March 23, 2009
Interview with Susan Fine
Did I mention more 2k9ers were coming? Susan Fine's debut YA novel is coming in May from Flux. I don't know about ya'll, but everything I've read from Flux is pure gold. Susan's novel deals with a recent issue: social networking and how teens use it irresponsibly. You'll get an ominous feeling even before cracking the cover, what with it's picture of a tie hanging like a noose. Before writing Susan was an English teacher, and from Deborah's interview I know we all love English teachers. Keep reading to learn more about this one.
1. Your debut novel, INITIATION, involves the dark side of social networking. What social networking sites are you a member of? How did you research social networking sites and how teens use them?
I'm a member of Facebook. I pretty much did research for this book by using electronic databases to find as much info and as many articles as I could on the topic. I also still, in the most old fashioned of ways, clip every article that surfaces in my life in the newspaper or a magazine that is on any topic I am thinking about and writing about. In doing the research for INITIATION, I read a lot about social networking sites, how young people use them, and, of course, found articles that highlighted cases where things had gone wrong. I also talked with various people in schools about what's surfaced in their schools or in cases that they knew of. My research involved both social networking and cyberbullying. For my book, however, I came up with my own ideas for the scandal, and what also helped to determine the plot was researching schools, boys, and adolescence more generally. For example, I had read RAISING CAIN many years ago but went back to it and reread it along with REAL BOYS and numerous articles about boys, schools, education, etc. I'm currently reading QUEEN BEES and WANNABES, so I'm always reading about young adults, thinking about what happens in schools and for kids socially, and I also follow this kind of thing in such newspapers as THE NEW YORK TIMES and THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. I have a thick file of articles I've saved as well as another big file labeled BOOK IDEAS.
2. It's also set in an all boys' prep school, through the eyes of Mauricio Londoño. Did you find it difficult do write a male POV? In what ways is Mauricio similar to you?
I didn't find it hard to write from Mauricio's point of view, although I did reread all of the manuscript out loud to my husband, and sometimes he would say such things as "A ninth grade boy would never say that!" He was very helpful in pointing out what was working and what wasn't. Additionally, several trusted friends who either are or have been teachers read the manuscript and gave me feedback, and my agent and editor gave me tons of useful feedback, too.
I've thought a lot about this question of writing outside of one's own perspective, and it seems to be that it's simply essential to do that for any writer -- who would want a novel in which the only perspective provided was that of a 43-year-old white woman? Not that we're all the same but what could you do in a story if the only perspective you could present was your own? I have read and went back and reread a lot of books with young male characters including THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, LORD OF THE FLIES, A SEPARATE PEACE, and OLD SCHOOL by Tobias Wolff. I also reread PREP while I was working on the novel and read John Green's LOOKING FOR ALASKA, and I'm always trying to keep up with as much YA lit as I can.
I don't think that Mauricio is that similar to me, although I do remember those feelings of extraordinary awkwardness at being new in a group and just in general at school (although I spent a lot of energy trying to hide that discomfort, as he does, too). I have also shared the feelings he has of being in love with someone who didn't love me back. And, I've had moments of longing to be someone other than who I am, and he feels that a lot during that first year of navigating his new school. I think many human beings have had all of these feelings, though. He becomes very drawn to the wealthy lifestyle that some of his peers enjoy (although he also notes that some of them, despite such privilege, aren't that happy), and this kind of thing can be very seductive -- I'm sure many of us have had moments of thinking we might really like such a world!
3. You're a former English teacher. What language misuse annoys you the most? (Just between you and me . . . *wink*)
I try hard to be patient with how the English language gets battered all the time! I also used to ask my students to do the same, while simultaneously encouraging them to learn the rules and use them -- and the whole me/I challenge is a big one for lots of folks -- the good old me/I conundrum! I would encourage my students to move the pronoun right next to the preposition and then that problem would, most likely, be solved. They would never have thought "between I and you" was right!
What probably bothers me most is writers who think they need to break the rules constantly to sound like kids. I don't think that's very helpful for kids who are still developing as writers, readers, speakers, and thinkers, and I also think there are ways to sound like kids and not constantly say such things as, "Me and Susan are going..." Kids are smart, and they need and want smart books! I think that's why I've loved the John Green books so much (and so have tons of kids, right?) and also read recently and adored THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU BANKS. (I've got a blog entry on this book, and one Sherman Alexie's recent ya novel, on my website if you're interested.) Gosh, I sure hope INITIATION is smart after all this yammering on about kids' needing smart books. sigh.
4. When you taught English, were there any books you hated teaching? Loved?
There was nothing I hated teaching, and that could be because I worked in schools where the teachers had a lot of room to create and shape the curriculum. There are many, many books I loved teaching, but some that stand out include all of the books that Mauricio and his classmates read in INITIATION: MACBETH, CATCHER IN THE RYE, and THE GREAT GATSBY. I also loved teaching THE SOUND AND THE FURY. I loved teaching JANE EYRE. I have pretty much enjoyed every Shakespeare play I've ever taught. I loved teaching poetry, especially because we often pursued poems that weren't terribly long so there was plenty of room to consider every word used carefully and to ensure that all the students got the poem (although you will soon see in INITIATION that Mauricio struggles with the poetry his class reads) and started to appreciate the artistry in the language of such poets as Keats, Wordsworth, Dickinson, and Elizabeth Bishop (to hame just four poems whose poems I taught to my ninth graders).
5. What caused you to write INITIATION?
I think there were various books I read that made me want to write my own. And, in some ways that desire grew out of my hope that my novel might reveal some things that other books in a similar genre (e.g. the NYC prep school) haven't. For example, NYC private schools are often quite hard academically, and some of the books (and movies, tv shows) in that same setting never show the kids doing any school work. I tried to include the basic business of school -- although one could argue that what preoccupies students most in school are social relations. I was also drawn to looking at how digital tools are surfacing in schools while also wanting to show kids still finding important insights, big life lessons really, in a play like MACBETH. A friend and I have come up with the following idea re today's students and the digital era they (and we!) are living in: "Nothing is new, but everything is different." For example, cheating in school has always been around; however, technology has led to all sorts of new ways to cheat. I like the paradox in our idea, and I'm hoping that there are some things in INITIATION that seem timeless and also some things that could only happen now -- but perhaps that's more the medium than the message. Kids have always been mean to each other -- or perhaps it's more accurate to say people here -- however, now kids can harass each other in new ways using technology. When you read about this stuff, though, some folks try to act as thought all of this is new. I don't think that bullying was left on the schoolyard at the end of the day, as some have said about the past, yet it wasn't possible to post nasty stuff about others on the internet. But we did make crank phone calls, and certainly if you were being bullied at school, you went home and worried about it. That stuff has always been really painful. There are also lots of good things -- many, many of them -- that have come from technology, but I won't get into that here!
6. Any more books on the horizon?
Yes! I have a second manuscript in process for another YA novel, and I have several ideas for other books I want to pursue. I'm also working on an article right now on social networking.
7. Before INITIATION you wrote ZEN IN THE ART OF THE SAT with Matt Bardin. What do you think the most difficult part of the SAT is? Why?
I hesitate to generalize about what's hardest on the SAT because every kid experiences it differently. What's hard for one kid might not be so hard for another. Standardized testing can be very challenging for some very smart people, and some people are quite adept at it but not necessarily great students. I think our book tries hard to make kids confident about navigating the test and also has a lot of advice about how to grow and improve as a reader, writer, and thinker. We also talk a lot about focus and concentration and really do present Zen ideas -- some of these might be even more important now, four years after the book first came out, given how many things compete for our attention these days. I do like that the SAT now has what used to be part of the SAT II (or the achievement test when I took it many years ago) which is the grammar section. All the errors that kids need to identify are common ones in writing and speaking, so studying for that part of the test (and for others) will have benefits well beyond a high score.
8. What are some of your hobbies? What practical skills have you gleaned from your hobbies?
I look cooking, I love knitting, I don't like running, but I do it -- and once I'm out on a run, I remember that I do like the quiet unplugged thinking time that running provides. I also spend a lot of time with my family -- one husband (a product of a boys' school) and two little boys, ages 3 and 8. I'm around a lot of Lego and enthusiasm about Vikings and pirates.
9. If your book were a dessert, what would it be and why?
I love figurative language, but I am hard pressed to find a dessert metaphor for my book! There's one character in the book, Alexander Singleton, who is very funny and who is often eating -- perhaps for lack of a better answer for you I'll just use something from the book: little white powdered doughnuts, which early in the book Alexander tries to bring into English class (on the first day of school) and gets caught eating (along with a container of chocolate milk). The teacher takes them away and tosses them into the trash. That's one of my favorite scenes and captures well the crazy dichotomy of a place like St. Stephen's: one minute Alexander Singleton is making a pretty intelligent point about some lines from ROMEO AND JULIET they are reading in class and the next minute he's trying to eat this little doughnut when the teacher isn't looking.
10. I'm fond of this question, so my readers are probably tired of seeing it. Too bad. How would you describe INITIATION without using the blurb?
It's a coming of age story, set very much in the 21st century world, that reveals one boy's funny and painful experiences navigating his first year in a new school, where he often feels like an outsider for a variety of different reasons. He develops deep ambivalence about the school but ultimately has this heartfelt feeling, which remains with him even after graduation, that somehow this school matters and can make him matter. The book takes place over the course of his freshman year, but the beginning and ending of it -- the frame on the book -- are just after graduation. He comes back to St. Stephen's looking for something and while he's there he starts thinking about freshman year and then the story of that year begins...
Sound cool to ya'll too? And for those who have taken the SAT, what did you think the hardest part was? For those who need to take it, what are you worried about?
I ask because this is my blog and I want to tell my SAT story. I had to two choices of dates to take the SAT because I waited until my senior year and then needed the scores by a certain date in order to finish my National Merit application. Both of these dates were band contest days. I chose the first so that I'd have time to retake it if my score sucked.
I took it at UTA since the competition was at UTA. Lucky me, I got stuck in the slow room. As soon as I finished I rushed to my mom in the lobby (waiting with the rest of my uniform) and went to change. All the stalls were taken so I just changed in the main part and apologized to the mom standing there. She then drove me to the stadium, and I began to walk, hoping to find my band. (My director knew I was going to be late, so I arranged to have someone push around my keyboard, so at least I didn't need to worry about that.) So what do I hear but the loudspeaker: "[LIVI'S] HIGH SCHOOL, YOU MAY NOW TAKE THE FIELD." So yeah, I ran really quickly into the chute and made it to my vibes. Good thing I didn't have to march on like a wind.
I think I sounded pretty good for having no warm up.