#1 New York Times bestselling author of Everything, Everything and The Sun Is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon, is back with another amazing novel, Instructions for Dancing. Nicola and Zibby discussed her family’s illness, how she wrote part of this book literally in the hospital caring for sick loved ones, and how she coped through writing. They also discussed the theme of the book: ’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nicola. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Instructions for Dancing.

Nicola Yoon: Thank you for having me. I am so, so happy to be here.

Zibby: Your book was so great. It’s basically, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved again,” in a book form for YA. It was amazing. It was fantastic.

Nicola: Thank you. I really appreciate that. It took one billion years to write this book. It was a long journey. I am very proud of what has come out. I started writing it when my mom was very sick and my father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. He eventually died within a year. One of the things I was struggling with when I was writing this book is, why do we love people when we know we’re going to lose them? Why do we all do this? Endings are painful. Everything ends, and so why do we as humans commit our lives to this? Why don’t we just put ourselves in a little shell and hide away from the world? Frankly, when I was going through all of that stuff with my family, I really just wanted to. I just wanted to just hide away and love no one ever. I’m sure that everyone else has struggled with this feeling because we’ve all lost people and lost things. It hurts.

Zibby: Well, our interview’s now over. That was so beautiful. We don’t have to talk about anything else. Great. Thank you. I am so sorry for all that you want through. I read that in the back of your book. I’m so glad you told the reader about it. You detailed your whole journey and how you had written another book first and decided that that wasn’t going to be the book. Then you finally came back to this one. Even admitting all of that inside of this book is a decision in and of itself. What made you decide to tell everybody about it? Why be so open about it? Do you feel like it just gives it the context that you were hoping it had?

Nicola: In my acknowledgments, I’m fairly open, usually, anyway. It’s funny because to me, there’s so much more to tell, so I just wanted to give a little bit of context for why this book took so long. That’s really what it was. I think the question I get most asked by fans — they’re teenagers. They’re so wonderful. They’re the best fans in the world. “Oh, my god, Nicky, when’s the next book coming out?” My last book was in 2016. In between the last book and this one, so much has changed in my life, so many health issues in our family. I just wanted to say a little bit. This is what was going on. Also, the internet doesn’t tell the truth, or we don’t all tell the truth on the internet. I’m fairly private anyway, so I certainly don’t share my family’s health struggles online. I just wanted to say a little something. I know it took forever. Hopefully, it was worth the wait.

Zibby: I don’t feel like that’s forever, but I can sense the pressure you’re getting. After two number-one best sellers, people are like, all right, let’s get going. In truth, that’s not that long to wait between books, is it? I don’t know.

Nicola: It’s really not. Book publishing is both an art and a business. There is the extent to which we are like, okay, where is your next book? Honestly, my publishers have been great and gracious. They’re willing to wait for me. I talk about the book that failed in between The Sun is Also a Star and Instructions for Dancing. We could’ve published that book, but I didn’t love it. I don’t think anyone else loved it. It was good and competent, but it wasn’t magic. I didn’t feel the magic. I don’t really think they did either. At some point, I was like, “I don’t know if we should go with this one.” Everyone was okay with that. They were like, “Nic, we’ll just wait for you.” I was like, okay. A lot of the pressure is self-imposed, unfortunately.

Zibby: I’m feeling that a little bit. This is also a great book for anybody whose family has had divorce in their family and who doesn’t know how to forgive. It’s not just loss. It’s also betrayal. She feels so betrayed by her father. What does it mean? Of course, it takes until three-quarters of the way through before she finds out the real reason they got divorced or whatever. Still, when you have that main relationship with the father and the daughter and that trust breached, all the research says that it contributes to all subsequent relationships.

Nicola: One of the things I really like to do in the books is show that parents are just people and that they’re also often very flawed. Just a little bit of the background of the book, the book is about Evie, who is seventeen. She loves her parents. She loves their relationship. She especially loves her dad. They get divorced. They get divorced because the dad has an affair. Evie, who’s normally this very romantic, romance book-reading and -loving girl becomes quite cynical. On top of all that, she meets this mysterious woman who grants her this superpower — although, Evie doesn’t think it really is a superpower — where if she sees a couple kiss, she sees their entire relationship. She sees the exciting beginning and the middle and then the inevitable end. What Evie takes from this is that everything ends, and so forget it. Why bother to get into relationships? She’s become quite cynical. Through all of this, she has to learn to forgive people and to learn to live with the fact that things do end because that’s just what life is. For good or for bad, it’s just true. That’s the journey that Evie’s on, including forgiveness. We all do make mistakes. We all do hurt each other. The only way through that is love. This, you got to learn. Poor Evie, I put her through the ringer.

Zibby: Seriously. I love how you said at the end how it’s all about the wide-open middle. That’s where you have to live. It’s true for love. It’s true for life. It’s so perfect. My favorite quote in your book was, “The problem with broken hearts isn’t that they kill you. It’s that they don’t.” Oh, my gosh, I hope you have that posted up somewhere or put on something because it’s so true. Sometimes you wonder how you’re going to get through things. You just don’t even know. Yet you do. You have to, and so you do.

Nicola: So you do. That’s the trouble. Sometimes you just don’t want to. I actually remember exactly when I wrote that. I think I was in the hospital. I’d been working on this book. I write in notebooks anyway, but sometimes I write out of order if something occurs to me. I remember just writing that down. I made a note to myself to come back to this quote for the book at some point.

Zibby: Wait, so you don’t type your books?

Nicola: I write into notebooks. My first draft is in these Moleskine notebooks. This thing, ten of them. Ten of them makes one book, usually. Then every few days, I type it into the computer. It’s my first revision. I’ve always done it that way. I cannot get away from it. I’ve tried, and it does not work.

Zibby: Wow. Doesn’t it take a lot longer? I feel like it takes me so long to write.

Nicola: It does take a lot longer, but I feel much freer when I’m just writing by hand. I feel like a kid. I can write anything. It’s not permanent. You can just cross it out. All the weirder ideas occur to me when I’m writing in my notebook because I don’t edit myself. I don’t censor myself in the way that I do on the computer. The computer feels a little bit more permanent to me. I feel free. I can do anything. I can say anything.

Zibby: I love all the tricks everybody uses to get themselves to write without that inner censor coming. If it takes ten Moleskines, go for it.

Nicola: Whatever gets you to write is the thing that you should do. That’s what they always say.

Zibby: In this book too, I was so sad about her abandoning her love of reading because of her emotions overwhelming her. You have so much about romance books interspersed in these short chapters designed to keep people’s interest with different — here’s a quote. Here’s a text. Here’s this. Here’s the definition of different romantic relationships. Yet it all starts with her feeling like, I forgot the quote, but something like, books are just letters on a page. I was like, oh, that hurts my heart.

Nicola: “Books don’t work their magic on me anymore” is the opening line. It’s true, though. Do you ever go through this yourself, a phase where whatever sadness is happening in your life, nothing is penetrating? You’re trying to find your way through. The usual things don’t work anymore. That’s where Evie is at. She loves books. She loves romance, but the magic is gone. Part of her journey is finding her way back to that magic.

Zibby: Nicola, how did you get started doing all of this? How did you end up writing? I know now, the story of this book, but just your whole journey to begin with. Did you like to write as a kid? When did it start?

Nicola: I’ll tell you my ridiculous — .

Zibby: Yeah, I want it. I’m sorry if you’re repeating yourself. You must tell people this a lot. I’m so interested.

Nicola: It makes me laugh when I think about it, just the ways things happen. I did write when I was a kid, but I forgot for a long time. I was really good at math in high school and college, and so I got sucked away into the world of engineering. I worked in finance for twenty years while writing on the side. The thing that really got me back to writing is — I went to Cornell for electrical engineering. In your senior year at Cornell, they make you take something outside of your major. I took a class. I took creative writing because I was young and obnoxious and I thought, oh, how hard could it be compared to my partial differential equation classes and all this stuff? I took this class. It was the hardest class I’ve ever taken. I was like, how can this be? At the time, I was absolutely in love with this boy who just did not love me back at all. I was suffering from unrequited love. I wrote bad poetry and bad one-act plays and bad short stories and bad everything about this boy, just everything about him. My professor was this lovely woman. She took me into her office hours one day. She’s like, “You’re going to get over this boy eventually.” She told me that I had potential. She really liked my writing. She was right. I got over the boy eventually. I got bitten by the writing bug. It just stuck. I credit her forever with — I can’t even remember her name at this point. I’m so old. I do remember her really looking at me and saying, “You have potential. You should do this.” Then I did, but then it was another twenty years before anything saw the light of day. It took a long time, but we got there.

Zibby: Why this genre? How did you end up here?

Nicola: A couple of things. I’m quite the philosophical person. What I mean is, I am the person asking the question at the party, but what does it really mean? It’s kind of obnoxious. I’m really irritating, but I really want to know the meaning of things, the big, grand meaning of things. I think kids are like that. I think young adults are naturally philosophical. They’re very open to the world. I think they’re trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be and the kind of person they want to be in the world. I honestly think that most adults should retain this, but they don’t. We should all be asking the big questions. We should all be trying to figure out how to be better. What is the meaning of life? Does God exist? We should all be asking these questions. It makes your life richer. It makes you curious. Curiosity keeps you young. I naturally fit with this audience because I think they’re naturally very curious, and I am also. I am this way. It’s so annoying, but this is how I am. I just can’t let it go. I always want to know.

Zibby: I don’t think it’s annoying or obnoxious, PS. It’s not. It’s great. It’s great to be curious and inquisitive and questioning. Stop with the disparagement.

Nicola: That’s fair. The kids are like that. Honestly, most of my readers are actually older. They’re actually between twenty-eight and thirty-four, something like that. I do think they are curious too. I hope that what I’m doing is sparking a conversation with yourself. I love being in conversation with teenagers because they’re so open. I want to say, look at this way of thinking about things over here. Look at this way over here. It’s the first time, generally, that they’re thinking about these things. For me, it’s just a privilege to be in conversation with them.

Zibby: I have to say, earlier today, I was on a call with two publicists, one of whom was in her late twenties, probably. They were asking who I had coming up or something like that. I mentioned that I was interviewing you this afternoon. The one girl was like, “Oh, my gosh, I just reread her book again yesterday. She’s amazing. I love her.” I was like, okay. She was very excited. I feel like I should’ve had her on here for this Zoom as well. I think it’s all a great way to be, to question life and not take things for granted because life is short. You either acknowledge that on a regular basis and live your life a certain way or you don’t. I think if you do, you feel compelled to try to tell everybody else to live the same way. It either works or it doesn’t, but at least you’re trying to get the message out. I totally get that.

Nicola: I think we all learned this this past year, too, how things can just change. I firmly remember being in Trader Joe’s with my husband and thinking this is kind of a lark. Maybe it will be three weeks. We’ll buy some junk food. We’d camp with our little girl. It wasn’t. It turned out to be so much bigger. There’s so much loss. Things change just like that. You got to pay attention. We don’t get forever. You got to pay attention and try to live. I say this as someone who is trying like that all the time. I don’t always succeed, but I do try.

Zibby: Isn’t there that saying, there is no try, or something?

Nicola: Star Wars.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I am the last person on this planet to quote Star Wars. I don’t know where that came from. I started this community called Moms Don’t Have Time to Grieve. I have four kids myself. I’ve gone through times of loss and tragedy and all this stuff. It is so hard to keep yourself together and also have to be at least somewhat functional for all of the kids and everything. How did you manage that?

Nicola: I think my instinct is to hide some of it from her. Our little girl is nine. They’re so much smarter than we are and so much more perceptive. I try to hide, but I cannot because she sees everything. Sometimes I’m just honest. Mama is sad. Grandma is sick. We debated for a long time whether or not to take her to my father-in-law’s funeral and then ended up doing it. We all cried at the funeral. She understood in the ways that kids do. They understand up to a point. Then I think their brain honestly protects them from going too far down the path. She doesn’t imagine her mom dying, she doesn’t imagine her dad dying yet. She will, but I think there is a protective mechanism that kicks in, and to all of us, honestly. I tried to be honest. I didn’t go down the full path with her because she’s too young. I just let it happen. I want her to know it’s okay to be sad. I don’t want to be, you have to pretend that everything’s okay all the time. I feel like that’s not good or healthy. You can’t tell them too much too because I’m trying to protect her.

Zibby: It must be neat for her to be growing up in a family with two authors. That’s so great. If you’re ever going to be in an environment where you have two thinking, analyzing, observing-type parents — I’m making massive assumptions based on the fact that you both write novels. That’s such a unique environment in which to grow up. What’s it like?

Nicola: We have a crazy household, honestly, because we tell stories all the time. We tell stories to each other. She does too. If she doesn’t turn out to be a writer, I’m wrong about everything in the world. She’s such a storyteller. Because David and I met in graduate school, the way we know each other is through storytelling. In our first writing workshop together, I really admired how he wrote. That was one of the things I fell in love with. I loved his writing. That’s how we know each other. We are always telling stories. I’m bouncing ideas off him. He’s doing the same for me. She jumps in with her own ideas. She has told me things that have made it into the book. We are a storytelling household. It’s really fun when Penny’s involved. What’s really great is when I’m suffering for writing. I’m in the middle. Everything sucks. I think I’m the worst writer in the world. I can go talk to David, and he knows exactly how I’m feeling. He will reassure me that I’m not, in fact, the worst writer in the world. He knows the insecurity and the self-doubt. That’s really good. I don’t know any other way of knowing him. We’re creative together. That’s how it’s always been with us.

Zibby: That’s great. Your first two books have become movies. I was almost late to this because I was watching the preview. How have I not seen these movies before? I was like, I have to pause the trailer because I don’t want anything to be given away. I have to go watch this with my teen daughter this weekend.

Nicola: Trailers are like little movies themselves. They do the whole thing. I’m just like, stop!

Zibby: I know, right? I’m like, no, no, no. Give me a twenty-second trailer. I always am stopping trailers early. That’s such a neat thing too. I loved your little Instagram thing about version two of how a movie gets made with all the clips and everything. That was so neat.

Nicola: When putting together that little Instagram post, I had to go through all my pictures on my phone and just find everything. It took me down. I’m reeling, too, on just how fun it was to buy a little dress for Penny for the movie premiere. Dumb little things like that are the things that I can really remember and are so special. The movies have been amazing. I don’t write books for the movies. Certainly, it’s amazing when they turn into movies because also, it sells more books. I really just want the books to be in the world. That’s my big dream. Both experiences were surreal and wonderful, and were bawling my eyes out on the set of Everything, Everything. The first time I saw the actors speak the lines, I just cried and cried. Penny was there. I remember I had the headset on. She was like, “Why is Mama crying?” David was there. David said, “Those are tears of joy, honey.” Now it’s a thing in our household many years later. If she’ll be crying for something, sometimes she’ll be like, “Those are tears of joy, Mama.” It was so good to get to show her that you can make art. You can turn it into something else. There isn’t only one path to success. I thought that for a long time when I was in corporate America. I didn’t think I could make a living being artistic. It was lovely to show her that, you can make things, sweetheart. Even if they don’t become big, you can still do it. This is a path. That was really important to me. I was really happy that she could see that.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I’ll be waiting for her books. I’ll save her a slot in twenty years or something.

Nicola: there’s no way. If she ends up a lawyer, I’ll be more shocked than anyone.

Zibby: Have you started another book? Are you going to focus mostly on publicity for a while? What are you up to?

Nicola: I am writing. I finished, actually, a book during 2020, crazily, a first draft anyway, which is not to say it’s a book. It’s still just a draft. It’s not good yet. Then I wrote another book that’s coming out in June with five other women called Blackout. I started something else just recently, but that’s going much slower because I’m in publicity, “let’s talk about this book” mode. It’s hard to do both at the same time.

Zibby: That’s exciting. What’s the name of the one that’s coming out next?

Nicola: It’s called Blackout.

Zibby: Not the one with five women, the other one. Didn’t you say there was —

Nicola: — Yeah, but that’s still just mine. I haven’t even shown it to my agent yet, but I finished it. I’m very excited, but she hasn’t even seen it yet. tell me it’s terrible.

Zibby: I’m sure it’s not terrible. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Nicola: There are a couple things. There’s the practical thing and the more philosophical thing. The practical thing is, writing is miserable sometimes. What happens to me is I start off really strong. I have this idea. I’m like, yes! I’m just writing and writing. Then I get to the middle. The middle is where all the doubt creeps in because you’re not sure that it’s worth writing this book. You’re not sure about the ideas that sent you down this path. You’re one hundred percent sure it’s terrible. I call it the wide open, the ocean of the middle. That’s where most of the doubt is. My advice is just get through it. Just get through the end. Get through the first draft. Self-doubt is part of the process, which is the hardest thing to really, really know because it still feels terrible when you have all that doubt, but the doubt is part of the process. You just got to get to the end.

The thing I always say is I don’t have a career because I’m good at first drafting. I have a career because I’m good at revision, which means you got to get to the end so you can make it better. I’m almost desperate to get to the end so I can fix it. You can’t fix nothing, so you just have to get through it. Then my more philosophical advice is — I think the world is very good at putting people into boxes and saying, you’re supposed to like that. You’re supposed to be like this and do these things. I think that’s all nonsense. You get to be you, the individual you. All the things that are weird and quirky about you are the things that actually make your writing interesting. All the parts that you sort of want to hide away from the world, you got to go and you got to get in there. That’s what makes you interesting. If I gave fifty students the same idea, I’ll get fifty different stories even though it’s the same exact plot. What’s interesting is the thing that makes you you. Let your freak flag fly, is my philosophical advice. Just wave that flag. Wave it.

Zibby: I love it. Amazing. Nicola, thank you. It was so lovely to talk to you. I’ll be thinking of you now for a while because I’ll be plowing through your movies. I’m really excited about that. Thank you.

Nicola: I hope you enjoy it.

Zibby: And the books, of course. I will get accompanying books, not just to watch the movie. You’re, as you know, a wonderful writer. It’s been a joy to hear about your process and everything. Thank you.

Nicola: Thank you. Thank you for having me on.

Zibby: My pleasure. Have a great day. Buh-bye.



Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts