Jennifer Niven: An Exclusive Interview on All the Bright Places

Jennifer Niven: An Exclusive Interview on All the Bright Places

Hi Jennifer! Thanks for speaking to us. Let’s start with Finch and Violet. Why did you decide to let both characters tell the story of All the Bright Places? Did you always intend to include both their perspectives?

I wouldn’t have written All the Bright Places if I hadn’t loved a boy years ago who was a lot like Finch. I knew if I was going to try to tell this story, I wanted to tell at least part of it from his POV. So many times I read a novel from one character’s perspective, and I find myself wondering about one of the other characters. It’s almost as if I’m being told the story in mono, when I want to hear it in stereo. I knew I wanted to write from Violet’s POV too, especially because she has to carry the story through to the end.

I’ve always preferred first person narration because I feel it’s the most immediate, and most novels dealing with mental illness and suicide seem to be written from the outside looking in — the main character is either left in the wake of someone who has died or they’re observing that person from afar. We rarely get to hear from the character who’s actually struggling, and I feel that when we do get to hear from that character it makes the experience all the more powerful and real.

Which character did you “meet” in your head first and what significance did they have for you at that time?

I met Finch first. As I mentioned, I once knew and loved a boy, and that boy was bipolar. While I did do some research into mental illness, it was the experience of knowing and loving this boy that informed my writing the most. It was amazing and cathartic to give him life, to spend that time with him. But Finch very quickly became his own living, breathing person, and as I wrote I thought less about the real-life boy, and concentrated on the one coming to life on the page.

At first I experimented with calling him Teddy, but he wasn’t Teddy. He was Finch. Always Finch.

We love the names Finch and Violet, what inspired them?

Names are important and some characters are easier to name than others. When I sat down to write Finch’s first chapter, I heard his voice in my head saying, “I, Theodore Finch, being of unsound mind…” I never even thought about his name. It just appeared. (Probably unconsciously influenced by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite books.) At first I experimented with calling him Teddy, but he wasn’t Teddy. He was Finch. Always Finch.

Once I had him, I worked to find “Violet Markey.” I knew I wanted a classic-sounding name, and landed on Violet pretty quickly (purple is my favorite color). Her last name took a bit more thought. I consulted the baby name guides and tried Violet This and Violet That, but nothing clicked. And you need a character name to click if you’re going to really be able to see that character. At the time I was writing All the Bright Places, I’d just wrapped up my second draft of a novel called American Blonde, which takes place in Hollywood in the 1940s. I did a lot of research for that book, and in that research I’d come across the story of an actress named Enid Markey, who played Jane in the very first Tarzan film back in 1918. Something about the name stuck. It was different but didn’t seem to be trying too hard, and I liked the way it sounded with Violet. I didn’t choose it so that Finch could call her “Ultraviolet Remarkey-able” — that was just creative serendipity.

Was All the Bright Places always supposed to end the way it did? Or did you start out thinking there would be a different ending?

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. It was the story I knew.

Do you have a favourite quote or scene from the book?

Favorite quote: “You are all the colors in one, at full brightness.”

Favorite scene: when Finch abandons his car on the side of the road and runs to the nursery, where he collects flowers for Violet so that he can bring her spring.

What did you learn about mental illness, depression and grief during the writing of All the Bright Places? Did the process of writing and researching help with your own experiences of grief?

I learned a great deal about mental illness, depression, and grief. As I was writing All the Bright Places, I interviewed experts on the subjects, but really I just put myself in the mind and heart of the boy I once loved. I had witnessed his struggle firsthand, but for the first time I tried to really step into his skin, as Atticus Finch would say, and know what it was like for him.

As for Violet, grief is something I know inside and out. Certain moments were harder to write about than others, but as I tell young writers, you have to be willing to let yourself cry because if you don’t pour everything into your writing, your reader won’t feel the emotions you want them to feel. In doing so, I think I came out stronger than before. Over the years I’ve had to come to terms with how small I am in the scheme of things, but I’ve also learned what I’m made of.

What importance did supporting characters such as Finch’s family play in building a complete story of depression?

Those are the teens who feel they have no one to turn to, who feel like a burden, who feel like they don’t matter and no one understands them.

I think Finch’s family certainly paints one story of depression, but there are so many variations to be told. For me, it was important to show what happens when adults are negligent in their parental responsibility to care for their son and be there for him. It’s clear that Finch inherited bipolar disorder from his father and that his mother is dealing with depression of her own (as are his sisters), yet his parents are nowhere to be found when it comes to listening, to truly seeing their son, to helping. Finch should have spoken up and been honest with someone about what he was feeling, but his parents are just as culpable if not more so — they should have been paying closer attention.

There have been some adults who have taken issue with my book because they believe Finch’s parents are unrealistic in their negligence, but unfortunately these kinds of parents exist. There are also adults who don’t think authors should write about depression, mental illness, and suicide. They say, “Let teens learn about it when they’re older, but not now.” I understand this comes out of a desire to protect their kids, but that kind of attitude is dangerous. It isolates the teen they’re trying to shield. It teaches that teen that it’s wrong to feel the way he/she feels and it’s wrong to talk about it. Those are the kids I hear from daily — the kids of this type of parent. Those are the teens who feel they have no one to turn to, who feel like a burden, who feel like they don’t matter and no one understands them.

Finch and Violet find wisdom in words from great poets and writers. Do you have any favourite writers or quotes that you live your life by?

So many, but the quotes I live my life by come primarily from my mom. She always said, “Don’t limit yourself.” “Be who you were meant to be and do the work you were meant to do.” “Honor yourself.” “You are the only you there is, and only you can write your story.” “Let yourself cry.” “Know when to let the book go.” And my favorite, “You can’t freak out and write a book at the same time.”

You’ve chosen an Ernest Hemingway quote for the epigraph at the beginning of All The Bright Places – ‘The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places’. What does this mean to you?

I’ve lost so many people in my life — my father, my beloved grandparents, cousins, friends, mentors, my boyfriend, and, most recently, my mom, who was my very best friend. So much loss. But through it, I try to focus on something Violet realizes in the book: it’s not what you take, it’s what you leave. Every person I’ve lost has left me so much, and I like to think I carry them with me and that I’m stronger for having known them and loved them. I’ve also learned the importance of wandering the world, making it lovely, and leaving something behind.

Why do you think Finch and Violet’s story resonates with younger people in particular?

Finch and Violet show these young people that they aren’t alone. That there are others in the world who feel like they do. Finch and Violet show them that they matter. That they deserve love. From what I see based on the teens who write to me, there is so much pressure to be perfect, to get good grades, to be responsible, oftentimes to be a caretaker for a parent or siblings. There is pressure to look a certain way, act a certain way, to be perfect, to not have anything wrong with them. Teens are dealing with so much all at once — heightened by the fact that the teen years, as a rule, are a very emotional time — and for most of them it’s the first experience with these particular pressures and emotions. It can be overwhelming. I remember being that age and the way I felt. Nothing was bigger than what I was going through, and it felt like whatever I was going through would last forever. It also felt like no one could possibly understand what I was feeling. Many teens can’t see past today. They don’t know that they will get better, that it will get better. Finch and Violet help show them that life can be dark, but there are always bright places everywhere.

What has it been like to meet fans who have found such a strong connection with the book?

There’s no way for me to describe it. They cry and I cry, and it is the most overwhelmingly moving feeling. They open up to me about their own stories of depression or mental illness or loss or suicide, and they tell me how the book has saved their lives. The thing I always tell them is that they have saved mine in ways they can’t possibly know.

Is there a message that you’d like your readers to take from the book?

It is okay to feel the way you are feeling, but it’s not okay to try to handle it all by yourself. Reach out. Speak up.

You are necessary. You are loved. You matter. You are the only you that exists in this world. You are not alone. It is okay to feel the way you are feeling, but it’s not okay to try to handle it all by yourself. Reach out. Speak up. Let someone know how you’re feeling, or if you’re close to someone who is battling mental illness and you’re worried about that person, reach out and speak up for them. Help is out there. It gets better. Life is long and vast and full of possibility. And know that even when life is darkest, there are bright places everywhere. Know that you are a bright place.

I’m hearing from many, many teens who are either struggling with their own mental health issues or know someone who is, and the first thing I tell them is to talk to someone they trust, whether that’s a parent, teacher, counselor, sibling, or friend. We need to stop being afraid of talking about the hard stuff so that we can make people feel safe enough to come forward and say, “I have a problem. I need help.”

Here are some helpful links to organizations that get it, that care: Germ Magazine Links and JenniferNiven.com Help Page.

If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice, at what age would you want to speak to yourself and what advice would you give?

I would tell my seventeen-year-old self, “Take better care of your heart. Don’t just smile and pretend everything is perfect and keep everything inside. Talk to people. Let them in.”

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

As I said, my mom was an author, and ever since I was little I’ve loved to write. We used to have writing time together, where she sat at her desk and I sat at mine, and it was then she taught me to see the story in everything. She also taught me never to limit myself or my imagination, and so I grew up believing I could be or do anything I put my mind to. She’s been the greatest inspiration in my life, both personally and creatively.

There are other writers who have been influential along the way —Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, and Harper Lee. One of my favorite books is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I also get a lot of inspiration from filmmakers. Charlie Chaplin in particular. All of these artists taught me the importance of being succinct but expressive, and of saying a great deal in the most honest, straightforward way.

Speaking of filmmakers, we’re very excited to hear a film of All The Bright Places is in the works, will you be making a cameo appearance?

I would love to! *crosses fingers*

We didn’t realise that the website that Violet creates actually exists online! Why did you decide to bring it to life?

In the book, Violet is the creator of a web magazine named Germ. After I wrote the first draft of the book, I thought: What if Germ was real?… I wanted to build a community, and I wanted to create a place where young readers and writers could submit their work and see it published. I wanted to create a place that talked honestly about issues that teens and twenty-somethings are facing, and I wanted that place to be accessible to everyone. Nearly two years after launching we have a large international staff of young writers, and we’re read all over the world. We even get fan mail! I’m so incredibly proud of what we’ve become. [View Germ Magazine here]



Quickfire Round…

What is your favourite book of all time?

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

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

Jem Finch or Phoebe Caulfield.

Which character from a book would have as your boyfriend?

Butch Dawkins from my Velva Jean novel series. I can’t help it. He made me swoon as I was writing him.

eBooks or paper books?

Paper!

City, countryside or beach?

City, mountains, and beach, which are three reasons I live in Los Angeles.

What was your favourite subject at school?

Literature of all types.

Is there a book that you wish you wrote?

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. And Dracula.

What makes you happy?

Love. Sunshine. Palm trees. Kindness.

Favourite photograph?

One of my mom and me when I was a little girl, sitting in our reading chair as I read to her.

Favourite item of clothing?

My black jumpsuit.

What is your favourite book to film adaptation?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Favourite quote of all time?

There are too many to choose just one, but I love “If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.” – Emile Zola. And “Why sometimes I’ve believed six impossible things before breakfast.” – Lewis Carroll.

Favourite place to read?

The sofa in my office.

Favourite place to write?

The desk in my office.


You can find more about All the Bright Places here and don’t forget to check out the other Zoella Book Club books here.