Author Interview: Danielle Younge-Ullman

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I’m delighted to welcome Danielle Younge-Ullman to the blog today for our spring feature! Her new YA book Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined has just been published by Scholastic and with it’s gorgeous (and very spring -like!) cover is a welcome addition to the TBR shelf!

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Danielle is a novelist, playwright and freelance writer who has always had a passion for books, language and storytelling. Before turning her attention to writing, Danielle studied English and Theatre in Montreal, then worked as professional actor for ten years in her hometown of Toronto.  Danielle is also the author of the YA novel, Lola Carlyle’s 12 Step Romance , and the adult novel, Falling Under.

It’s great to have you on the blog today Danielle. I love the title of your latest book! Tell us what Everything Beautiful is not Ruined is about. EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL IS NOT RUINED is about a teenage girl, Ingrid Burke, who has promised her mother that she will go to wilderness camp for three weeks in return for the chance to pursue her dream during her senior year of high school. But once Ingrid gets to the “camp” she discovers that the whole thing is much worse than she expected it to be. It’s more like a bootcamp, and her fellow campers all seem to be really messed up–not the “kids with leadership potential” she was expecting. Ingrid details many of the hilarious/gruesome/harrowing details of the wilderness program in sarcastic letters to her mother, written in a journal she has with her on the trip, and tells the rest of the story in first person pov. At the same time, the story of Ingrid and her opera star mother, Margot-Sophia, is woven in via alternating chapters. As both stories progress, you start to get to the heart of why Margot-Sophia really sent Ingrid on this gruelling wilderness adventure.

The story has been described as a “gorgeous novel about mothers and daughters”.  Did your relationship with your own mother inspire your writing? Yes and no. I am really close with my mom, and always have been. We’ve been through some hard times, and that brought us closer. Those times gave me an intense admiration for her strength, but also a heightened sense of her fragility. Our life is nothing like Margot-Sophia and Ingrid’s life, and my mom is nothing like Margot-Sophia, but I have experienced a similar weight of fear and worry over my mom’s well being and an almost crippling sense of responsibility–even though my mom was not expecting or asking me to feel responsible. Because of this, when I got to be an older teen, and then even into my twenties, I found it really hard to draw the line between her wants and needs, and my own. I found myself making the choices that I knew would make her feel safer, more peaceful, and sometimes those were not the right choices for me. It took me a long time (and some therapy) to figure out how to detach, how to have my own sense of self, how to have the courage to do things that might freak her out (become and actress, become a writer, etc) because they were what I needed to do. And did manage it, and we remain very close, but now I am aware of us as separate people. This mother-daughter disentangling was part of what I wanted to explore in this story, but I did it with characters who are not us, and stories that are not ours.

How did you research the setting of a trek through the wilderness?! I actually went on a trip very similar to Peak Wilderness as a teen, (and against my will, btw) so many of the physical circumstances of the hiking portion of EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL IS NOT RUINED are taken directly from my experience. I have not done much canoeing though, so I interviewed a young cousin of mine who has done a ton of camping and canoeing to get more detail and make sure I was using correct terminology.

Some of the narrative is in the form of letters.  Letter writing is almost a lost art-form! Why did you decide to write the novel in this way? The novel started with the letters, and they came so easily and were so much fun to write. They were the jumping off point and then really became the heart and soul of the story.

Do you aim to ensure a positive message for teens reading your books when you’re writing about issues such as depression and complicated family relationships? I always want to give positive messages, but I am careful that they’re not fake-positive messages, if that makes sense. I want to be real and honest with my readers. I wanted to send a message of survival with this book–the message that you may be going through hard times, that you may not feel (or be) in control of your circumstances, or of the people you love, but you can survive almost anything, and come out stronger and wiser in the end. I hope I am also just letting readers know they are not alone when they are suffering–that others have gone and are going through similar things. And I guess another important thing I wanted to convey is that when someone you love is dealing with depression or mental illness this can be overwhelming and take over your life as well as theirs, but YOU, and your needs, wants and dreams are still important, are more important than ever, in fact. Those dreams, the goals you have, they will help to pull you out of the depths of despair and out of your circumstances, they will help you find meaning, they will help you survive…so don’t give the dreams up and don’t give up on yourself, ever.

You studied English and Theatre at University and worked as actor.  What led you to becoming a writer? I loved being an actor and doing theatre, and that’s a big part of what led me to become a writer. Studying theatre is studying the human condition, life, storytelling. Everything you do as an actor to get into the skin of a character you’re going to play, and to try to understand and interpret the intentions of the playwright and then the director–all of that is extremely useful to the writing process. Some of it is exactly the same as the writing process.

What happened for me was that I had always secretly dreamed of being a writer, but I didn’t think I had the talent or self-discipline. I started getting frustrated with the kinds of roles that were available to me as an actor, and decided to try to write something for myself to act in. I wrote a play, discovered I was actually not too bad at writing and that I enjoyed it, and then I was still thinking I’d like to try writing a book, but thinking I was too lazy. Then I read a kind of…not-great book, and thought to myself, “Well, surely I could do at least as well as that!” And that convinced me to give it a shot. Once I started, I quickly realized that this is what I needed to be doing, and over the next couple of years I transitioned out of acting and into writing.

This is your second YA novel and you’ve written for adults too. For you, does the writing process differ when writing for different audiences? The result may be different, but the process is not. Whatever story I’m writing, I write from the point of view of my characters. I work to see the world through their eyes, think their thoughts, write their actions. (This is the same thing you do as an actor, and that’s how I learned it.) The first YA book I wrote, LOLA CARLYLE’S 12 STEP ROMANCE, was very different from my previous work, which was for adults. A lot of readers thought the lighter, funnier tone was created because the book was for teens, but that’s not true. The lighter, funnier tone came about because of the main character, and her way of looking at the world…and if I were to write a story about her as an adult, for adults, it would still have that same tone because of who she is. So, the tone and perspective changes from book to book, but to me that’s not about the age of my reader, it’s about the age of the character I’m writing about.

Also, I don’t think of a teen audience being drastically different from an adult audience. When I was a teen I was reading everything–adult books, middle grade books, teen books–whatever interested me. And I wasn’t into in being told what category of book was “for me” or “not for me”–all the books were for me! I think of my readers being the same way, and just try to tell the story as best I can.

Finally, what would your three top tips be for anyone writing for a YA audience?

1: Do not write down to them. (See above.)

2: Dig deep, so as to find something that really matters to you to write about.

3: Be creative.

Thanks so much for having me on the blog, Victoria!

Thank you Danielle, for such brilliant words of advice and sharing your inspiration for your new book!

Find out more at www.danielleyoungeullman.com and follow Danielle on Twitter . With thanks to Scholastic for my copy of Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined. Read my review here!

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