The intensity that comes from a first love, or a first deep love, are hard to forget and let go of. Sometimes, it’s chaotic, or draining, or perfect until it’s not. Ashley Woodfolk, critically acclaimed YA author of The Beauty That Remains, When You Were Everything, and others, decided to explore those feelings between two female best friends. In her newest novel-in-verse, Nothing Burns as Bright as You, queer love, friendship, and grief burn each page like a fire that can’t be extinguished.
Told in a day but using years of each friend’s history, Nothing Burns as Bright as You follows two best friends after they start a fire—and how their relationship shifts. What started out as a friendship grew into something more, and their blurry lines only get blurrier as they navigate their changing feelings.
Woodfolk explores learning your worth, knowing when to leave love, and choosing a healthy love that also sets your soul on fire—or choosing yourself. Essence spoke to Woodfolk about complicated female friendships, recklessness, and fear as a hindrance.
ESSENCE: What inspired you to write Nothing Burns As Bright As You?
Ashley Woodfolk: This book came shortly after the pandemic started. It wasn’t a book that was contracted, and it wasn’t something that I had planned on writing. It was very much a book that was born out of being physically stuck. And because I was physically stuck, I was forced to deal with a lot of my emotional stuckness. All I was doing in 2020 was taking care of my kid and going to virtual therapy. I had a lot of mental time on my hands because taking care of a baby is interesting in that you’re so busy but you’re also super bored. It’s much more of a physical demand than a mental one. Because I was basically hanging out with a being that didn’t talk all day, I was doing a lot of thinking and processing. I wasn’t so much inspired as I was pushed into recognizing some of my past relationships and what they meant, and what that meant about my identity and how I defined myself. I had started identifying as queer a couple of years before I wrote this book, but I hadn’t really reckoned with my complicated friendships/situationships and how they played into my queerness. This book was my way of processing that. The “you” in the book is definitely one person more than anyone else, but there are a couple of people who I had these complicated, blurry-boundary friendships with.
ESSENCE: What was it like writing your first novel-in-verse, and has poetry always been a genre of yours?
AW: I was a poet first. I feel weird saying poet but I have been writing poetry since I was like a little kid, and I got really into it when I was a teenager, because what teenager doesn’t write angsty poetry in their journal? Once I realized, oh, I want to write novels, I started focusing more on stories and longform things. I would write a poem occasionally, but it wasn’t something I was spending a lot of time developing. After I had my baby and when the pandemic hit, I was so physically and emotionally exhausted and it was really, really hard for me to get into a novel and finish it. So I started reading poetry again. A book of poetry is easy because it doesn’t require as much commitment from you. If you forget the last eight poems that you read, it doesn’t affect the one that you’re reading. So the combination of having a baby and not really sleeping—and the state of the world— led me to start reading poetry again. I also think the way that I process heavy, emotional s–t is not in a complete sentence kind of way. It’s more in a poetic form or flashes of events or moments.
ESSENCE: The novel takes place over a single day, and the emotion is so palpable. How were you able to write about a love this intense and did the timespan help as you were writing?
AW: When I started writing it, I didn’t know that that’s what I was doing. I didn’t start this book with a plan. I started writing a poem thinking that I would just be writing to process what I was dealing with in therapy—thinking about my identity, latent queerness, and what that means and trying to validate my own experiences. And it spiraled into, ‘Oh, this is bigger than a single poem.’ So then I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll write a couple of poems.’ It slowly became a story. I realized the main story was these two girls in one day. But they have a more complicated relationship than you would be able to see and understand in a single day, so that’s where the flashbacks came in. I wish I could say I planned the whole thing, but I didn’t at all.
I think the single day, and any book that has a tight timespan, tends to be a more intense reading experience. The story is fictional but the emotions within it are real things that I have felt. Some of them are literal things I’ve said or things that were said to me. Because I was viscerally processing this stuff, it felt like it was happening to me in real time. I was able to write about a love that intense because I have experienced a love that intense. And, especially when you’re young—or when you’re experiencing queer love for the first time or for the first couple of times, it is a really intense experience because you’re still figuring out who you are and how the other person fits into who you are.
ESSENCE: Speaking of those intense feelings, I’d love to hear more about the theme of recklessness—from fire as a symbol and action to making other bad decisions together. Why did you want this book to burn?
AW: The metaphor of fire for love is not original by any means. But when you are codependent in the way that these girls are, your decision making is very tied up in the other person, sometimes more than your decision making is dependent on yourself. You will put that person before what is good for you, and there is a lot of toxicity that can exist when you are codependent in that way. When you’re a teenager, not to be scientific, your brain isn’t done. Your amygdala, the part of the brain associated with risk taking, is not finished growing. So to put yourself in a toxic situation or to find yourself in a toxic situation, risk taking just becomes a part of it, especially when your feelings are that strong and you feel that attached and connected to that person. I also think that regardless of what age you are, we’re always searching for belonging and for someone who understands.
Love itself is pretty reckless, so all of these things came together in a bit of a storm. And the person that I was writing about burns very hot. Her actions are rash, and she has been that way for as long as I have known her. If our situation had been slightly different, I could totally see her convincing me to light something on fire. That’s where that came from. It was a combination of who I was, the person who was a lot of the inspiration for the story, and the fact that when you’re a teenager, it’s very easy to make bad decisions because you’re not thinking about the consequences. All of these things came together to make it a book about fire.
ESSENCE: What do you want readers to take away from Nothing Burns as Bright as You?
AW: First and foremost, I want anyone who has experienced a relationship like this or who is in a relationship like this to recognize their own worth, because when you’re in these situations, it’s very easy to forget that you’re worthy of healthy love. That’s not even to say that there’s anything wrong with the other person that you’re in a relationship with. They just might not be ready or capable of giving you that at that moment. They might get there eventually and they might not. But it’s really important to recognize your own worth, and that’s why I wanted the book to end with the main character being like, “Wait, I am somebody who is worth fighting for.”
I want people to be willing to love recklessly, because I do think that those girls genuinely love each other, and I think that if they were both in a healthier space they could have an amazing relationship. But they’re not. But there’s something to be said for loving someone with all your heart and doing everything you can to make sure they’re okay. They were both willing to do that for each other, and that’s beautiful. Lastly, I just want people to be brave. I hope that they read this story and feel like, ‘If I love someone, I should let them know.’ Because that’s the other part of it—they beat around the bush about their feelings. And like you said, they’re never willing to fully commit to each other. And I hope that if someone reads this they’re like, “I should tell that person how I really feel. I should be honest. I should be upfront. I should be brave.”