Aurora: What was your inspiration behind your most recent novel?
Jennifer Niven: At the end of my senior year of high school, days after I turned eighteen, my dad told me that he and my mom were splitting up. All my life, it had been the three of us—Mom, Dad, me. My parents were everything. And suddenly, my world turned upside down. It was as if the floor beneath me had disappeared. It was a summer of lasts and firsts, and all these years later that time of my life is still a very emotional place to visit.
Years later, I visited an island off the coast of Georgia to write this book and met my now husband. He is that barefoot boy of nature who inspired Jeremiah Crew. The one who taught me how to find shark teeth. Every adventure in the book is an adventure my husband and I had while we were falling in love. The fireflies guiding our way through the dark. Wandering the grounds of the ruins at night. Long beach walks under a blood moon. Waiting for the turtles to appear. Getting trapped in a basement with the ghost of a woman who loves jewelry. All the things we shared with each other when no one else was listening.
So Breathless is personal both to the teenage Jennifer and the adult Jennifer in ways I never saw coming when I first began working on the story of a girl named Claude whose parents separate days after her high school graduation.
What character in this novel do you most relate to and why?
I most relate to Claudine “Claude” Henry, the narrator of the story. She is, in so many ways, me at eighteen, experiencing that summer of firsts and lasts, trying to smile and keep up outward appearances while inwardly raging and grieving, missing her best friend, dreaming big dreams about becoming a writer one day, grappling with the fact that her parents were actually flawed, human people, and falling in love when her world was falling apart.
Why do you feel novels with powerful and unique characters are so popular and have such a voice right now?
I believe we need these powerful, unique characters whose voices jump from the page, especially in this isolated time of worldwide quarantine. There are so many bold, courageous, diverse, necessary topics being explored right now in books, particularly in YA, and we all need and deserve to see ourselves reflected on the page. We need and deserve to see our experiences. But we also need these strong characters to show us there’s hope, to maybe show us how to deal with some of the challenges we’re dealing with, to remind us we’re not alone, and to transport us to other places and lives when we feel so immobilized and cut off from everyone else.
Please describe the content of your latest read and what can readers expect from it.
When the book opens, Claude Henry is a week away from her high school graduation, looking forward to a summer with her best friend, Saz, and the boy she likes. But then her father tells her he and her mother are separating, and everything turns upside down. Claude and her mom escape to a remote Georgia island with no phone service, no wifi, and no one she knows. Claude is completely cut off from everyone and everything she knows. Until she meets Jeremiah Crew. They both know that whatever they have can only last the summer, but maybe one summer is enough… Breathless is the book I never thought I’d write. It is, in many ways, even more personal for me than All the Bright Places. It’s the book I needed when I was that age. A frank take on sex and love, parental divorce, disappearing floors, finding yourself, and the importance of writing your story, writing your life.
What’s next for you in the bookish world?
I’ve just finished a collaboration with a fellow YA author (which I’m very excited about!!), and I’m beginning a collaboration with another YA author. I’m also working on my next solo YA book, as well as the screenplay for Holding Up the Universe! (And there are other projects as well!) I’m always writing, writing, writing.
Who is your current favorite writer? Why?
I love Roxanne Gay, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, Jandy Nelson, Jason Reynolds, Neil Gaiman, Nick Hornby, Ruth Ware, Zadie Smith. Their writing is fresh, gripping, and vividly alive, their voices electric while also being relatable, and their stories are wholly absorbing. They inspire me to be the very best writer I can be.
Any writing advice for aspiring writers?
Write without worrying about trying to make it perfect. Read everything. Embrace the editing process because so much of writing is editing. Believe in yourself and in your project. Don’t tell yourself no. There are enough people in this world who will do that for you, so don’t be one of them. Remember that you are the only you there is, which means only you can write what you can write. That makes your voice necessary and important and unique in all the world. And never limit yourself or your imagination.