Summer Guide: Amy K. Nichols on How Phoenix Inspires Her YA Novels

In the 2015 edition of our Summer Guide, we've profiled people who are living their dream: creative couple Josh and Sarah Rhodes; obsessive bread baker Mandy Bublitz; Jesse Teer of folk-pop group The Senators; baseball player Josh Chesler; and Judy Nichols, who recently hit the road. Up today: popular YA novelist Amy K. Nichols.

Amy K. Nichols grew up here. Yet Phoenix, she admits, sometimes eludes her.

"I can never really explain this place to people," says the author of Now That You're Here. "Other cities have a brand or a culture they're known for. It's hard to pin down Phoenix in that way. We're known for our conservative politics, and for being hot."

Nichols pauses. "Is that it? No, wait. We're also known for cactus." And then she laughs.

She has plenty to be happy about these days. Now That You're Here, her first Young Adult novel about a teenage bad boy who wakes up in a parallel universe and winds up falling for a high school science nerd, was a breakout favorite among young readers last winter. Its much-anticipated sequel, While You Were Gone, will publish in August. She's happy to be writing — something she's wanted to do for a very long time — and especially to be doing it here in the Valley, which she says not only informs her writing but provides its settings. Nichols says she pictured Phoenix while working on Now That You're Here.

"With the first book, I focused on the things I grew up knowing about Phoenix," says the mother of two. "How the houses look a certain way, the sprawl, the way Paseo Park in Glendale feels. I changed all the street names and the school names, but it was all Phoenix."

Nichols is a self-proclaimed "Army brat," born on a military base in Germany. Her family later settled in Kentucky and then Georgia, but she only remembers living in Phoenix. "I was small when we moved here. Growing up in Phoenix, I kind of hated it. It was hot and boring. There wasn't a lot to do. We had cactus and everything was dirty. I envied people who lived in places that were green, with lots of trees."

It was only after she moved away, Nichols says, that she began to appreciate the desert. She and her husband lived in England for a while and loved having distinct seasons. "But I came back and noticed for the first time that the desert is beautiful. I remembered that I love sunsets, I love nature, I love to sit outside and watch the bats fly around as the sun goes down."

A lot of these moments turned up in Nichols' writing. "It turns out the desert suburbs are what I know," she says, "and I was comfortable writing what I know. Also, I live outside the city, and there's a lot of quiet here. I go into the city, but then I come home to quiet. And all that quiet lends itself to being creative."

Her literary mash-up of teen romance and science fiction, she says, also come from her childhood here. "I was a bored teenager and it was too hot to go outside," she recalls. "I read a lot of books aimed at teen girls, and a lot of science fiction. And then there was this Saturday morning movie on Channel 5 called The World Beyond; it was all these monster movies and sci-fi movies. I ate those up."

Nichols always intended to write literary fiction. "But I got bored," she says, laughing again. "I like language and writing pretty sentences, but writing about adults was just bleh."

A few years ago, she joined a writing group and began writing ghost stories. In one, the protagonist was 15. "That turned into my first novel," she remembers. "It was really bad. But I realized I enjoyed writing in a teenage voice, about teenage experiences. And I liked two of the characters. So I decided to explore their world a little more."

That exploration became Now That You're Here and its sequel. "The cool thing about the second book is that it's set in a different version of Phoenix," Nichols says. "In that one, Phoenix has an ocean. It's a highly surveillanced police state, where everyone is being watched. It was fun to take the politics we have in real life, here, and amp it up."

Describing an imaginary, parallel-universe Phoenix in her writing is still sometimes easier than trying to explain what the real city is like. "I try to tell my friends who don't live here about how there's a lot of space, how if you want to see art you go to this one part of the city, or if you want to go to a nice restaurant, that's in a whole other part of the city. It's like we live in a great walled city where there isn't one identity, but a mishmash of all kinds of identities."

Sometimes, Nichols says, she wonders if her friends believe her.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela