Interviewed by Clara Kumagai
Susin Nielsen credits her big break to her time as a caterer for the cast and crew of Degrassi Junior High, though she had been writing long before that. It was Degrassi that began her career, though, after a spec script led to her writing sixteen episodes, as well as four books in the Degrassi novel series. After graduating from Degrassi—so to speak—Susin went on to write for and work on TV series, including Ready or Not, Madison, The Adventures of Shirley Holmes and Heartland.
Susin’s writing is not limited to the TV screen, however. She has written three children’s books: Mormor Moves In, The Magic Beads and Hank and Fergus, which won Mr. Christie’s Silver Medal award. In 2008, Susin published her first original young adult novel, Word Nerd, followed by Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom. In 2012, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen was published, and subsequently won the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Text.
Having read all of Susin’s young adult novels, I was struck by her ability to capture the hilarious highs and troubling lows of the teenage experience. Sensitive without sugar-coating and humorous without belittling, Susin is one of the most engaging young adult authors in Canada.
Did you want to write from a young age?
Yes. I found my first diary, written when I was 11 years old, in the garage a few years ago. It starts with this paragraph: “This is the first day I’ve really written in a diary. The reason I am is ‘cos I LOVE writing stories, and if I do grow up to be a famous writer, and later die, and they want to get a story of my life, I guess I should keep a diary.”!! Although I did have other ideas for a while, like “I’m going to be a famous actress” and “I’m going to be a TV news reporter.”
You had an interesting introduction to professional writing through Degrassi Junior High, going from serving infamous bran muffins to writing sixteen episodes. Had you intended to try to write for the show? Or did your involvement with the production inspire you?
No, I don’t think it really occurred to me that I might write for the show. I was hired to do craft services on the very first season of Junior High, so I had no idea what the show was—none of us did. But after a season of working on it, and reading all the scripts, I wrote a spec script between first and second season, which I gave to the head writer. He gave me a shot at writing a script based on that spec. It’s a heartwarming and inspirational story, but I must also point out that at that stage the show was completely non-union—meaning they couldn’t hire experienced writers—and also, since it was non-union, they didn’t have to pay me very much! It was kind of a win-win—I gained a lot of experience working in that show, for which I will always be grateful.
Apart from Degrassi, you did a lot of writing for television before you began writing children’s and YA books. Do you find that TV writing has influenced your fiction style?
Yes, I think it’s helped me a lot with pacing, and dialogue. Also, I think it helps me spot unnecessary and potentially boring bits in my manuscripts—in TV, if something isn’t moving the story forward, it’s gone. Which isn’t to say I don’t allow more breathing room in my books—I definitely do, and it’s one of the joys of writing them.
Is there one genre you prefer writing in?
My books. For the simple reason that they are my stories and mine alone (well, mine and my fantastic editor). I love working with people who are only trying to make my vision stronger and better—as opposed to in TV, where you often have a bunch of people giving conflicting notes and trying to claim their own creative ownership—it becomes a lot harder to make something good when you have a whole pile of conflicting visions.
How did you make the transition from TV writing to publishing YA fiction?
Way back when I wrote four books in the Degrassi series, just as gun for hire. I loved the process and always thought I’d try to write an original YA book one day. Then, for about four to six months, I was in a holding pattern, waiting—and waiting—and waiting—to see if a TV show I’d co-created was going to be renewed. I realized I was tired of feeling like I was at the mercy of a bunch of network execs—waiting for them to tell me what and when I could write—and I thought, “Wait a sec. Why are you waiting? You’re a WRITER. So WRITE!” And I sat down and wrote Word Nerd.
What are your favourite and least favourite moments of your writing process? (Your writing is full of humour, so do you ever make yourself laugh out loud?)
I used to make myself laugh out loud a lot more, in early TV scripts. I think I’ve matured a bit since then. I find first drafts are far and away the hardest part. I love the rewriting process.
What book was the most important to you as a teenager
I don’t think I could point to one, but I loved loved loved Judy Blume’s books. She’s the first writer I remember reading who explored stuff I was going through. I felt like I wasn’t alone. I also remember a bunch of us discovering her book Forever at the corner store, and being thrilled that there was actual sex in the book!
Your writing is very funny, but can also very realistic, detailing teenage problems from jealousy to erections. What draws you to the teenage experience as a writer?
It’s a time of firsts. And tweens and teens are so self-centered—in a wonderful way—so I love trying to capture their first-person voices, and that’s where a lot of the humour comes from. Also I think a part of me stopped growing at about age twelve!
The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen won the Governor General’s Award, and deservedly so. Its subject matter is dark and—unfortunately—still topical, but did you ever hesitate in the process of writing the story?
I only hesitated in the sense that it was a hard story to tell, and I think I avoided working on it some days because of that. I did wonder if the combo of dark subject matter and humour would work, or if it would turn people off.
Which of your characters would you most like to hang out with? (Personally I would most likely be friends with Ambrose.)
I love Ambrose but he’d probably make me mental if I had to hang out with him a lot! I think I’d pick Violet. Or maybe Alberta.
You have a middle grade novel, We Are All Made of Molecules, coming out spring 2015. Can you tell us anything about the inspiration for it?
Hmm. I don’t really know the inspiration … It’s about a blended family—and has twonarrators, a boy and a girl—but I think I’ll leave it at that for now. I’m very excited because it will be published simultaneously in Canada (Tundra) the US (Wendy Lamb Books) and the U.K. (Andersen Press).
You have recently begun teaching creative writing at UBC—what is the easiest and most difficult elements of writing to teach?
I find it hard to “lecture” on aspects of writing, though I’m slowly learning. I like work shopping the students’ work because then there is something concrete to respond to. Plus it’s fun seeing what they write.
What has been the most useful piece of advice to you, as a writer?
Actually I heard it a couple years ago, when I saw Junot Diaz (AMAZING WRITER) at the Vancouver Writers’ Fest. He said, “Sometimes, to be good at something, you just have to keep showing the fuck up.” I thought this pretty much summarized what it’s like to be a “real” writer – you have to just keep showing the fuck up—ie, just keep writing.
Clara Kumagai is a first year MFA in the UBC Creative Writing Program. Her work has appeared in Icarus, Irish Theatre Magazine and Inis Magazine. She is currently working on a young adult novel.