A photo of authors Jennifer Niven and David Levithan on a green, scrapbook type background with a picture of the Powerpuff Girls and a book by Judy Blume

‘My biggest fear is serving Judy Blume the wrong dinner’: 21 Questions with David Levithan and Jennifer Niven

The authors of Take Me With You When You Go on avoiding actress Emma Thompson, interviewing rock band INXS, and writing the stories you want to read.

We were very excited to hear about the collaboration between authors David Levithan and Jennifer Niven. Both are writing virtuosos within the world of YA with books including All the Bright Places, Breathless, Every Day, and Boy Meets Boy under their belts, and their new tale Take Me With You When You Go is just as stirring and immersive.

The story centres around siblings Ezra and Bea who have a troubled home life due to an abusive stepfather and neglectful mother. But they have always had each other to lean on when they need to. That is until Ezra wakes up one day to find Bea is gone. And all she’s left behind is an email address. Like the structure of the book itself, Jennifer and David wrote Take Me With You When You Go over email. Amid lockdown, they sent emails back and forth to each other – expanding and evolving the story as they went, throwing in bombshells or twists every now and then to change the course of the narrative.

To mark the release of their new book, we got in touch to ask Levithan and Niven our 21 questions on life and literature. Below we learn about their shared love for Judy Blume, avoiding actress Emma Thompson and an embarrassing incident with a Powerpuff Girl keyring.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

David Levithan: M. T. Anderson, for writing so widely and so well.

Jennifer Niven: My mother. She taught me to find the story in everything, to never limit myself or my imagination, and to always believe in my work. Every word I write is for her.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

JN: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I remember reading it for the first time and realizing that books could take you anywhere.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

'All of Judy Blume's books changed my life's path.'

DL: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

JN: I loved Lois Duncan, especially Daughters of Eve and Killing Mr. Griffin. I also loved Judy Blume’s Forever and the classics – the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen – as well as Shirley Jackson, my favourite writer after my mom. My best friend and I also read and reread Ray Bradbury’s Collected Stories. We were obsessed!

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

DL: Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat inspired me to write my first novel so that certainly changed my path.

JN: All of Judy Blume’s books. When I was nine, 10, 11, I found myself on her pages. She was writing about so many of the things I was feeling and going through at the time. I remember reading them for the first time and realizing that I could grow up to one day write stories about real things that happened to real people.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

DL: Chatting as one of the babysitters in The Baby-sitters Club on AOL.

JN: I was writer and editor at House of Blues, Los Angeles, which meant I got to hang out with all the musicians who played at the club and interview them for our website. Probably the most remarkable was Michael Hutchence of INXS – I interviewed him three weeks before his death, and he seemed so lost and sad. I still get chills thinking about it.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

DL: Die vampire, die! (It’s a song from [title of show] – listen to it for the full explanation of what this means.)  

JN: Don’t write with anyone else over your shoulder, and don’t ever tell yourself no because there are enough people in this world who will do that for you. Also, write the story you want to read.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

'I interviewed Michael Hutchence three weeks before his death. I still get chills thinking about it.'

DL: Most of the books I’ve read 10 times are because I taught them. Not to mention him twice in one interview, but M. T. Anderson’s Feed enthrals me because the more I read it, the more his warnings about our society are needed.

JN: Periodically I reread The Little Prince, which always seems to speak to me in ways I need no matter where I am in my life.

What’s the one popular children’s book you’ve never got round to reading?

DL: Being American, I only have the vaguest sense of who Enid Blyton is.

JN: Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

DL: Teaching elementary school. And I’d be EXHAUSTED right now.

JN: An international rock star detective; a career I made up when I was a little girl. It just sounded like the most amazing, exciting thing anyone could ever be!

What makes you happiest?

DL: It’s not a competition. I’m fine with the many things that make me happy.

JN: My husband and family (including our cats) and loved ones and readers. Being at home with them.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

DL: None of my hobbies (photography, letter-writing) are particularly surprising!

JN: I love dancing! And I’m also a hugely enthusiastic fangirl. I collect Funko POPs and ABBA memorabilia and absolutely anything related to the things I love.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

DL: Across a dining room table with at least one other friend writing, too.

JN: Sitting at my desk in Paris looking out at the Seine and listening to the sounds of the city. Knowing that I have an entire uninterrupted day or days of writing time.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

DL: I was with two other very successful writers at a UK festival, full of confidence and tenacity. And yet, when Emma Thompson walked into the room we became too timid to say hello. We just watched as she got her breakfast and chatted amiably with other authors. 

JN: With the publication of my first book, The Ice Master, I was having dinner with my North American editor, Will Schwalbe, and my UK editor, Georgina Morland. I was young and green and trying my best to be poised. After dinner, the three of us shared a taxi. We were chatting and laughing and then fell into a brief silence. At that exact moment, the cab hit a bump and my purse was jostled. In it, I had a Powerpuff Girls keychain that talked, and suddenly the silence was broken with: I think you’re asking for a heiny whupping!

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

'We just watched Emma Thompson as she got her breakfast and chatted amiably with other authors.'

DL: I think it’s safe to say that if Judy Blume came over for dinner, I’d serve her whatever she wanted.

JN: I would meet Shirley Jackson and order take out because I don’t cook!

What’s your biggest fear?

DL: Clearly, it’s serving Judy Blume the wrong dinner. Or saying hi to Emma Thompson and her looking through me. (Note: There was nothing at all in her demeanour that implied this would happen.)

JN: Losing the people I love, especially my husband. This is because I’ve lost my mom and my dad and too many others, some suddenly and unexpectedly, and I’m always afraid the people I love will leave too soon.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

DL: The ability to be present without taking up space. Concerts would be much more enjoyable.

JN: I would turn back time like Dr. Strange or be able to control the weather so that I could almost always have sunshine.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

DL: Roy Guzmán’s Catrachos is easily the one I’ve given to the most friends. It’s an astonishing collection. 

JN: The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

DL: I only read in the shower.

JN: Yes!

Which do you prefer: chocolate or crisps?

DL: Surely the answer to this depends on the situation.

JN: Can I have both?

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

DL: Nope. There’s no such thing as one best book.

JN: This is almost impossible to answer because there are SO many I love and admire. I do think In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is a perfect book, and it’s one I wish I could have written. The same can be said for Beloved by Toni Morrison. It’s a book I love with all my heart.

What inspired you to write your new book?

DL: The opportunity to go on a journey with my co-author, Jennifer Niven. The book is a series of emails between a brother and sister, unfolding the reasons why the sister has run away. I had to keep writing in order to find out what happened to her.

JN: David Levithan sent me a chapter out of the blue and asked if I wanted to write a book with him. Obviously, I said YES!!!

Take Me With You When You Go by David Levithan and Jennifer Niven is out now.

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