Jandy Nelson: Painting outside the lines

Think YA can’t be literary? Meet Jandy Nelson – and watch her lyrical language bring fully formed protagonists to life

Jandy Nelson
Jandy Nelson. Photo by Sonya Sones

There is a moment in Jandy Nelson’s second young adult book, I’ll Give You The Sun, when one of the novel’s two protagonists realizes he got something all wrong. The closeted teen, Noah, has been obsessing over an alcohol-fueled hookup he believes occurred between his twin sister, Jude, and the boy he has ached for all summer, Brian. In the months after this perceived betrayal, Noah stops speaking to his twin and laments over what he imagines has become an all-consuming romance between Jude and Brian.

The boy’s anguish goes on for pages, until Nelson skillfully short-circuits his reality. It turns out our narrator misread all the clues. Brian never dated Jude, not even close – he only has eyes for Noah. It’s typical teenage emotional dysmorphia, seeing an event through a waggle-eyed kaleidoscope that shifts with every hormone.

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Everyone has experienced it. But not many people could articulate it.

It’s the mark of a truly gifted writer that Nelson doesn’t just pull off this neat trick once but proceeds to do it over and over throughout Sun. The dual teen narrators misconstrue, misread, and mystify each other, which triggers sometimes tragic yet always relatable consequences. Nelson perfectly captures that moment in life when it always seems like everyone is laughing at a joke at your expense. Of course, you find out later no one even noticed you. They were too busy worrying about themselves.

In both I’ll Give You the Sun and her first novel, The Sky is Everywhere, Nelson utilizes language like an artist uses a paintbrush. Her carefully chosen words conjure characters so fully formed, you can see them in your mind and hear them in your ear. She deftly conveys the hunger and intensity of young love, as when she describes Noah’s reaction to his first kiss: “I think the heart of every living thing on earth is beating in my body.”

Nelson is currently working on her third YA novel, a multigenerational saga about a northern California family. She shared her unique approach to writing with The Writer, including her roots as a literary agent, how she shapes her characters, and why she’s always sharpening her metaphorical oyster knife.

Why did you want to write YA books? What about the genre appeals to you?

I came to young adult literature late as a reader. I’d always written poetry and had gone to Vermont College of Fine Arts to study picture books. It was there I discovered the YA verse novel. Who knew verse novels were even being published!? Not me, and I got really excited and decided to try to write one.

I began reading a lot of YA in preparation and couldn’t believe how vital the storytelling was. I’d always been drawn to novels that were voice-y and had a lot of voltage, and these books I was reading were just teeming with voice, with immediacy, with rawness, with emotional intimacy. Now, a decade later, after writing two YA novels, what appeals to me most is riding along with my young narrators who are experiencing so much for the first time. It’s kinetic, urgent, and wildly emotional, and I adore that.

How did being a literary agent prepare you for becoming an author yourself – what did you learn that you applied not just to your craft but also to your approach to the business end of publishing?

I was so familiar with the publishing process from agenting that with my first novel, there was this surreal aspect to it all where I’d have to remind myself daily that I was the author, that all this was about my book. It was dislocating and at the same time wonderful. Being so prepared definitely made it easier to weather the inevitable storms that sweep through the publication process.

In terms of craft, what has stuck with me most from agenting is how important it is to just write your stories, your truth, and never think about the market. Nothing else really matters. You want to try to make something amazing. That’s it.

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Obviously you once were a teenage girl and can draw directly on personal experience for the characters of Lennie and Jude. What are the challenges of channeling the voice of a teenage boy?

I feel like the process was the same with Noah as it was for Jude and Lennie [the protagonist of Sky]. The struggle always is getting yourself in the skin of another, and I’m very aware that I’m not writing about all teenage boys or girls, just this particular one with their particular spirit.

It does take me a while – years – to get to know my narrators from the inside out. I do a lot of research on their passions and interests, read a lot of books, talk to teens and adults. What’s interesting is Noah came quickly. It was like he just crashed through the roof one day announcing his arrival, and I instantly felt his heart, understood his explosive visual sensibility, got that he was this flood in a paper cup.

Are you inspired by people and things you experience in real life? Or do you look outside for inspiration?

Yes to both. When I’m writing a novel, I feel like I have a funnel for a head and everything in my life and outside of it just pours into the story. I’m constantly traipsing through my own emotional landscape and experiences, and I also steal from everyone else.

When I’m writing a novel, I feel like I have a funnel for a head and everything in my life and outside of it just pours into the story.

Gram in Sky only paints green women, as did my grandmother. Grandma Sweetwine in Sun is wildly superstitious, as is my mother. Big in Sky is a mad scientist who builds pyramids thinking he can resurrect bugs beneath them, as did my older brother.

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And I’m always looking further afield, too. I dove into the study of classical music when writing Sky and visual art when writing Sun. I took courses in stone carving to better understand Jude and Guillermo and have been taking cooking classes for my new novel. For me, one of the best parts of novel writing is getting to learn about things that interest me via my characters.

Art plays a huge role in your writing, and you have said you have an interest in art history. How did you decide which artworks to include in Sun – were they ones that had already spoken to you and been favorites? Or did you decide on concepts and find works that fit into them?

A lot of the artworks included are ones I love, but others, I really feel, were chosen by Noah and Jude. It was incredible to see works of art anew through their eyes. I never really liked Jackson Pollock that much, but seeing his paintings through Noah’s eyes blew my mind. Same with seeing [Constantin] Brancusi’s sculptures through Jude’s.

On the other hand, I think the way Michelangelo works in the text is more thematic and conceptual. His quote, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” really reflects how I saw every character in Jude’s timeline. Each in their own way is encased in a stone prison of their own making and needs to find a way to break out.

Your books also explore grief and grieving. Jude and Lennie experience very different losses, and their coping mechanisms and voices ring so true. Why is death an important theme for YA literature to tackle?

I think it’s an important theme for all literature to tackle but for me it’s very personal. I lost someone very close to me and wanted to dive into the intricacies and complexities of grief, the tumult of it, and also the transformational effect it can have on your life.

In that sense, I think it speaks to young adults because adolescence is a time of great transformation and unwieldy emotion. Also, many teens have experienced loss and look to books for solace and companionship.

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You note on your website that you’re superstitious. How does that come out in your writing process? Do you have any “must-dos?” (I saw in one interview you detailed a pretty intense process for Sun.) Do your superstitions change from novel to novel?

I’m wildly superstitious but strangely don’t have that many superstitions about the process of writing. I’m in the “whatever works at the moment” school, which is how I ended up writing Sun in a pitch-black room with earplugs in and a sound machine blasting. It was nuts, but it worked!

My mother does send me a lot of ribbons for luck that I must (according to her) tape to my computer, which makes it very embarrassing to work in a café. And I have a writing blanket, which is also quite embarrassing now that I’ve put it in writing! It’s very fluffy, like a pet.

The Sky Is Every Where by Jandy Nelson
The Sky Is Every Where by Jandy Nelson

The romance between Noah and Brian is sweet, tender, exciting…and closeted. Brian is such a unique character in the YA realm. He displays an intriguing mix of self-confidence and vulnerability. What inspired him? Why was he the right first love for Noah?

Brian, like Noah, came early in the writing process. He’s one of my favorites, but I honestly don’t know what inspired him, maybe Noah did. I saw them together in the forest looking for space garbage and just kept asking, “Who are you?” I liked that Noah could see Brian’s “inside face,” could tell he was also a boy hiding in a boy hiding in a boy.

On the surface, they’re opposites, Noah being a devout outcast and Brian being able to fit in anywhere, but inside they’re kindred, both “revolutionaries,” both wholeheartedly committed to their passions. Right away they saw each other. Right away they reveled in each other.

Throughout Sky, Noah expresses what so many adolescents feel – that they’re out of place, awkward, alien to this planet. Yet during Jude’s section, he has assimilated to normal teenagehood, much to Jude’s horror. Why did you make this editorial choice? What do you want kids reading Noah’s arc to take from that change?

Noah’s traumatized in Jude’s timeline. He’s lost his mother and he blames himself for her death (wrongly so). He’s lost Brian and blames himself for that too (rightly so). And he’s alienated from Jude, who’s his ballast and soulmate. On top of all that, he’s devastated he didn’t get into CSA [an art school]. So he protects himself by retreating, and this means, among other things, he stops making art. Essentially he goes undercover, and for Noah I felt that would mean becoming conventional.

There’s this feeling in the children’s literature community you can do anything artistically, which is liberating.

So it was mostly a psychological/emotional choice for him on my part. That said, in an editorial sense, I put a lot of mirroring in the novel, and so I did really like the idea of Jude and Noah switching roles in each timeline. I think the takeaway for teens is that it can be very difficult and challenging to be yourself. As ee cummings says in the quote that opens the novel: “It takes a lot of courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

Clearly YA novels can be nuanced, mature, and beautifully written, as your writing and that of so many other voices in the genre shows. Do you like the “literary” label? Do you think it matters for YA literature for people to take the art of it more seriously, or is that just a bunch of navel-gazing?

Thank you. I’m OK with that label, and sure, I think it’d be nice for YA writers to be taken more seriously. I can’t tell you how many times I’m asked when I’m going to write a “real” novel.

That said, as nice as it might be to have more validation at cocktail parties, I don’t really care very much. There’s value in being a literary outsider. YA writers seem to be experimenting a great deal in terms of form, storytelling, and genre-bending. Maybe that’s why. Prestige and assimilation can inhibit creativity. There’s this feeling in the children’s literature community you can do anything artistically, which is liberating. Also, Jason Reynolds said this brilliant thing on the relationship between the two communities: “In regards to the ‘hierarchy’ of literature, [adult] writers don’t get to have careers if we [YA lit and kidlit writers] don’t create their readership.” So there you go!

I'll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson
I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

Your use of language is lyrical. How much of that comes during the rewriting process – do you try to get the plot down on paper first, then return to the language? Do you get phrases in your head and work them into the books? What is your process?

Thank you! Well, no, honestly, hardly anything happens in the first draft for me language-wise, which makes writing it pretty torturous, but I’m of the school that you allow yourself to write the crappiest first draft, that it’s just a way to start getting to know the characters and feeling out the story.

I love when I can finally start working the language because it means the characters have become fleshed out enough that I can hear their voices. Then, in the very last drafts, I focus on the language exclusively and can fuss with a paragraph for days. That’s my favorite part of the process, perhaps because it’s like working on a poem. And yes, I keep notebooks of words, metaphors, lines, phrases, dialogue, ideas, etc. Some I end up using, some I don’t.

Forgiveness is another theme that looms large in your writing. Sometimes in your books that really means self-forgiveness. Do you find that topic resonates with teen readers?

From the letters I get from teens, I do think so. Many teens feel hemmed in by mistakes they’ve made, and it’s important for them to realize that their mistakes and bad choices don’t always have to define them. That hopefully their lives will be full of second and third and fourth chances.

Take us through your character-building process. Do you use notecards? A software program? Your brain?

Sadly just the brain! I want a software program! Occasionally characters arrive fully formed, but mostly it takes many drafts and much agita to bring them to life. I find it the most mysterious part of writing. You work and work at it, trying this and that, throwing backstory at them, dressing them up in this personality-outfit or that one, getting to know them through wrong turn after turn plot-wise, and then one day you open the file and there they are, alive, just being themselves, taking over the storytelling. Like they’ve been waiting for you. It can take years, but when it happens it always feels like a miracle.

One of your favorite quotes listed on your website is also one of mine, from Zora Neale Hurston: “No, I do not weep at the world – I’m too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” What does that mean to you?

Oh such a beautiful quote. I think I take it quite literally and optimistically: You may have to open half an ocean of oysters to find life’s pearl, but it’s worth the effort and the preparation and the time for that one gleaming moment. It’s a lot like writing, actually.

 

Toni Fitzgerald is the copy editor for The Writer. She is currently writing her first children’s book while working out her complicated feelings about the serial comma. Web: tonifitz76.com.