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I'm so happy to meet you.
So nice to be here.
I just want to give you right off the top major props on those shoes.
These shoes are my favorite thing. These are like the flower Doc Martens. I wear them all the time.
And you've got a little blue in your hair. I don't know if it's gonna translate here but there's a little blue tint to your hair. The whole thing is really working beautifully.
So we're talking a lot about storytelling, how we do it and why we do it. Let's start with the kind of million dollar question. Why do you think that we are all so obsessed with story across time, across culture, across continent?
It's a great question and I think writers think about this all the time. I really think that stories are the way we know ourselves. I think we tell ourselves stories to figure out who we are and to figure out the possibilities for other people. I have something I've been thinking about, especially sort of i...
n our current climate, trying to figure out what the possibilities for the world are. They give us hope. When you read a story, when you're sort of in a 400 page book with someone else, you get to see the possibilities for someone else's humanity. I think that's a powerful thing. It builds empathy.
Just as true is that you get to see awful people on the page and awful, tragic circumstances and we're sort of equally strangely attracted to them. Everybody loves Lady Macbeth.
We're trying to understand. We're trying to understand ourselves by looking at other people's stories. That's universal.
Yeah, there's something about the distance too. I feel like with fiction-- I write nonfiction, but with fiction, there's just enough distance between your real life and the thing that's happening on the page that I feel your defenses are lowered. So things can seep into you in a way that you might not let them.
I agree. I think one of the things I always talk about is the empathy that books can build. It's hard for you to spend 400 pages with another person in their life without coming to some sort of understanding. But my favorite part of reading books though is when you realize something that you know is true but you've never been able to articulate it as true.
I love that.
That is the best moment. The distance closes down. Then you go, "Oh, that happens to me. "I feel that all the time." And someone says it perfectly.
Do you write in your books? I read with a pencil and when I see that line that names the thing that's like, (gasps) "You too?" That's exactly it. That's just how I feel about something.
I used to write in my books but I don't anymore. I dog ear all the pages but I don't write in them.
Yeah. Are you obsessed with a certain issue or theme?
Yeah, I'm kind of a romantic goober so I love love.
Did you just say goober?
Yes. I did say goober. I love love so I'm obsessed with love. In all its forms. Yeah, that's what I write about all the time.
And do you particularly like to write about the variety of loves, like parental love and sibling love and romantic love?
All of it. I think the thing I'm currently obsessed with is the way that love opens you up to the world. For a big love to happen, you have to be vulnerable, right? The flip side of that is that to be vulnerable, you're capable of being hurt and devastated by the loss of love so that's one of the things I'm currently obsessed with and I started being obsessed with it after I had my little girl, and actually when I met my husband. So it's one of those things like, love is great and amazing and wonderful but the potential for sort of tragedy because of its loss is really great. I'm trying to navigate whether or not I think that's worth it. Obviously I do, but there's a lot to think about.
Yes. I often feel like I know that I love someone deeply if I have imagined them dying. I don't know why. It's like something you have to do. You are now so vulnerable.
It's true. I always say that. My little girl goes to preschool and my heart leaves and goes with her every day. So my heart is at preschool every day. When my husband's not with me, I can feel it. I can feel right now that they're not here with me. It's one of those things that in order for you to experience it in the greatest way, you have to be so open, but that's a little scary.
I remember falling in love with my husband and thinking this is terrifying.
It's like the worst thing.
I am in so much danger right now.
He wouldn't call me before being out, I'm like, he's dead.
Been hit by a truck. Something large and moving.
If it's 7:04 and he said he's gonna be home at seven, I have gone to his funeral, I figured out who I'm gonna call, I've decided I'm never gonna marry again.
You might actually be worse than I am. I thought I was pretty bad.
(laughs) It's possible that I just revealed that I'm completely insane. But he comes in and I say, "Thank God you're back. "I've just been to your funeral."
And then everything's fine again.
Yeah. What do you struggle with on the page? When you're trying to create a story, what's the hardest part for you?
God, my editor will tell you the same thing, is that I can write dialogue all day, so I think in dialogue and monologue. But very often there's no place setting. They could be in space. The first draft of my last book, I think they talked for 300 pages. And my editor wrote back, she's like, "Where are they? "I don't understand. "Are they in a coffee shop, are they on the moon? "You have no place settings." So that's something that gets in the second revision.
I feel that way too and I think what's happening, the way I would defend myself to my editor is to say that in my mind, I can see it all so clearly that I've just forgotten to tell you. I have it in my mind that they're somewhere.
My editor does not buy that. She's like, "Nikki, please."
On the page, right. If it's not on the page, it's not on the page. So you must love dialogue.
I really do.
That's the easiest part for you.
That's my favorite thing.
Do you write long or short? Do you often-- Is a big part of your process jamming it down into something?
I write short because basically I'm writing dialogue and no cues. I do it short and then I have to go back in and add the world. By the time I'm on the second draft, I know what I'm actually writing about so then it's not so bad for me to go back in and add what I'm really talking about. And add the internal thoughts and stuff like that.
Yeah. When you're creating a character, what are your favorite parts of that experience? Do you like thinking about what they look like or how they would behave in different situations, or who their mother is or what their biggest fight they've ever had was? How are they coming to you?
It's mostly gestures, actually. I'm a person that's into the physical way that we express ourselves. We're saying one thing but we're doing something else with our hands or our feet or whatever. And I struggle with that but I think when it's done right, it's amazing. Like Rainbow Rowell does this very, very well. F. Scott Fitzgerald does it really well too.
What's a gesture that springs to mind that's really telling?
I mean, sort of the typical one you will see is like someone puts their hand on the back of their neck or the way that people tell things without telling you that they're uncomfortable or whatever. And if you choose the perfect gesture, you don't have to write that much about it.
Right, it's the ultimate show, don't tell. Because if you have this kind of nervous-- And it's also when you're watching great actors, it's what they do. It's the layer they have that not everybody has.
I was reading one of these acting books for something I'm writing and one of the things is that forget about trying to get to the emotional part first. If you express it physically, the emotion part will come and I feel like that is true with writing too. If you can show what they're doing then you can sort of guess at the internality and then you don't have to write that much about the internality.
Yeah, yeah. I think it's fun to imagine how they behave when they're alone. I remember realizing when I was working on a screenplay, which is really the only fiction I've completed, and realizing that this girl, as soon as the elevator-- She was a young professional, and as soon as the elevator closed, she was yanking her tights back up, because you know how tights slide down during the day. And that one visual of her being completely professional in the elevator, and then the minute the doors close, being like, (grunting) was like--
I love that.
Now I know who you are.
That's a really good way to think about it.
What you do when you're alone, basically. So do you know what your creative sweet spot is yet? Are you always first person? Are you always going to be on the page? Might you be writing for theater or television or?
Yeah, right now I'm very happy writing for young adults.
And you're working on number three.
Right, and it's not first person. That's kind of fun, sort of trying out another thing.
Is it working for you? Because I find it really hard to go to third.
Actually, I love it. I think just because it's nice to have a new challenge and it's just nice to do something else. I'm actually having a really good time with it.
It's also nice to be able to be in everyone's head.
Yeah, you get to be God, right? You know what everyone's thinking. That's really fun. I might want to write a screenplay at some point in the distant, distant future, but we'll see. Because it's basically just dialogue, right?
Right, for anyone who loves the sound of words, you want to hear them read. What do you pick? Have you done a lot of readings?
How does seeing readers respond real time to your words change the way you create and tell stories?
Yeah, it makes me realize I'm a little too wordy sometimes. I'll read it out loud and I'm like, "You didn't need the extra that in that sentence. "Let's cut those." I think that's one of the things. And I would like to be a better reader in general, but that's a different art than writing.
You mean presenting your work.
Yeah, I'd like to-- Have you ever seen Jason Reynolds?
No, is he phenomenal?
He's ridiculous. And I'm sure he reads it out loud before he writes it down.
Do you when you're writing? Do you read it out loud?
Some sections I do but I think I probably need to do the whole thing. I would like to get to the stage where poets are where they're very brief and they pack so much stuff into that very brief poem.
Do you take in a lot of poetry?
I read a lot of poetry. I don't really understand it. (laughs)
I know, but--
But I love it.
Watching yourself in the greatest words. The stuff that they're unearthing is like, right, there's a word you don't see but once every five years. It has so much impact for its rarity.
I think what's amazing about poetry is I have my Norton anthology. It's like right next to my bed and if I don't feel like reading anything, that's the thing I'll pick up. Then you'll read a poem for years and you don't really get it but there's something appealing about it, and then one day you go, "Oh, I know what you're talking about finally."
Years, seriously, that's passed of reading the same poem.
What's really critical about what you just said gets to this dual layer of storytelling that makes it such a juicy challenge, which is you both have to have something interesting that you have observed or some interesting conclusion that you have come to and you have to find a beautiful, interesting, fascinating way to express it. And the poem because it was beautifully phrased, held you long enough until your level of life experience came along to meet it and you could understand the thing behind the beautiful facade of a poem.
It's just the way they're so good, like a really good poem is really good at an image and looking at a thing that you've seen a million times but you're not seeing it. You're not seeing it the way they're seeing it until one day you do. Which is actually what fiction does too, right? The idea of making the familiar strange. So that you can see it again.
So you can meet it, yes. Right, we're always trying to create that first moment of intersection. So you have to almost trick you as a reader into thinking you don't know this story. And then you get to meet it and have that kind of rush of recognition.
Right, I had this moment when I was writing my first book when the character is in her house, right? She'd never been to see the ocean. I grew up on an island so I've seen the ocean.
You grew up in the Caribbean?
Yeah, in Jamaica. I've seen the ocean a million times. And I was having a hard time with this scene. What I did, I took my little girl to the beach and she hadn't been yet. We just took a family trip. We're going to the beach. And the way she reacted to the ocean is how I just wrote it. She just-- Basically she just bum rushed the ocean, like "Oh yes, this is for me." And she went running toward it. I was like, "Oh, that's what you would do." I had forgotten because this familiar thing, seeing it through her eyes made it strange again.
That's actually threaded straight through parenthood. I remember taking my daughter Georgia to the movies the first time. And just the credits started coming up, you know, like the Universal-- And her eyes just went--
And the lights down and the popcorn.
This just must be insane for you to inside this.
It's nice. It does make you young again.
For sure, for sure. In terms of, you have a really big audience. Very quickly. And I wonder what that does for your writing. How do you reckon with them in your mind when you're working? Do you have to set them aside or are they just right present with you as you're telling a story?
I do have to set them aside. And it's something I learned between the first book and the second book. Because for the first book, you have all the time in the world and you're writing for yourself and you have no idea--
And you're nothing else. You're not an author, you're just a writer.
Exactly, you have no idea what anyone's opinions of your work might be. Between the first and second, you have more of an idea and so you have all the positive stuff but you also have the negative stuff, and honestly I don't think that either side is that good for you, because the temptation when you hear some positive things is, "Oh, I should do that again." Or if you hear something negative, it's, you know, "I should avoid doing that." None of that is good for art, actually. Between the first and second, it took me a long time to sort of turn that down in my head and then just write the book that I wanted to write. It took a while. I tried to force it and it did not work. It really just took patience and time for the noise level to sort of go down and then I go, "OK, I'm alone in my room again."
Yeah, yeah, that's very-- That's very well said and so difficult. How distracting is the ancillary stuff for you? You've had a movie made from your book and you have book jacket designs, which is always a massive distraction, I find. Then there are reviews and then there's an agent calling and saying what's next. How do you deal with that part of your life as a storyteller?
I'm still learning how to deal with it. Because it's amazing. Listen, it's a complete dream and I didn't know you could dream this and it's been incredible. But there is a farewell--
Weren't you in like finance or something?
I was, yeah.
You're an engineering major.
Yeah, I was an electrical engineering major.
Were you like 10 or 20 years or something?
Very long years.
You look like you're 21 so this is all bizarre to me.
You're sweet, but no. I'm sort of getting used to it. But it's sort of an odd balance because there's being a writer, which is, you know, you're in your room and the page is blank and it's sort of torture and it's sort of awesome. And versus being an author, which is a different thing entirely. While it's wonderful, there are times when I'm just like, "I'm going home and I'm going to be "under my blanket right now." I'm going to stay here. I'm figuring it out.
Little by little. Is there a relationship to you that's the most interesting? I'm sort of obsessed with the parent-child relationship but I also love reading about friendship and I like seeing man to man relationships, like the father-son or men inside of a work environment and clashing notions of masculinity or whatever. Is there a relationship that's particularly interesting to you?
Yeah, I would say I write equally about people falling in love with each other. I really do love the moments that they fall in love because for me, it's all about just talking. I fell in love with my husband just by talking to him and we talk all the time. I love when people fall in love with each other's ideas of the world.
That's really nice.
And that's talking, you know. But I also really love for kids, the moment they realize their parents are people. There is a moment when you go, "Oh, you're a person with hopes and dreams "and you made mistakes and you're flawed." That's really interesting to me, probably because I have a five year old and I know one day-- right now she thinks I'm the best thing on earth but she might not always think that.
Guaranteed. I have two teenage girls. There's a terrible, terrible thing in your future.
I know, and I'm not ready.
It's not coming for a while, you got time.
I remember when I realized my parents were people and it's a good thing and a bad thing. I'm sort of obsessed with that too.
I remember at a funeral, my grandmother's funeral, a man came up to me said "Every boy in Baltimore was in love with your mother." And it was like, what? There were people that dated her before my father? That is disgusting.
And she's a person and they thought she was cute.
Yeah. That's interesting. Do you have something important that grounds you?
Yeah, my husband and little girl. Because when I go home, Penny, she doesn't really care about the stuff on the rug. She says, "Did you bring me a present?" And I always have to bring her something. And she's like a little barnacle. She attaches herself to me, and that's really good. And my husband thinks I'm cool no matter what. He loves me.
Do you feel-- What's feeding you on a daily basis? Are you a person that's reading the newspaper every day or are you reading other people's fiction and thinking "That's really interesting and well done "and I want to try something like that" or what kind of gets you out of bed?
I read a lot. I'm an obsessive reader.
And are you reading mostly YA or are you reading all over?
I read everything. I read paranormal romance too. When I say I read everything, I look at everything. Give me vampires, that's fine. Everything sort of feeds into it.
Are you like a two book a week kind of person?
I am a two book a week person. That's exactly my number, actually. I don't watch TV though, and I play video games.
You play video games?
I do, I love video games. My husband and I play a lot together.
That is stunning to me. Now video games have narrative.
Yeah, they do, and they're good. I just played Uncharted 4 and that's good. There's some really good writing in that. It's impressive.
Interesting. I had to teach at Yale last summer. I taught high school kids, and the first class I had to teach was narrative for video games. The last video game I played was called Pong. Just like a stick on this side and a stick on that side. They didn't have names, they didn't have heads.
I'm going to buy you a video game system.
No no no, I don't want it. It's like a rabbit hole. I don't want to go down the rabbit hole.
It's so good though.
We only have a few minutes left and I wanted to ask you a little speed round. Are you up for that?
Okay, great. Name a book you wish you had written.
Oh God. The Great Gatsby.
Isn't it perfect? My daughter is just about to read it and I said you aren't gonna find anything more perfect.
Also Bluest Eye though. Sorry.
You can have two.
I can have two, okay.
Have you met her?
No, I have not.
What was the last story that made you cry?
Oh God. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Actually no, that's not true.
Well if you're reading two books a week--
Right, We Are Okay by Nina Lacour made me cry most recently, on a plane in front of strangers.
That's so good.
I'm like a private person, so the fact that I was crying--
Did the stewardess come and say, "Is there anything I can get for you?"
No, the person next to me was like looking at me and I'm like, "Don't look at me."
Just put the book up. If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called?
(laughs) That sounds like a Carl Hiaasen book. You know how they're always like-- Spaz. Who can't you live without, creatively speaking? Clearly you've got a great husband, but other than your husband?
Creatively speaking? I mean, I guess I'll just say poetry in general, you know, like the Norton has sat on my bedside table for about 15 years now.
That's so great. If you could get everyone in the world to read just one book, what would it be?
That is a difficult question.
I know. You can give ma couple. Or you can segment.
The Little Prince is probably one of my favorite books of all time, and that book changes every time you read it. I would get people to read that.
What do you think the heart of that book is? What is the success of that? It's so enduring.
Think what's amazing is that it really does change because you're changing, every time you read it you find new things in it, new depth. But it's really just trying to remind us to hold onto the things that are important. It really is just basic. Love is the most important thing. That seems simplistic, but actually a really difficult thing to know and learn and internalize.
Yeah. Life gets so big and distracting and there's so much stuff in our modern world and you can go through entire days forgetting that actually, it's just about love. Not just romantic stuff, but love of yourself and art and your parents and stuff. It's easy, easy, easy to forget that. It's actually really difficult to hold onto that idea.
Did you always feel that way or did you learn that?
I mean, I think I'm still learning it but I'm definitely open to it. I hate when people sort of denigrate this idea that love is the thing that makes the world go around. That is totally true. I think people sometimes forget. But I try not to.
I think I'll forget less for having known you. Thank you so much.
Thank you, this was awesome.