Ashley Woodfolk has long explored the peaks and ravines of teenage friendships. Her 2018 debut novel, The Beauty That Remains, tracked the intersecting lives of three teens rocked by loss. With When You Were Everything, she dived deep into the heartbreak of growing apart from a friend. Now, with her latest work, Woodfolk expands on the theme. A novel in verse, Nothing Burns As Bright As You (Versify/HarperCollins, April 5) tells the story of a friendship too fiery to last—one where the lines between platonic and romantic love are blurred and all the agony and ecstasy of adolescence are showcased. Over the course of one day, an unnamed narrator and her dearest friend are tested as a high school prank goes wrong. Flashbacks are laced throughout, bringing texture and context to the turbulent present. Our reviewer calls it a “beautiful, emotionally charged novel.” We spoke to Woodfolk from her Brooklyn apartment by Zoom to learn more. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This book strikes right for the heart. What can you tell me about writing it?
Well, it’s a pandemic book. I wrote this book in 2020, in the summer, and that time itself was a very visceral experience. A lot of the emotions and topics explored in the novel are things that I had repressed for a really long time, things that I hadn’t given attention to. But with the pandemic, I was physically and mentally and emotionally stuck. All I was doing that summer was taking care of my toddler and doing virtual therapy. I had a lot of time to think. I was forced to look at experiences I had had more closely. I didn’t have a lot of structured thought about crafting the story, it was more this thing that viscerally spilled out of me. And I always hate when authors say that, because it’s like, Here I am, struggling to get words on the page [laughs]. But yeah, this was a very different experience from writing my other novels. The first draft is very, very similar to what is being published.
When did you realize it was going to be written in verse?
Well, honestly, I just started writing a poem. I wrote poetry as a kid, but as an adult I’ve leaned more toward prose and essays. But then I began exploring other kinds of writing during the pandemic because my therapist suggested writing about some things. So, I just started writing a poem about those feelings when a relationship is something you are so desperate to hold onto, but it’s just not gonna happen. And once I started writing it, I kept going. Over the course of several dozens of pages, I realized, Oh, this is becoming a story, and I started having thoughts about structure, and that’s when it began coming together. But it started as a single poem—not the first one that’s in the book, actually, but one that comes later. And then about halfway through, I knew how it was going to end, and that’s when I started understanding how to build the rest, with the flashback sequences and everything. It surprised me!
That must have been an ecstatic writing experience, to be surprised by yourself.
It was, but it was also really stressful, because I was supposed to be writing something else [laughs], and I was having such a hard time with it, and meanwhile this thing was just going. It wasn’t under contract, no one knew I was writing it, I didn’t tell my agent. When I started, I didn’t know what it was. It just became this secret book, and only one other person knew about it the entire time. And when I finished it I was like, Oh, shit.
“This exists now.”
Right! This exists now! Now what do I do about it?
We never learn the names of your characters.
Well, the main character, the narrator, is very much me. I really just built a more badass version of me. And then the love interest—she’s an amalgamation of three really close friends who I had sort of blurry relationships with. And one, really, in particular. I didn’t want to use names for them, because I couldn’t imagine giving a person I felt that strongly about a fake name. It was a heartbreak I never really got over. I knew I wanted to write it directly to her, and when I started writing the first poem, I wrote you. And then it just stayed, and when I realized it was a book, I thought, Do I need to name these people? I knew I didn’t want to, but it made me really nervous, because I couldn’t think of a lot of novels written in second person.
Your characters go through this tumultuous day and have this elementally adolescent experience, but because they’re Black women, they also have this additional consciousness of, if the police come—
If the police come, shit’s gonna go down. I was writing this in the summer of 2020, and it was on my mind, and it’s a consciousness that unfortunately is a little inescapable. If you think of all the John Hughes movies—any of these classic movies about teenagers—there’s always a situation where they’re doing something they shouldn’t be. And there’s never a movie like that with a Black kid. The Black kids are always scared to do that stuff, because they don’t want to get in trouble. Or else they get in really serious trouble—
—and then you don’t have a lighthearted movie anymore.
Exactly. So I think the aesthetic I had in mind while I was writing this was very much a romance but with an early 2000s Tumblr aesthetic. Everything is grainy and a little edgy but still with this undercurrent of sweetness. And, unfortunately, not a lot of that stuff exists that has Black people in it. And not to say that Black kids can’t do those things, but there is another layer of consciousness in the choices we are making. It also adds a level to the characters’ recklessness, where you realize the dark place these girls must be in if those are the choices they’re making. I’ve been where they are, and so I understand when you’re just like, well, fuck it.
You’ve written a lot about loss. These characters bring the question, how do you grieve someone alive? How do you grieve a relationship?
For me, it looks like writing a book! Actually, I’m now friends with the main person that I wrote about. We came back around. That’s a very recent development. I didn’t think that was going to happen at all.
Has she read the book?
Yes, she has! She has lots of thoughts, but they’re all good. She said that she felt really seen reading it and she forgot that I knew her so well.
What are you excited about right now, future projects or otherwise?
I mean, I’m really excited about this book right now. I’m also really nervous. I feel like it’s the purest thing I’ve ever written. I’m proud of my other books, but I wrote them from a safer distance than this one.
And for the future—all the authors I wrote Blackout with, we have another one coming out called Whiteout. It’s about a snowstorm in Atlanta. It’s the same concept, with six Black love stories, but it’s going to be in the setting of a snowstorm.
Ilana Bensussen Epstein is a writer and filmmaker in Boston.