Nova Ren Suma is here today to talk about her novel Imaginary Girls. This year also marks the three year anniversary of the book being published. To celebrate, in addition to our nifty interview, Nova is running a blog series with guest posts from authors about the “book of their heart” so be sure to check that out. (You may also want to enter to win a copy of Imaginary Girls! Just saying.)
Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?
Nova Ren Suma (NRS): It’s a long and convoluted story about how I came to be a published YA author—because writing YA wasn’t my original intention, and I started off writing novels for adults. During those years I worked a series of day jobs in book publishing in New York City—I was a production editor, the in-house person who handles the copyediting of the books. It was at one of these day jobs that I started reading YA novels that blew my mind. Novels by Laura Kasischke. Laura Ruby. Rita Williams-Garcia. Bennett Madison. I realized what was possible in YA, and I wanted to be a part of it. I took a short story I’d written and shifted and reshaped and expanded it, and it became Imaginary Girls. That’s one part of the story, but I’ll leave it at that.
MP: What was the inspiration for Imaginary Girls?
NRS: Place and a person. Most of my novels start out that way. The place is my hometown and the reservoir where I used to sneak swims with friends when I was a teenager. And the person is my little sister, Laurel Rose. I wanted to write about the bond between an older sister and her baby sister, and throw in some magical thinking to see what happens…
MP: Obviously, Imaginary Girls is a story about sisters among other things. You have written on your website about this book being written largely for your sister and also interviewed your sister about the book. When you started Imaginary Girls did you always know this story would center around two sisters?
NRS: Oh yes—that’s the heart of the book. Imaginary Girls first started off as a short story about two sisters, Ruby and Chloe. They were always there, from the beginning. My little sister was born when I was nine and a half years old, and I delighted in helping take care of her, so it felt like she was mine. I guess this makes me the Ruby of the story, but actually Chloe is more like me and my sister is a lot more like Ruby—beautiful and magnetic. We both see ourselves in the book in different ways, and I would never have written it if not for my sister.
MP: Although ultimately fictional, the town Ruby and Chloe call home is based on a real one. Did any actual locations make it into this novel? What was it like writing about a real place where you spent some of your formative years?
NRS: The town in Imaginary Girls is taken and distorted from the Woodstock area in the Hudson Valley of New York, which is where I lived during high school. The reservoir is the Ashokan Reservoir, which was a short walk across the highway and through the woods from one of the houses where I lived back then. The Town Green, in the center of Woodstock, where I wasted many hours waiting for something interesting to happen on weekend nights is there in the book. The rec field and the artists’ cemetery are both there. The Youth Center, where I hung out with my friends, is there. Cumby’s, the convenience store at the edge of town, is there. Sweet Sue’s in Phoenicia, where I’d get strawberry-banana pancakes on weekends is there… I can’t even remember all the places that ended up in the book. Yet at the same time, I shifted and distorted and played with the place. It’s totally real and yet entirely made-up.
I often take real things, places, and people and distort them for my novels. The weirdest—and yet coolest—thing is when people from my past recognize things, like a night we went skinny-dipping in the reservoir and ran from the cops. We’re immortalized in a way, even if the story took a magical turn none of us lived through.
MP: During the story Ruby (and sometimes even Chloe) manages to say something strongly enough to make it true. If you had the same power of conviction, what would you say into being?
NRS: If I had that kind of power, I would save those pronouncements for the people I love. There is someone I want to be healthy. I would speak those words for her. And there is someone I want to be recognized for his talent. I would make that happen for him and then I’d step back and applaud.
MP: Is there any character or scene in this story that you especially enjoyed writing? Is there any character or scene you were excited to introduce to readers?
NRS: I loved writing about Chloe swimming across the reservoir. In reality, I am too afraid to swim far, and I’m not such a good swimmer—I would never have attempted that, no matter who asked me. I also loved imagining what might be under that water, still breathing beneath her, after all these years. Those were the most exhilarating pieces to write.
MP: You describe your books as including elements of magic realism and have written about the subject of magical realism in YA on your website before. What is your favorite part of writing magic realism into your stories?
NRS: I like playing with the surreal, and twisting a bit of the fantastical into the everyday world. I guess I’ve always believed there could be more than what we see out there, even if we’ll never understand it or know for sure. It all feels perfectly realistic to me.
MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
NRS: My next book is a ghostly story of suspense called The Walls Around Us, set partly inside a girls’ juvenile detention center and partly in a ballet school, and told in two voices, one living and one dead. It’s coming out in Spring 2015 from Algonquin Young Readers.
MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?
NRS: The first manuscript you write may not always be the one that gets published. Or the second, or others beyond that. As someone who wrote and tried to publish two novels before my first book deal and securing an agent, I will tell you that I was very close to giving up. I reached a moment when I thought it just wasn’t going to happen for me, that maybe publication wasn’t in my future. I thought I’d failed.
So I took some time to wallow—I’ll be honest here, wallowing was part of it—but after that, I realized I could never give up, and so I reinvented myself, and I tried again.
Successes are all the more delicious when you’ve struggled to get them. I’m glad, now, that it wasn’t too easy.
Thank you again to Nova for taking the time to answer these questions and happy 3 year anniversary to Imaginary Girls!