Wouldn’t You Like to Know . . . Nova Ren Suma
Nova Ren Suma already has an impressive list of accomplishments on her writer’s resume. Earning a BA in writing and photography from Antioch College, an MFA in fiction from Columbia, a fellow with New York Foundation for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo; a residency at Djerassi Resident Artists Program and Millay Colony; and an NEA fellowship—all make an impressive list on its own. Add to that list her previous work at HarperCollins Children’s Books, a number of comics publishers, as well the writing workshops she’s currently teaching, and you’ll wonder how she has time to craft award-winning and extremely popular books. Growing up in the Hudson Valley area under the loving guidance of her mom and with her younger brother and little sister and now living in New York City with her husband, Nova’s strong family connections are sure to keep her grounded as her star continues to soar skyward.
SH: When I was a teenager, people would describe me as a: (jock, band geek, popular, goth, other, none?)
NRS: Kind of a weirdo. For the senior yearbook, I was voted “Most Individualistic” in the senior class—which I take to mean the most weird.
SH: The best/worst thing that happened to you in high school?
NRS: My freshman year of high school was my worst year, by far. I made mistakes and wanted a do-over. Then the most amazing thing happened: My parents got new jobs and we moved away. I got to start over at another high school in another state, like a wish come true.
SH: Favorite childhood book? Favorite food? Favorite band or album? Favorite television show?
NRS: As a child, my most beloved book series was Dorrie the Little Witch, about a clumsy, lovable young witch who always wore mismatched socks, as I did. As a teenager, I moved on to be obsessed by the collected poems of Anne Sexton.
During high school, I survived on elbow pasta with red sauce dumped on top, and M&Ms. Things are not much different today.
My favorite television show from the past was and will always be My So-Called Life.
SH: Is there a story from your childhood that is told most often, either by you or about you?
NRS: Stories about me as a kid usually involve how much I loved my baby sister, Laurel Rose. She was born when I was nine years old, and I decided she was mine. My mom let me keep her baby clothes in my room and I chose her outfits and dressed her every morning. I took care of her whenever I could. I saved my allowance to get her the toys she liked. I even did my sixth-grade science project on her and how babies react to different kinds of music. (She was most animated for Madonna. Country music put her to sleep.) In fact, I ended up writing a book about my love for my baby sister. It’s called Imaginary Girls.
SH: Was there any class in high school you regret paying too little, or too much, attention? If you could add one class to high schools across the country, what would be the topic?
NRS: I have no regrets about what drew my attention in high school—I loved English, art, and photography class. I hated science class because it was a lot of memorization and I despised, with a fiery passion, gym. That’s who I was and I wouldn’t change who I am. What I would change is the mandatory phys. ed. requirement, because I almost failed gym and wouldn’t have been able to graduate.
If I could add one class to high schools around the country it would be about feminism, because there are so many misconceptions about what feminism means.
SH: Who was the first person who told you should be a writer?
NRS: My mom. She always supported me, from the beginning.
SH: Is there a book, besides your own, of course, that you think everyone should be reading?
NRS: All the Rage by Courtney Summers. It’s a brave and important and a beautifully written masterpiece of a book.
SH: If you could spend time as a fairy tale character, which character would you want to be and in which fairy tale would we find you?
NRS: The fairy tale that most captured my imagination was Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” I was always so fascinated by that character with the icy heart. Maybe I’d end up in that story, reinventing who she was and surprising everyone.
SH: Do you have any favorite family traditions that might need some explanation to outsiders looking in? Do you remember how they started?
NRS: Sometimes we take the weirdest wig we can find and make everyone in the family take turns wearing it during holiday celebrations. This reminds me: I need to remember to bring some pies and a crazy wig for Thanksgiving.
SH: If you had an important secret or story to share, who would be the first person you’d turn to?
NRS: My other half/best friend/husband. We’ve been together since we were teenagers and basically grew up together into who we are today. He knows everything about me and is the first person to read all my books. I show him my writing before anyone else, which is pretty much my biggest secret.
SH: If you could go anywhere –in the past, present, or future— where would you go? Why?
NRS: My mom was a hippie in the 1960s and she sure talked up the year 1969, when she lived in New York City and went to the infamous Woodstock Festival and other concerts and crazy parties had a wild time. I’d go back there and try to find her. I’d want to be friends.
SH: When you’re taking a little “me” time, do you have a hobby or special treat in which you indulge?
NRS: This is probably an expected answer from a writer, but I hide myself in books. I let myself just read for pleasure in a quiet corner until I feel ready to go back outside.
SH: Is there one moment in your life you’d love to live again? To either change it or to enjoy?
NRS: I would return to college. I miss it. I went to a unique and radical little school called Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a place that doesn’t exist anymore the way I knew it. Not only did I meet the love of my life my first month on campus at Antioch, I also began to experiment and found my confidence as a writer, an artist, and a young woman. I wish I could go back and re-experience those years again.
SH: What three words would you use to describe yourself? What three words do you think other people would use to describe you?
NRS: Driven. Distracted. Dreamer.
Nice. (People say this a lot, and I’m not sure it’s a compliment.) Big eyes.
SH: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
SH: If you could have any superpower, what would you choose?
NRS: I would have complete and total control over time so I could stop time and have more hours to write.
SH: You are sitting down to dinner with five people, living or dead, who you find fascinating. Who is at the table and what are you eating?
NRS: We’re eating a feast of macaroni and cheese. Toni Morrison, Kathy Acker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Margaret Atwood, and my mom are there. (My mom made the mac-and-cheese and everyone agrees it’s the best in the world, which of course does not surprise me, since it is. The best. In the world.)
SH: Do you have a phrase or motto that inspires you?
NRS: It says “never give up” on my refrigerator. I’ve lived my whole career by these words.
SH: A day has been dedicated in your honor. What is the day called and what are we all doing to celebrate?
NRS: I guess they’d call it Nova Day, and on Nova Day we celebrate by lying around on pillows reading aloud passages from our favorite books.
SH: A series of choices: Sweet or salty? Spend or save? Night in or night out? Phone, email,or text? Spring, summer, fall or winter? City or country? Movie, music, or TV? Read the instructions or jump right in?
NRS: Sweet. Spend. Night in. Text. Fall. City. Music. Read the instructions and then completely forget what you read so you’re basically jumping right in.
SH: If someone wrote a book about your life: who would you want as the author, what kind of book would it be, and what title would you give it?
NRS: I would want to write it myself, of course, because then I could reinvent and add in some fantastical details. It would be a literary magical-realism choose-your-own-adventure. The title would be Who Am I? and by the end you still wouldn’t know for sure who I was, because I love ambiguity.
SH: Do you like the water? Would you ever be interested in diving to a lost city like Olive did? If you did, what artifact would you hope to find?
NRS: I do love water (looking at it, being near it, drinking it), but in truth, I am not such a strong swimmer, so never-ever would I dive down to find a lost, drowned town like Olive. Maybe someone else could rescue an artifact for me. I’d hope for a little safe that could be cracked open and inside would be dozens of diaries filled with strangers’ deepest secrets. What a treasure.
SH: Are there any aspects of Ruby and Chloe’s connection that are alike/unalike your sibling relationships? Would anyone be able to identify pieces of you in either sister?
NRS: I wrote Imaginary Girls for my sister, Laurel Rose. The story was narrated by the little sister, Chloe, but in reality I’m the big sister. Rose and I see parts of ourselves in both Ruby and Chloe, and to us the pieces that are us are very, very obvious. Maybe only other people who know us would be able to see.
SH: Ruby’s powerful storytelling magic can feel bright and lively or dark and dangerous. How did you decide when and where you would show the different sides of Ruby? How hard was it to keep a balance?
NRS: Ruby is always seen through the eyes of the person who loves her most in the world—and the person who also gets most angry at her, and most frightened of her . . . her little sister, Chloe. Everything we know about Ruby is distorted through Chloe’s eyes. So when I thought of the different sides to Ruby, it was all colored through what Chloe was thinking of her and believing at the time.
17 & Gone
SH: Lauren’s mom has more than one tattoo but maybe the most meaningful is the tattoo of two blackbirds in a knotted tree, symbolizing how the two of them will always be tightly connected. Do you have tattoos—or would you consider getting one?
NRS: I have just one tattoo, for my sister. (My sister has quite a few tattoos—and speaking of birds, she has a flock of birds on her shoulder.) My sister and I got the same tattoo on our arms: it says “sister,” in French. It reminds us of a trip we took to Paris, just the two of us, years ago.
SH: How did you come up with all the stories for the girls who went missing at seventeen?
NRS: My ideas for ways to go missing were endless—truly, I could have gone on for pages and pages more, with more stories. And there were even some stories of girls who went missing that ended up getting cut from the book. I guess I have a twisted imagination.
SH: The truth of what happened to Abby makes a really good twist at the end. What made you include it?
NRS: I wanted Lauren, my narrator, to have a hand in saving one of the girls, even if we question how much she could have known or was really involved.
The Walls Around Us
SH: How did you decide the main characters would be up and coming ballerinas? Are you a dancer or would you like to be one?
NRS: I studied ballet from when I five years old to when I was sixteen. I spent many afternoons and weekends at dance school and was on pointe and played a dancing maiden in our local production of The Firebird, though I can’t say I was even close to good enough to ever pursue dance professionally. I always knew I’d write about my experience in ballet someday, in some way. I just didn’t expect that my ballerinas would be murderers.
SH: For whom—and why—would you be willing to go to prison? Which character do you think you’d most closely match if you were (unfairly!) incarcerated?
NRS: For my other half, or for my mother, or for my sister, obviously, to protect them. I hope they know they can count on me. If I did end up in prison, I would be a lot like my character, Amber. I’d be hiding in the background, eavesdropping, paying attention. I’d be as connected to the books in the prison library as she is. In this way, I completely understand her.
SH: Do you have any keepsake(s) you feel as strongly about as the girls felt about the gold ballerina bracelet?
NRS: The things I most love and want to keep forever aren’t worth a penny. I’m not big on jewelry (I tend to lose it) or owning expensive objects. My most cherished possessions are the notes and letters from my husband and friends from years past.
SH: You have a beautiful name—it’s seems like it should have a story of its own. Would you like to tell us that story?
NRS: Thank you! As I said above, my mom was a hippie, so when she was looking for a name for me, her first child, she was very, very creative. She found my first and middle names in The New Age Baby Name Book. Nova is said to mean “chases butterflies” in Hopi. Ren means “lotus flower” in Japanese. Right before I was born, she was torn between naming me Willow or Nova, but then she had a dream that she had a baby named Nova, which she decided was me letting her know which name I liked best. I guess she got all the craziness out of her system after she named me, because my brother after me was named Josh. (My last name, Suma, is Sicilian. It was originally spelled Summa, but was mangled on Ellis Island. I’m married, but I kept my name because this has always been my name and how could I change it?!)
SH: If you weren’t a writer, what do you think your career might be?
NRS: I had dreams to be two things when I was a teenager: a writer and a photographer. I absolutely wanted to do both. I had a self-designed major in college that combined writing and photography, and I spent many hours in the campus darkroom. When I was about to graduate, I applied for MFA programs in writing first, got in, and writing has since taken over my whole life. Sometimes, I remember this and miss photography, so I know that, in another life, that’s what I’d be.
SH: When you sit down to write, what do you need around you? Do you prefer a certain time of day or is it more spontaneous? How do you approach the creative process?
NRS: I write best in the mornings before the noise of everything else creeps in. When the writing is going well, I start in the morning and write all day. When it’s going terribly, I can spend hours staring at one sentence, changing a single word, or distracting myself to oblivion on the Internet. One of my favorite places to write where I live in New York City is the Writers Room, a writing space where I can go 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, to write in a giant loft space in Greenwich Village. I go there to work like it’s my day job, starting at 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning and on good days leaving at 5:00—balanced with my teaching work, since I do that as well as writing. Sometimes, when I get too overwhelmed by deadlines or stuck with what I’m writing, I can be found taking an illicit nap on one of the couch chairs in the middle of the Writers Room. I hope I don’t snore.
SH: What’s been the most surreal experience of being a published author?
NRS: I’ve discovered that people have strong opinions about my books, and often interesting interpretations, since there are parts of my books left ambiguous and open to interpretation on purpose. It is an incredibly surreal thing to hear a passionate argument about the meaning of something in one of my books. That’s when I realize my work has come alive in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined.
SH: Finally, is there a question you wish someone would finally think to ask?
NRS: I’m kind of shy, so it’s always okay with me when there are no more questions. But thank you so much for all of these!
Books by Nova Ren Suma
Walls Around Us. Algonquin, 2015. 323p. $17.95. 978-1-616-20372-6. VOYA April 2015. 5Q 4P S
17 & Gone. Speak, 2014. 353p. $9.99 Trade pb. 978-0-142-42532-9. VOYA February 2013. 4P 4Q J S
Imaginary Girls. Speak, 2012. 348p. $8.99 Trade pb. 978-0-142-42143-7. VOYA June 2011. 2P 4Q S
Nova Ren Suma on the Internet