Nova Ren Suma
A Room Away From the Wolves
Interview by TPC Member, Lizzie.
Lizzie: How did you first get into writing?
Nova Ren Suma: I started getting serious about writing when I was in high school. I started writing short stories and poems. I wasn’t really thinking about being an author or publishing a book, I just liked writing. I got into it because I was really, really shy in school. I was the kid who wouldn’t speak up unless called on, but I found that when I was writing, I was able to just be myself in a way that I wasn’t able to as much in groups or in front of people and I was able to say things I couldn’t say out loud. I became more serious in my junior year of high school and then senior year. I went to study writing and also photography in college and then it got more serious as I got older. I feel like it was around the time I was 14 or 15 when I just was like ‘I love writing.’
Lizzie: When did you know that writing was what you wanted to pursue as a career?
NRS: When I was loving writing so much I didn’t think that it could be a career and that it could be something that is a practical choice. What I wanted to do was go into publishing, so I wrote, I majored in creative writing, I got my MFA in writing, but I also was doing internships at different publishing houses, and I was studying some journalism but I really loved book publishing, and so I thought that would be my career and writing would be my thing for myself. It wasn’t until I was an adult years and years later when I had to make a choice between staying in publishing or being an author and my book contracts and all that stuff. Now that’s where I am. I also teach writing. I didn’t realize that it would be possible to make this career and it is possible. It’s work, it’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of time put in and studying either by reading authors or working with writers, but it’s very possible to make writing a career.
Lizzie: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
NRS: I would say first of all, it’s really about putting the words down on the page and doing that work and getting your stories out. Often times we’re afraid of what will happen if someone else reads it or what will happen if my parents read it and hear some things that I said that I don’t want them to know. Really the only way to get through these fears is to put it on the page and to really commit yourself to telling your stories in whatever ways that you see, however autobiographical or fantastical they may be. Commit to writing through your fears and getting those things down and write the things that you’re intimidated to write, the things that you think ‘Oh, I could never write a novel’. You know what, you can if you try and stop putting those things off. I would also say that when I was younger, I had arbitrary deadlines for myself that felt really important at the time that I now look back and see that was an unnecessary thing, and one of them was like ‘If I’m not published by this age, then I give up and it’s over. If this doesn’t happen by this age then I’m not a real writer.’ Those are just, as I said, arbitrary deadlines. We think this is what success is and if we don’t hit it, we’re failures, and that is so not true. Everyone’s path to coming an author is so different and everyone’s timeline is different, so I would say to someone, especially an aspiring author, to not set a deadline for yourself, to not say that you have to do a certain thing by a certain age, just know that you’re going to put in the work and you’re going to write your stories and your path and your timeline will be illuminated for you and only you.
Lizzie: Describe your writing process.
NRS: It depends on the book. I think about a lot of times the place where the story is taking place and the character connected to that place. For my books, they’ll be like a haunted house or a reservoir with drowned towns at the bottom and possibly living entities still there. I imagine the place and I think the reason the place comes first is because I write about the region where I’m from a lot of times, and I need to be in that world. Then it’s so important to think about the person who’s telling the story from that place, so it’s really all connected. The ideas come out really amorphous and cloudy and confusing. There’s not a plot that’s apparent to me in the beginning. A lot of times I write pages finding the voice of my character in this place and try to figure out what there story is. After a certain point, like 50 pages or something like that, then I’m able to take a step back and be like ‘Okay, I’m going to plan out this story, I’m going to outline, and I’m going to figure out what this book is, what is it saying.’ I really need that discovery part of the process first and I need to allow myself to experiment and play before I sit down and contain my ideas to a plot.
Lizzie: How do you come up with characters? Are there any based on real people?
NRS: I have based some characters off of people in my family or people that I remember when I was a teenager. There are things that people who know me will recognize that maybe no one else will. Also, I love to just imagine and think of a certain kind of person and then I imagine them in more specific detail until they emerge as their own character and then it’s almost as if I know the character. So yes, I do steal from real life. I sometimes borrow names, like in a signing line sometimes someone will have a really amazing name and it will just file away for later, but also people that I knew, people who maybe I read about in the newspaper, people that I saw from afar and had a whole imagined thing about. For me, often things begin with a kernel of truth or real life and then I invent around that.
Lizzie: What was your inspiration for A Room Away from the Wolves?
NRS: First of all, one of the inspirations was I was staying in an old house with a bunch of other artists on a retreat, and I was there to work on another book, I had another book due to my editor, it was really serious and there was a deadline, and yet in the back of my mind, I just had a little itch thinking ‘This isn’t the book that I should be writing.’ While staying in that house, I had a kind of ghost encounter. I don’t know, and maybe I was just really tired, like I don’t know what I saw, but I saw something. I was kind of drawn downstairs in this old house to this portrait on the wall of the woman whose house it used to be, it was like a painting of her. I don’t know what it was, but I just kept going down and I would just kind of pace in front of the fireplace in front of this portrait while I was supposed to be working on the other book. I just felt first of all that she was watching me wherever I went in the room, almost as if she was judging how I did that day, like if my writing wasn’t good that day she would look happy and then if I did well that day, she would have a little smile on her face. It was just this weird obsession that I had while I was staying there for a few weeks, and then I found that when I left, and I went home, and I had to turn in this book to my editor, I realized I can’t write that other book, I had to write something else. It turned out that I had to write this book set in a boarding house, an old house where there was a portrait downstairs that watched the inhabitants. There was something about that stay that inspired me to switch gears and write something entirely different. The story wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t stayed there and that hadn’t happened, so that’s kind of weird. And then the whole ghost thing, and the story became a ghost story. The other thing is that when I was a kid, my mom used to tell me these stories of this amazing city that she lived in when she was a teenager in New York City and she would tell these stories almost as if they were fairy tales, the happiest time of her life, and I just remember growing up being like ‘One day, I’m going to live there, one day I’m going to see what my mom saw.’ I just took the kernels of the idea of that fairy tale being given to a daughter and imagined this whole story around it; that’s the other piece of inspiration.
Lizzie: Do you plan before you write or do you come up with it as you go?
NRS: I write those first fifty pages that are just me figuring out what I want, and then I’ll step back. I think about the three acts of a book. Usually I know what happens in the first act, and then I have no idea what happens in the second or third act, and in fact, the middle is usually this big, black tunnel of nothing where I don’t know anything, and that’s the point where I sit down and I really do try and plan out the pieces. Often I can’t know every piece, and I can know certain big pieces and then I try to fill it in, but I have to say, even when I do plan it out and I work on an outline, as I’m writing it, things change. Your characters will want different things, they’ll do something surprising, you never know. It’s almost like a skeleton draft of the book, and then the next draft, as I’m working, that outline will shift and something new will appear. That’s kind of the best part about writing. Even if you think you know what’s going to happen and you think you can plan, in fact, something else may happen. I think that’s the best thing, when your characters reveal something new. If it was all already planned out and I already knew from the very beginning and I was just working on it over and over, that would be really boring.
Lizzie: What is the most difficult part of being an author?
NRS: I will be honest, and I will tell you that the being out in public part is the most difficult part for me because I was really shy. I’m not as shy now, but I still am that person at heart, and so it’s just not natural for me to be sitting up on that stage talking about myself. I think that’s the hardest part, all the amount of having to talk about myself either online or in person. I’d rather just be writing or be talking to other writers about what they write than talk about myself. Honestly, if I had known this was so much a part of being an author, I don’t think I would have wanted to be an author, and I’m glad I didn’t know because I would have gotten scared away. Maybe it’s best that I didn’t realize that and then I wouldn’t be here.
Lizzie: What’s the most rewarding part of being an author?
NRS: The most rewarding part is when I find out that a book really connected with someone on a really personal level, like it became really important to them almost as if the story was written for them. When I meet someone who tells me that or they send me a message, I keep those messages forever and it’s almost like that’s why I wrote the book.
Lizzie: What is the first thing you remember writing?
NRS: I remember writing this, my mom still has it, I was very young, and it was a book about pigeons because we were going into the city and there were pigeons on the windowsill. That was just a kid thing, I think the first things that I really remember writing were poems when I about 14. They were really serious and kind of painful. I recently found a collection of them and it was eye-opening. I was amazed at some of the things that I was saying, in a good way. It wasn’t like ‘Oh, I’m so embarrassed of who I was,’ it was like ‘Oh my God, that’s who I was,’ like I could see that girl. I felt for her and it was like ‘Wow, I still am that same girl.’
Lizzie: What made you want to write for teens?
NRS: All along, this whole time, I was really writing for young people and teenagers, and I didn’t realize that I could write YA at first. It’s always been what my stories were about, but the connection didn’t come until I was working in publishing and I was working for a children’s book publisher, and I discovered YA novels at that point. I was very late to discovering them, and I just fell in love with them. Everything’s possible, every genre is available in YA, and they can be weird and they can be strange and magical and interesting and beautiful. My eyes were really at that point. It was like I couldn’t see what I was supposed to be doing and then when I realized what it was and that all along, my stories were that anyway I kind of shifted. What changed in my writing is that it used to be that I was writing about teenagers looking back on it, the voice would be older, and all I changed was I took the twenty-something out of it and wrote from the perspective of a teenager, which is so much more fun. I should have been doing it from the beginning.
Lizzie: Are there any books that you think every teen should read?
NRS: I feel like there isn’t one book that every teen should read and I feel like it’s so important to find the books that speak to you that either you see yourself in or that you open them up and you look at the jacket and look at what the story is about or the first lines and it speaks to you. Maybe no one else will like it, but that’s the book that’s meant for you, and that’s going to be different for every single person.
Lizzie: What was your favorite book growing up?
NRS: When I was young, I discovered Margaret Atwood on my mom’s bookshelf, I was about fourteen. The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye were the ones that I fell in love with, and those were the ones that led to all of this.
Lizzie: Favorite part of the Texas Teen Book Festival so far?
NRS: I feel like most of my stuff is happening later, but I was in the audience for a panel this morning and I was so excited and inspired by the questions from the teens in the audience. It wasn’t just adults asking questions, it was readers and writers and teenagers, the people that we’re writing for, with some amazing, incredible questions.
Lizzie: Favorite Austin experience so far?
NRS: I came here for the Texas Book Festival a couple years ago and I also taught a workshop here at the Writing Barn, so I’ve been here a few times. When I stayed here, I think it was for the book festival, I stayed in downtown and just wandered around at night and ate food, saw the nightlife, and that was when I first fell in love with Austin. It’s an amazing, amazing place. There’s just a great energy here, a great sense of creativity, great sense of possibility, and some really amazing people. And food.
Lizzie: Life advice or words of wisdom for teens?
NRS: I would say believe in yourself and don’t let someone tell you that you aren’t good enough or that you can’t do something, which is something that happened to me when I was a teenager. People in my family were kind of trying to crush my dreams. I was listening to them for too long, and then there came a time when I stopped listening, and that’s what I would say: know that nobody can tell you that you can’t do something.
A Room Away From the Wolves is available now!