Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Q&A with Ellen Hagan



Ellen Hagan is the author of the new young adult novel in verse All That Shines. Her other books include the YA novel in verse Don't Call Me a Hurricane. She lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write All That Shines, and how did you create your character Chloe?


A: The book started with poems about identity and discovering who you are. They were about loving yourself and then they started to shift into poems about privilege and the taboo subject of money and what it is a symbol of. Behind these poems about class and status is figuring out who you are at the core of yourself without all the trappings those resources can afford you.


The background is the very lush landscape of Kentucky, and this book explores the ways wealth can make you feel insulated or apart from your own community. I wanted to write this specific story in the Bluegrass state and put Chloe in the middle of a place that is forcing her to look at herself and figure out who she really is. This is an excerpt from an early poem:


There is a Before and After

What if everything you thought you knew

was a lie? Made up. Make believe.

What if all you imagined to be true

was false? What then?

Who would you be then?


Chloe arrived through those poems. I knew there was going to be a character who had everything she ever wanted and then lost it. The journey became who is she now without all of the wealth that surrounds her. Who will she become and how will she rebuild herself. 


Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I collaborated with my editor Sarah Shumway Liu on the title. I did not have a clear working title, but Sarah pulled several lines from poems that I really loved, and I looked through for words or lines that stuck out to me as well.


We kept trying to find something that would hold the emotions that Chloe was feeling, and we started to play around with the saying: All that glitters is not gold and All That Shines started to sing for us.


I love that it becomes a play on having everything won’t make you happy or satisfied and Chloe is figuring out what she wants to shine in her life and it’s not stuff and it’s not all the excess, it’s the family, friends, the community, the land. That’s what she wants to help make shine, so I love that it holds all of those things and I love the way it looks against the Kentucky landscape on the cover of the book.


Q: Can you say more about what you think the novel says about wealth, or the lack of it?


A: Chloe thinks money makes her worth more than others, and once she discovers the truth, she is ashamed of how she viewed and treated other people. She is forced to look at herself in a real way. Who is she at her core? What does she believe in? How will she move through the world and treat other people and in turn treat herself once she is left without all of her wealth?

I think classism is a huge issue in our society and talking about money can feel so difficult and taboo but if we are in this world together, we need to discuss it, break it down and to uncover the truth, which is that money does not define us or make us who are. This is a false narrative and one that I hope this book works to uncover and expose.


This poem illustrates where Chloe is starting to see what real wealth is. I hope all readers will discover the wealth in their own lives and how little of it is tied to money.


Wealth is the sunshine

arching high atop the trees.

Sky reaching, rounding, frolicking.

It is the winding hilltops.

The way Clint’s palm

feels on my lower back,

hip, waist. Shake.

My head a jumble

of what everything is worth.


Wealth is love.

Is falling in love.

And figuring out

how to last, withstand,

make it through the night

and look forward to the morning.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: For young readers and readers who love YA, they will find a story of self-discovery, poems about nature and the land, poems about food, and poems about friendship and falling in love.


For educators, librarians and families, I hope they will take away prompts around identity, meaningful experiences, friendships, music, and family connections.


All That Shines is full of the rolling hills in Kentucky, making music, horseback-riding, late-night kissing in the tall bluegrass, catching the sun sinking into the earth, and falling fast in love, with both you and the people around you. I hope all readers will fall in love with Kentucky, with these characters and with their own stories of identity and homecoming.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am so excited to be working on a new YA book with my partner David Flores. We have been married for 17 years this month and it is a true joy to work with him on artistic projects like this. The synopsis is below.


Love at Lake Majestic. This is the kind of love story that starts with a lie. Set at an exclusive resort in upstate New York, Mia Malik (an employee of The Lake Majestic Mountain House) takes a dare to convince teenage guest JP Abrigo to fall in love with her. Winning the bet is her ticket out of town, but when Mia starts discovering real feelings and JP invents a lie to rewrite a trauma from the past, they both realize that telling the truth and sharing who they really are might be the best ending of all. This is a love story for anyone who willing to tell the truth and owning your own stories to fall in love.


I love this book and cannot wait to share it with readers!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I would love to give a shout out to a few of the other authors and books that have felt transformative for me over the last few months and ones that are inspiring me to read and write more.


Reading is the #1 best thing for me as a writer. I tell my students all the time that reading sharpens your writing tools. It enhances your mind and vision of what stories and words can do. It electrifies me when I read anything – novels, graphic novels, poetry collections, short stories, comic books, magazines, newspapers and on and on.


I love great book recommendations and always give them as gifts – items to treasure. Here are a few from my 2023 reading list. Hope you enjoy!


Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion by Bushra Rehman

Forgive Me Not by Jennifer Baker

The Fight for Midnight by Dan Solomon

You Could Make This Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith

Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto by Tricia Hersey

Promises of Gold by José Olivarez

Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ellen Hagan.

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