Jandy Nelson: An Exclusive Interview on The Sky is Everywhere

Jandy Nelson: An Exclusive Interview on The Sky is Everywhere

Hi Jandy, thanks for speaking with us! The Sky is Everywhere explores the bond between sisters. Do you think there’s something particularly special about this relationship? Do you have a strong bond with your own siblings?

I don’t have a sister, but I am extremely close to my brothers and definitely drew on those relationships a lot when thinking about Lennie and Bailey. I’m the youngest in the family, so I know intimately what it’s like to adore and idolize and orbit around older siblings. I also have women in my life with whom I’ve been friends for over thirty years—absolutely sisters to me, so I also drew on those relationships. My second novel I’ll Give You the Sun as well as the third one I’m working on now are also about sibling relationships. I find that kind of powerful, jump-in-front-of-a-train-to-protect-them kind of sibling bond really beautiful and endlessly fascinating. I like how brothers and sisters seem to create their own parentless mini-civilization within a family, one that has its own laws, myths, language, humour, 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.

Who was your favourite character to write and why?

This is like asking which child I like best! Very hard to answer. I’d have to say Lennie because I became so intimately involved with her every thought, with every beat of her heart, felt very much like we were experiencing this cataclysmic grief, this rapturous first love, all the everything of the story together, learning together, making mistakes together, etc. That said, I also had a blast writing Big and Gram, who both carry traits of some of my favourite family members and were very entertaining to me. Both surprised me often, which is a wonderful gift when you’re writing. I also loved writing Joe because he represented the world without heartbreak for me and so made me happy every time he set foot in a scene. And Toby intrigued me because his grief/passion so consumed him. You see? Can’t choose!

Are there any people or authors who particularly inspire you to write?

Honestly most everything I read inspires me to write, words themselves kind of activate the writing impulse. My favourite writers though are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Virginia Woolf, Anne Carson and William Steig. I’m also inspired by visual artists, would like to live in a great many paintings. And I find many people in my daily life inspiring. I think most I’m close with end up inside a character in some way or other, whether it’s a sentence they might utter, an idiosyncratic way of thinking, an odd gesture, a feeling they inspire. Living and writing go together for me. I somehow need to translate life into words so I can better understand, appreciate and revel in it. When I’m not writing (and reading) I feel like I’m only living half a life. I somehow need to interpret as I go along.

The Sky is Everywhere is the sort of book that we want to go through with a pad of Post-it notes so that we can keep track of all the beautiful quotes. How have words helped you with your own experiences in life? How does it feel when readers tell you that your quotes have helped them?

Wow — thank you so much. Getting letters from readers means the world to me. I can’t imagine a greater honour than touching readers like I’ve been touched as a reader. I feel like books save me every day, teach me how to live, how to be, how to understand others, and how to find meaning and joy in the world.

“My sister dies over and over again, all day long.” Lennie eventually accepts that grief is a part of you and that you need to look to the future with grief at your side. Do you agree that grief changes people? What advice would you give Lennie for the future?

I absolutely think grief changes you, changes everything, the world is no longer the same after that kind of loss, even the light seems different. I lost someone very close to me years ago, and really just felt like the whole continent had been swept into the sea. I very much wanted to write about that kind of catastrophic, transformational life event, to really dive into some of the intricacies and complexities of grief. And yes, at one point toward the end of the novel, it occurs to Lennie that grief is forever, that it will be with her always, step for step, breath for breath. She realizes (and I realized this right along with her) that grief and love are conjoined and you can’t have one without the other. Grief is always going to be a measure of the love lost. Lennie thinks, “All I can do is love her [Bailey], and love the world, emulate her by living with daring and spirit and joy.” Every time I come across that moment in the story, I think to myself, Well there it is, the whole book crammed into one paragraph! So, I guess this is the advice I give Lennie (or more accurately, she gives me) for the future.

In your opening letter you reveal that some of the “kookiest” elements of the novel are true – e.g. the spotted plant, the forest bedroom and a grief-stricken girl who scatters poems all over town. Can you tell us more?

Sure, so much of The Sky Is Everywhere I lifted from my nutty family! In addition to the plant and the forest bedroom and the scattered poems, Uncle Big in the novel has a lot in common with one of my brothers. Both are mad scientists, and growing up, this brother also had pyramids all over our basement where he was trying to preserve the life of flowers, fruit, etc. I took it a little further with Big and his claim that his pyramids could resurrect bugs. Also, my Grandmother Cele like Gram in Sky wore floral frocks around the house and painted (pretty much exclusively) green people who covered every inch of her walls. Her superstitiousness really pervaded our lives and seems to pervade both my novels. She put red ribbons under mattresses and sugar squares in drawers. She knocked wood and made hidden altars and talked about the evil eye and ways to counter it. She insisted we put vinegar on our foreheads when anything good was said about our futures or when we needed extra protection or luck. She read palms with startling accuracy and believed her dead father talked to her through dreams. (I think all this has an ever bigger influence on Grandma Sweetwine and Jude in I’ll Give You the Sun than Gram and Lennie in Sky). But however absurd and illogical this kind of superstitiousness is, I like the idea of “charming” the world, of people believing in “magic.”

Poetry plays a very important role in the novel. How did that idea come to you?

Before writing this novel, I’d only ever written poetry, and The Sky Is Everywhere actually started as a novel in verse. I had this image in my mind of a grief-stricken girl scattering her poems all over a town – that was really the inciting image for the whole book and key right from the start to Lennie’s character. So it all began with her poems. I thought the novel would be a compilation of them, but very early on, like after a couple weeks of writing, it became clear that Lennie’s story needed to be told primarily in prose. This terrified me because I didn’t know how to write fiction (!!!) but I dove in and found myself falling in love with it. I realized when you write fiction you get to live many lives at once, which was a truly sublime revelation.

Music has a powerful influence on Lennie throughout the book. In what ways do you think music is significant in the story? Is music important in your life?

Lennie pretty much crashed into my psyche, clarinet in hand. She was always a musician in my mind and I knew that music would be an intrinsic factor in her growth, in the way she coped with her grief, in how she connected in a wordless way with Joe, in how she moved out of Bailey’s shadow and into her own light. I wanted music to have a curative, aphrodisiacal, celebratory, and transformative role in the story. Like Jack Kerouac said, “The only truth is music.” And Shakespeare: “If music be the food of love, play on.” I wanted Lennie to play on. And yes, I love music too. All art is important in my life, crucial even, like breath and food. It’s the great joy.


Quickfire round…

What was your favourite book as a teenager?

You know, I didn’t really have a favourite. I was a voracious reader but kind of an equal opportunity one, loving Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins one minute, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence the next (I was really crazy about Lawrence in high school — perhaps all the simmering passions?). Also, The Outsiders by SE Hinton and Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke made big impressions on me as did Catcher in the Rye and all of Judy Blume’s books when I was a little younger.

Which character from a book would you have as your best friend?

I’d love to hang around with Weetzie Bat. Also, I just read and adored How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran and would love to have some late nights with Johanna Morrigan. Oh and imagine what a cool friend Harold of Harold and the Purple Crayon would be!

Which character from a book would have as your boyfriend?

Well, fortunately or unfortunately for me, I’m most attracted to dark brooding literary madmen like Heathcliff.

Favourite place in the world?

Zion Canyon in Southern Utah is the most gorgeous place I’ve ever been. Imagine towering red rock canyon walls against deep endless blue skies and turquoise pools of water you can jump into. But I also really love Northern California where I live: the giant redwoods and crashing waves and rushing rivers, the eucalyptus and pine groves, the meadows and waterfalls. It’s heaven. It makes it hard for me to set my novels anywhere else.

Handwrite or type?

Type, now, though I’d like to force myself to handwrite for an hour every day. I think it changes the way you think and so what you write and how you write it.