Books

Jennifer Niven talks writing, fangirling, and that thing called forever

Today is a good day to be a Jennifer Niven fan.

A decade ago, the closest you could get to your favorite international author was if they had a book signing event in your city, which was rarely. You could shoot them a snail mail or email, but good luck with getting a response.

Now, with social media, the odds of your idol — literary or otherwise — knowing you exist, is higher. I say odds because not every writer is into it. Jennifer Niven is the exception. “It comes naturally to me and I’m glad because there are a lot of authors who don’t like to do it, don’t do it at all, or do it kicking and screaming,” Jennifer told me a day before her book signing tour in Cebu and Manila last weekend. “But I really love it. In fact Random House uses me as an example. They’re like, ‘If you’re gonna do social media, look at Jennifer.’”

You’re lucky if you’re her fan because she reciprocates the love. If you attend one of her book signings, chances are you’ll find yourself in one of her photos, which she generously posts online. Jennifer breaks the aloof author stereotype by looking at you in the eye, sparing a compliment, opening up and not suppressing her inner fangirl.

It’s hard to believe that All the Bright Places, a novel tackling mental illness with characters contemplating suicide (not to mention an opening line that goes, “Is today a good day to die?”), comes from this woman. She’s a reminder that human beings are never one-dimensional and to never underestimate their capacity to surprise you. I couldn’t help but turn into an admirer when I sat down with her to discuss her books, writing process, and thoughts on love. I bet she turns whatever room she enters into a bright spot. That may sound cheesy but that’s how Jennifer and, admittedly, I like it.

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GIST: How did you fall in love with storytelling?

JENNIFER NIVEN: From my mom. She was not only a voracious reader, as is my dad, but she was a writer as well. As soon as I learned to read a story, I realized I wanted to write one. It was the most magical thing that you could do: make up something. But because my mom was a writer, I also saw how challenging it could be firsthand, and it kind of scared me away from writing a little bit; but I ended up going back to it.

What was the first story you wrote?

I wrote two stories when we moved to Indiana from Maryland when I was 9 going on 10. I was very upset about moving, and so probably 10 days after we moved, I wrote a story called My life in Indiana: or I will never be happy again. And I gave it to my parents. Then I wrote a Christmas story set in Indiana as well and it was just the most dismal Christmas story about what a miserable place it was. My parents were like, “Please give it a chance, Jennifer.”

When did you decide that, “Yes, I am a writer.”

When I was graduating from film school. I went to film school to study screenwriting, not just because I wanted to get into movies but because I thought it could be an interesting training for any kind of writing. After film school I was looking for film ideas and while researching I discovered this historic expedition to the arctic in 1913. It was so fascinating to me and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I wanna see a movie or read a book about that. And my mom suggested that I write it as a book, and it ended up being my first book. So it was a moment of deciding that I was going to write that story because I wanted to read it.

Given its science and sensitivity, how challenging was it to tackle mental illness in fiction?

It’s definitely challenging and I had that in mind as I was writing. I was not only writing about these subjects, I was also writing for teens; so I wanted be more sensitive about it, and more responsible. I was conscious of it and it’s almost intimidating thinking like that. I just told myself to write the story from the heart and as honestly as I know how. That’s all you can do at the end of the day.

What’s your response to people’s response to ATBP, especially with how it has ended?

I’ve been reading some of the comments, like, “Jennifer, you murdered my heart! You destroyed me, I love you but I hate you!” I hate to laugh at those but that’s the way they express themselves. That kind of exuberance and passion for the words that you’ve written is amazing. I hear from them every day and I read everything that they send me. It means a lot to me.

After eight books, do you ever go back to your past works and reassess your writing?

I don’t really go back and reread them, however there are times when you’re doing a speech or you need to do something wherein you need to do that. It is interesting to go back and see the progression. I’m sure I would write every book differently, even All the Bright Places today. Not that there are things I think I needed to change but because who I am today is different three years ago when I wrote ATBP. But there are moments when I’ll read something and I’ll go (eye roll) edit, edit, edit. You think that but you have to put it aside and say no, that’s what it was at the time.

What lessons can you share with aspiring writers when it comes to the technical aspects of writing?

I learned so much from my very first editor, I still hear his voice in my head as I’m working. I can hear things about repeating certain words and starting paragraphs with different letters. Like not starting them all with an I. Things like that. And my grandfather wrote wonderfully, he had a newspaper column. He used to say you can almost always go through something and cut out the last paragraph and maybe the first one. He said just always remember that and I still use that to this day.

How about when it comes to the industry?

Don’t go to Goodreads. The only authors I know who go on there are asking for trouble. Unless someone puts a review in your face and says, “I need you to read this right now,” don’t read it. Because first of all they’re all entitled to their own opinion. And that’s what’s great about this world, we all have different opinions about things. Second of all, it will make you crazy. There could be 10 billion great reviews and then one bad review, and you’re going to remember the bad. You’ll go, “But I don’t understand, why do they have a problem with that?” For me, I just pay attention to my readers and I don’t really look for the reviews.

How do you know when to abandon your work, that it’s already good enough?

When I reread something that I’ve written, I hear it almost like when someone plays the piano. When they play a bad note, you hear it. But if it’s played the way it’s supposed to be played, it sounds beautiful. I think it’s the same with writing. You feel it and you just know.

You call yourself a fangirl. Who or what do you fangirl about?

I’m friends with David Levithan and he was the first person I ever did an event with for ATBP. He’s my favorite YA author. Inside, I was so giggly. I told him that and he was like, “Stop it, stop it!” I went to Book Con two weeks ago and there was still a part of me that went, “Oh my god. You’re so cool.” And I love the show Supernatural. I totally fangirl over that. I’ve been to two Supernatural conventions and I’ve got my picture taken with the actors. In fact the last one I went to, I ran into two readers who recognized me. They were like, “Wait a minute, Jennifer?”

We Filipinos are very sentimental and romantic, but we have this modern expression, “Walang forever (there’s no forever).” Do you agree?

I don’t wanna say that there’s no forever. I just think that you just haven’t met the right person. There may not be one right person for everyone, I used to think that there was, but it’s like finding the person who can be your best friend and who you just enjoy being with and feels like home to you.

What’s the best thing about all this — being a writer?

It’s the readers — getting to connect with people whom you may never meet personally and to connect with them in such a personal way; and to know that in some way you’ve impacted their lives in a positive way, and in return they do that for you as well.

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