New York Times bestselling Young Adult fiction author Jennifer Niven, has been giving us heart-warming and heart breaking stories that are full of breath-taking and awe-inspiring moments that make us fall in love with the characters and leave us full of hope. Through her writing, her characters and their stories, Niven reminds us that sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world, theirs and yours.
Since she started writing full time in 2000, Niven has written nine books and when she’s not working on her tenth, she’s contributes to my web magazine, Germ, thinking up new books, and dabbling in TV.
Niven has always been writing, having from a young age written numerous songs, a poem for Parker Stevenson, two autobiographies (All About Me and My Life in Indiana: I Will Never Be Happy Again), a Christmas story, multiple picture books, a collection of short stories and a series of prison mysteries.
In an exclusive interview, Niven talks about her writing, Holding Up the Universe, and it’s deeper message.
When talking about writing, Niven spoke about how her readers are at the heart of her inspiration, and that helping them feel less alone in the world is what she knew she wanted to do. She said:
“I’ve met and heard from so many wonderful readers around the world since All the Bright Places came out, readers who are struggling in some way. The one thing I hear the most from them is: thank you for letting me know I’m not alone. Thank you for making me feel loved. I wanted to write a book for my readers that carried this message. I wanted to say to them directly: you are wanted. You are loved.“
When asked if she found it difficult to write Holding Up the Universe with it being such a personal story, Niven explained she found it a bit easier after writing All the Bright Places. She opened up and told us:
“Writing a personal story is always intimidating. All the Bright Places terrified me because it was so personal, and writing that story meant revisiting a traumatic time in my life. After that book, I felt I really could write anything, so in some ways Holding Up the Universe was easier. But it was personal in different ways. I was mourning the loss of my mom while writing it, and I ended up giving that grief to Libby. And I struggled with my weight as a teenager, and so much of what Libby went through is what I went through too.”
Niven also went on to talk about Holding Up the Universe.
Everyone thinks they know Libby Strout, the girl once dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen.” But no one’s taken the time to look past her weight to get to know who she really is. Following her mom’s death, she’s been picking up the pieces in the privacy of her home, dealing with her heartbroken father and her own grief. Now, Libby’s ready: for high school, for new friends, for love, and for every possibility life has to offer. In that moment, I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to be the girl who can do anything.
Everyone thinks they know Jack Masselin, too. Yes, he’s got swagger, but he’s also mastered the impossible art of giving people what they want, of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a newly acquired secret: he can’t recognise faces. Even his own brothers are strangers to him. He’s the guy who can re-engineer and rebuild anything, but he can’t understand what’s going on with the inner workings of his brain. So he tells himself to play it cool: Be charming. Be hilarious. Don’t get too close to anyone.
Until he meets Libby. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game—which lands them in group counseling and community service—Libby and Jack are both pissed, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel.
Holding Up the Universe is partially told through our teenage protagonist Jack Masselin, who suffers from prosopagnosia (also known as ‘face blindness’) which refers to a severe deficit in recognising familiar people from their face.
Niven has previously said that writing about a character that didn’t recognise faces came from her 16-year-old cousin, but decided to write about it for a few different reasons. She said:
“I definitely think more people should know about prosopagnosia (aka face blindness), but even more than that I wrote the character of Jack because I loved the way he finds the people important to them– by the important things, by who they really are beneath it all. There’s something truly lovely in that– in seeing the real beauty in others.”
When reading the novel, I felt that there was a deeper meaning that Niven was trying to show. A message about everyone being seen for who we are. Niven only confirmed this, saying that this was very much deliberate in her writing. She said:
“Absolutely! We all want and deserve to be seen, really seen, for who we are. There’s too much judgment in the world, too much prejudice based on misperception, bigotry, and ignorance. Wouldn’t it be a lovelier world if we didn’t prejudge others? If we took the time to really get to know them?”
When asked if she had any characters she felt as though she related to or any favourite characters, Niven told us that Libby was in fact her favourite to write. She said:
“Libby was my favourite to write, partly because I related to her in a lot of ways, and partly because she’s so bold and brave and exactly who I want to be when I grow up.”
We also asked Niven about how she plans her writing and if she knew exactly how she was going to start Holding Up the Universe. Does she work with an outline, or just she just write with her heart? She told us:
“The book originally opened on the day Libby was rescued from her house, when she was twelve and Jack was thirteen. But the more I wrote, the more I felt I needed to start in present day. I’m always a mix of pantser and plotter– I work with a loose outline and a good idea of what the story is and where it’s going, but I leave room for unexpected detours along the way. The most important thing to me, always, when starting a story, is that I know the characters really well.”
Niven also hinted at some things we can be expecting from her soon. She revealed:
“I’m working on a couple of projects, including the next YA novel and last edits on the All the Bright Places movie script…”
Niven also offers up some advice for aspiring writers and those hoping to get into the writing industry. She tells her read a lot, write a lot and not to worry about being perfect. She said:
“Write and read voraciously. Read everything. Don’t worry about being perfect on the page because there’s no such thing. Let yourself just write, knowing you can go back and edit later. Believe in yourself and in your work and never tell yourself no. There are too many people out there who will do that, so don’t be one of them.”
For more on Jennifer Niven, check my post about her novel All the Bright Places and it’s deeper message, here.