Susan Juby is here today talking about The Truth Commission. Written as narrative non-fiction, this novel includes illustrations and footnotes as well as tons of humor and wit. The Truth Commission is also one of my favorite novels from 2015 so I am absolutely thrilled to have Susan here to chat about it!
Miss Print (MP): Can you tell me a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?
Susan Juby (SJ): I had a severely misspent youth, which is the subject of my memoir, Nice Recovery. But before I went off the rails, I loved to write. When I was thirteen I lost the sense that I could write anything worth reading. I didn’t write any more fiction until I was twenty-seven, when I started my first book, Alice, I Think. Now I’ve written 10 books. I’m afraid to stop in case the well runs dry again.
MP: What was the inspiration for The Truth Commission?
SJ: I was working on a crime novel for adults and about 200 pages in I realized that I’d based part of the plot on the real life experiences of someone close to me. I’d done it without even thinking. That realization put the brakes on that story but made me think about how disconcerting it must be for families and friends of writers, particularly writers who feel everything that happens around them is fair game for their work. I structured the novel as a piece of creative nonfiction because that is a realm in which the ethics of storytelling and truth telling can get very complicated.
MP: One of the really cool things about The Truth Commission is its unusual formatting which includes illustrations from Trevor Cooper and footnotes in the text. Did you always know that this book would these supplemental materials?
SJ: As soon as I decided the novel should be framed as a creative nonfiction school project, I knew it would contain footnotes. They are the perfect place to add digressions, commentary, subplots and they can be used to destabilize primary narratives and are just generally well suited to narrative hijinks.
When the first draft of the book was done I thought about how many of my creative writing students draw all over everything. Trevor Cooper, a fine art major, was such a student and when he handed in a fabulous illustrated noir retelling of Winnie the Pooh I decided to ask him to do some sketches for The Truth Commission. Those few sketches expanded to include fabulous and witty artwork found throughout the book.
MP: The Truth Commission is largely set at Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design–the school Normandy and her friends attend. Normandy and her friends all have their own concentrations and focus areas at the school. If you were attending Green Pastures what art would you want to study and create?
SJ: I would want to do metalwork and fabric arts. And drawing. And sculpting. And digital design. Let’s not forget painting. Ahem. I long to attend art school. Maybe I’ll do that when I retire.
MP: The Truth Commission works on a lot of different levels with Normandy working through the process of writing a narrative non-fiction project, making art, pursuing truth with her friends, and also confronting some hard truths about her own family. How did you go about plotting this book and fitting all of these different pieces together?
SJ: I knew the elements I wanted to include: the two truth seeking plots, one public, one private. I also knew I wanted to frame the book as a piece of creative nonfiction. After experimenting I decided to alternate the public truth seeking scenes with the private ones and to make the book a writing project. There’s such an intriguing contrast and tension between secrets that we want to know to satisfy our curiosity and secrets we’re afraid to find out because of what they might mean to us. I tinkered endlessly to find the right balance between the different elements in the book.
MP: The Truth Commission is a thoughtful commentary on what makes an unreliable narrator and the nature of subjectivity in sharing truths with people (in writing or art or just in life). As a writer how do you go about bringing authenticity and truth into your work without going too far?
SJ: I have to be alert for two pitfalls. One is writing stories that are too close to my own or other people’s experiences without being aware that’s what I’m doing. Life has a way of leaking onto the page. If I know I’ve done it, I can adjust the text to make sure I respect the privacy of other parties. If I do it unknowingly, that can be problematic. It has sometimes taken me months to figure out that a scene or situation in one of my books is close to a real life experience. The other risk is being so afraid of being offensive or impolite that I don’t push the story far enough to create an authentic moment. I’d rather go too far and dial the story back during editing than err on the side of caution.
MP: Normandy describes her family as “fragile and peculiar” while her friends and classmates are what would often be called eccentric. Where did you find inspiration for these unique characters? Is there any character that you were especially fun to write? Any character that was harder to get on the page?
SJ: I have always been drawn to eccentric people and my favourite characters in literature and film are a little off-kilter. That’s part of why I love the films of Wes Anderson. There’s a purity to his oddballs and misfits that I find very beautiful in the midst of the absurdity. I’m seeking the same sensibility in my characters. Characters with all their edges filed off to make them more likable or relatable aren’t interesting to write or to read. The characters in The Truth Commission all came fairly easily to me. Art students: how could they be anything but entertaining to write about?
MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
SJ: It’s another book set at, or at least near, Green Pastures. It’s about two eleventh graders trying to win a scholarship to the fashion program at Green Pastures. The book has a completely different cast of characters than The Truth Commission and it has given me the opportunity to revisit my lost fashion design student years.
MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?
SJ: My advice is fairly standard: read everything. Write often and don’t worry whetherit’s any good at first. Just get the words down. Once you’re in a groove, work on developing your voice as a writer. It’s the most important gift a writer has to give.
Thanks again to Susan for this awesome interview.