Jodi Lynn Anderson Talks with Roger

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In Each Night Was Illuminated, high school senior Cassie remembers secretly witnessing a disaster as a child, and the mysterious friend who saw it with her. Now that friend has returned just as an even greater crisis unfolds. Jodi Lynn Anderson — recently moved to Dakar! — and I talk spoiler-free about this ambitious story.

Roger Sutton: What are you doing in Senegal?

Jodi Lynn Anderson: My husband works for USAID, and he’s with the U.S. embassy here. He works on democracy and governance stuff. He’ll be traveling a lot around West Africa, and we’ll be based in Dakar. We moved here about three weeks ago; we’re settling in and figuring everything out.

[Photo: Marty Hughes.]

RS: Have you done this kind of traveling before?

JLA: Not with my family. We have two kids, and this is the first time my husband and I have done this together. But I grew up overseas. My dad’s job moved us around a lot, so I’m used to the expat life. I haven’t experienced it since I was a teenager, and it’s bringing back a lot of memories. I’m really happy we’re doing it. Senegal has an amazing culture. The people are so nice and friendly, and Dakar is a cool, cosmopolitan city.

RS: What do you think it’ll do for your writing?

JLA: I’m a very place-focused writer. A lot of times when I start a story, I’m trying to capture a place. I think that started when I was moving around as a kid. The feeling of the place sinks in deep and shows up after I’ve left. I lived in Costa Rica for about six months, and my impressions of the place showed up in my book Tiger Lily. Not in a way anybody else would notice; it’s more an intuitive connection with a sense of place that makes its way into my work. It’s one of the most pleasurable pieces of the craft for me, the sense of place.

RS: I grew up in Boston but was away for about twenty-five years before I came back to work at the Horn Book. I remember how every day for the first year I’d think, Oh, I’d forgotten about this. Oh, this is new. It was a new city to me. It seems to me that growing up as you did, you must have felt that a lot, too.

JLA: Definitely. That’s one of the things that has been nice to experience again, how awake I feel; every day is an adaptation and so different compared to my regular life of the past many years, where I’d gotten into a groove. It’s a good exercise for my brain to be challenged every day in that way, because I’m definitely a homebody — I like my safety and my little bubble; I don’t push myself out of that by nature.

RS: Do you see yourself in Cassie?

JLA: I think Cassie, of any character I’ve written, is probably the one I identify with the most. When I started this book, I wanted to try to be vulnerable in what I was writing. I’m uncomfortable with that, but that was my motivation when I began writing, to be vulnerable in a way that scared me.

RS: When you write, you’re not writing about yourself as a young person, but you’re connecting back with that young person, and there are going to be uncomfortable moments, I’m guessing. We all cringe looking back at ourselves. How do you get over that? How do you stop blushing and just write?

JLA: I feel like that’s the job. I heard the writer Jo Ann Beard speak a few years ago. She said that if you’re going to ask someone to read a whole book, the least you can do is to spend a lot of time writing it. Similarly, I feel like if I’m going to ask someone to read something I wrote, the least I can do is completely embarrass myself writing it. I feel like I owe that to readers. When you do that, it means you’re putting it all on the dance floor. There’s something to be gained for anyone who connects with the book. Those are the moments where readers feel seen, when they read something that they wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable sharing with someone else. I’ve been writing for so long, and I’ve started to believe that’s a really important part of the job.

RS: To do what, exactly?

JLA: To lay bare what is inside. This book, for me, deals a lot with anger. Like Cassie, anger is an emotion I’m uncomfortable with, and really uncomfortable expressing. I hate offending people and do everything I can to avoid it. I wanted to push myself to share that anger. It’s funny, I had a friend read it, and she said, “This isn’t that angry.” For me, it’s very angry. This is the way I express my anger. I want to reach out and try to connect with other people who feel the same way.

RS: Were you religious, like Cassie?

JLA: I grew up Catholic, very happily. I went to a lovely little Catholic school in New Jersey, and liked the teachers, mostly nuns. When we moved overseas, I became part of a Baptist youth group for a while, when we lived in Singapore. That was a more intense experience. We would go around with pamphlets to try to make sure people were saved. Then I was nonreligious for a long time until my son went to a Jewish community center preschool. When he graduated out of that, I thought, “This was such a great community; how do I find something like that for him again?” We started going to a very progressive church in Asheville, North Carolina, and I completely fell in love with that community and the pastor, who’s so thoughtful and cerebral. That played a huge part in the positive aspects of spirituality that are in this book. I chalk a lot of that up to this pastor, Sara Wilcox, and her beautiful, passionate take on faith and on individuality and courage. That was something I had never experienced in a church before. I wouldn’t say I’m a regular churchgoer, but faith has inspired me deeply.

RS: I think that in young adult literature we often shy away from religion in realistic fiction. In fantasy, you might get some pantheon of gods thing, but you don’t see kids going to church in realistic novels all that much. It was so refreshing to me to see Cassie’s Catholicism — I’m Catholic — be a real part of the story, not just something that was dropped in.

JLA: I’m very spiritual, drawn to spiritual things and to where faith and magic overlap. There’s a magical feeling in reaching to understand what’s beyond. When I was writing this book, I was struggling — as is obvious in the story — with the religious enablers who are destructive forces. I wanted to figure out how to feel this deep beauty of faith and grapple with people who are also deeply faithful but who are enabling things that trouble me to the bottom of my soul. I spent so many sleepless nights wrestling with it — and still do. I wanted to navigate those questions of how we stay close to the light when other people are telling us the light is in a different direction.

RS: The one thing that’s taken me a very long time to learn is that I can’t categorize a person based on sincere religious faith. I know other Catholics who are crazy conservative people. And I know still other Catholics who are more progressive than I am. There’s not a correlation between being religious and being a good person or a bad person, as far as I can perceive.

JLA: I had a journalist friend read the book because he goes to church every Sunday. He comes from a conservative Catholic family, and he’s a conservative writer. I wanted him to give me feedback on whether I was saying anything that’s ridiculously stereotypical. Tell me if my own biases are making me pigeonhole characters. I don’t mind if I make you angry sometimes but tell me if I’m being foolish. He gave me some helpful, honest feedback, particularly about the Father James character. I wanted Cassie’s best friend, the nun who she works with, to be a good counterbalance to the priest. I wanted her to be a source of light for Cassie instead of repelling Cassie from her religious community.

RS: When I started the book, which opens with Cassie watching a (fictional) disaster unfold in New York City, across the water, I thought, oh, it’s an apocalyptic story. But then we move back to suburban New Jersey. Wait, what’s going on with the first scene? And then we experience another scene very early on, where she and Elias witness that horrible train accident. It was so involving for me to pick up these pieces as I went and then realize they’re all going to fit together at some point. But it’s big, which we can’t discuss here because we don’t want to spoil it for anybody. Which I hate, because the pace that you establish as this book is coming to an end is amazing.

JLA: Oh, thank you.

RS: You manage really well, in going from Cassie in her own world with her own problems — her wrestling with faith and her devotion to Saint Eia — to dealing with the big world, first from inside the house, and then she has to go out into a changed world.

JLA: I’m so pleased that you picked up on that. Maybe my all-time favorite book is Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and it’s because she has this juxtaposition between the very small, intimate moments, and the larger backdrop of what is creating the influences that make the small moments. With the sense of place again, I wanted to try to create that sense of privacy, secrecy, close-up small town, but I also wanted to juxtapose it against the larger forces that are affecting these personal lives.

One moment in the book was inspired by something that happened when I was a teenager. We had just moved from Hong Kong to Singapore, which was tropical and hot all year round. I was struggling with what I believed, and I started praying that if God were real, that God would make it snow in Singapore. A couple days later, I looked out my back window, and it snowed.

RS: No.

JLA: It was a flash freeze event. The snow melted before it touched the ground. I was like, wow, this is it. Of course, then teenager-me eventually brushed it off as just a thing that happened. But I think that experience was actually huge for me at that age. I would say that it’s only really in recent years that I have come to make sense of things in a way that’s still based on faith. While I was writing this book, I heard this old interview with John Lewis. I think it was when he had written Across That Bridge. He defined faith, in a Civil Rights context, as reaching toward the idea of equal rights with no guarantee that anybody was ever going to get there. He said that’s what faith is. You’re moving forward, but you don’t get the guarantee you’re going to get what you’re hoping for. I thought it was important for Cassie to find the beauty and magic in that kind of faith. Hey, I don’t have the answers, I don’t have it figured out, I just believe. I’m just going to walk forward based on what I believe. In this case, it’s getting a healthier world, climate-wise, trying to do a small thing, pushing that boulder up a hill.

RS: And while I won’t say what happens in the grandly cinematic conclusion, we do know that Cassie has faith — in something.

JLA: Exactly. Elias brings faith into her life through his belief in ghosts. (Ghosts make their way into almost every story I write. I sit down and think, I’m not going to put ghosts in this story, and then ninety-five percent of my books have ghosts in them.) I think to me, ghosts and Elias’s belief in ghosts, are about the reaching, the sense that there’s more happening than meets the eye. The ghosts weren’t in the story originally, but Elias brings the ghosts into her life, and I think it’s a way of bringing in a frivolousness, in service to the reaching toward something that could be. There’s something luminous about ghosts. As scary as ghosts are, I think there’s something hopeful about them.

RS: Have you ever seen one?

JLA: No. Have you?

RS: Not sure.

JLA: I want to believe in them. Their existence means a lot of things, and I think that’s the role they play in the story — they mean possibility, all of the things we don’t think are possible. And they’re also just fun. I wanted the sense of excitement around ghosts, the excitement of being in the woods at night with a boy you like and being surrounded by nature. Speaking of sense of place, I wanted the feeling of, what is this world that we want to save, anyway? They feel how alive the woods are and how much they’re a part of the woods when they’re out there together in the dark. I wanted to create that sense that they’re part of a continuum of the nature around them.

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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