Interview by the Young Adulting Editors
Susin Nielsen got her start writing for the hit TV series Degrassi Junior High and went on to write for over twenty Canadian shows. More recently she turned her hand to novel writing. She is the author of five critically-acclaimed and award-winning titles, including Optimists Die First, We Are All Made of Molecules, Word Nerd and The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen. Nielsen has been called ‘The John Green of Canada’ (and she once had a dream that he had been called ‘The Susin Nielsen of the United States’). Her books have been translated into many languages. She lives in Vancouver, BC with her family and two naughty cats.
As an author, you tackle a number of urgent social issues. How do you balance the need to inform and educate with the need to entertain? How do you avoid dogmatism?
I never set out to write about an issue. I try to always start with character. Kids are so savvy; they don’t want to read a book that hammers an issue over the head, or that condescends to them (come to think of it, no one wants to read a book like that). So I try to come up with my protagonist first, figure out who he or she is, then place them in a situation—how will he or she react?
In the same vein, how do you go about talking to kids and teens about serious issues such as homelessness and climate change?
I’m not sure I’ve ever tackled climate change (maybe it was one of Petula’s fears in Optimists Die First—as it rightly should be!). I try to just be really honest. I try to put myself in my character’s shoes, and imagine what it would be like, living in a van, or losing a sibling, or having a sibling commit a horrific act of violence. Ultimately it’s what we do as writers, imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
Vancouver is the primary setting for all of your novels. Can you speak about what the city means to you?
I love Vancouver. I’ve lived here since 1995. Place is really important to me—I always feel a twinge of disappointment when a YA novel is set in “Anywhere, North America” (I figure, right or wrong, that it’s usually the publisher’s request). I love stories that are rooted in a place (including fantasy novels, like Rachel Hartman’s, where she has to build an entire world and make me see it). I need to see my characters moving about in the world, and because i know Vancouver so well, maybe it’s just a lazy go-to! I even know where some of my characters live. If only those home owners knew they had a fictional character living with them. 🙂
How important is it for authors to represent Canadian cities in their books?
Oh, ha! I think I mostly answered that above. We live in a great country, and our cities/towns/etc should be represented whenever possible. It seems like a true lack of imagination on a publisher’s part when they ask for you to set a book in “Anywhere North America” (which we Canadian writers know is code for “Anywhere USA”). I love reading books with a firm sense of place. I love picturing London England, or somewhere in India, or other parts of the world, places I’ve often never been but that are brought to life in words.
You came to novel writing by screenwriting. How is writing a novel like writing a screenplay? How is it different?
I think there were some real advantages to having so much TV writing under my belt before I started writing my books. Pacing—I think I’m good at pacing, and chapter breaks. Dialogue—I’ve written a lot of dialogue over my career. Keeping the story moving (sort of like pacing)—I’m pretty good at sniffing out the ‘flab’ in my manuscripts and cutting it out (eventually). But I also had to learn to be more descriptive.
The big difference for me is that in TV, you outline everything, usually multiple times, before you write a draft. You write a pitch, beat sheets, outlines … many steps have to be approved before you get to write the draft. With my books, I just start writing. I love that there is more room for the quieter moments, the introspection, in between the action.
Our reviews of Susin Nielsen’s books: