Jandy Nelson gets a head start on new novel through Aspen Words residency
May 27, 2015
If You Go …
What: Jandy Nelson, author talk and reading
Where: Basalt Regional Library
When: Wednesday, May 27, 5:30 p.m.
More information: A limited number of free copies of “I’ll Give You the Sun” will be available at the event through Aspen Words’ “Catch and Release” program; http://www.aspenwords.org
While working on her bestselling, Printz Prize-winning young adult novel "I'll Give You the Sun," Jandy Nelson spent three-and-a-half years writing in a makeshift sensory deprivation chamber. She shut off the lights and pulled the shades in her San Francisco home, put in earplugs daily and concentrated on the pages before her.
In the early stages of her new book, however, Nelson has found herself bathed in mountain sunlight, with views of the Elk Range above her screen for the last month. Nelson has been in Woody Creek at the Catto ranch since late April, working on a novel as an Aspen Words writer-in-residence.
"I bet I will go into the dark chamber at some point later in the process," Nelson, who will speak Wednesday at the Basalt Regional Library, said over tea recently at the Woody Creek Community Center. "It's harder in the city, where I have more distractions."
The mountains haven't proved as disruptive as the city's traffic clatter and frenetic energy. Over her time here, Nelson said, she woke at dawn and wrote all day, taking breaks to walk the property, visit horses in nearby pastures and – on the day we met – take a drive to Lenado.
"I can't believe how quiet it is," she said. "And to have nothing to do but work – it's the rarest opportunity for any writer."
Nelson took a circuitous path to writing novels, but quickly became a leading voice in young adult literature through her 2010 debut "The Sky is Everywhere" and last year's "I'll Give You the Sun."
She had written poetry her whole life, but worked as a literary agent – representing not Young Adult writers but literary fiction and non-fiction authors. She grew interested in children's picture books and entered the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College to pursue writing one. From there, she began writing a young adult novel-in-verse, which evolved into her first novel (which features a teen poet protagonist dealing with the death of her sister).
"After that, I fell in love with fiction," Nelson said. "It just came out of nowhere and I knew that was it. I was like, 'This is the greatest thing I've done in my life.'"
As a youngster, she'd read Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton, but hadn't delved into the new and thriving generation of young adult literature, which is read widely by adults. She started with reading John Green's "Looking For Alaska," Francesca Lia Block's "Weetzie Bat" and Laurie Halse Anderson's "Speak."
"What I really felt was that these voices are so alive and so urgent and so electric," she recalled. "As an agent that's what I want to read. Every day I'd read like 10,000 queries and hope that the voices are so vibrant. So I love that about YA. I love the urgency of the narrative. And that, for me, is what I look for in YA."
Getting those voices down as a writer, and navigating the intricate emotional complexities of her teen characters, takes time. For "I'll Give You the Sun," which is told in alternating chapters by a pair of estranged twins, she wrote each twin's tale separately over two-plus years – to keep their voices distinct – and then paired them together over the course of another year.
"With that book, my characterization process was that I made so many wrong turns and mistakes that I just hung out with them so long that I knew them as people," she explained.
The new book – set in Northern California's wine country, steeped in music and food just as "I'll Give You the Sun" is steeped in art and superstition – has five points of view.
"I'm just madly going with all of them at once right now," she said of her quintet of narrators, though she expects to split them and concentrate on them one-by-one after she gets to know them.
A grateful Nelson said she was still in the hurly-burly of promotion for "I'll Give You the Sun" this winter when an invitation arrived in her inbox from Aspen Words' Renee Prince, inviting Nelson to spend a month here as writer-in-residence.
"I was like, 'Is this real?'" she said with a laugh. "She's like my writing fairy godmother. … It's the nicest thing that's ever happened to me."