“You were my first. Not just sex, although that was part of it, but the first to look past everything else into me.”
Not only is Jennifer Niven one of the most highly regarded and popular writers of YA literature in the world, she is one of the most lovely and charming people you could meet. Her books are written from the heart and her generous, nuanced writing captures the ache and joy of a young person navigating the turmoil of life.
Jennifer is a #1 New York Times best-selling author and her seminal YA novel All the Bright Places is a movie with Elle Fanning and Justice Smith. I reviewed her 2017 novel Holding Up the Universe for the Weekend Australian newspaper when it was published.
As signalled at the start of the book, Breathless is for an older, mature YA readership. The protagonists are eighteen years old and some sexual relationships are described physically and emotionally.
Breathless reminds me of one of my all-time favourite Australian YA novels – On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. Both books have memorable settings and striking characters that we can’t bear to let go.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Jennifer.
Thank you so much! I’m honoured!
What is the significance of your title, Breathless?
I liked the title because the summer we meet Claude, my main character, she is breathless in multiple ways. First, there is the wind-knocked-out-of-her feeling of her parents separating. And the fact that they don’t want her talking about the separation to anyone, not even her best friend, leaves her feeling as if she can’t breathe. Then there’s the breathlessness over falling in love with Jeremiah Crew and having sex for the first time, as well as the breathlessness of so much of her life being beyond her control.
For whom have you written this book?
For all the readers out there who know what it’s like for their world to change in an instant. For anyone who can relate to the floor being pulled out from under them. For anyone who needs to feel heard and seen and to be encouraged to write their story, write their life. And for young people, especially young women, who need to know that it’s important and empowering to own your sexuality and your bodies, and to make your own decisions about sex.
How difficult was it to write using some of your own feelings and experiences?
It’s always challenging to put yourself on the page and to open yourself up knowing that many, many people are going to read what you’re writing. But with All the Bright Places, I learned that in order for your readers to feel the emotions you want them to feel, you need to feel those emotions when writing. And I also learned that it can be cathartic and healing—not just for me, but for my readers—to put it all out there in an honest, heartfelt way.
What do you find distinctive or endearing about your protagonist Claude?
She’s very dramatic, which I actually appreciate about her. She feels all the feelings all the time, which I can relate to, and she’s very close to her mom, something I can also relate to.
She loves “ruins and ghosts and haunted places, for finding the story in everything.” Do you find stories in places like Claude does or, otherwise, where do you find your stories?
Like Claude, I love ruins and ghosts and haunted places. I definitely find my stories in everything around me—life, places, people, experiences, loss, heartache, love. Inspiration is everywhere.
How important are strong women in this story?
Very important. I come from a long line of strong Southern women, and I wanted to reflect some of that family history and strength here, especially because Claude and her mom are strong women who are going through something that has shattered their world, leaving them feeling not so strong anymore. I wanted them to start their lives over surrounded by the ghosts of strong women who could hopefully inspire them and give them strength.
What do you cherish about Claude’s relationship with her father?
For me, that relationship is bittersweet because my mom and dad are no longer here. I loved my dad, but that summer was a difficult one because the separation of Claude’s parents, the not being allowed to talk about what was happening, all that was true to life. That part was hard. But I loved writing about the fun things my dad and I did, the things that made us co-conspirators and friends—like bakery runs and other adventures we had, and the time he (the gourmet chef) made a vat of Kraft Mac and Cheese for me even though he didn’t even consider it food.
Claude meets beautiful Jeremiah. How is he overcoming damage in his life?
Through his own hard work, but also with the help of people who believe in him—his sisters, his friends Shirley and Bram, and now Claude as well. I wanted him to have been through some hardships and to have weathered a lot so that by the time Claude meets him he seems older than he is. He’s still a teenage boy, but definitely more grounded and mature than a lot of people his age. The island has also helped. It’s allowed him to be who he needs and wants to be. As he tells Claude, it gives you what you need.
Jeremiah’s favourite song is Joy to the World. (This is also one of my top three favourites!) Did you choose his name because of the song or the song because of his name and what is the relevance of the song in the book?
I chose the song because of Jeremiah, but I love that song too! I wanted a song that expressed the joy and love Miah has for the island where he lives, the island which has helped heal him and turn him into the person he is. And the feel of that song is just so… joyful. It makes you want to dance!
Your island setting is mesmerising. How were you able to capture this atmosphere?
The island is based on two real islands—Cumberland and Sapelo—off the coast of Georgia. The wild horses and the ruins are on Cumberland, which is also where I met my husband. The brightly coloured shotgun shacks and little general store are on Sapelo, where we’ve also spent a good deal of time. Both islands look enchanted, like something out of Grimm’s fairytales. They are beautiful and haunted looking, wild and romantic. I spent a lot of time on both while I was writing the book.
I recall you saying that you get into the writing zone as quickly and easily as possible by listening to music and playlists. What were you listening to while writing Breathless?
I listened to a lot of Françoise Hardy, Claude’s favorite singer. I also listened to the Zombies, Chris Stapleton, and a range of other things. If you’d like a taste, here’s a link to Claude’s playlist on spotify!
What symbol in the novel are you particularly pleased with?
I love the drive through the night that Claude and Jeremiah take by only the light of the fireflies. I love what he says about how we’re all able to see in the dark if we just have patience and let our eyes adjust. This was something my husband told me as we drove across the island by only the light of the fireflies. To me, that’s a wonderful metaphor for life and how we can find and be bright places even in dark times.
The letters at the end of the book are powerful and poignant. How are they like an extra gift as we leave the story?
The old love letters between Claude’s parents originally appeared within the story, but I never could make them work the way I wanted them to. I originally had Claude reading them, trying to figure out where their relationship broke down. I ended up pulling them out, but when I was asked if I had any additional material that didn’t make it into the book, I thought they could add a lovely postscript. A glimpse into the hearts and lives of the people who created Claude and, for better and worse, have shaped her and all her Claudeness. As I was writing Breathless, I was actually reading the love letters my parents wrote to each other after they were just married, which provided the inspiration for the letters. The poem Claude’s dad writes for her is actually verbatim one my dad wrote for me. And the last letter from Lauren to Neil is taken word for word from a letter my mom wrote to my dad. ❤
What are you writing now or next?
I just finished writing a YA novel with another YA author, which I’m hoping will be out next fall! I’m also writing the screenplay for Holding Up the Universe, which is going to be a film, and am beginning work on my next solo YA novel…
What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?
Grown by Tiffany Jackson, Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling, Untamed by Glennon Doyle, and The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware.
How would you prefer your readers contact you?
I LOVE hearing from readers! I try to read as many DM’s as I can, but the easiest way to contact me is by commenting on one of my Instagram posts (and tagging me) or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you so much for this unforgettable novel, Jennifer, and for your responses here. You have a gift for writing love.
Thank you with all my heart for all your lovely words! And thank you for all you are and all you do. I couldn’t do what I do without you and without all my lovely readers. ❤