Susanna Vance says she's always been a daydreamer. "I had a hard time paying attention in school because I was always thinking of things and thinking of stories," she says. "And that all of that has become okay is sort of amazing to me. I am really enjoying that it is a good thing and not something to overcome."
Vance says she has enjoyed writing throughout her life, but she's only been a full-time writer since about 1994. She worked for five years as a commercial photographer in St. Croix before moving to Tennessee and becoming a feature writer and photographer for a small newspaper called the Buffalo River Review. At that point, she still felt stronger as a photographer. "But as I started writing for the paper, it was so easy for me that I started writing books," she remembers. Once she began a novel, she says, she wrote about two more articles for the paper, then quit.
Now living in Oregon, Vance says she continues to write all the time. "I write seven days a week, morning 'til I am really tired in the evening," she says. "Life just falls to the side while I am doing this. I write very, very fast once it begins, because I feel like I am going to forget the details, so I try to get them down as quickly as I possibly can. It's very intense once I catch fire with it."
While Sights (Delacorte) is her first published book, she has published short stories and written other novels, some incorporating magical realism. That's something she embraced in books even as a child. "I was raised on Hans Christian Andersen, and that was just a very big thing for me," she says. "It becomes more and more difficult as you get older to capture that feeling that there really is that possibility of something unknown that can happen out there—something beyond. And I like that state."
In Sights, Baby Girl is an untrustworthy but likable narrator who believes she can see the future. She flees from her abusive father with her mother, settling in a small town full of odd characters where Baby Girl feels awkward and isolated for the first time in her life. It's through playing the accordion, starting a band with other misfits and her genuine good nature that she is finally able to carve out a place for herself.
"I think the lesson is that through individual means you can rise above things," Vance says. She knows this probably isn't true in all cases, but on a small scale it can be an inspiring message for teenagers, for whom all problems loom large. "You can find your own stride in the way that Baby Girl did through the accordion and the band. I do feel you can succeed in that way, that if you become good at something or you stay true to yourself, that things will fall in place for you even if they weren't what you had in mind."
Vance says that one of the difficult tasks in writing for young adults is making sure the material is appropriate. That is something she and her editor, Diana Capriotti, worked together on. Vance calls Capriotti "a steadying hand" and says she appreciated the way that Capriotti would raise questions, but leave the decisions up to her.
"I am in some ways undisciplined and untamed and can go off on the primrose lane with my writing," she says. "I think that working together with her was very important, to give me perspective in tightening the story and making it a more even product in the end."
Vance is now working on a new young adult novel about a strong but emotionally distant girl who, after her sister dies and her family falls apart, takes the family's boat on her own adventure. Even though she knows her sister is dead, she has conversations with her and seeks her guidance.
While Vance has the plot worked out, the writing has come in fits and starts, she says, largely because she's still "walking Baby Girl around." And she is finding all the attention for Sights affirming—including positive reviews from her three granddaughters. "When you write, you have an audience in your mind, and when I write for young people that's who my audience is," she says. "They really loved this book, and that's huge to me."