While writing her new book, Instructions for Dancing, bestselling author Nicola Yoon was struggling with the question of whether love is worth the pain of heartbreak.
In the five years since her last young-adult romance, National Book Award finalist The Sun Is Also a Star, was published, Yoon experienced what she describes as “one of the hardest times” in her life—a period during which her mother was ill and her father-in-law passed away. It was from this experience that the idea for Instructions for Dancing, out June 1, was born.
The story centers on Evie Thomas, a 17-year-old romance enthusiast whose faith in the lasting power of love has been shattered by her parents’ divorce. After a strange encounter leaves her with the magical ability to foresee how the relationships around her are destined to play out, she finds herself drawn into a local dance studio’s bid to win a citywide ballroom dance competition. But the more she gets to know her new dance partner, X, the more trouble she has denying her feelings for him.
TIME spoke with Yoon, who is also the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Everything, Everything, about the importance of diverse love stories, writing through heartbreak and the pressure of past success.
TIME: These characters come from a diverse range of backgrounds, but aren’t tied down to specific tropes. Why did you make that choice?
Yoon: It’s definitely a deliberate choice. A lot of times we write about underrepresented people, we write about race or not being accepted by your family because of your sexuality—we write stories of pain. And those aren’t the only stories of the world. We still need those stories, but we need other stories too. We need stories of joy and love and big, swooning romances. I always say that I don’t wake up every morning thinking about the struggle, because then I don’t get to have joy in my life. I wake up thinking about coffee and muffins and snuggling with my people. Of course I think about all the other stuff. But we only have one life and we deserve to have joy. It’s just not true to say that everything is pain all the time. And it’s certainly not true to depict it like that. People of color need a break. You watch the news and movies and so much of it is painful. It’s OK for us to read something else or feel something else sometimes.
You and your husband, novelist David Yoon, are co-publishers of Joy Revolution, a Random House young adult imprint dedicated to love stories starring people of color. What do you hope to accomplish with that mission?
I grew up reading love stories. I am a total romantic goober and I love love stories. But there weren’t any people of color in all of the stories I grew up loving. Or if there were, they were sidekicks like the sassy best friend or the truth-teller that the main character bounces ideas off of. I’d really like to see some love stories with a Black girl who’s strong and vulnerable and smart and sweet and the main character. Black girls fall in love all the time. I fell in love all the time when I was 16. We need a safe space for stories with girls who look like me and boys who look like my husband and people who are gay. So many times when I’m watching television and there’s a Black character, I’m automatically nervous that something bad is going to happen to them. I don’t want any of [Joy Revolution’s] books to be like that. I want everyone to feel like they’re in good hands when they pick up one of our books. There will be romantic ups and downs, but no one’s gonna die. There’ll be no police brutality. I really do think that’s important and that this imprint can change the world a tiny bit.
Was it cathartic to write a book that deals heavily with heartbreak and grief during such a difficult time in your own life?
I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. The conclusion I’ve come to is that love exists whether you want it to or not. Human beings have to love people—it’s just part of us. It’s like breathing. Writing it did help me process all the things I’ve gone through, but your family life is just so personal and you feel it so much. I needed to write the book, but I’m not cured or anything like that.
Evie’s not only well versed in romance tropes, but determined to steer clear of them in her own life. Did you find it challenging to write her as a romantic lead while still giving readers a satisfying love story?
I found a lot of things about writing this book challenging, but that was OK. I understood her being cynical and being a person who loved love and loved romance but had her mind changed because of the state of her world. I think the hardest part of writing the book for me was what I was going through personally. The question that Evie’s asking in the book is: Is love worth it when it makes us so vulnerable and we know relationships end? And that’s the question I was asking myself while I was writing because we had so many health issues in my family.
Both Everything, Everything and Instructions for Dancing explore the moment in your main characters’ lives when they realize their parents are human and therefore capable of making mistakes. What do you find compelling about that revelation?
One of the things you realize when you’re a teenager is that your parents are people. And it’s good to know that. I think you forge a deeper relationship with them once you realize they’re human and that if they’ve made mistakes and ended up OK, then it’s OK if you make them too. My little girl is nine and thinks I’m the best thing in the world and I’m dreading the moment that she realizes I’m really fallible. But I also know it will help her because if you think your parents are perfect, then you have to be perfect—and no one is.
Dance plays a powerful role in Evie and X’s love story. Do you have a personal connection to dance?
I love dancing. My husband and I took ballroom dancing classes before we got married and it was so fun. You have to just turn your brain off and make your body do these moves it’s not used to doing. So while I was researching the book, we took private lessons so I could bug our instructor about the details of how these dances work without annoying a group class. We learned bachata and Argentine tango and had such a good time. It’s a really romantic way of getting to know a person, which makes it special. I put [Evie] in dance class because I thought, she’ll have to be right next to the cute boy, within six inches of him, while trying to resist him, and that’s just fun.
What inspired you to put a fantastical spin on the story?
It goes back again to what I was going through with my family. When my mom was sick and my father-in-law was sick, I watched my dad and mother-in-law deal with the threat of losing someone they love. And it made me think about how all relationships end. There’s a ticking time clock on everything, including our own mortality. As humans, we try not to think about the fact that the people we love are going to die or we ourselves are going to die because you can’t live if you’re thinking about death all the time. But during that period of my life, I was really thinking about why we do this to ourselves. Why do we love someone so hard when we know we’re gonna lose them in some way at some point? I wanted Evie to think about that question because I was consumed with it, and it seemed like the best way for her to deal with it was to make it literal. So I gave her this superpower where she could see a couple’s relationship play out when she sees them kiss. She can see the wonderful, beautiful, happy beginning and the inevitable end. And what she originally takes from the superpower is that all relationships end and therefore aren’t worth it. I just made her go through what I was going through basically.
Would you ever consider writing a full-on fantasy book?
Yes, I would. I think it’s really hard to do, but I’m absolutely going to write a fantasy book.
Your last book, The Sun Is Also a Star, came out in 2016 and was a National Book Award Finalist. Since then, both The Sun Is Also a Star and Everything, Everything have been adapted into movies. Has that success put any added pressure on you?
Absolutely. I also feel a lot of pressure just because it’s been such a long time between books. The Sun Is Also a Star came out in 2016 and now we’re in 2021—after the longest year of all our lives. So I definitely feel a little bit of nervousness putting a new book into the world. There are so many more voices when you’ve had some success. There are a lot of people telling you that they either hate your books—and exactly what they hate about them—or they like them—and exactly what they like. Both things can be hard because if you focus on the bad then the temptation is, oh, I shouldn’t write about that anymore, and if you focus on the good then the temptation is, oh, I should only write about that. Quieting all the voices took me a long time. I had to get used to a new normal.
Are there any romance books coming out soon that you’re particularly excited for?