Happy Mother’s Day from all of us here at Pick My YA. I’m so excited to be joined by the incredible Nina LaCour for today’s #BeyondTheBio segment. Earlier this year, Nina released her fifth young adult novel, We Are Okay. It went on to become a national bestseller and for good reason! It’s a heartbreakingly beautiful and devastatingly honest book about grief, loneliness, and friendship. Despite what the title may suggest, Nina’s new book will leave you distinctly NOT okay. Nina’s every bit as wonderful as her books might suggest, and I’m so glad she was able to join us today.
James: Hey Nina! Thanks so much for joining us today! Earlier this year, you released your fifth novel entitled WE ARE OKAY. Can you tell me where you got the idea for Marin and Mabel's story?
Nina: Hey, James! Thank you so much for having me! I had been wanting to write a novel that took place in a focused setting over a short period of time. I wanted to study the small actions, thoughts, routines, and details of a character's daily life and environment and use those things to tell a story. Then a number of big life events happened all at once: my grandfather died, I had a baby, and my parents separated and eventually divorced. It was a time of great sorrow and profound joy, and it all swarmed together for me. We Are Okay is the story that came from that time and those experiences.
James: So are you more of a Marin or a Mabel?
Nina: I'm a Marin for sure. I have an amazing wife and incredible close friends, but I often hold in the things I'm going through. It takes me a while to come to the realization that it helps to talk things through with people I love and trust. It's a lesson I keep learning.
James: I'm sure you must be sick of hearing it at this point, but the cover for WE ARE OKAY might just be my all-time favorite YA cover. As a former bookseller, I'm sure you're going to hate me for this, but I'm gonna go for it anyway. Let's judge some books by their cover! What are your three favorite YA book covers from this last year?
Nina: I will never get sick of hearing that! When I opened the file and saw the artwork for the cover I cried--the good kind of crying. This book means so much to me and to see that level of care and attention in the cover, not to mention the perfect aesthetic, completely blew me away. Adams Carvalho is the artist. He's amazing.
I am so happy to see the evolution of YA covers. For a long time so many of them were stock photographs and now we're seeing so many great artists commissioned for cover illustrations. The results are books that look special and unique and often more mature--a great thing for YA. Three of my favorites are True Letters From a Fictional Life by Kenneth Logan, art by Mia Nolting (who did the artwork for my first novel Hold Still); Here We Are Now by Jasmine Warga, art by Monica Ramos; and the upcoming They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera, art by Simon Prades. If I may cheat and throw in one more, I was delighted to see the cover of Meet Cute, an anthology in which I have a story, and recognize the artwork of one of my favorites, Nina Cosford.
James: Ever since The Disenchantments, I've got this thing where your writing seems to be inextricably linked to music. Are there any particular albums or artists that were influential in the writing of WE ARE OKAY?
Nina: I have a habit of listening to one song on repeat when I'm writing--it's something I've done since I was a kid. The song changes depending on my mood and the mood of the scene I'm working on. I remember listening to a lot of Adele when writing this book and also a song called "Winter is Passing" by Luluc. I even borrowed the idea of it for a line in the book: With each breath, I feel winter passing.
James: I know I'm not the only one who finished the book feeling, as I mentioned earlier, distinctly NOT okay. Your books seem to have this way of making readers spontaneously burst into tears. What are some other YA books that hit you in your feels?
Nina: Thank you! I consider that to be a huge compliment. Emotion is the thing for me. It's what drives everything I write and what I look for when I read, too. One recent read that really moved me is The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu (which also has a cover that I adore). I read it a couple months ago and I keep thinking about it. The premise is so compelling: There is a street in New York where the women are cursed. Any boy or man they love will die. It's so evocative and lush and beautifully written, and at times you believe in the curse and at times you doubt it, but at least for me the core of the novel was how terrifying it is to truly love another person, and how great love requires the risk of great loss. It's something I can't shake. And Gem & Dixie by Sara Zarr made me sob. It's about sisterhood and abandonment and a bag full of money. I've loved Zarr's work for many years and this is my favorite of all of her novels. It's subtle and profound and contains so many universal human truths.
James: There are a lot of great film/TV adaptations of beloved YA books coming out this year. If WE ARE OKAY ever got turned into a film, what actors and actresses would you want to see cast?
Nina: I have to admit that I am super out of touch with young actors these days, but I've adored Elle Fanning for a long time so I will choose her for Marin!
James: You used to be a high school English teacher, and you've been pretty outspoken on Twitter about the need for teachers to support their trans students in light of recent legislation passed by our new administration. What are some things you'd like to see teachers doing to support these students?
Nina: When I was in high school some teachers had posters in their rooms declaring them "No Hate Zones." This was in the late '90s, another time in our country where LGBTQIA+ issues were in the spotlight and there were discriminatory laws and policies being enacted. I remember that whenever I saw the sign I knew that the teacher who hung it there was someone who would defend students, who would really care about them and be their advocate. A gesture as small as that can mean so much, because even now as an adult I sometimes find myself wondering if people I know, but don't know very well, are allies. As a teacher, if you don't either say it out loud or give your students a signal like a sign in your classroom, or teaching the work of LGBTQIA+ writers or artists, you're missing an opportunity to let your students know that you support them. It isn't enough to be kind to them. They will probably have people in their lives and families who are outwardly kind to them but who don't honor their identities, and that leaves them to wonder just how much of themselves teachers find valid or acceptable. You have to tell them, in words or through actions. And for trans students that means going the extra step. It means exclusively using the pronouns and names they ask you to use and making sure they have safe spaces, especially when it comes to bathrooms and locker rooms. It means that they feel safe going to school, that they know you will keep them safe, even if their country's policies are failing them.
James: Any message you'd like to share with LGBTQIA+ teens before we wrap up?
Nina: I have struggled with this since the election because I realized that what I had been telling queer teens was perhaps too optimistic. Like many others, I felt that we were moving forward as a country and embracing inclusivity. I did not anticipate a backlash, but a backlash is what we got. Watching President Obama's final address before leaving office helped me gain some perspective. He talked about how the path of progress does not, and never has, moved steadily forward. His speech made me think about my own experience with marriage equality, which was the issue of my coming of age, whereas I'd consider trans rights to be our current most pressing LGBTQIA+ issue. When I was in high school there were many laws being put in place to block marriage equality. It wasn't legal in the first place, but certain people were so worried that it would someday become legal that they wanted to preemptively block it. Then Gavin Newsom, the then-mayor of San Francisco, surprised the world by deciding to allow same sex marriages in San Francisco. After that came a years' long back-and-forth, with court decisions being made and appealed, marriage being halted and reinstated . . . until it finally reached the Supreme Court and we won. This is the way things work. President Obama was a great president for the LGBTQIA+ community. Donald Trump is already showing us that he is not, and only time will tell how many steps back we'll take before his term is up. But we will take steps forward, and undo the damage. It's a difficult time, but difficult times inspire strength in people. You are strong, and we can do this.
That's it for today's interview with Nina. If you have questions for Nina or want to let her know why you loved We Are Okay, be sure to reach out to her on Twitter or stop by her website. You can also follow us to stay up-to-date with the giveaways and interviews we have planned for later this month. We’ve got some amazing things planned for the rest of this month, and you definitely don’t want to miss out!