BAM Interviews: Nicola Yoon on love, representation, and writing outside the box
Nicola Yoon has been busy. Her 2015 book Everything, Everything was an instant New York Times bestseller that was adapted into a fabulous 2017 movie. In the middle of all that, Nicola Yoon wrote another bestseller and Hollywood followed suit with another movie adaptation. The movie version of The Sun is Also a Star hits theaters today, and Nicola took a break from her very busy schedule to answer a few questions with us over the phone. Below is an edited transcript of that interview. In it, she talks to us about love, writing, and representation–and why you shouldn’t let anyone put you in a box.Get the Book
Q. Your first novel, Everything, Everything, was a huge success and was then adapted into a major film. With the same thing happening with your second book, I just want to know: how does it feel to see your books played out on the big screen like that?
A. You know, sometimes people ask me if I’m going to get used to it, but there is no way I’m getting used to it. It’s just surreal, right? 3 or 4 years ago, I had the worst job on earth. I worked in finance and I basically got yelled at all day. And now I get to write books for a living! That was the dream, but now it’s with cream and a cherry on top. Then someone makes a movie of it and it’s just incredible. It’s totally surreal. It’s awesome. My little girl gets to see these things, and walk on the red carpet and buy a dress?! That’s the stuff that’s just so crazy and wonderful.
More importantly, how does it feel to have your first two books hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list?
(Laughs) I mean, It’s really great! Everyone wants to be read, right? And people are reading the books and liking them so much, it’s just. I don’t know! I don’t really feel like it’s real all the time. My husband and I met in graduate school and the dream was that we would both get to write full time one day, and be at home in our PJs, and now we have that. I write in my office and he writes in the bedroom and I walk by and I’ll be like, “how ya doin’?” And he’ll tell me what he’s working on and I’ll tell him what I’m working on and then we’ll look at each other and think how did we even get here? We both worked so hard for it for so long. We hoped we would get to this point, and now that we’re here we’re both so delighted and we DO NOT take it for granted. We’re pretty good at not taking things for granted.
What has your role been in the film adaptations? Do you have a say in terms of creative control? I’m sure it’s not easy for your baby—this thing that you’ve worked on—to be handed over to someone else. So I’m curious, as an author, how does that adaptation work emotionally and creatively?
It’s funny, the way I feel about it has changed. For “Everything, Everything,” the first time I read the script I wasn’t prepared for it to be different. So I had more complicated feelings about the process. I thought, “What?! Why? Why is it different?!” But fortunately, Warner Brothers has been really great about ways we can help. I can talk to directors and other folks involved. But what I realized by the time I got through the “Everything, Everything” process was that we’re just putting more art into the world. The books and the movies are going to necessarily be different. I’ve gotten to a point where I appreciate the differences and I’m just happy that there’s more art in the world about the people and the characters that I’ve loved for so long. There’s a moment in “Everything, Everything” where Olly puts up all these pictures of the ocean for Maddy, and that’s not in the book! And I love it so much that it’s like, oh my god I wish I’d thought of that! And then I thought, “oh, that’s just another artist making more art.” And that’s really great. So I realize now I really love the process and respect the different things you have to do because it’s not a book.
The chemistry between Natasha and Daniel feels so real in the book The Sun is Also a Star. Do you think Yari Shahidi and Charles Melton do justice to those characters and their great romance in the book? Or will we just have to wait and see?
Well, I’ve seen it so I know that they do justice to it! But I’m excited to see what other people think. In the book, the chemistry between them is more Daniel’s part. In the movie, I don’t know how we got so lucky that they actually have chemistry, but they really, truly do. You just really believe that they are falling in love in that short amount of time, and I think that if we’d had different people then it’d be a hard thing to pull off and make believable. We got really lucky with them. It’s such a compressed period of time that you have to believe that the chemistry is real—not just physical but mental as well.
Following up on that idea that most of this story takes place in such a short period of time: Are there any other “love in one day” books or movies that inspired you before writing this book? I’m thinking of “Before Sunrise” but did you have any other influences?
Yes! That’s the one. “Before Sunrise.” So much. I loved that movie when I was growing up and it’s absolutely my favorite still. I think what I love about it is that they just talked, right? They just wandered around the city and talked to each other, which is my favorite thing about how people fall in love. You’re falling in love with the ideas the other person has, and the way they see the world, and I really wanted to do that in my book. I wanted them to think that they’re so dissimilar and to discover the ways in which they’re the same, and fall in love with that. So, yes! I was absolutely inspired by it.
OK, I’m curious about the 36 questions. I read the New York Times article in 2015 about this but never tried them out! Should I give it a shot?
You totally should! [My husband and I] did some of the questions, but the thing that I really think you should try is the staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes. We did do that. I was writing that scene in the book where they do it, and I thought, “I’ve gotta do it.” So we sat there on the couch and we did it. And at first we felt really silly, but then after a while, you just get into it, and you feel it, and, I don’t know, it’s trippy! I don’t know how to describe it except to tell you you should do it. You feel sort of self-conscious, but you’ve just got to go with it, and you do feel closer at the end. We did.
Natasha is a pragmatist. Daniel is a romantic. But MAYBE they’re each a little of column A, a little of column B, right? Tell us more about how that balance of the artistic and the scientific makes for a fuller understanding of life (and love).
I preach about this all the time. We always think that art and science aren’t close to each other and I really disagree. People always describe themselves as being either a math person or an English person. And I think in school we lock people into these traps and ways of thinking and I just don’t think it’s true. Most people are reasonably good at both types of things, and you sort of have to be. But we start thinking of ourselves in these different ways. They’re both trying to get at the truth, it’s just a different approach. And Natasha and Daniel find out during the day that they are really trying to get at the world and the truth of the world, it’s just that they come at it from two different perspectives, but they’re still trying to get fundamentally at the same thing. And that’s what they realize by the end.
In your essay “Ordinary Diversity in Fiction,” you discuss the difference between “issue books” and “non-issue books”. In Everything, Everything, the main character Madeline is biracial, but that’s not what the book is about. But in The Sun is Also a Star, the book is much more about the ethnicity and the immigrant experience of the central characters. Their lives are shaped by their families’ immigration to the US. Do you think The Sun is Also a Star is an “issue book” or a “non-issue book”?
I think it’s a little bit of both. There’s a lot going on with immigration right now. People are thinking we better not be wanting more immigrants in the country and everyone’s talking about deportation statuses and that sort of thing. So in that way I think it’s an “issue book” – and not so much just their race but I think it has more to do with immigration. But I feel like everyone is trying to figure out where they belong, and being an immigrant is a really good metaphor for that. You feel trapped between worlds, and teenagers often feel like that anyway—halfway between childhood and adulthood, and trying to figure out your place in the world, you’re trying to figure out your tribe, who you want to be and who you want to hang out with. So in that way, an immigrant story is a good way to approach that generally. I think a lot of books tackle a lot of things. If you’re in America as an immigrant then you can’t help but see issues by that feeling of being in between worlds—especially if your parents are actually from that country, which was my experience. My parents are from Jamaica and so they have a greater memory of Jamaica than I do. So there’s a balance where they are living in Jamaica and I am living halfway in between Jamaica and America, and so we have a different experience of the world. And if you’re writing about immigrants then that necessarily comes up.
The immigrant experience, the American Dream and how it’s experienced are at the heart of The Sun is Also a Star. How did your experience of the American Dream shape these characters as you created them?
The experience of the American Dream is so prevalent in immigrant communities. It’s almost like an American export—this idea of the American Dream. The people I know, anyway, really believe in this dream of “you can be anyone” and “you can achieve anything” if you work hard enough here. So it’s something that immigrant communities really, really believe in. It’s one of the things I really wanted to emphasize in the book, because I think some of the discussions that we have in public is this idea that immigrants are taking things away from people who were born here, but it’s just really not true. In my experience it’s so completely the opposite: they’re so patriotic and they’re so hard-working, and what they’re leaving is so dire that I can’t understand how anyone could look at a group of people in general and say that this is a bad thing for America. It’s just not at all. Immigrants help the country be better, not just in terms of labor but in terms of bringing different cultures and perspectives. That’s never a bad thing, in my view.
Do you think your daughter’s experience of the American Dream will differ from yours?
I do. And I’m trying to figure out how to navigate that with her. There’s a gulf between my parents and myself because of where we grew up, and there will probably be maybe a smaller gap between me and my daughter, but I’m trying to see it from her perspective.
How important is it that literature today—and especially literature for young people—features characters that reflect the diversity of America?
I think it’s very important! I think it’s something that’s so obvious especially if you’re around kids and young people and you see the way their imaginations work and the way that they pretend and the way that they put themselves into the media. My little girl says all the time when we’re watching a show, she’ll say, “oh, I want to be that person” or “no, I want to be that person!” We tell stories about ourselves. It’s how we know who we are. And if you tell the same story to a kid, if you tell them that “all gay kids are, whatever” or “all black kids are this other thing” then they’re going to start to internalize and believe that. We have to tell a variety of stories, and we have to put a variety of people into stories. They have to be able to see themselves. Someone asked me recently, when was the first time you saw someone who looked like you in a book? And the answer is The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison, that’s what I always say. But then she asked, when was the first time you saw yourself, like, your spirit? And I thought, oh, those are different things! And for me, that’s The Little Prince. I always loved The Little Prince when I was a kid. So I realized there are different ways of seeing yourself, and I think that both ways are super important. As the mother of a kid, I know for a fact that my little girl needs to see girls in things, and she needs to see brown girls in things. We were watching the Cars movie and she said, “why are all the cars boys?!” And I said, “I don’t know, honey.” And she was mad about it! She said, “I don’t know why all the cars that race are boys!” So I thought, okay, when you grow up make sure you write some girl cars into the movie. Kids need this! Everyone needs to see themselves as a hero. It’s just the way we’re made.
What are you reading now?
Right now I’m reading Daisy Jones & the Six, which I’m really loving so far. It makes me want to be in a rock band. And I’m reading Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which is poetry. I’m pretty much always reading poetry.
Do you have any advice for young writers? Or for old writers? Or for anyone who’s trying to get out there?
Our society, especially right now, is really good at telling everyone who they’re supposed to be—at putting people into little boxes. And I just want to say, don’t let anyone put you in a box. All the stuff that’s weird about you, or different, is the stuff that people want to read about. That’s a perspective they need to know, that’s the thing they need to see. Ignore all the people who want to put you in the box and say, “this is the story you need to write, and the story you need to tell.” Let your freak flag fly!