Nicola Yoon: An Exclusive Interview on Everything Everything

Nicola Yoon: An Exclusive Interview on Everything Everything

Hi Nicola! What inspired you to write about someone living with SCID? What was it about Maddy’s circumstances that interested you?

I started writing this book when I was a very nervous new mom. My daughter was just four months old, and I was a complete worrywart. I worried that she’d eat dirt, catch a cold and somehow crawl out the front door. I felt very protective of her. That feeling led me to wonder what life would be like for a girl who always needed protecting in the same way that you protect an infant. What would a life spent indoors, under constant monitoring and protection, do to her psyche? What would happen if she ever fell in love? What risks would she be willing to take for love?

Maddy’s situation is quite extreme and unusual. Was it challenging to make her relatable to readers?

I think Maddy struggles with a lot of the same things we all struggle with. What kind of risks are we willing to take in order to achieve the thing we most want in the world? What are the costs of loving someone, and are the costs worth it? Most teenagers are also exploring beyond the boundaries created by their parents. It’s a constant push–pull of wanting to be safe with your family and wanting to venture out into the world and find yourself.

Was it a challenge to get into the mindset of someone who has had so little direct experience of the world?

Yes, definitely challenging. Fortunately, though, I wrote the book over the course of three years as my daughter grew from an infant into a toddler. For her, so many things are still brand new. I used some of her reactions to help capture Maddy’s innocence and sense of wonder.

There are a lot of strong female relationships in the books, particularly Maddy and her mum. What inspired you to explore these relationships in your book?

Some of it was from my own experience — I have a great relationship with my mom — and some of it is from my own hopes and dreams for my relationship with my daughter. It was also really important to me that the female relationships be positive. Those relationships are crucial and formative, and I wanted to show some of the joy of that.

Maddy and her mum love playing games. Did you make them up for the story or do you play them yourself?

Phonetic Scrabble (Fonetik Skrabl) is a game my husband and I play A LOT. I’ve never actually beaten him at it — but, then again, he’s never beaten me at regular Scrabble. It’s funny how differently our brains work.

Is Olly based on anyone you know? Why do you think Maddy (and readers) find him so appealing?

Olly is based partially on my husband — they both have the same sense of humour and same fear of the ocean 🙂 Maddy initially finds him appealing because of his parkour skills. He’s comfortable in his body, while Maddy feels trapped in hers. After that she’s attracted to his earnestness and his sense of humour.

Maddy’s heritage isn’t the main focus of the book but it isn’t glossed over either. Was it your intention to write a “diverse” character in this way?

Definitely intentional. I wrote this book for my daughter, who is a mix of me (Jamaican American) and my husband (Korean American). Her heritage is a part of who she is, but it’s not the entirety of who she is.

What do you think the importance is of offering more diversity in fiction to young people?

I really think it’s important that everyone be able to see themselves as the hero of a story. Imagine what it would mean to a young gay boy or girl to see a Harry Potter–like story where the hero was gay. Imagine what it would mean to a young black girl or boy if the star of the next superhero blockbuster were black. Stories are so important, especially to young people. Stories help shape the way we see ourselves in the world. They help tell us who we can be and what we can achieve.

On top of that, we live in a big, beautiful and diverse world. Our literature needs to reflect diversity simply because that’s the truth of the world we live in.

Maddy decides she’d rather have a short but full life. Do you believe love and freedom are worth the vulnerability that comes with it? How do you apply this to your everyday life?

Yes, I believe they’re worth the vulnerability, but it’s something I’ve struggled with. One of the things to know about me is that I am really, truly, desperately in love with my husband. When we started going out, I knew he was the one for me. I was thrilled that I’d met the love of my life. I was also terrified. I became such a worrywart, convinced each day that something terrible was going to happen to him. How would I ever recover from that? After he and I had our daughter, my worries grew exponentially. My heart no longer lives inside my body. My heart goes to preschool everyday. My heart goes to work everyday. It’s a hard thing get used to.

A key theme for the book is to be brave and take risks in life. What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

Well, I’ve been skydiving three times and loved every second of it, but probably the biggest risk I’ve taken as an adult was the day I decided to quit my very stable, full-time job to become a writer instead.

Maddy reads a lot and says “you can find the meaning of life in a book”. Do you agree with that?

Yes, I definitely agree with this, but I’d say it’s not in just one book but in multiple books. Books are really good at asking questions that help you find your way and decide what the meaning of life is for you. Books like The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger and too many more to list have held enormous meaning for me.

We love the Life is Short reviews in the book. What inspired you to include these reviews in the book?

Maddy is a bookworm. It’s her way of relating to the world since she can’t truly experience it. I thought that since she had such an intense relationship with books she would have very strong and odd opinions about them!

Maddy and Olly first meet through gestures through the window and then communicate online. Do you believe falling in love or being attracted to someone in this way is different to meeting face-to-face?

Yes, I do think it’s different. I really had a lot of fun writing the texting and IMing scenes. I love the idea of Maddy and Olly falling in love with each other’s brains first. Sometimes the physical aspects of falling in love can be so overwhelming. Maddy and Olly had a chance to get to know each other without the physical attraction. When they finally do meet, their intellectual attraction makes the physical one even stronger.

We heard that your husband helped out with the illustrations. What was it like working with him on Maddy’s story?

It was wonderful! I’ll tell you the story of the first illustration we decided to include. I write from 4–6 a.m. and one morning I had this idea that Maddy would draw her world as a way to feel like she was more a part of it. I’m obsessed with Hawaii, and I decided that Maddy would be too. So I had her draw the Hawaiian state fish—the humuhumunukunukuapuaa. I’m terrible at drawing, so I woke my husband up (at 4 a.m.!) and asked him to draw it for me. He’s a terrific artist and also a super sweetie. He got up, gave me a kiss, made himself some coffee and drew the version of the fish that appears in the book today!

Maddy hasn’t left her house in seventeen years. What would you miss most if you had to stay indoors?

Perfect days at the beach with my husband and daughter.

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?

Angst is good for you. It’s the asking of questions that’s important, not the answers.

What was your favourite scene/moment/quote in the book?

I love the scene when Maddy sees the ocean for the first time. I based some of that on how my daughter reacted when she first saw the ocean. She was so delighted and awestruck. She acted as if it was made only for her.

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

Love is worth everything.