“An ode to all my favorite indie movies”: Interlochen Creative Writing instructor Bri Cavallaro co-authors new teen novel about a momentous night at summer camp

Cavallaro shares the cinematic inspiration behind the plot, the joy of her collaborative writing process, and who she’d cast if ‘Sunrise Nights’ was made into a movie.

A collage image of Bri Cavallaro's professional author photo alongside the cover of her book 'Sunrise Nights', which shows a boy and a girl walking together in front of a sunrise.

For gifted dancer Florence and budding photographer Jude, the last night of summer camp is special for several reasons. To begin with, it’s Sunrise Night, a dusk-to-dawn closing celebration which allows the high school students to roam the campus until the sun comes over the horizon. For another thing, Florence and Jude are starting to discover the surprising magic in the connection between them. The two make a pact to talk again at next Sunrise Night—and not until then. As Florence struggles to let go of a long-term dream and Jude comes to terms with his parents’ divorce, what will next year’s meeting bring?

Sunrise Nights is a new novel by Bri Cavallaro, a New York Times-bestselling author and instructor of creative writing at Interlochen Arts Academy. Co-written with award-winning author Jeff Zentner, the book tells the story of two young artists through dialogue and verse. We sat down with Cavallaro as she shared about the 90s film that inspired the plot, the exciting collaborative process behind the novel, and who she’d cast as the leads if Sunrise Nights was ever made into a movie.

A night of magic

At the very heart of Cavallaro’s novel is the concept of timing in relationships. How do you learn to trust someone when you only have a limited number of hours with them, and you aren’t sure whether what you build will last?

“It’s a book for people who have always wanted to have that kind of magical, impossible-feeling night with somebody that they think they might never see again, and for those of us who have experienced that,” says Cavallaro. “There's also a strong ‘will they, won't they’ element to it, with a lot of miscommunication and missed chances.”

The story is inspired in part by Cavallaro’s experiences as a summer instructor at Interlochen Arts Camp, as well as by one of her favorite movies: Before Sunrise. The 1995 romantic drama starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy explores a similar idea of two people falling for each other over a single, memorable night. Cavallaro first saw the movie when she was in high school, and found it deeply impactful.

“I got to watch the sequels as I grew up, and that was really special. There was a sense of growing up with the characters,” she says. “As Jeff and I were coming up with the idea for Sunrise Nights, we really loved the idea that you get to check back in on these characters over time. I really wanted that sense of holding your breath to see if the promises they make to each other are ones that they can keep.”

I really wanted that sense of holding your breath to see if the promises the characters make to each other are ones that they can keep.

Bri Cavallaro

Writing as a team

Cavallaro is no stranger to collaborating with others—her 2019 novel Hello Girls, for instance, was written with fellow novelist Emily Henry. On Sunrise Nights, she teamed up with Jeff Zentner, a YA author and Cavallaro’s friend of ten years. The two adopted a writing process in which Cavallaro wrote poems and dialogue from Florence’s perspective, while Zentner took responsibility for Jude’s point of view.

“We had a Google doc and we took turns working on it,” she says. “I’d write a poem and a dialogue scene and send it to him, and then he’d send it back to me. It was amazing to wake up in the morning and see more pages in the novel.”

Cavallaro and Zentner went back and forth on the novel for about six months before Zentner, who lives in Nashville with his family, came to visit Cavallaro in Michigan.

“We drafted a big stretch of the book over that visit,” says Cavallaro. “We really hit terminal velocity on the project. That was incredibly fun. Jeff and I have known each other for a long time, and we work well together. We have a shorthand and we know all of each other’s references. I really recommend writing half of a book with someone—it’s much better than writing a full book!”

Casting Sunrise Nights—and sharing what’s most important with her students  

Cavallaro is understandably proud of the characters she and Zentner have created. Jude is anxious in the wake of his parents’ divorce, but finds meditative peace behind the camera’s lens. Florence loves to dance, but is struggling to face the career-stealing reality of her degenerative eye disease.

“It’s a book about making art despite adversity, and dealing with what it feels like to have a big change in your plans,” says Cavallaro. “It’s also an ode to all my favorite indie movies where two characters spend two hours having the best conversation of their lives. I really wanted to write a book that felt like that.”

Given that her book takes inspiration from a movie, it’s probably no surprise that she’s thought about who she might cast as the leads if Sunrise Nights ever became a film. Right now, she’d love to see Florence Pugh and Timothée Chalamet co-star.

“It’s so hard to cast teen movies, though, because by the time you’re aware of someone they’re 22 and playing 16-year-olds,” Cavallaro comments (Pugh and Chalamet are 28 at the time of writing).

Sunrise Nights will be available for purchase on July 9, 2024. Till then, Cavallaro will continue working with high school students at Arts Academy as they learn how to write and publish their own works of literature.

“I’m really happy that I'm able to draw on my own experience as a novelist and a poet when I'm developing lesson plans, craft lectures, and writing prompts for my students,” she says. “I love that I can talk to them about big-picture writing questions, nuts-and-bolts questions, and what life looks like as a professional writer. But at the end of the day, I’m always trying to remind them that the most important thing is the writing.”

At Interlochen Arts Academy, creative writing students work closely with professional writers like Cavallaro and receive instruction from nationally-known guest authors. Learn more about creative writing at Interlochen Arts Academy.