Nicola Yoon: 'Books breed empathy'

Nicola Yoon: 'Books breed empathy'

YA author Nicola Yoon on writing and her debut novel being turned into a film:

What inspired The Sun is Also a Star?

It was inspired by a couple of things. Firstly, the Big History Project – it’s a theory of education that says if you want to teach a subject, you can’t teach it in isolation, you have to teach it in the larger context of everything else. I had this idea that I really wanted to tell a story where you’re not just telling the story of the two people falling in love, you’re telling the story of  everything surrounding them too – all the things that are pushing them together and pulling them apart. The other thing that inspired it was Carl Sagan, because I’m a huge fan and I actually got to see him lecture when I was in college. One of my favourite quotes is “in order to create something as simple as an apple pie, you have to invent the whole world”. I find that so inspirational because everything really is influencing each other. We are all connected and, even though we can’t see some of the connections sometimes, they are there. So, I had these two ideas in my head when I started writing it and those were the basic story structure inspirations.

The main characters are partly inspired by you and your husband. How much of the story is taken from real life?

I would say the spirit of the relationship in the book, but definitely not the details. I did not fall in love with [my husband] David over the course of 12 hours whilst being deported – we met in graduate in school. But we talk a lot, we’re both really philosophical people, we end up talking about big ideas all the time, we’ll stay up at night talking about God and science and art and that sort of thing, and in the book, Natasha and Daniel are like that. They fall in love with each other as much for their ideas of the world as anything else.

Were you nervous to write the book following the success of [Yoon’s first novel] Everything, Everything?

Definitely a little bit. Fortunately, I had written a good portion of The Sun is Also a Star by the time Everything, Everything came out so that was good. The thing that I had to adjust to was becoming a more public person. It wasn’t so much pressure to succeed again but you get to know what everyone thinks about your books, the positives and the negatives, and it’s sometimes hard to tune that out. It took me a little while to turn that volume down in my own head so that I could just focus on whatever I wanted to write.

A big focus in the book is immigration, which is a topical subject at the moment. Why did you decide to write about it?

It’s unfortunate that the way the book is resonating now is so negative with the discussions around immigration. When I wrote the book, immigration was in the general atmosphere but not the main headlines. I just wanted to write about immigration because it’s part of my experiences but also to take these big political ideas and humanise them a little bit. I think what gets lost in our discussions sometimes is that we’re talking about real people with real problems and real hopes and dreams. They are really not different than anyone else and I hope that I’ve been able to show that to readers, to people who are already sympathetic and people who are not quite so sympathetic. Books breed empathy and it’s hard to hate or fear what you can understand. If you live with a character for 400 pages, I think that you’ll start to understand a little bit more and maybe have a little bit more empathy.

Given the political climate at the moment, do you feel more responsibility as a writer?

I definitely feel more responsibility, but I felt lots of responsibility anyway because I write for teenagers and I think that they’re such a vulnerable group – they’re growing and changing and trying to figure out their place in the world. I do think that there are some kids out there who are feeling stressed and marginalised even further in the current political climate and I do hope that the books serve as a beacon and help them be less afraid of the world.

The main characters in your books are diverse. How important do you think it is to have diversity in books?

I think it’s really important for a few reasons. A writer’s job is to tell the truth and the truth is we live in a diverse world so to not reflect it is to ignore the world as it is. And like the immigration issue, we talk about diversity in terms of big headlines but it’s always really personal. Maddie in Everything, Everything looks the way she does because my daughter looks the way she does and I really wanted her to see herself in a book when she grew up. When I was younger, I didn’t really see that many girls that looked like me who were the main characters in books and I didn’t want my daughter to have to experience that. Everyone deserves to see themselves as the hero of the story, so diversity is really important to me and I really think it’s good for everyone. Like I said before, books breed empathy so if you can pay attention and get to know someone who’s not like you for a few hundred pages then you’re a better person for it.

How involved have you been with Everything, Everything being turned into a film?

MGM has been really great and gracious. They’ve let me give notes on the script and it was really nice to help to shape that. Partly, I got super-lucky because I ended up becoming really good friends with the director. We really just liked each other and she has the same vision for the movie that I did, so I ended up being in really good hands with her and discussing ideas with her. She has such a good way of translating some of the non-traditional aspects of the book into film, which was the thing I worried about the most. The instant messages and drawings and quirkier things in the book are hard to think about in film but she does a great job with it.

When you were writing the book, why did you choose to include those non-traditional aspects in it?

When I was writing Everything, Everything, I wrote from four to six a.m. because my daughter was four months old and I had a full-time job. At that time, very strange things occur to you because you’re half-asleep and one of the things that occurred to me was that because Maddie is trapped in her house, she would draw the world as a way to be closer to it. She can’t go outside, so she would try to draw the outside in. I love Hawaii and am sort of obsessed with it and I made her the same way and one morning it popped into my head that she would draw the Hawaiian state fish, which is called a humuhumunukunukuapua`a. I can’t draw at all so I woke my husband up and asked him to draw it for me and he got up and made coffee and drew the fish, no questions asked. It worked so well that I thought ‘I’m going to do more of this kind of thing’ so that is what started me down the path of playing with different formats.

Why did you choose to write for young adults?

It’s just one of those things where I had this story in my head and it turns out that there’s a marketing category for it. I find it a privilege to write for teenagers. I’m pretty philosophical and I think teenagers are naturally philosophical just by virtue of being teenagers. They are naturally questioning their place in the world and who they want to be and how the world works and what kind of place they want to have in it. So I think we’re a natural fit for each other because I’m always thinking about those things as well. I guess I think that the books are about young people but they’re for everybody. I definitely do feel a sense of responsibility and privilege that I’m talking to people who are still growing and changing that are the people who are going to run the world in the future. The most fun part of being on tour is when you go to festival where lots of kids are because when they are passionate, they are super-passionate and it’s wonderful.

What are you working on next?

I am writing the third book. I cannot say anything about it, except for that I’m writing it because I don’t want to get killed by my editor!

Picture: Sonya Sones