Tuesday, June 14, 2016
How does a brilliant, critically acclaimed novelist add to her illustrious career? With a brilliant, critically acclaimed YA. Jennifer Gilmore talks about her haunting YA debut, WE WERE NEVER HERE, writing, and so much more
First, just some of the advance praise of Jennifer Gilmore's gorgeous YA debut, WE WERE NEVER HERE:
"Both painful..and mesmerizing."–Publishers Weekly, Starred review
“Sensitive and insightful."
“Heartwarming, heartbreaking, tender, and true.”
–Deb Caletti, National Book Award Finalist for Honey, Baby, Sweetheart
“A powerful, graceful, and poignantly beautiful story. I cannot overstate how much I loved this book.”
–Courtney Sheinmel, author of Edgewater and Positively
“This poignant, sharply-observed novel of invisible illness also reminds us of the redemptive power of love and community.”
–Adele Griffin, author of The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone
Jennifer Gilmore is one of my favorite people on the earth. Not only is she warm, smart and funny, but she's also a brilliant novelist, both for adults--and now, in her YA debut-- for teens. She's the author of the highly acclaimed The Mothers (being adapted for film), Something Red, (a New York Times Notable Book) and Golden Country, a New York Times Notable Book of 2006, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, on the long-list for the International IMPAC Dublin Prize, a finalist for the Harold U Ribalow Prize, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
I'm so happy to have her here. Thank you so much, Jennifer!
You’re a critically acclaimed adult novelist. What made you decide to write a YA?
I got a call from a YA publisher after she’d read my second adult novel, Something Red. She said, You do 16 really well, you should write YA. I started something and then put it aside for my last adult novel and then I decided to go back to it. I decided I had a story to tell that was best suited for teens. Or more, it was something I wish I’d had to read when I was a teen and reading mattered so much to me.
Was there a different in writing YA rather than adult novels? Did you miss anything? Did anything surprise you in it?
There is an idea in YA that your protagonist is in the moment and moving forward only. It’s hard to think about the future and hard to think about the past. I think that’s accurate for most teens, actually. The future is hard for any of my characters to imagine. But I have to say, I was a kid who, at 8, was like: oh my God it was so much better when I was 7, so I think there is leeway there. I think teens have memories and nostalgia for things that are gone and they have all kinds of hopes and dreams. As much as I missed writing about the past as I usually do, I was surprised how much a forward moving narrative taught me as a writer. You can learn when your protagonist does. You don’t have to know everything already. That was sort of wonderful.
Every novel seems to spark from something that haunted the writer. What sparked you to write this?
That’s very true. I was quite sick in my twenties. What happened to me haunted and invigorated me, like our past always does. I wanted it to take place fictionally though in a time when it would be most shocking. Being sick as a young person is a strange thing, but when you are 16, as Lizzie is here, and you’re not yet comfortable in your skin, that’s a terrible thing. So what if your illness is what, in the end, gives you the power to actually be yourself? I wanted to look at that. How you get power out of being powerless.
I have to ask about the title, which I love with a passion. Can you talk about that please?
Titles are difficult. I’m so glad you like it! I was thinking about Lizzie wishing this time in her life had never happened. But if it had never happened then the wonderful things that came out of that experience—falling in love, making friends, becoming open to life, really—wouldn’t have happened either. She only realizes this later. For a long time she wishes none of it had happened, and the boy she meets has his own secrets , a past he wishes he had not been present for as well.
Illness, especially long-term or chronic, is like being in another country where you don’t know the language, and you captured it absolutely perfectly. What was it like to write about?
Writing about being sick comes very naturally to me. I’ve written a lot of non-fiction on the topic that helped me arrive here fictionally. I like to think of the hospital as an alternative universe. I like to think writing about illness is like writing sci fi: here are the new rules, here is the language, here is the map. In a sense, writing gives you a do-over. I don’t believe writing is therapy in any way (how many happy writers do you see running around, especially fiction writers?) but I think I got to relive it and do it better this time. My character asks for help and gets help from her family. I don’t think that’s how it was for me. I was very private and ashamed. I wanted to undo that. I have tried to undo that.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I am swamped with teaching and domestic life and those concerns are foregrounded right now. I look forward to swaths of time. I think I am obsessed with swaths of time to think something through in earnest. I’m working on a new YA called If Only. It’s all about alternative futures, what we could have been if just one thing was different. That has always obsessed me. All the things I left behind…