Susin Nielsen got her start feeding cast and crew on the popular television series Degrassi Junior High. They hated her food, but they saw a spark in her writing. Since then, her books have garnered a raft of prestigious awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award, the CLA’s Children’s Book of the Year, and the Vicky Metcalf Award for her body of work. Susin lives in Vancouver with her family and two extremely destructive cats.
Author Q&A with Susin Nielsen
Where do you find the inspiration for your books?
My inspiration comes from all over the place. A couple of my initial ideas have come from facts in my own life; my parents divorced right after I was born, I have half-siblings, and later in life I acquired a stepdad and four step-siblings. So, the nubbins for Dear George Clooney and We Are All Made of Molecules came (exceedingly loosely) from some of my own experiences, and some big “what ifs.”
For The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, my saddest book, that idea came from reading a book by Wally Lamb, The Hour I First Believed. He’d placed a character in the very real life tragedy of Columbine high school, and mentioned that one of the shooters had a brother. That stopped me in my tracks. I thought, “good lord, I’ve never thought about what it would be like to be the sibling of the perpetrator of an act of violence.” And Henry started to form. Other ideas start with an image, or something from a dream—seriously. .
What were your favourite books when you were a kid? As a young reader, did you see yourself in the books you read?
Well, because I’m a straight white woman, I probably saw myself more than many children, but oddly still not that much, as I was what we used to refer to as a “tomboy.” A book that had a huge impact on me was Harriet the Spy. Oh, how I loved and related to Harriet. She was not a typically feminine girl. She wore scruffy jeans and a hoodie. She had big career aspirations and she was sometimes quite mean, at least on paper. It wasn’t until years and years later that I realized she came from such wealth! Then, when I was a teenager, it was Judy Blume all the way. Really I think I was probably about the first generation for whom actual “Young Adult” novels became a thing.
What’s the most surprising thing you have learned when creating your books?
Wow, that is an interesting, and hard, question. I could answer it two ways. During the creative process, there are moments when I wind up writing great textural stuff for my characters. Ha ha, that doesn’t sound humble, but what I mean is that sometimes that stuff just appears out of thin air, and it is magical and wonderful. An example would be, in No Fixed Address, Felix and Astrid stay temporarily at Solveig’s house. I don’t remember consciously coming up with the fact that Solveig was Astrid’s student at one point, and that Astrid had great professional jealousy re: Solveig’s success—but it’s one of those things that just adds layers to everything, to their conversations, to everything that follows (including breaking in to Solveig’s house later). The other thing that surprised me early on was when my books were challenged by parents who didn’t like the fact that my characters were often frank in discussing puberty, body changes, urges. (My books are all first person so it’s very inner monologue). Books are such a safe place to learn about those things, or to realize you’re not alone (because I’m sure those same parents aren’t talking about spontaneous erections at home). I find it fascinating that violence, on TV and in video games, often seems okay, but if you mention a wet dream all hell breaks loose.
What is a challenge you have faced as a writer?
Well, for every magical moment mentioned above, there are 10-fold hard days. Writing is not easy, nor does it become easier. Real writers can’t wait around for the muse to strike; they have to plunk themselves at their desks, even on the days when they’re not feeling it, and have no idea where their story is going. .
What advice do you have for kids who are interested in writing?
I have two words: READ. And WRITE. It sounds so trite, but I really mean it. You can’t be a writer without being a reader. The more you read, the more you see what sorts of stories you like, what are the things other authors do that you like and admire. And it’s absolutely okay to emulate them in your writing, because it takes years to really hone your writing skills, and to find your own, unique voice. And I say “write,” because someone who really wants to be a writer—it is not an easy career path—is someone who is compelled to write. Write anything! Journals, poetry, short stories. If you get part way into a project and get stuck, that’s totally okay; move on to the next idea. And be kind to yourself. You’re likely going to think a lot of your writing stinks once it hits the page, and truthfully, a lot of it probably will stink—my stuff still stinks when it hits the page. I make it better gradually, rewriting and rewriting. Lastly I would say, write for yourself. Don’t write with grand ideas of getting published. Write things you’re compelled to write, that you have an urge and desire to get on paper.