An interview with the lovely Susin Nielson, winner of the 2012 Governor General’s award, up for B.C.’s chocolate lily award and writer of awesome books. Check out the review I did earlier this month :)
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience writing for teens in the T.V. industry? How has that experience helped and/or hindered your writing of novels? What draws you to writing for youth and teens, especially about such troubling issues as bullying, mental instability and suicide?
I got my big break writing for Degrassi Junior High. I’d done craft services for them in season 1, wrote a spec script between seasons, and based on that they gave me a shot at writing an episode. I went on to write 16 episodes of the series, and for a while I really felt like the “Queen of Tween and Teen” in Canadian TV – I wrote for Ready or Not, Madison, The Adventures of Shirley Holmes, Edgemont, Braceface … So, I guess I was able to tap into my own feelings from being that age.
Re: how it helped or hindered my novels – my TV writing definitely helped in two key areas. 1) Pacing and 2) dialogue. I think I know how to keep a reader engaged, and keep chapter endings rather like act endings in a script – hopefully leaving you wanting more. And dialogue, for sure. You have to keep it concise and believable in TV, and I bring that to my books, I think. The hindrance is that I always have to remind myself in my novel writing to be more descriptive. In TV I try to keep my descriptions to a minimum, only key information, so the director also has some freedom (and the actors). But in novels I obviously can’t do that!
I think I love writing for this age group because it’s a time of firsts, and also, kids can be so frank and funny without even realizing it. I don’t know why I choose certain “issues,” though I will say I never, ever start thinking about a book from the perspective of an issue. Normally it’s a character, or a situation – ie with “The Reluctant Journal” it was when I was reading another novel, “The Hour I First Believed” by Wally Lamb, and a character was placed in the real-life tragedy of Columbine – there was a line that mentioned that one of those killers had a brother. And it just hit me in the gut. What would it be like to be the surviving brother of someone who committed an irreversible act of violence? Then I started thinking about that younger brother, who he was, who his brother was. I didn’t start with “I’d like to write a book about bullying.” I just try to write a compelling story.
2. I love your texts because the characters feel so real, and I think this sense of real down-to-earthness (verbed that!) is mainly to do with the humour infused into your texts. Why do you feel that humour is necessary and how do you work in the humour of these texts and characters?
Humour really just comes naturally to me. Especially writing in first person, these kids are going to be funny, not necessarily to themselves, but to a reader, because of the way they see the world and the people around them. I can’t imagine writing a book without humour. Life is so like that, in my opinion, anyway – we laugh, we cry.
3. We know that you set your novels mainly in and around Vancouver, why do you do this? Besides the setting do you feel like your books are distinctly Canadian in any other way?
It’s really quite simple, it’s because I’ve lived here since ’95 and I feel I know the city really well. For me it really helps me sink into a book if I can see the places I’m writing about. Plus, I love being able to drop in on characters from previous novels, when it makes sense – when they fit, in a smaller or bigger way, in another book. I don’t know how else my novels are distinctly Canadian … I have never really thought of them as such …
4. Since this is Can Lit month, do you have any favourite Canadian novels that have influenced you?
I love anything by Susan Juby. She is a very talented writer and I LOVED her “Alice, I Think” trilogy. She has definitely been an influence. Also enjoyed “Dust” by Arthur Slade and “Half Brother” by Kenneth Oppel … in the realm of adult novels, I recently read and loved “The Purchase” by Linda Spalding and “For the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki.
5. What advice would you give the aspiring Canadian author trying to get published?
This is a hard question. It’s a tough racket. I do strongly recommend getting an agent, but of course sometimes it’s hard to get an agent with your first manuscript. If the writing is good, I do believe it will rise to the top of slush piles. It’s hugely important to grab your reader with a strong opening, too – if you wait ten pages to kick the story into gear, your reader likely won’t get beyond page 4.
6. What are you working on now? What can we look forward to from Susin Nielson?
I’ve just finished a rewrite of a new YA novel, called “We Are All Made of Molecules.” It will be published by Tundra in Canada, and Wendy Lamb Books in the US, in Spring 2015.
Thanks to Susin! We look forward to reading We Are All Made of Molecules!