Jandy Nelson on Turning Poetry Into Prose

Have you heard about our new teenquake contest? It’s got four categories: poetry, straight fiction, mystery, and fantasy. And get this—you can enter all four categories if you want to. The contest is open to 13- to 18-year-olds from the San Francisco Bay Area, and is affiliated with next month’s Litquake festival. If you qualify, you should really check it out, because we have CELEBRITY JUDGES Y’ALL!

But even figs who aren’t from San Fran (and let’s face it, not everyone can handle those hills) deserve a chance to meet the teenquake judges. First up: Jandy Nelson, author of The Sky is Everywhere, a novel interspersed with poetry that explores a teen’s life after the sudden death of her beloved sister.


Why did you choose to write about grief from the perspective of a teenager?

I think it chose me, actually—or  Lennie [protagonist of The Sky is Everywhere] did, anyway. She just kind of crashed into my psyche one day with her clarinet and her worn copy of Wuthering Heights. I kept seeing her, this grief-stricken girl scattering her poems all over the town where she lived. I knew she’d lost her sister and I knew she was going to fall in love, knew that her story was one in which grief and love roomed together in very close quarters. I’d lost someone very close to me years earlier and I wanted to explore this catastrophic, tectonic, transformational life event, and I knew Lennie’s “arrival” was my opportunity to do that. Truthfully, it never occurred to me to write from any other perspective than hers. This was always her story of grief and love. Also, more generally, I really like the urgency of writing from the teen perspective. When you’re a teenager, everything is so new, so dramatic, so emotional, so confusing, so funny, so raw, so honest, so everything. I love that “everything” aspect of being a teen, love how readily teenagers dive headfirst into the big questions, too. For me, there’s nothing more joyful than writing about first love or more painful than writing about first losses—it’s an emotional and headlong ride writing from the teen perspective, and I adore that.

How do the poems in The Sky is Everywhere fit into the larger story, and what is their significance?

Everything began with the poems, because at the outset, The Sky Is Everywhere was going to be a verse novel. I’d actually never written a word of fiction, only poetry, and so when I realized about three weeks into the writing process that Lennie’s story needed to be told mostly in prose, I was terrified. I’d set out originally to tell her story through the poems she was scattering [around town]. But as the process unfolded and I realized it would be primarily a prose novel, the poems became critical in revealing the backstory of Lennie’s relationship with Bailey and allowing the reader into Lennie’s most intimate thoughts, her most private sorrows, joys and memories. In addition, the idea of a bereft girl who wants so badly to communicate with someone who’s no longer there that she just begins writing her words on everything and anything she can, scattering her poems and thoughts and memories to the winds, was very compelling to me thematically and very significant in defining Lennie’s character and sensibility. In my mind, it’s a way for her to write her grief on the world, to mark it, to reach out to her sister and at the same time to make sure, in this strange way, that her and her sister’s story is part of everything. (The poems also provide another narrative function that’s quite clear when you’ve read the book, but to mention it here would be a big spoiler.)

What’s the key to writing compelling romance?

I’d sure like to know how everyone else does it—I’d love some pointers! I guess, for me, it comes down to fully inhabiting my point-of-view character, really trying to see, feel, taste, touch, smell, hear through her actual senses as well as her emotional senses. I try to track her desire, love, lust, passion, betrayal, everything, anything, as truthfully and realistically and as intimately as possible. It’s actually really fun. I also try to find language that matches the spirit of the romance/love scenes, language that has to express what ultimately is ineffable, all the while avoiding clichés and staying true to the character and her voice—challenging. Last and most obvious, nothing makes a romance more compelling than obstacles keeping the lovers apart, à la Romeo & Juliet.

What do you think led you to explore the relationship between two sisters?

As I mentioned, years ago, I lost one of my closest friends in the world. She died very suddenly of a heart attack. I had lots of brothers growing up but had always wanted a sister, and this friend was that sister in every way but blood. I imagined every step of my life with her by my side, and losing her just hurled me into the stratosphere. It seemed very natural to write about this loss through the relationship of two actual sisters. Also, in general, I’m very interested in sibling relationships, both sibling rivalry and sibling harmony. I think it’s such a very special bond. My new book explores the sibling relationship as well. It’s about twins, a brother and a sister.

What was the most difficult part of writing your novel? Which parts came easily?

The hardest parts of writing The Sky Is Everywhere were the actual mechanics of fiction writing, which were completely new to me. The fact that characters actually have to move around and open doors and gesture and get out of chairs, etc. Impossible! Poets really don’t deal with that too much. And structure, oh man. I had the amazing Deb Wiles for an advisor when I was a graduate student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She told me once that writing fiction is like trying to get a quilt the size of a football field to fit in an envelope, and I definitely agree. I spent many sleepless nights trying to work out Sky’s structural problems—I swear I could hear my brain creaking, it had to work so hard!

I had two favorite parts in the whole process, so they felt the easiest. I loved the beginning, the first draft, when I was totally lost inside the story, so immersed that my fictional life overtook my real one. I loved the madness of that, when the story was pouring out and I felt this compulsion to get it down before I lost it. It was so fevered, euphoric, like a mad love. And I also adored the later stages of revision, the last drafts, when I was playing with words, fiddling endlessly with this and that. At that point, I kind of just stared, zombie-like, at my computer screen for days, living inside a particular sentence or scene or section trying to make it better, to make it come alive. So, basically, I love the first and last drafts, and struggle with the million in between.

3 thoughts on “Jandy Nelson on Turning Poetry Into Prose

  1. That would have been cool to see the Sky is Everywhere as a verse novel, but I LOVED the way it turned out this way. The poetry as small fragments here and there really made them even more compelling and powerful, because they were strong emotions trying to be expressed as words. I related SO much to the character of Lennie, and what its like to grieve and ultimately find life again after the fact. I’ve even written little bits of poetry like she did, though I have a drawer where they all are, rather than casting them in the wind. This is my favorite book by the way! 😀

  2. This book… its words sunk deep inside me. They wound around my heart and the storyline made me laugh and cry. It is also a book that inspired me, and still does, to step out and become you. To love life and to write. Writing poetry and stories, it makes me so alive. And this book told me to never sink down, but to rise up. Thank you so much Jandy nelson for writing this story. It is close to my heart.

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