Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Susin Nielsen on exacting revenge on fictional versions of her nemeses

The author of Optimists Die First answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Susin Nielsen is the author of Optimists Die First. (Tallulah Photography)

In Susin Nielsen's latest novel, Optimists Die First, we meet 16-year-old Petula De Wilde, a girl whose anxiety consumes her after the tragic death of her toddler sister. 

Below, Susin Nielsen answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Alissa York asks, "Have you ever strengthened a bond with a loved one through something you've written?" 

Oh gosh. This is possibly too personal, but here it goes. In my novel, Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom, my protagonist, Violet, has a new stepmom, Jennica. Jennica is a blonde actress with a boob job. Violet doesn't like her, particularly because she was "the catalyst" for Violet's parents' divorce. In my own life, my mom and dad divorced and my dad's second (long-term) wife was "the catalyst." She couldn't be more different from Jennica and I love her very much and my books are fiction, etc. But apparently one of my nephews (my half-brother's son) read the book and went to her, wide-eyed, and said, "Nana? Are you Jennica?" I was relieved that this lovely woman could tell me this story and we had a good laugh over it. I felt it brought us closer (and for the record, she is so NOT Jennica!). 

2. David McGimpsey asks, "Who is the coolest person to follow on Instagram?" 

You mean, aside from me? Not being particularly cool myself, I'm not sure the people I choose will be flattered but I get a kick out of following Elise Gravel and Ashley Spires. They're both such exceptional illustrators and they post drawings that make me smile. Also Ashley posts a lot of pictures of her cats and as a cat lover, I'm all over that. Yes, I am a simple girl with simple needs. 

3. Beth Powning asks, "Have you ever been too cruel to a character?" 

Most of my characters have qualities that can lead them to growth and change for the better, but once in a while I write someone who's just an asshole. In We Are All Made of Molecules, that person is Jared. I am sad to say that I believe Jared will grow up to be just as big an asshole as he is in the book. And even sadder to say that it won't stop him from being really successful. In the book, Stewart — who's been tormented by Jared — gets him back in a very childish, cruel and public way. But I don't think it was TOO cruel. To be honest, I loved writing it. I suspect part of why I write for young adults is that it gives me the ability to go back in time and exact my revenge on fictional versions of my nemeses (and correct a lot of my own horrid behaviour and mistakes). 

4. Drew Hayden Taylor asks, "Other than writing novels, what other art form (i.e. plays, movies, music, visual art) do you wish you possessed or had a better grasp of?" 

Oh, I wish I had a beautiful singing voice! And/or that I could dance. I fell in love with musicals as a young girl, particularly West Side Story. Forget bland Maria, I wanted to play Anita on-stage. I took drama lessons, dance lessons, singing lessons. My acting was passable, my singing barely so, and my dancing was truly dreadful. I'm in awe of triple threats. 

5. Louise Penny asks, "How challenging is it to use real-life events in your books?" 

I don't use real-life events in my books, per se. But I draw on some of my own past experiences, sometimes without even being aware of it. I wrote an entire near-sexual-assault scene in We Are All Made of Molecules without realizing until much, much later that I'd been drawing on something that had happened to me at 13 or so and that I'd buried it deep. Fascinating how the subconscious works. 

6. Jonathan Auxier asks, "What book in your home library holds the greatest sentimental value?"

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor. I discovered O'Connor when I was around 20. It was a time in my life when I was reading voraciously, and reading strictly for my own pleasure instead of for English classes. I was discovering so many authors. I was blown away by this novel (and her short stories), the darkness, the gothic elements, the black humour... and she was a woman!!! That was perhaps the greatest thrill of all. 

7. Susan Juby asks, "What is the most painful literary rejection you ever received?" 

Many years ago I wrote a YA novel called Cornflower Blue. Yes, you heard that right. This was when I was writing for television, but I had an "in" in the literary world because I'd written four books in the Degrassi series (a show I also wrote for). So I used my "in." She was and still is an exceptional editor/author. She read it, and told me — very, very kindly and not in these words — that it was pretty dreadful. She was right.  I was crushed. And the stupid thing is, I retreated. I went back to my TV work and didn't try to write another novel for close to 20 years! I stress that this was in no way this editor's fault; I am forever grateful that she took the time to read the manuscript and give me her honest feedback. It was truly an awful book. 

8. Eden Robinson asks, "What was the most unexpected inspiration you've ever had?" 

That would be for my novel The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen. In a million years I didn't think I'd ever write about the aftermath of a school shooting. I never thought I'd go that dark. But I was reading a book by Wally Lamb called The Hour I First Believed and he'd placed one of his characters in the very real tragedy of Columbine high school. In the book, there was a line that mentioned that one of the shooters had a brother. I remember it was like a punch in the gut to me. I realized that I had never stopped to think about what it would be like to be the surviving sibling of a perpetrator of a horrific act of violence. I'd always been judgmental about those families — "they must be monsters who raised a monster." I wanted to explore a younger brother, trying to move on seven months after IT. Amazing how one sentence got the wheels turning, big time.