Interview by Holly Maurer
Susan Juby was raised in Smithers, BC and has lived in Toronto, Vancouver, and Nanaimo. Her novels have been awarded many prizes and honours. Republic of Dirt won the Leacock Medal for Humour and The Woefield Poultry Collective was a Leacock nominee. The Fashion Committee was a Horn Book Best Book of the Year and The Truth Commission was named a best book of the year by Barnes and Noble, the Globe and Mail, and Kirkus, and it was the winner of the Sheila A. Egoff Award for Children’s Literature and the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award. Her first book, Alice, I Think, was a national bestseller and it was adapted into a TV series on CTV. Rolling Stone called it one of the top forty young adult novels. Her memoir about her struggles with teenaged addiction, Nice Recovery, was a Globe and Mail best book of the year.
Susan lives on Vancouver Island, where she teaches creative writing at Vancouver Island University. For hobbies, she does a lot of walking and fretting. Susan is an unskilled but earnest practitioner of Buddhism and a notably unsuccessful amateur dog trainer.
What spurred you to write about someone specifically of Rodney’s age dealing with the fallout of such a heavy topic as sexual assault allegations?
The idea came to me in the middle of the Me Too movement when it was revealed that a number of the people being called out, almost all men, had preteen children. What, I wondered, would it be like to come to terms with a parent facing consequences for such behaviour? At risk of sounding glib, life doesn’t wait for us to be a certain age before hard things happen. How many middle graders have seen instances of harassment or abuses of power dynamics or objectification of others from the adults or older kids around them or in the media they consume? Most, I would imagine. It’s tricky territory but this is the age when many kids are still learning important things about boundaries and acceptable behaviour in personal relationships and many are shaping their ideas about how to interact with other people.
I am helping to raise my eight-year-old niece and she is keenly interested in difficult stories. She wants to know about war and poverty and the existence and legacy of things like residential schools. Sexual harassment and abuse exist on that continuum. Kids deserve to know in a general way about difficult things. I think stories are a good way to create empathy, understanding, and facilitate critical thinking without overwhelming young readers.
The book is also about Rodney realizing he can choose his role models and he gets to explore how best to cope with his trauma when he explores risk-taking and lashing out (albeit in a fairly harmless way). When he’s ready to let go of his very natural denial he gets the chance to talk and listen and acknowledge his feelings, which is a healthy but demanding path even many adults haven’t learned to take.
What inspires you to begin writing for a new demographic? Do you have any preference for writing for middle-grade readers, young adults, or adults?
I love writing for all age groups. What I write is entirely dictated by the ages of the characters that appear to me. In other words, I didn’t set out to write a middle grade, but Rodney came to me as an eleven-year-old first-person narrator dealing with something he doesn’t feel ready for.
Do you have a favourite genre to read, and is it different from your favourite genre to write?
My favourite genres are all over the place. Any genuinely funny book, no matter what the genre, is precious. I adore big lavish fantasies but I will almost certainly never write one. I read a lot of crime fiction, which led to me writing my first murder mystery for adults, Mindful of Murder. It came out this year. One day I would like to write a picture book, but my attempts thus far have not been worthy of publication, to put it mildly. That said, I refuse to give up.
What has been your favourite part of your career thus far? Do you have a most memorable moment?
The day I got the news that I would be published remains one of the highlights of my entire life. Thank you, Thistledown Press, for taking a chance on Alice, I Think! Winning the Leacock after three nominations was another amazing moment. Any time I write a scene I’m happy with or finish a book I still feel amazed and thrilled. Writing is life-affirming in a very particular sort of way.
If you could give your younger self any writing advice, what would you say?
Hmmm. I would tell myself not to get a smartphone. I would also pass along the profoundly useful advice another writer once gave me: “You are not a fifty-dollar bill. Not everyone is going to like you.” All the other mistakes and wrong turns have been ultimately useful, even if they have led to wasted time and sometimes the need for counselling.
Holly Maurer is a UBC Creative Writing student living in Burnaby, BC. She adores poetry of all sorts, baking confections of her wildest dreams, and being a teething toy for her misguided yet ravenous cat.