By Meg Jackson
The New York Times bestselling authors Jandy Nelson, Meg Wolitzer, and Ally Condie visited the Bellingham Public Library Saturday Nov. 7 for the final stop on their national book tour. They came to discuss the recent paperback releases of their young adult novels.
“I’ll Give You the Sun”, written by Jandy Nelson, is a book about twins Noah and Jude who have always been close to each other “until tragedy strikes and they’re torn apart,” Nelson said, adding that she thinks of the novel “as a tapestry of interweaving love stories, and all kinds of love stories.”
Nelson spent three and a half years writing the book. She said that during this time, she would write in complete darkness “with ear plugs in and the sound machine blasting,” which she later realized was ironic because “the book is so much about art, about color, about brightness, and about these kids with this explosive visual sensibility, and here I was writing it in the dark.”
“It was sort of like my computer screen became this light portal into the story, and I feel like it enabled me to get closer to these characters than I ever had before,” Nelson said.
“Belzhar”, by Meg Wolitzer, is about 15-year-old Jam Gallahue who is grieving the death of her first love. She attends a rural Vermont boarding school for the “emotionally fragile” where she must confront her inner demons.
The name of the book was inspired by poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel “The Bell Jar”, “which detailed her breakdown when she was in college and her suicide attempt,” Wolitzer said.
Ally Condie, author of the “Matched” trilogy, came on the tour promoting her newest book “Atlantia”, which she said was inspired by “The Little Mermaid”.
The dystopian novel takes place beneath the sea in Atlantia, where recently orphaned Rio imagines open skies and tries to find a way to the world on the surface.
“There aren’t mermaids in the story, but there is an underwater city that people built in the future to escape the air pollution that we’ve created,” Condie said. “It was fun to write because it was nice to create a new world.”
The three authors sat in a panel to discuss audience questions on common themes throughout each book, like grieving characters, the inspiration for the novels, and advice for aspiring writers.
Nelson mentioned her first book, “The Sky is Everywhere”, which she said she wrote after losing someone close to her.
“I wanted to explore grief,” Nelson said, adding that while she was writing the book, she learned right alongside the main character, Lennie, that “the idea that grief and love are conjoined and you can’t have one without the other . . . If you’re inside your characters that are grief-stricken in their individual experience – if you’re authentically with them – you hope that it will resonate with them.”
“Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of falling apart,” Condie said on grieving, which she related to the main character of “Atlantia”, Rio, who, despite her feelings of grief in the story, must keep her composure for the sake of those around her.
Nelson, Condie, and Holitzer were asked if they feel a greater responsibility to create potential role models out of their characters since their books are geared primarily toward young adults.
“When we write about people, we want them to be real, we want to see them do good things and some bad things because that’s how real people are,” Condie said, adding that ultimately she feels “a responsibility to allow the story to be hopeful.”
Condie also mentioned her “Matched” trilogy, saying that she used a “conglomeration” of each of her own grandparents and her experiences with them to inspire the grandfather character in the series.
“Authenticity is our major responsibility.” Holitzer said. “Otherwise, kids will turn away from books if they don’t find something that feels real and vivid and urgent.”
Nelson said that she takes her own personal experiences with role models from her life and incorporates them into the teachers and mentors she writes about in her books.
“I think inadvertently . . . I put teachers in the books who have really changed my life,” Nelson said.
The authors ended the panel discussion giving their best pieces of advice to aspiring authors. Holitzer said she encourages writers to read things they feel the author was excited about, and to “be as free as you can” regardless of what critics might think.
“As much of yourself as you can get on the page — your loves, your hates, your desires, your secrets — the more authentic your voice will be,” Nelson said. “I think it’s so important to just be yourself when you’re writing.”