the nova hour (and no, not the pbs show)
May 31st, 2011
I knew that Nova Ren Suma’s debut YA novel IMAGINARY GIRLS was something special before I ever read a word of it. I’m not one to judge books by their covers. Really, I’m not. I know all the decisions that go into covers and all the inappropriately jacketed books that hide really quality literary novels behind silly, doofy looking covers. But this cover, you saw it, and you just knew, the book was going to kick ass:
I think this might be the most stunning YA cover I have ever seen. Ever. It tells you the book, IMAGINARY GIRLS, is something special, something eerie, something otherworldly. Something unlike anything you’ve ever read before. All of which is true and none of which begins to scratch the surface of this beautifully written—and beautifully written in a way that is different from anything I’ve ever read before—creepy, elegant, ambient, riveting, provocative novel that I’m still thinking about several months after finishing it.
It’s also one of those books that I read thinking: How Did She Do That? The characterizations. The metaphors that don’t stand out as metaphors but just sort of quietly slither under your skin. The way the whole book washes over you, leaving a thin layer of silt, which, is fitting. You’ll see when you read it. It comes out June 14th and you can win a signed first-edition if you keep reading. I was even more blown away because I mistakenly thought Nova was one of those wunderkinds—you know, 23, straight out of school, immediate book contract, instant genius. That she’s not, that she traveled a long road and had her knocks along the way, makes me admire her all the more ,and also makes the incredible depth of this book that much more understandable. (Not that the wunderkinds aren’t capable of depth. The incredible Lauren Oliver published BEFORE I FALL when she was 27, a fact that never ceases to blow my mind.)
I got my story straight when I finally sat down and asked Nova the questions that I’ve been wondering about and she answered thoroughly and thoughtfully. So, prepare to get to know Nova Ren Suma and all you up-and-coming writers, prepare to be inspired. IMAGINARY GIRLS is going to be one of the books everyone is talking about this summer, and the story of how it came to be is testament to perseverance and patience and hope. Cream, does, eventually, rise to the top.
GF: So, I have to start off by saying that I totally thought that you were one of those writer starlets—23, straight out of grad school, wrote a first book and then a big YA book. And while I’m right about the first book—the middle grade DANI NOIR—I appear to have been wrong about everything else. You don’t have to give your age or anything but can you give a sense of your background, your road to becoming an author.
NRS: Can I start, before admitting I’m no writer starlet, to say how thrilled I am to do this interview—and how much I love (love! love!) IF I STAY and WHERE SHE WENT? It’s an honor to have this conversation with you and I’ll try not to get tripped up.
Okay, so I’m certainly not a writer starlet, though it isn’t for lack of trying. I entered my MFA program straight out of college, with lots of stars in my eyes. In a way, I felt the program promised so much: the story in The Paris Review or The New Yorker, the fancy agent to wine and dine us, the six-figure book deal by graduation… And sure, that did happen to some, but those promises didn’t come true for me, and I don’t think it’s the fault of Columbia University; it was my own naive expectation. I was also not the best at networking, and I think my shyness and lack of confidence cost me a lot.
Years passed. I graduated, I wrote two novels—meant to be adult literary fiction but mostly written in teenage voices… it never occurred to me that they could have been YA—and I got close but never snagged an agent. Eventually I hit a low point where I began to think it just wouldn’t happen for me. You know, the dream: the agent, the book, the permission to call myself a “writer.” I worked various day jobs in publishing, most of them as a copy editor in children’s books, and I began doing work-for-hire writing on the side, because it’s hard to make it on a publishing salary in New York. I wrote about seventeen books—from middle-grade series novels to picture books to movie tie-ins—and the first book I ended up publishing under my name was DANI NOIR, a middle-grade novel that came about because of the connections and hard work I put into ghostwriting.
But something else was going on, too. Before I signed the contract for DANI NOIR, I had an eye-opening experience about YA fiction. At my day job—at that point I was a senior production editor at HarperCollins—I was working for the first time on YA novels and I was falling in love with the genre. There was one writer in particular whose novels inspired me: Laura Kasischke, author of BOY HEAVEN and FEATHERED. But DANI NOIR was happening, so I put what would become IMAGINARY GIRLS aside to write that. Still, the idea of writing my first YA novel kept tugging at me.
Thankfully, there was one last test. After I turned in the DANI NOIR manuscript, I was approached with a work-for-hire opportunity, to write for a new series—guaranteed publication, as many as three books—or return to IMAGINARY GIRLS and keep writing without any guarantees that I’d ever get an agent or a publisher from it. I needed the money the other project would have offered, but I went with my gut. It felt like a last-ditch effort for me… and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.
GF: I also heard you say that if you could give novice authors advice what would it be, it was something along the lines of “embrace YA sooner.” As someone who also backed into writing YA (though I had a long history of writing for teens), I totally understand that. Without rehashing what you’ve just told us, can you tell us what you mean about this. How did you find your way into YA and how did you know that you’d found your natural home?
NRS: I know I talked a bit about that already, but it was my day job that opened my eyes. Since I got into children’s book publishing accidentally (I interned for the art editor of The New Yorker, Françoise Mouly, and she ended up hiring me to be her assistant at the small-press children’s book publisher RAW Junior that she’d founded with her husband, Art Spiegelman), I’m forever grateful for it. It was an odd, winding path for me, but I ended up in just the right place.
There is so much I would have done differently in my writing career. Choosing a fully funded grad school is one (I can’t ever recommend that anyone take out as many loans as I did to get an MFA), and writing for teens is the other.
The thing is, I’ve always seemed to write about teenagers or from a young perspective. The first novel I wrote, a semiautobiographical coming-of-age story, was written in a large part from a kid’s perspective, and the second novel I wrote, so much fiction it bordered on the bizarre, was written from the perspective of two teenagers, a brother and sister, with alternating chapters. My short stories were most often about teenagers. I once wrote a short story from a fortysomething woman’s perspective… and the best scene is when she takes her teenage daughter to get her nose pierced on St. Mark’s Place, and that’s because the daughter brought the scene to life.
I often think that writing for teens was staring me in the face for so long and I have no idea why I didn’t see it. I know it took me a while to get here, but I’m thrilled to be a part of this. I love how you called it my “natural home”—that’s just how it feels.
GF: We’re glad to have you in the YA community. It’s pretty awesome as you’re probably finding out. It’s sort of like our secret. I know that you’ve spent a fair amount of time in the adult literary world (MacDowell Colony, etc.). Have you experienced any snobbery from the adult lit world now that you’ve switched over to YA, along the lines of all the crap Sherman Alexie got when he wrote THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN? You don’t have to name names!
NRS: Oh my, yes. I won’t name names, but I’ve gotten attitude about writing for young adults, the usual jokes about vampires, and some snobby dismissals.
There was one time when I did a reading from IMAGINARY GIRLS at a famous location in the adult literary world. After the reading someone came up to me, all complimentary about my pages, saying all these wonderful things. Then came the kicker: “It sounded like a REAL book!” this person said. It was meant as a high compliment, but I didn’t take it that way.
Yes, YA novels are REAL BOOKS.
I recently had residencies at both Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony—I was the only YA writer there both times, though I just missed Cecil Castellucci at MacDowell and was very sad about that. I was so nervous to go, but I went in introducing myself not just as a writer but as a YA writer. I’m so proud of it. I discovered that many of the writers for adults that I met are extremely curious about YA now. Maybe authors like Sherman Alexie have something to do with that. At one point, four or five writers at one of my residencies admitted to me privately that they wanted to write YA novels and asked me how to know when what you’re writing is YA.
I do want to say that for the most part, I met some amazingly supportive artists and writers at these places. At my most recent residency, at MacDowell this winter, we had this ritual of announcing each artist’s last night after dinner. On my last night, a playwright/screenwriter stood up in the dining room during dessert and announced that it was my last night, and then from other corners of the dining room other artists and writers and poets and composers called out about my book coming out that summer, “IMAGINARY GIRLS! June 14!” And they all applauded. If I had any insecurities about being fully accepted, they fell away in that moment.
GF: I recently heard you talk about one of the inspirations for writing IMAGINARY GIRLS, which was swimming in the reservoir in your hometown in upstate New York and later learning about the history of the flooded towns. But I’ve also heard you speak about your intense bond with your sister and that seems to be very much at play in this book, too. Did one idea spark the book, or was there a you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut butter moment (And young ones who don’t understand this cultural reference, look it up here)? Can you elaborate on these twin inspirations and any others that were part of the mix.
NRS: It’s true that a town where I went to high school in the Hudson Valley—and the reservoir there—inspired the town in the novel, but the true heart of the novel, the seed of inspiration that started everything, is my relationship with my little sister, Laurel Rose. Anyone who truly knows me knows how much I adore my little sister and always have. The day she was born (at home, just like Chloe was in the novel) was one of best days of my life, and Rose and I are still close today.
IMAGINARY GIRLS began as a short story about two sisters, Chloe and Ruby, and then the idea of the flooded towns in the reservoir seeped into the story and colored their world.
A scene that had been in the original story, and that later became awkward and extraneous and had to be cut from the novel, was on the mezzanine of a concert hall, when the older sister, Ruby, left her little sister, Chloe—around eight years old at the time—alone for hours while she went to hang out with her friends. This actually happened, when I was in high school, when I took Rose with me to a They Might Be Giants concert. While in the story it became an enormous and terrible secret between the girls, in real life it could have turned into that… but thankfully my sister was okay when I came back to get her. But it’s something I’ve been guilty about for years, and it’s why I wrote the original sister story in the first place. An apology in a way. An apology that went full-on into fiction and turned into a surreal and dangerous love letter.
GF: One of the many, many things that blew me away about IMAGINARY GIRLS was Ruby. She has that thing, that charisma, that we’ve all witnessed in girls before. That thing that makes them beautiful, even if they’re not all that pretty, that makes guys and girls drop at their feet. I think that’s a hard thing to show on the page, but you did it. Within 10 pages, I totally bought Ruby. This might be a self-serving question, but how in the hell did you do that?
NRS: Gayle, thank you so much! I wish I could explain how I brought Ruby to life—if I knew, maybe it would help when creating future characters—but she simply vividly existed and begged for a story to be told about her. I always saw her from the outside, though, and I think Chloe’s view of her is a lot to do with how her character came to life. It’s a mix of who Ruby really is, and who her little sister thinks she is. I don’t think the novel would work if it had been told in Ruby’s voice.
Ruby is my way of writing a mythical creature. I didn’t write a novel about angels fallen from the clouds, or centuries’ old undead with psychic powers, or faeries or mermaids or anything like that. I wrote Ruby. I wrote a larger-than-life person told from the perspective of the person who loves her most in the world.
During the writing of the novel, my own sister was going through some very tough things. I see now that writing Ruby the way she is was entirely wishful thinking on my part. She’s who I’d be for Rose if I could. I’m nothing like Ruby—in fact, I’m far more like Chloe—but I understand Ruby. If I could make everything better for my sister, no matter the costs, I would.
GF: I love that Ruby is ruthless and Machiavellian, so kind of evil that way, but she’s fiercely loyal and protective of Chloe, the one person she loves, even if she’s trying to control her. So much gray in both these girls. I know the book is not out yet but what are the reactions to Ruby so far?
NRS: I’m not sure about the reactions to Ruby. I hear the good things—when people tell me to my face—but I’ve stopped reading blog reviews and checking Goodreads ratings and I try to close my eyes when something pops up on my Twitter feed. That’s just because I’m in the delicate place of writing a new novel and I need to keep my confidence up, so it’s better to not go looking.
The good things I hear are that people are drawn to Ruby. They find her magnetic and fascinating, though I’m often asked what she is, as if there is one easy answer. Maybe there are those who hate her, I don’t know. I see so much good in Ruby—I see her true intentions—and I just can’t let go of that, though you could argue that my own attachment to my little sister colors my view of Ruby and always will.
GF: What kind of books do you read when you’re writing? I know some authors can’t read novels when they’re drafting. You? Do you listen to music?
NRS: I do listen to music while I write—I have playlists for my novels, and often a single song will go with one section or chapter, which means I can listen to it on repeat for a week or more at a time.
But I’m going through a frustrating period right now where I find it very difficult to read novels while I’m writing the first draft of my new one. I may try reading novels that are distinct enough—adult novels and middle-grade novels not in first person—but the problem is that I just take in so much when I’m first-drafting. Everything and everyone around me can inadvertently influence what makes it to the page. Conversations overhead. Bathroom graffiti spied in my favorite café. Fear of ticks at the writers colony where I wrote the first of these pages. The storm of ice that fell while I was at another colony writing a later chunk of pages… It’s dangerous.
So lately I’ve been reading nonfiction. But I make exceptions for books I’m really excited about—there was absolutely no way I could wait to read WHERE SHE WENT, I hope you know—and I’ll tell you the novel that is begging and daring me to read it this weekend: BEAUTY QUEENS by Libba Bray. [Editor’s note: BQ is so worth it!]
GF: Do you do a lot of research? Did you research IMAGINARY GIRLS? If so, which elements needed research?
NRS: I don’t do a lot of research. I’m terrible that way. I like making things up far more than I like sticking to facts. But I do like to take something real and undeniably in this world and bend it my way, for the sake of a story. I’ve always done that in my writing, and it’s the reason that even after all my journalism classes in college, and editing the newspaper, I gave up writing journalism in favor of fiction.
I wrote IMAGINARY GIRLS from memories of a real place—but it was a place that lived in my mind, one that surely doesn’t exist anymore, since it’s been a while since I spent my summers there during high school. So it’s as much invented as it is real. I didn’t want to go visit while I was writing, for fear it would shatter the illusion I’d created for myself.
There was one piece of the story that I did research, and that was the history of the building of the Ashokan Reservoir, which is the reservoir the one in IMAGINARY GIRLS is based on. Still, I took facts and bent and recast them. That’s the beauty of fiction.
GF: I keep seeing IMAGINARY GIRLS referred to as paranormal or as fantasy, which I find bewildering. (The same thing happened with IF I STAY, which has a fantastical element, I suppose). Your book certainly has fantastical elements: Slight spoiler here but it’s in the trailer—dead girls not staying dead, among other things—but it doesn’t seem paranormal to me. Creepy magical realism? Yes. But not paranormal. Did you know/think you writing a paranormal book? Do you care how your book is categorized?
NRS: I don’t see IMAGINARY GIRLS as paranormal, and I do find it strange that it is often put in that category. I certainly don’t see it as fantasy. If someone sees this book as paranormal or fantasy, they will go in expecting something they may not find here. I think it’s just as much “contemporary” as it is “paranormal”—in fact, I’ve been calling it “contemporary with a fantastical twist,” but the truth is I wrote it inspired by magical realism.
I wish the book didn’t have to be in one category or the other, so I care only if it keeps some readers away because they have a preconceived notion about what it is. My editor was very careful in flap copy and catalog descriptions to keep it open to interpretation. I think she was very smart about that, and I wish all other outside labels could be ignored and the book could just be what it is.
GF: I’ve seen you refer to the amount of work that went into IG, and I know that editor Julie Strauss-Gabel has “put you through the wringer.” (Her words. I am familiar with that wringer.) Without giving away too much of how the book was before/afters—I don’t like to show too much of the sausage-making process—can you tell us about the amount of editing revision that you did? The depth/breadth of it?
Did Julie say that? Haha. She’s so right. She put me through the wringer, and it’s no exaggeration to say it was the hardest I’ve ever worked on anything in my life.
IMAGINARY GIRLS was sold on four chapters and a synopsis, so when I turned in the full manuscript, it needed a lot of work. (A LOT. A first draft is never a finished novel.) I revised my first full draft twice before turning it in. Then I went through five rounds of revision with Julie. Yes, you heard that right: FIVE. Some of those revisions were absolutely massive—between first draft and second, I threw out two hundred pages in the middle—and toward the end we were still fine-tuning, rewording and inserting passages and adding layers of connection and clarification. It was incredibly intense, not just for me, I think for Julie too. But a good editor—a really good editor who’s not afraid to get her hands dirty—is going to make you a better writer, and that happens through revision. Every round of revision took us closer to what the book was meant to be.
I remember something Julie said to me that kept me going. She said there was nothing she wanted to change about the “basic fabric of the book”—the setting, the voice, the concept—and knowing this, I felt complete trust in her. It was my dream as a writer to find the editor who saw such potential in me and found me worthwhile enough to take a risk on. Don’t we all want someone to see that in us, to push us harder than we knew we could work, because she somehow knows what we’re capable of? I feel so lucky that Julie saw that in me… and after all those hours of work and angst and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting… IMAGINARY GIRLS is far better for it.
In fact, I’d do it again. Maybe I will—because I’m writing a new book for Julie right now. I really am hoping we won’t need five rounds of revision on this one, though, because I hope I learned something last time. We’ll see!
GF: What has been the most surprising part of your journey as an author so far?
NRS: I’m still surprised that it’s happening at all. Not to say that I didn’t have faith in myself—I wouldn’t have kept on trying all these years if I didn’t—but I have a hard time believing it’s here, right now, simply because I wanted it for so long.
When the good things started happening with IMAGINARY GIRLS, I was in a state of shock for months. I sold my first book, DANI NOIR, without an agent, since it was something I’d developed directly with an editor, much like the work-for-hire books I’d written before it, and after my experience trying to find an agent in adult literary fiction, I’d accepted the fact that I’d probably never have one. The shock of my life came the week I decided to try one last time to find an agent… this time for IMAGINARY GIRLS.
The problem is, I had just 25 pages. But, with possible interest from my DANI NOIR publisher, and encouragement from a generous editor friend who helped me narrow down my list of agents to try, I sent out queries.
By the end of that same week, I had six agent offers. At the time I was working a day job in book publishing—I was a copy editor at a publishing house in New York—and I had agents emailing and calling me, all at once, all while I was supposed to be checking barcodes on other writers’ book jackets, a huge stack that needed to route upstairs as soon as possible, and I panicked. I remember rushing down the hall to my boss’s office. I needed to tell him that I wanted to take a personal day to meet some agents, but I didn’t even know how to explain what was happening. That there were literary agents who had actually offered to sign ME. After all my years of rejections.
The words spilled out and I remember very vividly how it felt to stand there before my boss’s desk, my legs going weightless under me and my head filling with a hot buzz.
Then I remember sitting down on the floor—actually sitting on the floor of my boss’s office!—and saying, “I think I’m going to faint.”
(Thankfully, my former boss was very understanding, and has been a huge support to me and this book, even after I left the job so I could write it.)
That was the late spring of 2009. I picked the perfect agent and he set me to work writing some more pages so we’d have a decent-size proposal. Then IMAGINARY GIRLS sold to Julie in June. But some days, I’m still sitting on that floor, dizzy with the knowledge that my dream might actually have the chance of coming true. I have to remind myself to stand up and believe it.
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I love this story. Maybe it’s because I’m an old broad who didn’t publish her first YA novel until she was 37, this resonates with me. I know IG isn’t out yet so maybe it’s premature to call it a success, but it is a success. As a piece of art, it is. It’s just that good.
Okay, so you want a signed copy? How could you not after that? All you have to do is comment on the blog with something you learned/mastered over time. We will have two winners. One winner will get a signed copy of IG. The other will get a CD of the playlist that Nova created while writing the book! Contest goes until the end of the week and because it’s the publisher mailing the book, not me, I’m afraid it’s U.S. residents only. Don’t worry. I’ll give away another copy post-pub anywhere in the world.
Let’s all thank Nova for this awesome and honest interview. Thank you, Nova!
Update: We have two winners: Katie and Tracy, who will both get a signed copy and a CD (thank you, Nova!!!). Thanks, everyone for all your shared wisdom! And again, thanks Nova!