On Wednesday, September 20, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing the lovely author of some of my favorite YA books, All the Bright Places and Holding Up the Universe (in Danish, Som stjerner på himlen and På kant med livet). First of all, I would like to thank the Danish publisher Alvilda for giving me this amazing opportunity and experience, and Jennifer and her friend Ronni for taking the time during their European book tour to meet with us and answer all of our questions. Aside from myself, the bookstagrammer Cathrine and the book blogger Rikke, were also part of the interview, and it was lovely meeting them as well.
The atmosphere was very nice and laid back, and it felt more like a cozy chat. Jennifer is a great storyteller, not just on the page, but also in person, and she has so many interesting things to share. In addition, she is a wonderful and caring person who is genuinely interested in her fans and readers. When her books first came out, she tried to answer every message she got to make people feel acknowledged and seen, but with the growing popularity of her books, it’s impossible to keep up, even though she really wants to. The connection to the readers is very important to her, so she still tries to respond and like as much as possible, which you quickly notice on her social media pages.
Jennifer has experienced a lot of loss, but still manages to stay positive and inspire others through her writing. She encounters a lot of personal stories from readers, and while most of them are sad at first, they usually have happy endings, revealing how the books helped them through tough times, assuring them that they are not alone and giving them characters and experiences to relate to. The story which has stood out the most, is that of a 17-year-old girl, who was ready to end her life. She went to the store to buy the pills, but somehow, almost as a sign, All the Bright Places had been misplaced to that very shelf. On a whim, she picked it up, forgot about the pills, read and related to it and is doing good today. What an amazing story of how reading the right book at the right time can change or save your life.
Her best advice on writing, which she was given by a friend, is to “write it even though it terrifies you.” She believes that authors have to feel all the feelings too in order for the audience to relate to the characters. We talked a lot about what has inspired her to write her books. Especially All the Bright Places is a very special book to Jennifer, which was absolutely terrifying to write, since it is based on a personal experience. In her twenties, she loved and lost a guy, who Finch is largely inspired by, and even the family of the guy Jennifer knew recognizes him in this unique character. If asked to choose, Finch is her favorite, but Violet was the hardest to write, because she reminds her of herself and it’s such a personal story. She felt she had to separate her from herself, by setting the story in high school and giving Violet a sister who died. Jennifer is an only child, but has experienced plenty of loss, which makes her writing about it much more real.
While Violet is more like Jennifer herself, of course she also identifies with Libby, the main character of Holding Up the Universe, and looks up to her for being so fearless and brave. Jennifer was never bullied, but she had friends who were and she has also experienced people saying mean things, so it was not hard to relate to her characters and represent how mean and judgmental girls can be to other girls, and the body image issues resulting from it. She got inspired by Body Positivity, wanting people to know that they are wanted and loved, and Libby is a role model in this regard.
She writes her books for young adults, which has resulted in some backlash from parents who are worried that her books dealing with topics such as suicide would lead more teenagers to commit suicide. But it doesn’t do any good to ignore a topic; not talking about suicide will not make it go away. According to Jennifer, teenagers are not stupid, they will get the message of the books even though adults don’t always do, and she has concrete examples of her books preventing suicides instead of inciting them.
When working on her books, she did a lot of research, talking to psychologists and other specialists, but also relied on her own life and experiences from friends and family for inspiration, especially in regards to prosopagnosia. She has a cousin, an uncle and a friend who have it, and the way they describe distinguishing and recognizing people came to be one of the most important messages of the book: How to remember people by the important things, seeing them in a pure way, the way we should all see people. Jennifer gave her own love of dancing and Supernatural to Libby, and the experience of loss and grief in the book is also very real and close to Jennifer herself, since she sadly lost her mother while writing Holding Up the Universe.
When writing, she likes to imaginarily cast actors as her characters to keep on track. A fun fact is that she originally cast Elle Fanning as Violet, and now she is actually playing her in the upcoming All the Bright Places movie. They hope to start filming in January, and Jennifer wrote the screenplay as well, having a film school background. Another fun fact is that when she went to film school she was told that she was not able to put her feelings on the page while writing. They should see her writing now… As for the casting of Finch, which we are all really excited about, we will have to wait a little while longer to find out, since they want someone age appropriate and as Jennifer was saying, guys that age grow up and change so fast, so they are going to wait to just before filming starts to find the perfect Finch, although she already has her eyes on some possibly perfect Finches.
Of course she couldn’t reveal much about her next book, but she did tell us that she is working on two very exciting projects. Every book is a different process to write and her next book will be very personal, and about 80 pages into it now, she has already cried more than she did while writing All the Bright Places and it is not a book she would recommend reading in public unless you don’t mind people seeing you crying your eyes out. She sometimes thinks that it would be much easier to just write something fluffy, but she also feels the importance of writing brave, honest stories and giving people a voice, especially in the political climate of the US today where many don’t have a voice, so that’s what she’ll continue to do. She firmly believes that what you’re compelled to write will present itself at the right moment.
This was such a wonderful experience, and I’m forever grateful to be given opportunities like this. Thanks again to the publisher Alvilda, to Jennifer and Ronni, and to Cathrine and Rikke. You are all bright places and made this day unforgettable.