Books I Love: All the Bright Places (Part One)
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I recently came across an article in which an accomplished author said he tries not to read a great novel when he’s trying to write one himself.
Too late for me to follow that advice. Since July, I’ve been working on my very first young adult novel. As part of my research, I’ve read close to 30 books. And I love love loved (did I mention I loved?) Jennifer Niven’s latest title, her first for young adults, called All the Bright Places.
This book about a boy named Finch and a girl named Violet made me laugh, cry, and feel joy and pain all at the same time. With her story, told from alternating perspectives of Finch and Violet, Niven paints a beautiful picture of love, loss, hope, and despair. Probably every human emotion is covered so beautifully in its pages, and it was one of those books I didn’t want to put down and that I finished in a couple of days.
I don’t want to give away too much about the book, but from the first pages I was wrapped up in Finch and Violet’s story, which I felt was one of love, loss, and hope. I grew to care deeply for these characters. Of course the mother in me wanted to nurture and take care of them and guide their decisions. But like any parent will tell you, teenagers ultimately need to make many of their own decisions and find their own way in the world. So while reading All the Bright Places, instead of trying in my mind to steer the characters toward the light, I instead surrendered to being a mere passenger and bystander on their journey. It wasn’t always pleasant, but it was necessary.
In All the Bright Places, Niven has crafted a rich, beautiful, and deeply moving book that wrecked me—but in the best way possible. I am honored to have had the pleasure to interview her about the book and about writing in general via email. Here are highlights from our exchange:
EZ: How did you come up with the title, All the Bright Places? When I read it, I immediately thought of the song, Looking for Love and its lyrics, “Looking for love in all the right places” and thought that made sense since at the heart of this book is an amazing love story.
JN: The book was originally titled You Make Me Lovely, but Random House worried that the word “lovely” might not appeal to male readers. When they asked me to change it, I began searching for a new title in lines of poetry—I read everyone from Lord Byron to E.E. Cummings. I kept a very long list of possibilities, and was taking a break from my search when I spied Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! on my shelf. As I read through it, I came across these lines: “Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying. You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing.” And I thought about how that stanza related to Finch and, particularly, Violet. So my thought process went something like, “Bright Places… Find the Bright Places… The Bright Places… All the Bright Places.” It really grew on me, and I added it to my list, which I forwarded to my editor. Random House conducted an in-house poll, and that was the overwhelming favorite. In retrospect, I’m so happy we changed it!
EZ: You have an amazing body of work to your credit (including American Blonde, Becoming Clementine, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and Velva Jean Learns to Drive as well as several nonfiction titles). How different an experience for you was writing All the Bright Places in terms of developing the voice and the characters? And did you do anything special to create what come across as authentic and strong voices for Finch, Violet and the other characters?
JN: I began writing the book the summer of 2013, and it only took six weeks to write. A lot of that had to do with the deadline I gave myself and also the fact that I once knew a boy much like Theodore Finch. When I first started writing, I didn’t let anyone know what I was working on, in case it didn’t go anywhere. I thought, I’ll just try to write a chapter and see what happens. And then I heard the first line of the book: Is today a good day to die? And I saw Finch standing on the ledge of his high school bell tower looking down at the ground and contemplating jumping. And suddenly there was a girl up there with him… Finch’s voice came out pretty much fully formed, as if he’d been waiting for me to write him. Violet took a bit more work, but for the most part, the writing of the story just flowed. I like to say it’s the book I’ve been carrying around inside of me for some time, but didn’t put on paper until 2013. As for writing the other teens in the book, I think it helps that part of me is and always will be fifteen. My best friend from high school is still my best friend, and when we’re together we’re teenagers again. J
EZ: How challenging and important was it for you to write Finch’s character with regards to his emotional state/challenges? Did you consult with any mental health experts e.g. psychologists or psychiatrists as part of your research?
JN: While I did do some research into mental illness/depression—which included speaking with experts—it was the experience of knowing and loving this boy I mentioned that informed my writing the most. In so many ways, I really just wrote the story I knew. Years ago, I knew and loved a boy, and that boy was bipolar. I witnessed up-close the highs and lows, the Awake and the Asleep, and I saw his daily struggle with the world and with himself. The experience was life changing. Back then, I didn’t talk about it, but it’s important to talk about. I experienced firsthand the stigma associated with mental disorders—both from his perspective and from mine—and I realized that we need to make people feel safe enough to come forward and say, “I have a problem. I need help.” If we don’t talk about suicide or depression or mental illness, how can we expect anyone to reach out for help when they need it most? A young writer asked me recently, “How did you write All the Bright Places without crying over it?” The answer is that I did cry while writing it, but I also knew that it was okay to cry because that meant I was tapping into all of the emotion that was going to help me write what I needed to write. As for Violet, she is struggling with loss, and that is something I know too well. I’ve lost both my parents, all four grandparents, and numerous other family members and friends, so loss is something I know inside and out.
EZ: What made you decide to tell the story from both Finch and Violet’s perspectives? Did you know you’d do that from the beginning and did you write their stories separately and merge them together or write them chronologically or some other way?
JN: So many times I read a novel from one character’s perspective, and I find myself wondering about one of the other characters—what it’s like in this person’s head or that person’s head. It’s almost as if I’m being told the story in mono, when I want to hear it in stereo. When I sat down to write All the Bright Places, I heard Finch’s voice right away, and out came the first chapter. But I knew I wanted to write from Violet’s POV too, especially because she has to carry the story through to the end. As for the writing, I wrote the book chronologically, alternating between their voices as I went.
EZ: You’re getting incredible feedback and accolades about this book. It’s absolutely one of my favorites and you and it deserve high praise. I won’t give away the ending of the book, but I will say it tore my heart. Did you ever question how the book would end or play with alternative endings, though I do feel that the way it ended was very true to both characters.
JN: Thank you so much! That means a lot to me. I never questioned how All the Bright Places would end. I knew in my bones that the only ending could be the one I wrote, not just because too many stories about teen mental health are tied up in neat little packages with bows on top, but because it’s the ending I lived with the real-life Finch. Once again, it was the story I knew.
EZ: As a former major in psychology, I appreciate your extensive resource lists at the end of the book for suicide prevention, diagnosing mental health in teens, survivors, bullying, and abuse. Any you’d like to share with my readers?
JN: There are so many terrific resources, both national and international, a number of which are listed on my website and on the Germ Magazine links page. But I also want to mention Too Damn Young and Lauren’s Place, both of which are attempting to raise awareness and build community for young people in need.
EZ: Thanks so much for answering all my questions. In closing, can you describe in one sentence how you felt when you finished writing and editing the book?
JN: I felt spent, elated, depleted, full, proud, grateful, and deeply, wonderfully peaceful.
Image of Jennifer Niven courtesy of Louis Kapeleris.
You can learn more about Jennifer Niven, All the Bright Places (which will be made into a movie starring Elle Fanning, woot!) and all her other great work on her website. You can also follow her on twitter (@jenniferniven), on Instagram (JenniferNiven), and on Facebook (Jennifer Niven).
Stay tuned for Part Two of my interview with Jennifer Niven coming soon.
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