For this month’s quarterly book club, we’ll be discussing The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma. Her novel was chosen as the #1 Kids’ Indie Next Pick on IndieBound and Best YA Book of the Month for March on Amazon. Nova has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and a BA in creative writing and photography from Antioch college. She currently lives in New York City. We’re so thrilled to have her here on Model Behaviors!
After reading our interview, don’t forget to enter the giveaway below.
MB: The rather ingenious hashtag for your new book, The Walls Around Us, is #OrangeIsTheNewBlackSwan. Can you give us a little description of the story and tell us why the hashtag is so perfect?
NRS: The Walls Around Us is a ghostly story of suspense told in two voices, one still living and one dead. One side of the story is set in a girls’ juvenile detention center and the other in a ballet school, so you can see how the mash-up description of Orange Is the New Black plus Black Swan came to be… Then know I was deeply inspired by the work of Shirley Jackson, and that might give you a sense of what to expect from the book.
The hashtag #OrangeIsTheNewBlackSwan is wonderfully perfect… though I can’t take any credit for it. It amuses and delights me, and I get a little kick of glee when I see it.
MB: Both of those settings seem like they will provide a lot of opportunity to go down into the darkness and get creepy. Plus, Imaginary Girls and 17 & Gone had creepy, ghostly elements to them as well. What draws you to this and why do you think it’s such a powerful story element to include?
NRS: I’ve been wondering this about myself. With every new book, more and more people ask me that. It’s not always intentional…sometimes a story I thought was one thing takes on a more twisted, sinister turn and I can’t help but follow. I’m drawn to write what scares me. It certainly makes things more interesting, and I think it brings out the best, most raw writing, the stuff that’s really worth playing with and that makes the page come alive. With The Walls Around Us, I faced quite a few of my fears, such as being locked up in a room with no key, doing something horrifying and not being able to take it back, actually going out and getting revenge instead of just talking about it, and being abandoned and forgotten.
Also ghosts. Obviously.
MB: With a girls’ juvenile correctional facility and a ballet school, I get the feeling this is a very girl-centric book. I know from discussions we’ve had and blog posts you’ve written that telling the stories of girls is important to you. You were even listed in Book Riot’s post titled “2015 Is the Year of the Feminist YA Novel.” Much like with the creepy elements, what draws you to these girls in your books? Why do you need to tell their stories?
NRS: I’ve got nothing against the boys. I’ve just got everything for the girls.
I’m drawn back to when I was twelve, thirteen and I discovered the books on my mother’s bookshelves in the 1980s. These were women authors (Margaret Atwood, Erica Jong, Marge Piercy, Sheri S. Tepper) writing about the lives of girls and women, and I can’t adequately explain how this opened up the world before me, like unrolling the red carpet and telling me for the first time that I was allowed to set my feet on it. I had learned from the men in my life that I wouldn’t become much of anything, because I wasn’t a man like they were, because I was only a girl. Books by women showed me otherwise. Books by women about women and girls showed me that our lives were worthy of setting down on the page and that we had important stories to tell, too.
I decided I wanted to become a writer then. I think it’s due to that long-ago experience devouring my mom’s books and then discovering my own favorite authors over the years, that I am so committed to writing from a female perspective and writing stories about girls. I have never forgotten what it was like to be one.
MB: The books I read at that age were so formative for me, too! You already mentioned Shirley Jackson, but what are some of your all-time favorite ghost story novels or films?
NRS: A big inspiration for The Walls Around Us was the movie The Others, and I’ll never forget how The Exorcist sent me into a stupor when I was about fourteen years old. I love Japanese horror movies, and was especially frightened by Ringu and Ju-on. (Trouble sleeping, night terrors, waking up screaming and pointing at the ceiling, the whole thing.) When I was in college I studied the myths and legends of Japan at a university in Kyoto, and those are some of my favorite ghost stories of all time.
MB: Since we’re on the topic of ghost stories, when I saw you speak on the Slasher Girls and Monster Boys panel at the North Texas Teen Book Festival, you revealed to the audience that you believe in ghosts and that you’d had a fairly recent encounter. Would you mind sharing that experience with our MB readers?
NRS: I can’t believe I admitted that before a giant audience! But yes. So I’ve always believed in ghosts, in the way you irrationally think something is possible without any sort of tangible proof, though I never saw a ghost myself. Then, this winter, I was away at Yaddo, an artist colony in upstate New York, where I was staying in an old, elegant house, and I saw something. There was a woman. In my room. There was a low light on and my door was latched closed, and there was this unfamiliar woman with dark hair. She was standing beside my bed, with her back to me, but I could very vividly see the line of her hair and the way her arms were moving, as if she were doing something and I had interrupted. I freaked out and turned on my bedside lamp for more light. She was gone. I barely slept for the rest of the night. Even after all those years of believing, my reaction was to tell myself it was a trick of the light. My brain being confused. Just my imagination. I talked myself out of it and refused to think about it for days.
Then, later, I found out that other people have seen a woman in this house, too. They weren’t at all surprised when I said what happened. So maybe it wasn’t a trick of the light. Maybe it wasn’t my imagination. I mean, here I am writing ghost stories… I’d like to keep the possibilities open, even if I get scared and turn on the light.
MB: I got chills when you told us at the festival and I got chills just now, reading it again. Your story terrifies me. You stayed much calmer than I would have in that situation.
Since I mentioned Slasher Girls and Monster Boys earlier, we might as well delve into that a little bit! It’s a short story anthology coming out later this year. The contributors are all YA authors, and the stories “tell tales of gritty girls fighting back, seeking revenge, and claiming their victims” (source). In other words, it sounds like it’s going to kick some major ass. I know you aren’t allowed to reveal your literary inspiration, but can you give us a little taste? What’s your story about?
NRS: Slasher Girls is my first anthology! It was such a delight to write a twisted, frightening story for this collection, which includes writers I love such as Leigh Bardugo, Kendare Blake, Marie Lu, Carrie Ryan, April Genevieve Tucholke, and more. My contribution, “The Birds of Azalea Street,” is about what lurks behind the carefully pruned lawns of suburbia and in the minds of teenage girls. When a group of girls suspects their creepy neighbor of bringing home a mail-order bride, they become obsessed with spying on him and trying to save her, though she may not need saving after all.
MB: I’m so excited for your story and the whole anthology! Just recently, another YA short story anthology was announced, Feminism for the Real World by Kelly Jensen, and there are a few YA literary journals popping up. Personally, I’m excited for more YA short stories, but what are your thoughts? We’re so used to seeing huge blockbuster trilogies from YA. Do YA and shorter prose mesh well?
NRS: That’s what’s so exciting about the field of YA. There is room for so much. I’m not seeing any limits right now. We have those huge blockbuster trilogies and we also have quiet literary masterpieces (my personal favorite kind of read) and we have all genres and styles and possibilities in between. More and more, we’re seeing short story collections and anthologies, which is really exciting to me, as a reader. I’m especially jumping around in my seat for the YA feminist anthology Kelly Jensen has forthcoming with my publisher Algonquin. YA is here for all kinds of readers, including those who appreciate shorter forms, like the short story or the essay. In fact, I think we could use more venues for short fiction in YA. It’s my dream—and I possibly may well make it happen—to create and edit an online magazine that would publish just that—stories and essays from YA authors we recognize but also, more importantly, new voices. I still remember my very first publication and how thrilling a moment it was for me. It was a short story in a small literary journal in Texas called Gulf Coast. I felt like it opened doors for me—because now, at last, I was a published writer. It’s been my dream for a long time, since I edited the literary journal in my MFA program, to do this for new writers, just as it was done for me.
MB: Nova, if anyone can make that happen, you can! And when you do, your legion of students will be there for you. That’s one thing I’ve always been impressed with, your dedication to helping unpublished writers.
I’ve taken an online course with you through MediaBistro, and I’ve spent a week at Djerassi with you in a YA novel writing class. Both of those times, you not only helped bring my writing to a new level, you also inspired me to believe in my work again. You have a way of seeing right down into the heart of someone else’s work and then guiding them toward fresh ideas and inspiration without taking away from the purpose of the story. You recently opened up one-on-one novel critiques, and you’ll be teaching several workshops throughout the year at Djerassi, The Highlights Foundation, and The Writing Barn. I’m curious about what draws you to teaching. I know how much you’ve helped me, but what does teaching bring to your work and your writing life?
NRS: It was such a pleasure to work with you, Courtney, and speaking of, I feel the need to mention how beautiful and haunting your novel-in-progress is, and how struck I was by the pages I got to read in our workshops. I would say this even if you weren’t here listening! I can’t wait for the day your book is published and other readers get their hands on this story.
Teaching isn’t something I’d planned to do originally—perhaps it was my shyness at the front of a room, and the fact that I feel like I’m always learning and finding ways to grow as a writer, and I wondered, “Who am I to lead a workshop?” But I do have things to say, and I have learned a lot over the years that I would like to share with fellow YA writers. I’ve also been in bad and unhelpful workshops before, so I strive hard to make the critique sessions as fruitful as possible. I’ve since found that teaching fuels my own writing in ways I didn’t expect. I look at craft from new angles, and I have more than once found surprising solutions for my own work while discussing plot or character or voice or pacing, or whatever it may be, in our workshops. Teaching novel writing often feels like a collaborative process, a give-and-take that benefits me just as much as, I hope, it does the students. My main focus is to help each writer find a way to tell her story in the most engaging and brave way she can tell it. It means a lot to me to hear that my critiques resonate with writers and help them move forward.
MB: Nova, you are too sweet! Thank you so much for your kind words. I will hold on to them as I work through the rest of my revisions. Also, thank you so much for taking time out of your crazy, book-launch schedule to chat.
I’d like to finish our discussion with a topic I keep coming back to with all of our Model Behaviors interviewees—self-doubt. Everyone experiences it. Self-doubt is, in fact, necessary to creating great work. But it can easily become overwhelming and counterproductive if we give in to it too much. How have you struggled with self-doubt and what’s your advice for managing it?
NRS: I doubt myself and my writing all the time, all the time. It’s a constant struggle against the fog of negativity in my brain, and if I get too fogged, I’ll spiral down and down, and then no words come. Sometimes I have to sequester myself. Go offline for a week and stop comparing myself to other authors. Quiet the voices. And sometimes it helps to remember why I loved writing in the first place: what made me fall for this mad and maddening vocation. I’ll go back to that one paragraph—there’s always that one paragraph!—in a manuscript that I love. It’s often the spark or heart of the story. I’ll read it aloud. I’ll savor it. I’ll remind myself: THIS is why you are writing this book, and don’t ever forget it. It may take some time, but this often helps lift me up and leads me back in, itching to write again.
I think it’s important, as artists, to be humble—to respect and admire what’s being created around us and also know we can always do better, we can always learn more, we can always grow. We should never get so big inside our own minds that we feel entitled. But we also shouldn’t let ourselves feel too insignificant, too small. Artists need to be confident enough to throw ourselves into work and take great risks. We need to believe we really can do it and we really are worthy of reaching those big dreams. Finding a way to balance between these two shifting selves will help build a long-lasting career.
Many thanks again to Nova Ren Suma! Be sure to follow her on her blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To find out about future workshops and classes with Nova, be sure to sign up for her workshop mailing list.
If you’d like to win a signed hardcover of The Walls Around Us, entering is simple. Just log in and fill out the form below. Anyone can enter, but you get extra chances to win by signing up for our mailing list and/or by following Nova on Twitter.
This giveaway is open in the US and internationally. Must be 14 or older to enter. It ends on Wednesday, April 15, at 11:59 p.m., Central Time. A winner will be chosen at random and announced on Thursday, April 16. We’ll contact the winner by email. Winner will have 72 hours to respond. If there is no response, a new winner will be chosen.
Good luck to everyone who enters, and stay tuned next week for info on the book club discussion!