Even Nova Ren Suma’s name has a certain poetry to it. It’s one that fits with an author whose remembered for her lush, deep writing – dark shadows in an overgrown prison, the ratty edge of a Missing poster for a seventeen-year-old girl, the ripples over the surface of a lake where a town used to stand.
Her talent for choosing perfect words and enduring imagery may not seem as surprising when she confesses that she wrote her first book at five years old, about the pigeons she saw from the city ledge in her grandparents’ NYC flag-making factory. She continued to write poetry and short stories through college, but never really considered novels.
“Writing a novel felt so daunting, I guess, but once I started writing novels – I have two unpublished tomes living under my bed… seven and a half years of work – I couldn’t stop,” laughed Suma. “Now short stories are far more difficult for me because my ideas have become larger and I can’t seem to shut myself up.”
Looking at the accolades deservedly heaped on her newest YA novel, The Walls Around Us, it may be hard to believe that at one point, Suma resigned herself to never making it in the publishing world, be it for short stories or full-fledged novels.
“I pretty much gave up ten years ago, when I was querying my second adult novel and got the final rejection from a so-called ‘dream’ agent on a revision request,” said Suma. To rub salt into the wound, the rejection came through on Suma’s birthday. Right then and there, Suma decided that she’d keep writing, but she was done with pursuing publication. “I broke. I felt so dejected and run-down.”
But fate wasn’t willing to let Suma’s career end there. Through her day job as a copy writer, she got the opportunity to ghost-write. Though she initially took it because it added an extra paycheck, and because she’d lost all hope and enthusiasm in her own manuscripts, this new position was just what Suma needed for things to turn back around.
“I ended up getting more assignments, and then I got recommended to pitch for a book under my own name for the first time with an editor at Simon and Schuster.”
That book was a middle grade named Dani Noir, and it sold, without the aid of a literary agent, as Suma’s debut. Shortly after, Suma went back to querying “the book of her heart:” her haunting YA novel Imaginary Girls.
“I never expected or planned for this,” admitted Suma. “The point is, you can try to give up. But maybe look for another avenue or another way in first. It may just be the open door you were seeking.”
The Walls Around Us has also taken on aspects that Suma never expected or planned. Though the YA has been described as “Orange is the New Black Swan” – a conglomeration of the popular Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” and the Natalie Portman film “Black Swan” – she didn’t quite intend or expect the comparison.
“The Walls Around Us came from two sparks: First, I wanted to write a ghost story… and a prison seemed like the perfect place to set a ghost story,” explained Suma. “And second, I wanted to explore the idea of writing ‘bad’ girls who do ‘bad’ things, and was experimenting with a pair of teenage ballerinas on the run after a murder.”
Suma kept playing with the two ideas, unsure of which should form into her next novel proposal. And then, the figurative light bulb moment occurred when she was experimenting with a new scene.
“When I was writing a scene set in the girls’ detention center, I realized that the new inmate the girls could see from the window was a character from the ballerina story. They were one novel! Such a lightning-bolt moment for me,” laughed Suma. “The ‘Orange Is the New Black’ and ‘Black Swan’ mash-up didn’t even occur to me, though I am honored by it and love anything surreal and haunting, like the movie ‘Black Swan’. When The Walls Around Us sold on proposal in spring 2013, this was before ‘Orange Is the New Black’ was released on Netflix and I hadn’t read the memoir yet. The show came out in July, while I was finishing the draft, and I binge-watched like a maniac.”
One of Suma’s particular trademarks is her enthusiasm for writing “complicated, fascinating, mysterious, authentic” teenage girls. Even before her career in the children’s publishing industry, she gravitated to younger perspectives because they gave her a sense of freedom and flexibility adult novels didn’t offer.
“Once I started writing from younger voices – teenagers and children, I felt like there was this open road of possibility and experimentation ahead of me, that there was so much I could do and barely anything I couldn’t, and that’s why the category of YA excites me. It’s not so rigid,” said Suma. “We have so much potential and possibility. And there’s a lot more teenage stories where this came from, so I’m sure I’ll be writing YA for a long time to come.”
Like many authors, Suma has added a little of herself in her stories.
“It may be obvious only to those who know me very, very well, but I see a lot of myself in Amber—and if I’d been locked up at a young age as she was, I, too, would have been drawn to that book cart she wheels around the detention center, sharing books with anyone who wants or needs one,” said Suma. “I got to dig so deep with her, and expose some very live wires. It was exhilarating.”
Though Suma does write in a particular category, with a certain style, she feels that her writing grows with every new idea that gets unfolded and shaken out into a manuscript full of possibilities. Suma has always been vocal about her favorite places to explore those possibilities: writing residencies and colonies.
“I love going away to an artist colony for a good chunk of time and closing off the outside world to throw myself into drafting a novel. A large section of the first draft of The Walls Around Us was written at the MacDowell Colony in rural New Hampshire, inside a giant studio usually reserved for dancers and photographers.”
During the two weeks Suma spent there in the fall of 2013, she wrote 43,248 words in a trace of creativity that felt almost as though she’d been possessed.
“I wrote morning, noon, and night—with catnaps in the late afternoons—and made a colorful map of my novel on the studio’s walls, shifting it around each night to include the new pieces I wrote that day. I counted my words every night. I paced the giant studio in wide circles. I talked out loud to myself. I danced. I went walking along the wooded roads. I connected with the other visiting artists at dinner each night and breakfast each morning. I don’t know if the book would exist in the form it does today without those magical two weeks.”
Like every writer, though, Suma has her ups and downs. There are good days, and days when she’s not sure what she should do.
“I seem to like worrying!” laughed Suma. “I do it more than writing, actually. I guess you could say it’s my hobby and I’ve gotten very good at it over the years.”
When all is said and done, Suma’s rich experiences definitely leave her at a prime position to dispense advice to writers still forming their processes and pursuing publication. The gist of her wisdom? Don’t get overly attached.
“Don’t get too attached to one idea or one manuscript,” said Suma. “It is a heartbreaking thing to say that not every book you write is worth publishing, but it’s the truth. Learn from every manuscript and push yourself harder with the next one. [But] know that you will need to put the work in when it comes to revision. Don’t give up too easily, and also know when to move on.”
Just as her favorite books settle within her, Suma hopes that there will be something within her novels that will resonate and endure within young readers – whether it is the empathy that comes with a torn, irreparable friendship, the ups and downs of a relationship between sisters, or simply the raw uncertainty of being a young adult in a capricious world.Author Nova Ren Suma. Courtesy of
Nova Ren Suma.
“When I finish a book I really love, the story sits with me and I play with the possibilities of what might occur beyond that last page. I can’t stop thinking about it. It just won’t leave my mind. I hope there are readers who feel the same about my books.”
The Walls Around Us hit shelves tomorrow. Suma also has a short story within April Tulchoke’s upcoming YA horror anthology, Slasher Girls and Monster Boys, which will drop in August 2015. She wrote a slasher girl. Obviously.