YARN is honored to share this interview with one of our favorite young adult authors, Nova Ren Suma. Her award-winning, NYT-bestselling book, “The Walls Around Us,” releases in paperback today, so if you haven’t yet picked up this stunning story about teenage girls in prison and the ghosts that haunt them, now’s the perfect time!
YARN: What does your writing process consist of, from the idea to publication? Can you talk about the difference between writing a full manuscript before submitting versus writing on proposal, as well as which you prefer and why?
NRS: So much of beginning a new novel for me is about finding the story, finding the characters, finding the voice… and sometimes the searching can take me a long while. Days, weeks, even, at times (to my great frustration and horror!) months or more… Once I do have that voice though, once I have a direction, what I do most often is write the opening chapters first without a solid plan. I write as many as fifty or so pages. After that, I pause, and I think more clearly about the direction of the story, the shape of the plot arc, the ultimate answer to the big question: What happens? That’s when I think about PLOT. It’s at this point that I usually write a plot synopsis. Only after that do I go back and revise my opening pages and then write forward toward a full manuscript.
I think this method stems from the fact that I’ve sold all my books on proposal. Because of this, I need to have about 50 polished opening pages with a strong hook, a compelling reason to keep reading. And then I need to have the rest of the book planned out enough so that an editor will get the gist of what I’m trying to do. (Even though I fully admit that early synopsis always does change organically as the story gets written! As it should.) Since I’ve never sold a book on a full manuscript before, I do have little fantasies about that sometimes… about what it would be like to write a novel not on deadline, how freeing that must be to have all the time in the world. But then again, I don’t have all the time in the world. Besides, I know myself: I thrive on deadlines. I feed off the urgency of knowing someone is waiting for my manuscript. And I love the opportunity to have early feedback on my book from my editor to help shape what it will ultimately become.
YARN: Have you ever felt “stuck” in your writing? What advice can you give teens who might be struggling with writing assignments and need to get unstuck before the due date?
NRS: I get stuck all the time. Getting stuck is an important part of the process for me: It tells me I haven’t thought through my story strongly enough… I haven’t given it enough heart… I was trying to take the easy way out… It says I can do better. Being stuck tells me that I’m pausing for a reason, and that it may be a struggle to get going again, but once I find the way to do it, I will have come to something worthy. The most important thing to do when you get stuck on a piece of writing is to NOT GIVE UP. Think of other angles you can try, other directions, other visions. Take a walk around or jump up and down and clear your head. Come back to it and see what’s there that you like, what’s worth keeping. The most exhilarating moment in the writing for me is when I’ve come out of a deep hole I’d fallen into and I’ve found a solution. It feels incredible. And it reminds me why I do this.
YARN: Now that you have four full length novels under your belt, in what ways has your writing evolved? Has anything you’ve written surprised you? Do you feel that there is something you would never write about? What would need to happen to change your mind?
NRS: My writing grows and changes with each book, but I can also see the connections, the threads that run between. I think I’m becoming a better writer on the page, but I also see that I am the same writer who picked up a pen in high school and decided she wanted to one day be published. I write many of the same themes, even still. My preoccupations, my fascinations are often the same. I can see my old self buried in there sometimes and it’s kind of surreal and wonderful and strange.
There are a few things I will surely never write about: sports, for one—I can’t catch a ball and hated gym class with a fiery passion. I also don’t know if I’ll write a novel from a male perspective, since I am most interested in writing about girls and women and I feel like my dedication to those stories is so important. I’ve often thought that I would always write in first-person voice and would never try a novel in third-person, especially omniscient, but you know what? I hope that’s not true. I want to stretch myself, and I hope one day I’ll be up to the challenge.
YARN: Like most Nova Ren Suma fans, we at YARN loved “The Walls Around Us.” Unreliable narration, ballerinas in prison, spooks, and thrills! There was just so much to love about it. Did you do anything special to research the worlds of ballet and prison?
NRS: Thank you so much! It thrills me whenever anyone connects with it as I do. The world of ballet in a small-town dance school was there at my fingertips, in my memory, because I spent years doing just that. Keep in mind I wasn’t any good, and I never would have been able to study at a place like Juilliard, but I did love dancing. My last ballet performance, before I quit ballet at the age of seventeen to follow less serious pursuits like hanging out at parties in the woods and being completely irresponsible with my friends, was in The Firebird. I was one of the dancing maidens in the enchanted garden and I had one small solo at the end.
As for the prison piece of this book, that was not right there at my fingertips—it was from my imagination, and from reading I did and documentaries I watched. I imagined what it must have been like to have been incarcerated at such a young age, and for serious and terrible crimes, and the story emerged from there.
YARN: Your work tends to have a magical tone to it, and you gave a great description of magical realism (along with some great tips for writers looking to try it out) on WriteOnCon that really helps others navigate the waters between that genre and say, fantasy or paranormal. What draws you personally to this genre, and do you plan on writing more?
NRS: I never saw “The Walls Around Us” as magical realism. To me, it’s always been a ghost story. But I do understand how the conventions of magical realism show themselves in this story—the way the otherworldly aspects become a part of the fabric of the world… the way not all questions have obvious and easy answers… These are certainly elements of writing a realistic world with a twist, something I do love. I’m drawn to this genre because I’ve always seen the world this way. I’ve always wondered what’s lurking around the next corner.
The book I’m in the midst of writing for Algonquin does have, shall we say, a strange and otherworldly twist. I am not sure I could write a book without one.
YARN: Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little about what else you’re working on?
NRS: I do wish I could say more. But the truth is I am superstitious about what I’m writing before it becomes “real,” and the manuscript is not yet completed and in my editor’s hands, so it feels like it could vanish in a puff of smoke right before my eyes. (Please do not let that happen!) I will tell you that it is a novel about girls—don’t be surprised—with surreal elements—I know, shocking!—and it’s my first time writing a novel set in New York City, where I’m not originally from but where I live.
YARN: In the past few years we’ve seen more group efforts pop up in YA, including short story collections like “Slasher Girls and Monster Boys,” which include you as a contributor, as well as co-written novels such as “Tiny Pretty Things” whose authors we interviewed. If you could write a novel with another author whom would it be and why? What would the book be about?
NRS: I loved writing a story for “Slasher Girls and Monster Boys!” It was my first-ever short story in an anthology, and I am itching to do more. Just must finish my own novel first… As for this dream-worthy question, here is my answer: To those of you who have seen my giddy excitement at my upcoming paperback launch event in New York City at McNally Jackson on March 29, you may well know the answer to this. I would do next to anything to co-write a book with Courtney Summers. All I know is it would be filled with raging, wild girls, and it would be INTENSE.
On YA And Other Books/Stuff:
YARN: Now that you’re teaching more and more (VCFA faculty, Djerassi, Highlights to name a few), what surprising things have you learned from sharing your knowledge with others? What do you wish someone had taught teen you about being a writer? How has helping developing writers improve their craft affected your own work?
NRS: I have fallen in love with teaching creative writing. I love it so much that I joined the faculty of the Writing for Children & Young Adults MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and can’t imagine my own book career without also teaching on the side. The most surprising thing I learned was how much teaching would fulfill my own writing, how much pleasure it would be to give my all to another writer’s work. One of the grotesque parts of being an author is being so focused on yourself: your writing, your public persona, your book successes or non-successes… It’s exhausting. Instead, focusing creative energy and passion on other writers’ books is a glorious thing. I learn so much from my students and from the writers who take my workshops. They inspire me. They challenge me. They make me want to be a better writer and they often show me how.
As for what I wished I’d had as a teenage writer, it’s simple: Permission. I didn’t feel, then, that I had a worthy voice, and though I did write all the time and in every notebook, I didn’t think I was important enough or had a serious enough story to tell. It took me years to find the confidence and the permission from myself to pursue being published. I would tell a young writer this: Your story is worthy. You are worthy. Only you can tell your particular stories in your particular voice, and I hope you do.
YARN: Now that in the classroom you have a hand in and a front view seat to the future of YA, where do you seeing the genre headed in the next five years? What trends do you see in your student writing that have yet to come about in published YA?
NRS: I see a lot of passion and heart and exciting potential and raw talent. I don’t see trends—if the writers who work with me follow my advice and go in the direction I see many are already headed, they are writing stories true to themselves, and those are the stories I most want to see published. I work with YA writers in all genres—contemporary, fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, thriller, and so much more. What I’m pushing for is a story that is genuine, a story that is not just easy, a story that takes guts.
YARN: Quick! Name five underappreciated YA writers! (We love bestsellers as much as the next guy, but we also like to trumpet and discover others.)
NRS: Alaya Dawn Johnson, Laura Kasischke, Jo Knowles, Malinda Lo, Micol Ostow. Appreciate them—read their books!
Nova Ren Suma has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University, a BA in writing and photography from Antioch College, and has been awarded a fiction fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her books include the #1 New York Times bestseller The Walls Around Us, Imaginary Girls, Fade Out, and 17 & Gone. She lives in New York City. Visit novaren.com or follow @novaren on Twitter.