Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You Sun is a NYT bestseller, winner of the Printz Award, and it’s even been optioned by Warner Bros. for a movie! So, obviously, we were thrilled to catch up with Jandy to talk inspiration, siblings and superstitions.
I’ll Give You the Sun is like an intricate dance; the way it weaves back and forth between the very different POVs of twins Noah (at age 13) and Jude (at age 16, after she and Noah have drifted apart). How did you manage to keep the voices so distinct, the timelines so tight, and the story so suspenseful?
Wow, thank you so much! These were some of my biggest concerns when writing. I wanted the voices to feel authentic to each twin and wanted the reader’s perspective on events to shift with the shifting narrators, for their allegiances to switch throughout the story. And I hoped the dual structure would create more suspense, that feeling of “Wait, what actually happened in the intervening years?” I realized after much trial and error that the best way to keep the voices/worlds/perspectives of each twin from blending and to make sure each narrative had its own propulsion was to write each twin’s story separately. So I wrote Noah’s narrative start to finish (locking Jude’s file while I was working on Noah’s story) and then wrote Jude’s narrative start to finish (keeping Noah’s file locked). This took over two years. Then I started weaving the narratives together, which took another year, and was like writing a whole new novel. At that point I was praying (like crazy!) it would work and I think I cut 50K words in that third stage. In many ways it took writing three novels to get the one.
Your characters are so alive—complex, flawed and almost bursting off the page with their love, ache, desire and vulnerability. Do you develop them as you write the plot or do you create interesting characters first and then give them a story to move around in?
It makes me so happy that you feel that way. I always start with the characters, though usually they “arrive” (from who knows where) carrying pieces of their story with them. For instance, the first image I had of Lennie in The Sky Is Everywhere was of her writing something to her sister who had died on a scrap of paper and tossing it to the wind. I knew she was grief-stricken and I also knew that she was about to fall madly in love. It was similar with Noah and Jude. They “arrived” already artists with the tragedy that had come between them. I guess I think of plot as an exploration, as an extension of character, and in many ways, I think my characterization process is largely just being a slow writer. I spend a long time first thinking about the characters, then getting more acquainted with them by taking wrong turn after turn with them plot-wise, until years pass with us locked together in a room like nutty inmates, and I pretty much feel like I know them as well as I do my closest family members. It’s wonderful being a fiction writer because you can write the previous sentence without getting committed!
Speaking of which, it’s going to sound crazy but I wrote I’ll Give You the Sun (for all 3 ½ years) in a pitch-black room with earplugs in and a sound machine blasting. The only light in the room came from the computer screen, which was like a portal into the story. I do think this extreme (mental) way of working really allowed me to get inside these characters more deeply than I ever had before.
In both The Sky is Everywhere and I’ll Give You the Sun you focus on siblings, and in particular how they handle loss and first love. What is it about siblings that intrigues you most?
I like how siblings seem to create their own parentless mini-civilization within a family, one that has its own laws, myths, language, humor, its own loyalties and treacheries. I like that no one on earth gets you like your siblings or can get to you like your siblings. I grew up with older brothers and I definitely think I draw on that love when I’m writing about siblings. It’s so powerful, the jump-in-front-of-a-train-to-protect-them kind of love.
Noah’s hands are always covered in paint and Jude’s with clay. Why did you make them artists and make art such an integral part of their relationship, and how did you decide to assign each character their passion?
I love visual art and had been thinking a lot about it before I started writing this story, about the tumult of the artistic process and the kind of ecstatic commitment involved in creating. I’d even been contemplating going back to school to get a PhD in art history. And then the next thing I knew, Noah and Jude were at my doorstep. I don’t feel like I assigned them their passions though. Jude was making her flying women out of sand and Noah furiously drawing from the get-go. I think these particular passions were in their blood, and because of their mother, art itself was a kind of religion in their family. Personally, I loved writing about art, felt like every work I’ve ever fallen in love with—by Chagall, Picasso, Bacon, Bonnard, Kahlo, Marc, Bernini, Botero, Brancusi and so many others—influenced me and moved me and spoke to me all at once while writing this book.
I also took a stone carving class for research, which was a blast. Actually, literally: a blast. I had expected this very Michelangelo-esque type of scene, all of us tap-tap-tapping away at our marble, but it’s nothing like that. We were outside in all types of weather, wearing protective gear that made us look like hazmat workers, using power drills and circular saws. Watching my teacher Barry Baldwin (an incredible stone carver) I really saw the Michelangelo quote that thematically runs through the novel, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” come to life. He’d take a drill to a hunk of rock, get lost in a cloud a dust, and a moment later when the dust cleared, there would be a woman unfurling inside the stone. Miraculous. But what was most incredible of all was I really got to see works of art anew through Noah’s and Jude’s eyes. That was life-transforming. For instance, I never really liked Jackson Pollock that much but seeing his work through Noah’s eyes BLEW MY MIND. Same with seeing Brancusi’s The Kiss through Jude’s. Amazing.
IGYTS has some seriously powerful feels! And it reads like you poured some of yourself into it. Are you more of a Jude or a Noah?
I think I’m both! Perhaps Noah more emotionally and Jude more intellectually and also she and I share a few blasted neuroses. A friend recently told me he thought I was Guillermo, which made me happy. It was interesting because of all the characters Guillermo “arrived” the most fully formed. It never felt like I was thinking him into existence but like he already was.
Jude is very superstitious and believes that her deceased Grandmother Sweetwine is communicating with her. When and why did you decide to add this magical element to the book?
I knew Jude was superstitious and would be lugging around her Grandmother’s superstition “bible” early on. (I share this affliction and grew up superstitious because of my nutso mom and grandmother!) but strangely, the magic kept blindsiding me while writing this story. Grandma Sweetwine’s ghost wasn’t a character in the novel until about halfway through the writing process. She just wouldn’t shut up in my head and finally I realized, “Oh! Of course, Jude’s actually talking to her grandmother’s ghost!” And it was the same kind of revelation when I realized Noah “seemed” to resist the force of gravity when he jumped off cliffs. But this novel is a lot about perception and both Noah and Jude perceive a lot of magic in the world so I think the magic evolved naturally from their points of view. On an emotional level, I felt like “the bible” was kind of a lifeline for Jude; that she’d draw on it, both as a way to connect to her dead grandmother whom she loved dearly but also as a way to feel more in control (however illogical) of her life and less afraid in the world.
What is it about the passionate, fierce and treacherous relationship between Noah and Jude that made hurt inevitable?
I think the hurt was inevitable precisely because their relationship was so passionate and fierce and also highly competitive. Noah says in the beginning that when he paints himself and Jude with see-through skin, he sees rattlesnakes in their bellies. I think he’s right. They’re both vying for the love and approval of a distracted mother who shares their passion for art and appears to be favoring one twin’s talent over the other. Then tragedy strikes and they are spinning with grief. In my mind, it’s a perfect storm for sibling harmony to turn into sibling treachery.
Can you share anything about your next novel?
It’s a novel about two brothers and a sister living in a hot, dusty Northern California vineyard town called Paradise. Their father mysteriously disappeared 16 years earlier and the story begins when this strange, enigmatic girl shows up and sends all their lives into tumult. It’s kind of a relay race of a love(s) story, with some serious trumpet playing, food making, grape crushing, break ins and outs, dreams shattered and pieced back together, time lost, love lost and found, and a band called Hell Hyena and the Furniture. I’m really excited about it! I’ve been taking cooking classes for research, which has been so fun. And best of all: I’ve become a really good soufflé maker.
Your strongest superstition?
Well, I hate to fly on airplanes, basically spend the whole time in mortal terror, and once heard that getting your spit on the outside of the aircraft will keep it safe. But alas, spitting on an airplane while boarding is not easy to do without getting arrested or upsetting fellow travelers. My method: I stealthily lick my finger and then subtly press it into the outside of the plane as I board. I also make all my travelling companions do this.
The YA book you’re recommending now?
I really loved All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. I thought her characterization of Finch was masterful. It’s a beautiful and devastating story.
Favorite quote or line from a poem?
Oh, so many! Here’s a favorite by ee cummings: “Since the thing perhaps is to eat flowers and not to be afraid.”
The character (from any book) you would run away with is?
Probably I’d grab Heathcliff, though poor me, such a sucker for the dark, brooding, impossible ones.
Photo Credit: Jandy Nelson © Sonya Soyes