In today's blog, we talk to Jennifer Niven, the YA author behind All the Bright Places, a New York Times bestseller and a novel that honestly and powerfully deals with so many of the issues we tackle on ReachOut.
Beyond that, it's also a gripping love story. But while the chemistry between Finch and Violet is undeniable, so are the very real challenges that each grapple with on a daily basis. Finch with the unpredictable ups and downs of his own mind and Violet, who struggles to move past her grief and guilt over the loss of her sister. That's what brings them to meet under grim circumstances at school and propels them into a senior year of discovery neither saw coming.
Intrigued? Read on for our interview with Jennifer
and enter to win one free copy of ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES by posting in the comments below! The first person (located in the US) who shares where they feel "unlimited, fearless and safe," words used by Violet to describe the online magazine she created, will be our winner.
Update: Our winner has been named but the conversation continues on the ReachOutHere Forums where we talk about books!
Trigger warning: The sensitive and realistic depiction of mental illness and suicidal ideation may be upsetting to some readers.
ReachOut: What inspired you to write a story that dealt with suicidal thoughts, mental illness and grief from the firsthand perspective? How did it come to be a YA novel?
Jennifer Niven: Years ago, I knew and loved a boy, and that boy was bipolar. I witnessed up-close the highs and lows, the Awake and the Asleep, and I saw his daily struggle with the world and with himself. I’d always thought of writing something about the experience, but how do you write something so personal and so tough?
When I finally sat down to try it in the summer of 2013, I knew in my bones that I should write it as YA. 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 by] suicide or they’re observing that person from afar. We rarely get to hear from the character who’s actually going through it.
RO: The word “survivor” is used a lot to characterize Violet, and I know you have a personal connection with the term as well. What did you learn about that label in the process of writing this book? What was important for you to include?
JN: The first thing I learned, after all these years, was that I had a label. Survivor of suicide. All I knew was that I’d loved and lost someone who died too soon. And it was traumatic. And it was heartbreaking. And part of me will never get over it. I’ve lost so many people in my life— my father, my grandparents, cousins, friends, mentors, cats, 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—including this boy I knew and loved—and I like to think I carry them with me. I’ve also learned the importance of wandering the world, making it lovely, and leaving something behind. It was important to me to share that with readers.
RO: There are so many different types of adults that surround both Violet and Finch in the form of parents, counselors and teachers. Some are more involved and engaged than others, but all are flawed in their own realistic ways. What do you hope readers will take away from these portrayals?
JN: As Finch’s counselor says, sometimes we can only see what people allow us to see. People are very good at hiding in plain sight. I’m guilty of this too—like Violet I tend to smile a lot on the outside when I’m hurting the most. Recognizing that, we need to pay attention to the people in our lives. After reading my book, a teacher in New Zealand suddenly noticed that one of his students was acting a lot like Finch, and it turns out that the student was in fact suicidal and struggling with issues he didn’t understand.
We need to learn to be more aware, but I also hope readers will 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. 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. Being isolated only makes things worse, and you really, truly aren’t alone.
RO: Violet creates the magazine Germ, “Because people my age need somewhere they can go for advice or help or fun or just to be without anyone worrying about them. Somewhere they can be unlimited and fearless and safe, like in their own rooms.”
First of all, I love this description (partly because it reminds me of ReachOut) and the fact that germmagazine.com exists in real life! Did you have a place (real or fictional) that felt like this to you when you were a teen?
JN: I think that place was my own imagination. I’d been writing stories from the time I could form words on a page, and my two amazing parents always encouraged me to write and to express myself. I also had a close-knit group of friends that were like my real-life ReachOut/Germ. Sometimes we wrote stories together, and it was a way to deal with the things we didn’t feel we were able to talk about or discuss with each other. During my senior year of high school, my two best friends and I were dealing with our own private, individual struggles, and we poured it out on paper in what became a long, sad, angry, often funny, very chaotic stage play. It saved us. Reading was also an outlet because books reminded me I wasn’t alone, no matter what I was going through.
RO: The internal monologues of Finch and Violet speak to the struggles of so many teens who may feel isolated by the darkness of their thoughts and the fear of unleashing that on those around them because of stigma. What has the response been like from teen/young adult readers who relate with your characters? Has anything surprised you in their reactions?
JN: The response has been emotional and overwhelming, and while I anticipated some of that, I had no idea just how emotional and overwhelming it would be. The thing I hear most from readers is that this book saved their lives in some way, big or small. They’ve thanked me for making them feel like someone gets them, and for reminding them they aren’t alone. One girl wrote to say she had been to the drugstore to buy sleeping pills because she wanted to die, and for some reason my book was sitting there next to them. She picked up the book and started reading and forgot about the pills. Hours later, after she finished, she wrote to tell me that she wants to be here in this world to find her own bright places and that she’d enrolled in a counseling program at school.
One thing I learned firsthand from my own experience: losing someone to suicide is different from losing someone to cancer or a car accident or a stroke—or any other “acceptable” way to die. There is stigma attached to mental illness and suicide, and if I was made to feel that way after losing this boy I knew, imagine how hard it was for him to find help and understanding when he was alive. I want readers to know that it’s important to talk about it, that help is out there, that it gets better, that high school isn’t forever, and that life is long and vast and full of possibility.