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Many Strange Things Occur to You at 4 a.m. — A Conversation With Nicola Yoon

by on March 3, 2016

Nicola Yoon’s debut novel Everything, Everything tells the coming-of-age story of Maddy, a witty eighteen year-old diagnosed with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency. Confined to her house since infancy, she leads a solitary existence, interacting only with her mother and home nurse. All of this changes with the arrival of Olly, her charming next-door neighbor who’s as equally adept at parkour as he is at crafting swoon-worthy e-mails. Their unusual courtship is charted through their droll email and IM exchanges, where they crack wise about everything from suicidal Bundt cakes to the state fish of Hawaii. School Library Journal listed Everything, Everything as one of its Best Books 2015 and The New York Times praised it as “offbeat, pragmatic and sweetly romantic.” Brendan Dowling interviewed Nicola Yoon on March 1, 2016. Author photo courtesy of Sonya Sones.

Public Libraries Online: Madeline’s a voracious reader, and the books that she loves, particularly The Little Prince, play an important role in the story.  What were the books that were meaningful to you growing up?

Nicola Yoon: The Little Prince was one my favorites growing up. The story is deceptively simple, but so filled with layers of meaning. As Maddy says in Everything, Everything, the meaning changes each time I read it. Other favorites of mine include The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

PLO: Apart from Maddy’s physical health, the characters deal with some other serious issues, like domestic violence and mental illness. How did you strike the balance of presenting those issues authentically while still telling a story about teenagers falling in love?

NY: This was definitely challenging, but the thing is both good and bad things are always happening in your life. And sometimes love finds us at inconvenient times. I also really believe that love is the only thing that can pull us through the challenging times.

PLO: The reader gets to see excerpts from Maddy’s journals, Maddy’s spoiler-filled book reviews, email exchanges, and IM conversations. How did you decide to incorporate these snippets into the book to tell Maddy’s story?

NY: Because Maddy has been confined to her house for eighteen years, it made sense to me that she would have an unusual way of relating to the world. Books are her best friends. Through them she can see all the worlds that she physically isn’t able to visit. Her book reviews are a natural offshoot of her love of books. The emails and IMs came about because Maddy is most comfortable communicating online. She’s had very limited face to face contact, so mediated contact is what she knows best.

PLO: We also see Maddy’s sketches periodically in the book, and the drawings were illustrated by your husband, David Yoon. How did you work with him to create Maddy’s artistic side?

NY: I wrote Everything, Everything from 4-6 a.m. over the course of two and a half years. I swear that many strange things occur to you at 4 a.m. In the book, Maddy is obsessed with the Hawaiian state fish—the humuhumunukunukuapua’a.  One morning at 4 a.m., I decided that she would draw this fish. I’m a terrible artist but my husband is a fantastic one. I went to my bedroom and woke my husband up (at 4 a.m.) and asked him to draw the fish for me. He is a truly wonderful person because he didn’t complain at all. He just got up, gave me a kiss, made himself some coffee, and drew my the beautiful version of the fish that’s in the book today. After that whenever I had an idea for an illustration, I would draw my very terrible version and then he would turn it into something beautiful.

Everything Everything Book Photo

PLO: You have been an active part of the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign. What can librarians do to support this campaign?

NY: Librarians are such heroes and can do so much! You can help by recommending diverse books and cultivating lifelong readers. On the WNDB website there’s a Resources link with lots of useful links. One of my favorites is the Summer Reading Series. Here you’ll find suggested pairings of popular books with less-well-known, diverse titles. For example, Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is paired with SuperMutant Magic Academy. You can even print these pairings to use as shelf talkers in your library!

PLO: Do you see yourself always writing for a YA audience?

NY: I love writing for a YA audience. It really is such a privilege. I love that young adults are thinking about big meaning of life type questions. I think we all should be. Having said that, I won’t rule out writing for adult audiences. It just depends on where an idea takes me.

PLO: Would you ever write another book about Maddy or any of the other characters?

NY: There’s a character in Everything, Everything named Zachariah. He’s only in the book for a couple of pages, but I love him! He describes himself as the African-American Freddy Mercury and I’d love to write a story about him someday.

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