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Find more The Booklist Printz Interview
Jandy Nelson made a splash with her debut, The Sky Is Everywhere (2010), but that doesn’t mean the literary world saw I’ll Give You the Sun coming. An absolute whirlwind of vivid imagery, idiosyncratic voice, and fountaining ideas, it was the winner of the 2015 Michael L. Printz Award. Here, Nelson speaks to Booklist about writing the book.
Noah and Jude’s first-person narratives are so distinct. Can you talk about your process for building these individual voices and not having them bleed together?
NELSON: That was one of my biggest concerns for the novel. I wanted each twin’s voice to be uniquely his/her own. In many ways, even though Noah and Jude share a lot (e.g., passionate, excessive natures and creative sensibilities), they’re such different people. They think differently. Noah is a visual/metaphorical thinker; he thinks through his eyes and just has an explosive visual sensibility, and I wanted his chapters to reflect that. Also, his emotions run really hot; they have urgency. Jude is more analytic, more sarcastic and wry and reserved in her head. And she also carries the burden of the three years that have passed between the narratives, and this manifests in her as guilt, fear, superstition, talking to ghosts, etc.
That said, I realized early on the best way to keep the voices/worlds/perspectives of each twin from blending and to make sure each narrative had 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 about two and a half years. Then I started weaving the narratives together and praying (like hell!) it would work and working on streamlining the story as a whole (I think I cut 50,000 words at that point). The whole process took about three and a half years, but it really was like writing three novels in one.
I probably should also tell you I spent those years writing in a pitch-black room with curtains drawn, ear plugs in, sound machine blasting. The only light in the room came from the computer screen, which was like this portal into the story. Somehow this completely insane way of working allowed me to live in the story, to get inside the characters in a way I never had before. I highly recommend it!
Visual art is such a crucial part of the story. Were you thinking about any particular artists or pieces of art as you wrote the novel? Are you yourself a visual artist?
NELSON: I am the worst visual artist—can’t even do a stick figure justice! But I’m crazy in love with it all the same, would love to go back to school one day to get a PhD in art history. I kind of felt like every painting and sculpture I’d ever fallen in love with was singing/hollering at me all at once while I was writing this novel. It was such a thrill to get to make Noah’s “mind paintings” because I could finally “paint” but using words—definitely one of my favorite parts of writing the book.
But what was most incredible was getting 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. Just incredible. One time when I was in the middle of writing the novel, I went to this amazing Diebenkorn exhibit, and my first thought on stepping into the room was: “It’s such a shame Noah and Jude couldn’t come with me today.” I’d absolutely forgotten in that moment that they weren’t real.
Also, I took a stone-carving class while writing the novel so I could better understand Jude and Guillermo’s passion for it. It was great that I did because it was nothing like I’d thought. I’d been imagining Michelangelo tap-tap-tapping away in his studio with a chisel, but, instead, today it’s this totally crazy bad-ass process: power drills and saws and dust and screeching noise and HazMat suits and masks, all of us outside in every kind of weather.
Talk a little more about the process of interweaving Noah’s and Jude’s stories.
NELSON: I knew from the very beginning I wanted Noah’s and Jude’s stories to be braided, wanted the structure of the novel to mimic the mirroring/braiding way it can feel to be a twin. Also, I thought an interweaving structure both in different POVs and in different time periods would allow the mystery elements of the novel to unfold and be revealed in the best possible way. I hoped the interwoven structure would create more tension and momentum, that feeling of “Wait, what actually happened in those intervening years?”
There is so much going inside each of your paragraphs—they are stuffed full of ideas, observations, and images. Is this a style you’ve developed as an author, or has it grown out of the need of the stories you’re telling?
NELSON: Wow, I’m glad if that’s the case. But gosh, no idea. Maybe it’s because of the emotional/psychological makeup of my characters and writing in first person? Or maybe it’s because I was a poet my whole life and only started writing fiction when I was 40, and, like Noah, I tend toward metaphorical thinking. I definitely find myself going at certain sentences, paragraphs, chapters like I would a poem, but, at the same time, one of the biggest revelations I had when I started writing fiction was that language needs to serve the story first and foremost. Still, ultimately (and to contradict the previous statement), as a reader of fiction, I’m a lover of those who go with gusto. I like adrenaline-charged, crackly writing. I like sentences and stories with loud, unwieldy heartbeats. I like when things blow up on the page.
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