'Hold Still' Author Nina LaCour Talks To Jandy Nelson About The Enduring Relevance Of Her Debut Novel About Teenage Suicide
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the release of Nina LaCour's stunning debut novel, Hold Still. In the decade since the book was released, LaCour has become one of the most celebrated names in young adult literature: She has written four more novels, and in 2018, she won the Michael L. Printz Award — granted by the American Library Association to the best YA book of the year — for We Are Okay. To honor the 10th anniversary of Nina LaCour's groundbreaking first work, Penguin Random House is releasing a special edition of the book, out Feb. 26. Below, you can see the brand new cover, and read an exclusive Q&A between LaCour and fellow Printz Award winner Jandy Nelson, author of I'll Give You The Sun.
Despite the 10 years that have passed between its publication and now, Hold Still, a novel about teenage suicide, remains startlingly relevant. (According to data analysis from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, teenage suicide rates have increased in the last decade.) The book centers on Caitlin, a teenager whose best friend, Ingrid, has died by suicide and left behind a journal that tracks her experience with depression. As Caitlin navigates life without Ingrid and searches for answers in the journal she left behind, she also experiences all the wonderful, strange, and lovely becomings of young adulthood: falling in love, finding new friends, and coming to understand the ins-and-outs of one's mind, soul, and body. In the interview below, the two authors talk about the inspiration for Hold Still, what LaCour has learned in 10 years of writing books, and more.
Jandy Nelson: I’m so happy to celebrate the re-release of Hold Still, your (amazing) first published novel, and the paperback edition of We Are Okay, your (amazing, amazing) latest and winner of the 2018 Printz medal. These two novels are not only my favorites of your books but two of my favorite young adult novels of all time. Even though the stories are unique to themselves, I almost feel like they are companion reads, both dealing with themes of friendship, grief, healing, and redemption.
Nina LaCour: Thinking of these books together is such an exercise in perspective. I wrote one in my early twenties in graduate school and the other in my early thirties as a stay-at-home mom to my young daughter. And yet, I do see how alike they are. The best way I can describe it is to say that Hold Still contains that distinct first-novel honesty, written for the love of the process and in exploration of the form, and that ten years later with We Are Okay, I came home to myself and my voice.
Nelson: That’s beautiful. I love the idea that we find our way back to ourselves artistically again and again throughout life. Do you want to tell us a bit about the inspiration for Hold Still?
LaCour: Caitlin from Hold Still is very much a reflection of who I was in high school — shy, devoted to her close friends, interested in art, and actively trying to figure out where she fits in her small town. Tragedy strikes her when her best friend commits suicide, and she is left to navigate anger and grief and despair.
I didn't begin the book thinking I would write about suicide, but in retrospect it seems inevitable that I did. When I was a freshman in high school a classmate killed himself, a boy named Scott who I had always found to be exceptionally sweet and funny and kind. I hadn't known how he was suffering. I wrote an essay about Scott and his death for this re-release of Hold Still. It was the first profound loss of my life, and though I told myself for a very long time that the loss was not mine to claim because Scott wasn't my good friend or family member, as I've gotten older I've come to peace with just how much it mattered to me, and how much it still matters. I wish that a book that grapples with teen suicide could be irrelevant a decade after its first publication and over two decades after we lost Scott, but tragically it's still something that impacts so many teenagers and their families.
Nelson: How do you feel you’ve evolved as a writer from Hold Still to We Are Okay? What have you learned?
LaCour: I've learned that it's okay to tell many different stories about the same central concerns, or examining the same themes, or inhabiting a similar emotional state. We don't become different people with different concerns with every novel we write. The exploration of certain themes can be a lifelong process.
Nelson: I whole-heartedly agree. So many of us are writing the same book (thematically) over and over again maybe trying to get it right or maybe each book is a chapter or piece of our one life-long story. What do you still hope to learn as a writer?
LaCour: Every time I sit down to write, I learn something through trial and error or happy accident. And every time I read fiction, I learn something simply by paying attention to how the story works. For example, when I first read your gorgeous novel I'll Give You the Sun, it — you! — completely changed the way I saw time in a novel. There's this two-page section in one of Noah's chapters where he repeats the phrase "I don't worry," and with the repetition he carries us across time. It blew my mind that you could do that, play with time that way. And while not every novel can be as stylistically magical as yours, I do intend to keep learning from reading forever.
Nelson: Thank you and I feel the same! I learn so much from reading your novels. There’s a delicacy to your writing at the level of the line that I find mesmerizing. I’m curious if you focus on the language as you write in early drafts or if all the beauty that instills your prose comes in revision. There’s also an intimacy to your work that I adore and find very unique. It almost feels like you're telling us a novel-length secret. Do you write with a particular reader in mind?
LaCour: I tend to write slowly and carefully and with more attention to language than to pretty much anything else. I more often deal with plot and pacing and structure when I go back to revise. And oh, "novel-length secret!" That may be my favorite way anyone's ever described my work. I think of my books as confessions. In them, my characters are the most honest they'll ever be. Caitlin in Hold Still embodies this. What she’s going through is too painful to speak of for much of the book, but she’s honest with the reader. As for the particular reader, it is more of a universal you, the person who will be receiving the secret or confession. I write with the understanding that everyone has something of their own to confess, some fear or wound or desire, and that they'll read what I've written and find something of themselves in it.
Nelson: The idea of a novel as a confession is fascinating and actually very helpful to me to think about. I feel that way about so many of the insightful morsels on your wonderful podcast Keeping a Notebook too. I’m madly in love with it. It’s so inspiring and every time I listen, it helps me remember who I am as an artist and a person. All writers and readers should be tuning in to it. What inspired you to do it? And to begin teaching again?
LaCour: That makes me so happy! Thank you!
Back when I was writing Hold Still, lost in that incredible process of making a novel come to life, I never would have dreamed of where my writing would lead me. But now, looking at fiction through the lenses of teaching and podcasting feels like a natural extension of my work. I wanted to try out a new medium, to devote more time to making things and engage more fully in living a creative life. Keeping a Notebook was the answer. And as for the teaching, it, too, is a pursuit that feeds my creativity. My online writing class, The Slow Novel Lab, reminds me to enjoy the process of discovery. I've had the most incredible students sign up, from complete beginners eager to get started to a National Book Award finalist and a couple New York Times Bestselling authors. It’s a wonderful feeling to be in the company of so many writers, each of us trying to tell the best story we can.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or to your local suicide crisis center.