Author Jandy Nelson '87's 'magical, inspiring' creative writing experience

By: Daniel Aloi ,  Ezra Magazine
February 1, 2015

Jandy Nelson '87 decided at a very young age that she wanted to be a poet. "I was probably about 13," she says. "I don't know where it came from -- I still don't. My parents always thought I would grow out of it, and I didn't."

Nelson grew up outside New York City and in Boston and San Diego. She studied creative writing and comparative literature as a College Scholar at Cornell. "When I got to Cornell [in 1983], first thing, I went to see Archie Ammons," and was accepted as a freshman into his intermediate poetry workshop, she says. "He let me in and that was it."

"I was writing a little in high school, diary stuff, 'Bell Jar' kind of writing. But I got into his class and that changed everything. He was wonderful to me. I remember the first poem I brought into his class, he kept saying something like 'look at all these verbs, look at all this energy!' It was like the floodgates opened that first semester at Cornell."

She went on to study with Ken McClane '73, M.A. '74, MFA '76; Phyllis Janowitz, Molly Hite and Robert Morgan. "I felt like I was learning from these incredible writers and poets," Nelson says. "Seriously, it was one class after the next. I wanted to live in my creative writing classes. I went to get my MFA in poetry at Brown, and I taught there, but there's something very individual and magical and inspiring about creative writing at Cornell. It definitely put me on this path that I never got off of."

A classroom comment McClane once made was resurrected for a music teacher in her debut novel, "The Sky is Everywhere" (2010). "In my mind he jumped up on the desk [when he said it], even though that's not possible," she recalls.

After Cornell, she continued writing and worked as a literary agent in San Francisco for many years -- then found a new direction in writing fiction for young readers. Her second novel, "I'll Give You the Sun" (2014) received the American Library Association's 2015 Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults, and earned a Stonewall Book Honor Award as a book of exceptional merit relating to the LGBT experience.

"The totally weird thing is, I never wrote a word of fiction until I was 40," Nelson says. "I represented fiction writers as an agent," but her natural curiosity led her to children's literature, and the Vermont College of Fine Arts' MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

"I'd gotten obsessed with picture books -- for the language, the whimsy and also the art," she says. "I sort of realized I knew nothing about children's literature. That's when I started reading young adult literature all the time. The voices … are electric, and they kind of fly off the page. … There's so much good work and so much experimentation going on."

While at Vermont, she started "The Sky is Everywhere" as a novel in verse, then decided to use her main character's poems and write the rest as prose. The book found an audience and became a Young Adult Library Services Association Best Fiction for Young Adults pick; both of her books continue to be translated into multiple languages. "I can't believe it still. I fell in love with writing fiction," she says.

"I keep going back to school," she says. "I like to study things; it's a propensity of mine. I weirdly wanted to go back to school again to get a Ph.D. in art history. 'I'll Give You the Sun' ended up being about that -- about visual art and the ecstatic impulse of the artist."

Her upcoming book, "Fall Boys and Dizzy in Paradise," follows "two brothers and a sister growing up in a hot, dusty northern California wine town, where their father disappeared 16 years earlier. Then this mystery girl shows up," she describes. "It's a relay-race narrative structure from one to the next.

"There's a lot of food and cooking and music," Nelson continues. "I realized I was this method writer, like there are method actors. A lot of it takes place in this restaurant, so now I am cooking all the time."

Though she's lived in California most of her life, "I still have utopian dreams about Ithaca, about once a month," she says. "And they haven't stopped, and never change."

This story first appeared in Ezra Update.

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