Interview with Danielle Jawando

Described as ‘An outstanding and compassionate debut’ by Patrice Lawrence, Danielle Jawando’s YA novel And The Stars Were Burning Brightly is an extraordinary novel about loss, love and the power of speaking up when all you want to do is shut down. In this interview, Danielle tells us about the inspiration behind her book, and the importance of writing about this difficult subject matter.

The book is written from the perspectives of Nathan and Megan, who are both in secondary school. How did you find writing from the perspective of a teenager, and why was it important for each of their voices to be heard?

I actually found it surprisingly easy! I worked as an English teacher in an FE College for a long time (and have also spent a lot of time running workshops in secondary schools) so writing from the perspective of a teenager was almost second nature.

I think it was important for both of their voices to be heard because they are both from the North (Wythenshawe) and are both from working class backgrounds. Nate and Megan remind me of so many young people who I’ve come across, who haven’t necessarily seen themselves represented in books, and I wanted to address that. There’s a huge shortage of YA books that are set in the North, and STARS is the first ever published novel to be set in Wythenshawe, so I wanted to give a voice to a lot of the kids I’ve worked with or come across.

It was also important for me to have both Nate and Megan narrate the story, not just because of who they are, but because of their very different experiences of grief. Megan has already been through the grieving process, so we see her deal with Al’s death in a more positive way, whereas when we meet Nathan, he is consumed with guilt and anger. Megan’s voice is much more hopeful, so I think that they both provide a good balance when it comes to exploring the themes in the book.

Nathan struggles to cope with the loss of his brother, and we see him experience the complex range of emotions that can present with grief. How did you make sure that you portrayed this in a sensitive and relatable way?

I think we have all experienced a sense of loss in some way, whether that’s the death of a loved one, or a friend/person who is still here but no longer in our life. I partly used some of my own experience of loss, but I also did a lot of research. One of the things that Nate realises in the book, is that there is more than one way to grieve, and that it is often quite a messy process, which isn’t as clear cut as you may think. So, Nate sees his older brother grieving in a completely different way to him and doesn’t quite understand it at first.

You also see the impact that Al’s death has on all of his family members, and the different ways that they try to cope with this, which I think helped in terms of relatability. I have an incredible editor, so she did a great job when it came to asking me the right questions and getting me to dig deep, in terms of the range of emotions that Nate experiences. She really helped me to bring out the light and the shade when it comes to something like death and losing a loved one.

Throughout the story, despite the difficult subject matter, there is a really powerful message about hope and learning to embrace individuality. Was this intentional from the start?

Definitely! There are some really heavy moments in STARS (understandably, because of the subject matter), but it was important for me to show that no matter how hard things become, or how dark life may seem, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. I also wanted to explore these ideas of individuality or difference. A lot of the characters in STARS feel that they have to hide parts of themselves in order to be accepted, whereas Al was fearlessly himself. So I wanted to emphasise this idea that there is nothing wrong with being ‘different’ (whatever that might look or feel like) and that there is great strength and power that comes from being who you really are.

You really shine a light on some of the pressures facing young people today, particularly bullying and the power of social media. What inspired you to write about this?

STARS was actually inspired by a really difficult time my life. I was badly bullied all throughout secondary school, and things became so bad, that I attempted suicide. Social media wasn’t really a thing when I was growing up, but like Al, I had a website created about me, full of hundreds and hundreds of comments. A lot of those words (along with the bullying itself) has had a lasting impact on me. I wanted to explore what this would be like now, especially in a world where social media is everywhere, and people might not consider how harmful their comments or likes can be.

The more research I did, the more I felt like that this was an important story to tell. There are so many people out there (young and old), who have a similar story to me and Al. I also felt that there needed to be more discussion when it comes to the weaponing of words, and just how much damage they can actually do.

Alongside that, I knew that I wanted to start a discussion around male mental health. As I still feel there is a lot of stigma surrounding young men talking about their feelings and seeking help when they need it.

We see a few of the characters fighting against the narratives that their social backgrounds pre-determine for them. What would you say to a young person who wants to get into writing but believes that it isn’t ‘meant for them’?

I would say, to absolutely go for it! For a long time, I felt that wiring wasn’t ‘meant for me’, I’m from a very working-class background and as an author of colour, I didn’t think that I could be a writer growing up. I didn’t see myself represented in books or even on the spine of them, until I picked up a Malorie Blackman novel. So, I would say, to read lots, write lots, try to get along to workshops and don’t give up! But most importantly, know that anything you want to do, is meant for you. If I can be a writer, then so can you!

And The Stars Were Burning Brightly is published by Simon and Schuster

For the chance to win one of three copies of the book, tell us what you’re reading on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook using the hashtags #NorthernBookshelf and #BurnBright. Winners will be drawn in April 2020.