read.

What was your mother like as a writer?

She was the most amazing person I’ve ever known. She wrote different things. She wrote mostly biography and mostly of literary figures. She did a biography with James Earl Jones, the actor and voice of Darth Vader. She wrote his autobiography with him. She wrote these books that would take her years of research. They would always be like 900 pages long because they’re always the first comprehensive biography of whoever it was. It was a different kind of thing but we were each other’s best editors. We always exchanged works and that was just so wonderful to get to do.

How did she take it when she knew you also wanted to be a writer?

When she found out that I love writing, she really just encouraged me. She always said that it wouldn’t matter what I wanted to do as long I was doing what I really loved to do more than anything, she’d be happy that I was doing it. It happened to be that it was writing for me.

What’s the best advice you got from her?

“You cannot freak out and write a book at the same time.” (Laughs) I try to remember that. She gave me so much advice. I also learned so much from her about writing. She also always said to believe in yourself and your work because there are too many people in the world who won’t, and you need to always make sure that you do. I remind myself of that all the time.

Tell us about your upcoming book, Holding Up the Universe.

My new book comes out on October 4th. I will be traveling and touring for that one. It’s another do on narration but other than that, it’s very different from All the Bright Places. Although not different enough because you’d still know I wrote it. (Laughs). It’s about a named Jack who’s a senior high school and he just discovered he has prosopagnosia. Basically, he cannot recognize faces, even his mom’s face or his own face. It’s a real condition people have to varying degrees. One in fifty people have it. You can acquire it through a head injury or stroke but if you were born with it, you find people in another ways, their voice or the way they walk or a feature that stands out.

The girl, Libby, used to be known as America’s fattest teen and she’s terrified to start school but she’s also excited because she can’t wait to see who she’s going to be. They meet through a very cruel high school prank but through it, they learned so much about who they are and what their places in the world and how to feel about other people and each other without judgement.

How true is it that you are related to Geoffrey Chaucer?

Oh my gosh! I discovered that when we were doing research in family genealogy. It turns out I’m the twenty-second granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer.
That’s cool. I wish I paid more attention to him in high school! (Laughs).

I also found out I’m related to Jesse James, the outlaw, and Jane Austen, all on the same side of the family – my dad’s side of the family.

TAGS: YA, Young Adult
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