With The Walls Around Us, Nova Ren Suma, author of Imaginary Girls, 17 & Gone, and Dani Noir, tackles big issues centered around girls both in and out a juvenile correction facility. Her new novel has already received early praise, and was chosen for the ABA’s Spring 2015 Kids’ Indie Next List. Walls is a psychological thriller that grapples with guilt, innocence, and competitive ballet, along with some mindbending twists and turns. PW spoke with Suma via email about what started her writing YA, how her view of human nature influenced her book, and her own young, brief stint as a ballerina.
How did writing The Walls Around Us differ from your previous projects?
Just before writing The Walls Around Us, I had reached one of those roadblocks of self-doubt that I know so many writers find themselves facing. I was questioning everything about my writing and my career as a YA author and feeling unsteady about what to do next. In order to enjoy writing again, I realized I had to let go of expectations and stop listening to the voices in my head.
Because of this, The Walls Around Us was a book written solely and unapologetically for me. I allowed myself to be as weird and wild as I wanted. I did not hold back. I stopped trying to write to what I thought an audience or a publisher might want from me. It was freeing and exhilarating. And the outcome – what this book has become, and the reaction it’s gotten out in the world so far – completely surprised me. I learned a lot from this process: I should probably stop worrying so much about what everyone else thinks of me more often.
The Walls Around Us is told from the perspectives of multiple characters. What was your writing process like for this? Did you write chronologically, or a character at a time?
There are two first-person voices in The Walls Around Us: Amber, a convicted killer, who tells her story from inside a girls’ juvenile detention center, and Violet, a ballerina, whose story takes place outside the walls. These two voices may at first seem like they don’t connect, but they share one thing, or one character: a girl named Orianna, who is central to both girls’ stories in different ways.
I am the kind of writer who needs to write a book in order. Everything that happens builds on what came before. But this book jumped time and did not want to come out so neatly. I eventually ended up having to write the entire trajectory of one voice and then go back to write the second voice. Then I sliced the stories together.
You’ve mentioned in a previous interview a trip to Alcatraz. Were you there as a tourist, or were you there for research?
I was visiting San Francisco as a tourist after teaching a workshop in the area last winter. A couple drafts of The Walls Around Us were already written when I took the boat to Alcatraz Island, mostly out of curiosity. I remember having this moment in an empty cell by myself when the fear and horror and sense of abandonment found inside my novel crystallized. I felt oddly close to my characters then. But the door of the cell was open, and I could leave. I was free. It was a small moment that stayed with me, even though I was well aware it was nothing compared to what true confinement would feel like.
What kind of research did you do, particularly for the scenes inside the prison and the ballet world?
My own experience studying ballet (and jazz and modern and tap) at small-town dance schools fueled the Violet sections. I started ballet when I was about six years old and quit when I was 16 because it was interfering with all the time I wanted to spend hanging out with my friends. I didn’t have the ambition Violet did – or any real skill or talent – but I regret quitting. In my last ballet recital, I played a dancing maiden in The Firebird.
The world inside the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center is entirely fictitious – this is a fantastical story, after all, and the gray stone building looming on the hill is one sprung from my imagination. Even so, there were pieces of this world that did come from fact: from what I read about the juvenile justice system in my state, from letters from prison, from documentaries. I very much wanted the experience of incarceration to feel real, even inside the surreal and invented reality of a ghost story.
Though it often seems like the characters in Walls are victims of circumstance, and they at times regret their choices, how human nature influences people’s lives is a recurrent theme in the book. Is there a singular view of human nature you try to get across in the book?
There’s no singular statement – except perhaps a question about who we assume is guilty and who we assume is innocent. When I think of what frightens me about human nature, I think specifically of Violet, one of the characters in this novel who is out in the world walking free. I think of how she secured her place there. Who she turned on, and how horribly. Putting myself in her mind and understanding her as much as I did made me question bits of my own humanity. Sometimes it felt far too easy to write her.
The concept of fate also figures heavily in the book, though it seems some characters have choices while others are victims of fate. What are your thoughts on that?
I must believe that fate can be altered, or sometimes needs to be altered – this story shows that. When crafting this juvenile detention center, and looking at facts about incarcerated juveniles in this country, I couldn’t help but see so many inequities. This infused every character I created, and there were some who had far fewer choices in life than others. Maybe this might be a comment on fate, but most of all, it is simply true to life.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
My dream to be a writer began when I was a teenager – that’s where all my ambition went, instead of into dancing. I began by writing poems and short stories and got my MFA in fiction at Columbia University immediately after college without taking a breath first. I didn’t find YA until years later, after writing two novels for adults that were never published and now live under my bed. I discovered the magic and possibility in YA through one of my day jobs, at HarperCollins Children’s Books. There was a very distinct lightning-bolt moment when I was checking pages for a YA novel by Laura Kasischke. I was deeply inspired by her work as well as by the other writers I discovered while working this job: Laura Ruby, Rita Williams-Garcia, Bennett Madison, and of course Francesca Lia Block. Finding YA felt like a whole new start to me.
What’s the strangest day job you’ve ever held?
I don’t know about strange, but I was once an assistant editor in the X-Men office at Marvel Comics. That’s usually the job people find most interesting. Most of my career, though, was spent as a copy editor at various book publishers, which aside from wielding a great many super-sharpened red pencils (I like my pencils sharp), doesn’t sound as exciting.
Has working in publishing, and as a writing mentor helped your work, or can it get in the way?
I worked for years in publishing as a production editor or copy editor. It’s not a creative job, but I rather liked that. I learned so much about how books are made and I became a better writer from it, but the job did get in the way in terms of time. I ended up having to leave my last full-time position as a senior production editor because I couldn’t manage my own book deadline and give my all to the job as it deserved. I still sometimes miss working behind the scenes in publishing and getting to be an invisible hand who’s helping make an author’s book as perfect as humanly possible.
Now I teach workshops on writing YA novels. Teaching and mentoring fuels me as a writer. I love helping writers reach their vision for their own work, and I find myself gaining so much from this exchange, too. I need to keep carving out time for teaching, because now I can’t imagine my life without it.
If you were imprisoned for life, and you were allowed to bring just one thing behind bars, what would it be?
A notebook (and a pen to write with). When my pen runs out of ink, I’d fashion any item I could into a writing utensil. Even if no one were out there wanting to publish me, I would still write stories for myself and maybe my fellow inmates.
Can you tell me about the project you’ve got coming next fall?
I can’t talk about my next novel with Algonquin Young Readers because it’s still unformed and very much in need of more cooking. But I can tell you that I have a short story coming out in the YA horror anthology Slasher Girls & Monster Boys, coming from Dial in August 2015.
Are you writing anything new?
On Tuesday nights I take part in a workshop in Brooklyn where we write on the spot based on prompts we don’t know beforehand. It’s quite often that something completely unexpected spills out onto the page. So even though I’m deep into writing my next novel for Algonquin, I keep happening upon these Tuesday-night surprises. Maybe one will be worthy enough to expand.
The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma. Algonquin Young Readers, $17.95 Mar. ISBN 978-1-61620-372-6.