American YA author Jennifer Niven talks to Charlotte Eyre about her new novel, turning All the Bright Places into a film, and the impact of the Zoella Book Club.
What is your new book, Holding Up the Universe [out now from Penguin Random House Children’s] about?
It’s about a boy and a girl. The boy, Jack, has prosopagnosia, or “face blindness”, meaning he can’t recognise faces—even his own.
I was inspired by my cousin who has prosopagnosia and I asked him once how he recognised people. He said he recognised by them from “the important things”, like how many freckles they have or how nice they are, and that stuck with me. Libby, the girl character, was bullied when she was younger over her weight; she was known as “America’s fattest teen”. Now she’s coming back, in a sense: she’s fearless and excited about the future.
What inspires your stories?
I always have to write personal stories and I struggled with my weight when I was around 12 or 13, which influenced Holding Up the Universe. I also write about the experiences of friends and family, so it’s a bit of a hybrid. It’s a novel about seeing and being seen. I want my readers to know they are not alone. I want them to feel loved. All the Bright Places was about a boy I dated in my twenties. He had depression and bipolar disorder so I saw his daily struggle. At the same time, he was just so alive.
What stage is the film adaptation of All the Bright Places at?
Technically I’ve just done the second draft of the script, even though it’s really the 200th draft, so it’s now in the hands of the producers and director. Elle Fanning has been cast as the lead, which is wonderful because I actually pictured her when writing [the character of] Violet. We don’t have [an actor cast to play the role of ] Finch yet, but hopefully the movie will start shooting in the spring.
Was it hard to adapt your own work?
It was an interesting experience. There’s not as much room on the screen as there is on the page for the story, so I had to cut a few scenes. The heart and core of the story are still there and I’ve kept the scenes that readers love, such as when the two main characters meet at the bell tower at the beginning of the novel.The whole team were very passionate about keeping the ending, which other studios who were interested in the project [of adapting the story] didn’t want to do.
How do your readers in the UK compare to readers in the US?
I love all my readers and the themes of my books are universal, but I do like speaking to my British fans. They are so enthusiastic, whereas I have to draw my American readers out a bit more.
And how is the YA scene in the UK compared to the US?
There is a bit more policing of YA in the US by adults, and I know publishers who have decided not to publish some books because they were worried about controversy. There was a bit of a controversy about the synopsis Random House put out for Holding Up the Universe [some fans complained about the themes of the novel prior to its publication] but they hadn’t read the actual book.
I feel there’s maybe a bit more freedom in the UK. There’s sophistication and acceptance here. Sales in the US are still huge, though—it’s one of the healthiest [book] genres in terms of making money!
All the Bright Places was chosen for the first Zoella Book Club. How did that affect your sales?
I was a big fan of [Zoella] anyway and what she has done for readers is amazing. She really boosted sales of All the Bright Places, not just in the UK but in Australia and the US too, where it went back into the New York Times bestseller list.
Do you use social media?
I love it! I’m active on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and Snapchat, but my favourite is Instagram. I’m always posting. As well as being a fangirl, I try to put some light into the world and encourage readers to make it lovely. There’s so much negativity on social media; I try to make it a positive place for my readers. I want to reach out to them as much as possible.
Holding Up the Universe is the first book [of mine that] my mother never read, because she died unexpectedly four months before All the Bright Places came out. When I finished the book there was a bit of a hole inside me because I couldn’t give it to my mother to read, but at least I could share it with my readers. That’s huge for me.
Which YA authors do you like to read?
I like Jandy Nelson, David Levithan, Jay Asher and Kerry Kletter, whose book The First Time She Drowned everyone should read. I also like Nick Hornby, Melvin Burgess, Louise O’Neill and Phil Earle. And I loved Louise Rennison—I was heartbroken when she died.
And what are you working on next?
I’m working on a third YA novel. I’ve written around 12 chapters so far and I have a two-book deal for that, with Random House in the US. It will probably be out in 2018. I’m also working on a joint venture with a secret collaborator . . . I can’t say who it is, but we’re writing a book together.