I was so delighted to interview Jenn Bennett, author of Night Owls (my review). A big thank you to Jenn Bennett for her excellent answers, and to the lovely folks at Scholastic UK for their help. Read on for art, tattoos, mental health, YA and more…
Art is very important in Night Owls, and Beatrix and Jack are creative in different ways. Could you tell me about your own art? Do you relate more to Bex or Jack?
My own art has changed over the years. I used to do exclusively oil paintings on large pieces of Masonite – life-size figures, mostly. I’ve also done a lot of mandala studies, which are Buddhist ritual symbols containing squares and circles. Now the majority of my work is pen and ink, markers, and Prismacolors on Stonehenge paper. Art-wise, I’d say I was a combination of Jack and Bex. Occasionally, I post things I’m doodling on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
Who is your favourite artist?
Hard to pick just one, but if you force my hand, I’d say Frida Kahlo.
How did you come to be interested in medical illustration?
I only became interested in this for the sake of my character. Like anything else I write about, I become immersed in it long enough to absorb the facts, to feel what it’s like to see it through my character’s eyes, then I move on. Otherwise, you go a little crazy, especially if it’s something that you’re researching for a villain!
What research did you do for this book?
Apart from the never-ending stream of everyday research that is always, always happening when you’re writing – When does this Muni train run? Where is this tea house? Where would Jack go to school? Could they drive there in X amount of time? Would they be able to see the ocean from their spot in Buena Vista park? How old do you have to be to get tattooed in California? I spoke to people working in Willed Body labs (where cadavers are studied by medical students), both professors and students. For the mental health aspects, I read a lot of books and talked online with people who had family members going through what Jack is experiencing.
On your website, there are a lot of images related to the book. Do you use visual references when you write?
Absolutely! I’m an artist, so visual cues are important kick-off points for me. I tend to watch a lot of videos of settings, as well, and will sometimes drill down on Google maps to a specific bus stop, say, to make sure I’m looking at exactly the right spot. If I’m specific about the whens and wheres, then I figure I can go wild with what happens there. (That’s the best part!)
Setting is important in this book, have you spent a lot of time in San Francisco?
I adore that part of the country, yes. More than just the city, I love the whole area of Central California: Sonoma, Big Sur, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Carmel. I love the whole coast there. I always tell people that I’m going to retire on a house on a cliff in Big Sur, with a view of the Pacific, surrounded by dogs and redwood trees. I’ll paint pictures of the ocean and do yoga while naked, watching the sunset, eating organic lettuce out of my garden. I’ll happily be THAT crazy old California lady until the Big Earthquake hits.
Jillian is a very important character in Night Owls, particularly as she is shown to be so much more than her illness. How do you think characters with mental illnesses are being represented in YA novels?
Sometimes poorly, I’m afraid. And that’s generalizing, which is bad of me, I know, but I often see mental health being glamorized as something edgy and angsty, something almost desirable – and it’s not. It’s difficult and complex and scary, and for so many families who don’t have the money or resources, it’s a struggle to even diagnose properly. I think YA novels are getting better about portraying this correctly, and I hope I did it some justice. My goal was to show it as honestly as possible, without glamorizing it, but also to show that there is hope and a way to live with illness. I reject the trend in YA that everything has to end with someone dying or losing hope. That’s a load of crap. Sometimes you don’t need to cry your eyes out. People live. The nerdy kid sometimes wins the girl. The couple does stay together. Sad endings aren’t more intelligent. I reject all of that.
Do you have a favourite scene from Night Owls?
I really like it when Jack shows up at Alto market for the first time. Bex acts all cool and aloof, but she’s just completely thrown off that he ACTUALLY SHOWED UP. He’s pursuing her, and she doesn’t know what to do, so she keeps spritzing the magazine rack at the check-out stand, all flustered. I love that.
There are many interesting secondary characters in the book, would you be interested in writing more about any of them?
Bex’s brother Heath. How he met his boyfriend, Noah, would be a fun story!
Jack has fantastic tattoos, do you have any tattoos yourself?
I do, actually. When I lived in Los Angeles, I had a pet snake, so I have two serpent tattoos. (That sounds SUPER tacky, but they are small and dainty.) In total, I have five tattoos on my arms and back. (Think long and hard before you ink yourself, folks: tattoos are forever!)
The book has two different titles – The Anatomical Shape of a Heart in the US, and Night Owls in the UK. Why the different titles? Which do you prefer?
Night Owls is my original title, but the US publisher decided to change it to focus on the anatomical aspect of Bex’s artwork. (I like to joke that that they John Green-ified the title to sound more like The Fault in Our Stars.) I like both titles just fine. They both capture different parts of the book.
Did you come up with Jack’s tags as you wrote the book, or write them all at once? Do you have a favourite? I loved how they were used on the proofs, mine had ‘BELONG’ on the cover.
I adored that my publisher did the ten different proof covers with all of Jack’s graffiti pieces! That was so cool. I came up with the tags as I wrote the book, so they flowed with the story. My favorites are probably BLOOM and RISE. Bloom was the start of things for Bex and Jack, and Rise was the two of them working together as a team, which is one of the best things about being in love.
This is your first YA novel. What drew you to writing Young Adult fiction? How did the writing experience differ from your adult novels?
My agent suggested I try writing YA because she thought I had the voice for it. I was scared to try it, worried I wouldn’t sound authentic. But once I started, it felt completely natural. I think it’s the closest thing to my true, unfiltered writing voice. Now I’m having a hard time switching back to writing adult fiction, frankly!
Will you be writing more YA novels in future?
I just turned in my next YA book to my agent, which is a standalone YA contemporary that takes place just down the coast from San Francisco. It’s another romance with a new heroine/hero, and I love it just as much as Ioved Night Owls. I can’t wait for everyone to read it!
I can’t wait to read Jenn Bennett’s next YA novel. If you haven’t read Night Owls, go check it out!