Nicola Yoon is a force in young adult literature. Her 2015 debut, Everything, Everything, currently sits comfortably in its 44th week on the New York Times best seller list. It is also weeks away from being released on the big screen in a highly anticipated film adaption starring Amandla Stenberg and Nick Robinson. If you’ve read the novel, it is easy to understand the hype. The story centers on Maddy, a teenager who has never left her house due to a rare autoimmune disease. She falls for Olly, the boy next door, even though she knows that loving him could mean risking everything. It is a story that is beautiful and complicated in the way that every good star-crossed romance is supposed to be.
Yoon’s ability to write compelling connections does not end with Everything, Everything. Last fall, she published her sophomore novel, The Sun Is Also a Star, a love story that centers around the topic of immigration. It is the story of Natasha and Daniel, who fall in love on the day that Natasha’s family is being deported. Featuring a diverse cast, including an undocumented family, The Sun Is Also a Star humanizes a subject that is so often framed as a headline. Yoon, an immigrant herself from Jamaica, is an advocate for wider representation in literature and believes that these hot-button issues need to be made personal.
Last month, we spoke to Yoon, along with fellow YA writer Jennifer Niven, about all things dystopia. In addition to being a vocal diversity advocate in these seemingly dystopian times, Yoon loves love. She loves talking about it, reading and watching love stories unfold before her eyes, and, of course, writing about it. Yoon chatted with MTV News about the Everything, Everything film, the importance of diverse representation in young adult literature, and why she’ll always write about love.
First, can you tell me a bit about your background and how you got into writing?
Nicola Yoon: In college, I was an electrical engineering major. My senior year, I had to take an elective outside of my major, so I took a creative writing class. At the time, I was totally in an unrequited love relationship with a boy — basically I was in love with him and he did not love me — and I wrote terrible poetry about that in this class. The poetry was not good, but I really liked writing. For my last project I wrote this one-act play, and my professor said, "You know, you've got potential." That really stuck with me. Then I went to grad school for creative writing and I [did] it for 20 years while I was working my job. Finally, Everything, Everything got an agent and stuff. Yay! But it took a long time.
On your website and in your Twitter bio, you state that you are a hopeless romantic. It’s such a striking, unapologetic proclamation, because while there are probably a lot of hopeless romantics out there, most aren’t willing to admit it. Love, be it romantic, familial, or friendship, is definitely at the heart of both of your books. What is it about love that makes you keep coming back to it as a thematic thread?
Yoon: Love is all there is, really. I don't just mean romantic love, I mean love of your family, your work, your art, and all that other stuff too. Love is the thing that makes the world go round, but we sort of talk about it like it's fluffy stuff — like, god forbid, girl stuff, you know? — when it is actually the driving force of life.
So do you think that in all your work to come, love will always be the thematic thread?
Yoon: Yeah, I mean, I think I'll always write about love. Philosophically, I think love is the driving force of life, but [it's] also just because I love love. I love watching stories about people falling in love. If I'm at Starbucks and there's a couple fighting, I'm totally the one that's watching. Like, I am fascinated by the way that people find each other and connect in that way. So I can't imagine not writing about love.
Last time you spoke with MTV News, Everything, Everything had just debuted to rave reviews and the film had just been optioned. Now we’re just weeks away from the film’s release. How are you feeling, now that we’re in the final few weeks before the movie is out in the world?
Yoon: It's surreal. It's still just like ... what? I mean, there are days when I'm like, What are you even talking about? It's been trippy, no question about it. I got to take my little girl to set a few months ago. She got to meet Amandla and the director and she just ruled the set. I mean, she's not shy at all. I was just so glad that she got to see that you can make art and do that for a living. Because I didn't know that when I was a kid. And yeah, I mean, it's been wonderful. Not for just the reasons you would think, but for stuff like that.
How involved were you — if at all — during the filmmaking process?
Yoon: At the beginning, I got to give notes on the first versions of the scripts. I got really lucky that the director, Stella Meghie, and I really got along well. We met for coffee, just for a chat. It was supposed to be a half an hour and we stayed for three hours. We just talked about the movie and her vision for it and my vision for it and then we had lots of little conversations over the course of filming and stuff. That's the extent to which I was involved. I mean, it's Stella's. It's a new piece of art, you know, and it's definitely Stella's baby. I've just been lucky that she has the same sort of vision that I had.
Everything, Everything was filmed in two locations: Vancouver and Mexico. You were lucky enough to visit not only one set, but both. Do you have a favorite memory while visiting?
Yoon: In Vancouver, when we went there to visit the set the first time, we went to an airport set that was actually a real, working airport. I got to put the director's headphones on and just sort of watch on the screen. And Amandla [Stenberg] and Nick [Robinson] are saying lines from the book ... and I started crying. And my little girl was like, "Why's Mommy crying?" She just didn't understand. And my husband explained to her that they were tears of joy. And it was just, OK, this is a thing that is happening. To this day, she says it all the time.
Also, we filmed a cameo on the Mexico set. That was kind fun, but it was more work. It took 45 minutes to film a three-second cameo. But we were in the movie, I saw it, and we did not get cut! We're "Family on the Beach."
While Everything, Everything was shooting, your sophomore novel, The Sun Is Also a Star, hit shelves. A lot of writers say that the second book is harder to write than the first — did you experience any challenges during that writing process?
Yoon: I think what's hard for me was sort of getting out of my own head. Because what happens is that the first book comes out, and then you know everyone's opinions on it. Not only the bad opinions, right? The good ones too. All that stuff isn't good for you, because everyone is saying which parts they like about your writing. So now you know what they like and so if you don't do that again, are they not going to like it? And then people who are like, "I hate this about your writing," you're like, Should I change that? It took me a while to tune out the noise and be able to ignore it so that I could write The Sun Is Also a Star. It took a while to get used to that new level of public because there's a book in the world, you know?
In The Sun Is Also a Star, Natasha is undocumented from Jamaica and Daniel is first-generation Korean-American. Their differing immigrant status wildly affects their experiences in America — from their privilege to their familial expectations. What did you do in terms of research in order to write this book?
Yoon: I mean, especially for the Korean and Korean-American perspectives, I had some of my friends read [the book], and my sister-in-law, and my husband's cousin who is actually from Korea. And then I had other sensitivity beta readers too, just to make sure I got things right. I mean basic things, like would someone who is Korean-American, first-generation, eat that kind of food for breakfast? My husband is Korean-American and we've been married for almost 15 years, so I have a lot of firsthand knowledge, but there were still some things that when he read it he was like, "No, no one would really make that," you know? So I had people read for that, and I also had people read to make sure I wasn’t engaging in some sort of stereotype that I was unaware of. And then some of it is from my own experiences. Especially from the perspective of Natasha, because I was actually born in Jamaica; I am an immigrant. So yeah, that's the research I did. I also had to do a lot of research about the actual deportation process. Let me tell you, it's a lot of documents to read and they are not clear.
The Sun Is Also a Star is poignant in this particular political moment, when immigration is at the forefront of the conversation. What do you hope your readers take away from this story when it comes to the topic of immigration?
Yoon: We talk about these things like they're big political issues, when really they're small personal things. I mean, I really feel that way about immigration, where it's a headline and people are talking about delineating policies and stuff, but we're just talking about people, right? People like everyone else who have the same hopes and dreams — and they're flawed and they're amazing and they want things. I really think that if we can just see it from that perspective, we have a good starting place to talk about the real issues that surround immigration. So one of the things that I want to do in the book is to say hey, these are real people. Our humanity needs to come into play here. They're just like you and me. In the acknowledgments of The Sun Is Also a Star, I think I said that immigrating to another country is an act of hope. And it really, really is. And bravery too, because you have to leave everything. You leave a language and the people that you know. So it is hope and bravery. People do it sometimes for desperate reasons, or sometimes it's for the same reasons that we do anything: We have a dream. We're just talking about people, and we should start there.
You are also a team member of the organization We Need Diverse Books. For those who don’t know, can you tell us a little bit about the organization, its mission, and the work that it is doing?
Yoon: We Need Diverse Books is advocacy for more representation in young adult literature. It's across all the spectrums: race, sexuality, gender, disability. It's founded by Ellen Oh, and it started a few years ago. I help do their social media and Tumblr. It's just one of those things that is pretty basic, right? We live in a diverse world and our literature needs to reflect that. Maddy looks the way she does in Everything, Everything because my little girl looks like that. I wanted her to be able to see herself in a book when she grew up, because when I was a kid I didn't really see myself in books. I think everyone wants to be able to see that. You need to see yourself as the hero. That's why I'm involved, and that's why the organization exists.
Finally, do you have any recommendations for what to read while we’re waiting for the Everything, Everything movie?
Yoon: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour destroyed me. I love, love that book. History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera is great. Also, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I mean, I don't think I have to say this, but it is a fantastic book.
Everything, Everything hits theaters on May 19.