American author Jennifer Niven visited Brooke Weston as the only school on her UK tour after Year 9 student Lucy MacDonald contacted her to tell her how much she had enjoyed her latest book ‘All the Bright Places’.
It is Ms Niven’s first book aimed at the Young Adult audience. Its two protagonists, Violet Markey and Theodore Finch meet in the most unlikely of settings and set off to see quirky tourist spots across Indiana in a friendship riven with mental health issues. The book has been praised for its sensitive portrayal of the subject matter and is now being made into a film, with Elle Fanning cast as Violet.
Lucy said: ‘I bought ‘All the Bright Places’ as I thought it looked good because of the cover. I told everyone at school about it and a lot of people liked it so I sent an email to Ms Niven telling her why I liked it and saying it would be great if she could visit because I know she was doing a book tour in the UK. We kept emailing each other and she asked her publisher if she could fit in a trip to Brooke Weston.’
During her time here Ms Niven gave presentations to Year 9 and 10 students (including 14 from Wrenn School). She also met those who attend our Book Club, signed books and answered questions about her work and career. Ms Niven said: ‘My mother was an author and when I was little we had writing time. As soon as I could pick up crayons and form words I was writing stories. I knew I loved writing more than anything else and I knew from watching my mum how demanding it could be so it scared me off writing.
‘Then I figured out very quickly that I couldn’t not write so I started writing shortly after I graduated from film school with a degree in screen writing. I was always thinking in terms of film. When I came along this great idea my mother said “what about writing it as a book first, the movie can always come later?”
‘That was the first time it really occurred to me to write a full length book, 'The Ice Master', a non-fiction account of an Arctic expedition from 1913. I did a lot of research and the reason my mother suggested doing it as a book was that there were so many first hand resources left behind including diaries, journals, letters and even film footage. It was fascinating to work on but did about two years.
‘It all happened very quickly. I was working full time at ABC television in Los Angeles and I came across this story about this expedition and I wrote a query letter to agents and within about a week I heard from all of them saying they would love to read it, it sounds amazing. I hadn’t written anything so I had to very quickly write something. I gave it to my first choice of agent and five months later we sold the book at auction based on a book proposal that I wrote.
‘It was my first published book aimed at an adult audience. My second, ‘Ada Blackjack’, was also about an Arctic expedition and I became pigeonholed as the Arctic girl. While the Arctic did fascinate me I am a writer first and foremost so it was time to do something else.
'I wrote my first novel which became a series 'Velva Jean learns to Drive', 'Velva Jean learns to Fly', 'Becoming Clementine' and 'American Blonde'. I also did a memoir about my high school years in Indiana so 'All the Bright Places' is my eighth book but my first Young Adult novel.
‘I got the inspiration from a boy I knew and loved years ago and he was bipolar. I saw first hand what he was dealing with in terms of his struggle just to be in the world. Knowing him was such a life-changing experience and I knew that one day I would want to write about it, but it was so fresh so I didn’t know if I was able to.
‘My agent passed away unexpectedly in the spring of 2013 as I was finishing my last book and I had to very quickly think of a new idea, because I was talking to new agents and they wanted to know what the next project would be. That is when I really sat down and thought about what I wanted to do.
‘Each book has been a challenge in different ways but this one emotionally was tough. I am a pretty private person so to have to expose yourself like that on paper is not the most comfortable thing for me even though there are parts of me in all of my books. Even though I had done a memoir this one felt the most personal book by far. I’d love for the book to inspire young people to look for their own bright places, whether that is a person or an actual place or a thing that makes them happy. I have heard from several who have said it inspired them to look around at the people and places in their lives and see them in new ways.
‘I would also like it to inspire a conversation about mental health because I hear from too many teens who say they are struggling with issues, whether it is depression or suicidal tendencies or they are just worried about the state of their mental health and they don’t feel they have anyone they can talk to. The book makes them feel like they are not alone.
‘'All the Bright Places' is being made into a movie. We have a director, producers, we are signing a writer and Elle Fanning is signed on to play Violet which we are so excited about because not only is she a fabulous actress, she is who I pictured when I was writing Violet. To see your character come to life the way you envisioned is very exciting.
‘So much of my focus lately has been on promoting 'All the Bright Places' and travelling. I have decided on the next project. It is about a boy who can’t recognise faces and a very visible girl who feels invisible and it is going to be told again in dual perspective and aimed at the young adult market. Both books completely stand alone but I hope it will be identifiable as a Jennifer Niven book.
‘In terms of the creative writing time there is not as much of it as I would like because there is so much business that comes with the writing. When I am home I write every day. I do emails in the morning and then I am there at my desk from nine-ish until eight o’ clock at night. Then later I will be doing social media and checking on emails so it is a long day and long weekends.
‘Hemingway called writer’s block “wrestling the alligators” and that is exactly what it feels like. When the words don’t come there are two things I tend to do: One is just to walk away for a little bit, maybe come back the next day and try to do something that relaxes my mind so I can hopefully come to it fresh. The other thing is that I try to write through it -sometimes you just have to write garbage in order to try and loosen whatever is blocking you and hopefully you can write your way towards something good.
‘When I wrote the first novel my mother was checking in to see how it was going. I said I had outlined it in detail, just like I did the non-fiction and then about a week later she asked how it was going and I said “It’s terrible, the characters are going off in every direction, I don’t know what is happening with the plot! Everything has changed and I have had to throw out the outline …” and she said “Welcome to fiction!”
‘It is a completely different animal and I also find that each novel wants to be written in a different way. Some are more outline than others and some I just have a general idea of where I need to go and some of the key points I need to hit, but there is all this in between that needs to be figured out as I go.
‘I have done a murder mystery and another one was very plot driven so with those I had to plan out everything because each scene depended on it. It was kind of uncomfortable for me to do that but it was kind of a challenge.’
‘I would love to keep writing books and my only worry is that I have so many ideas that hopefully I will have time to write them all. I would love to keep doing YA for a while. I have been out of high school for quite a while but I think that part of me will always be 15 and I think that that helps to tap into it. Most YA writers have that kind of sensibility, they are always able to channel their inner 15-year-old!’