Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Susin Nielsen, on channeling her inner nerd...

HALLIE EPHRON: I met Susin Nielsen in the "green room" where authors hang out and drink at the Surrey writers conference, and I knew right away this was someone I wanted you to meet on Jungle Red. She gave the MOST hilarious keynote about the journals she kept when she was little.

Which is the perfect segue to her completely brilliant, riveting, painful, hilarious new YA novel, "The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen.
" Gradually the reader learns why Henry's life has been upended, why his family had to move, how he deals with a pair of weird neighbors, makes friends, and deals with bullies... through the journal that he's writing because his therapist thinks writing in it will help him.

Susin got her start writing a spec script for the TV show Degrassi Junior High. She's also a multi-award winning author of YA novels who broke out with "Word Nerd" (a nerdy kid gets high on scrabble...) Followed by "Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom" (daughter tries to match her divorced mom up with George Clooney.)

Her books have raked in starred reviews and awards.

But frankly I was not prepared for the power of her new book. It left me breathless, crying, and cheering.

Welcome, Susin! You seem to specialize in writing fantastic nerdy kids and I know you wrote journals when YOU were a kid. So those two things seem to have come together in this new book.

SUSIN NIELSEN: I didn’t really realize how closely my own young self
paralleled my nerdy protagonists
[HALLIE: Susin is the kid in the front row, the only one wearing a long, colorful skirt]
until after “Word Nerd” was published.

A lot of people asked me, “How did you come up with this friendless nerd Ambrose who, in spite of being kind of lonely, has a real glass half-full attitude? I truly didn’t know the answer – till I came across boxes of my old journals tucked away in the garage. I found the first diary I ever kept.

This paragraph was particularly revealing:  
We just moved a few months ago. I don’t have any friends. Oh, well. My cat’s a friend, and so’s my doll, Raggedy Anne. She’s real to me. I have lots of stuffed animals. I have sea monkeys but they’re not fully grown yet. I don’t have a dad. My cat’s name is Mississippi.

I suddenly realized: I was Ambrose!
I’m very drawn to underdogs, most definitely. Violet (in “Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom”) is probably closest to me when I was that age.

With Henry (in “The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen”) I took things to a darker place, giving him a horrific tragedy to deal with. I got the idea while I was reading “The Hour I First Believed” by Wally Lamb. He places a character in the real-life horror of the Columbine shootings. There was a line in the book that mentioned that one of the shooters had a brother.

That was like a punch in the gut for me – I had never, ever paused to think about what it must be like for the surviving sibling of a boy who’s committed an irrevocable act of violence.

But back to those diaries: They were a revelation in so many ways. Especially this paragraph – the very first paragraph I ever wrote in a diary. It reads:  
This is the first day I’ve really written in a diary. The reason I am is ‘cause I LOVE writing stories, and if I do grow up to be a famous writer, and later die, and they want to get a story of my life, I guess I should keep a diary.

Phew! I love the arrogance of it – but I also love that I knew what I wanted to do when I was eleven!

I love writing for the middle-grade/YA set. I don’t know why I can tap in to that head-space. I do feel a part of my own brain stopped growing at about age 13. Also I did write for a lot of teen and tween TV shows, like “Degrassi Junior High,” in my other life as a television writer.

My latest manuscript is called “We Are All Made of Molecules.” For the first time ever I also have a US publisher! Tundra publishes me in Canada, and they and Wendy Lamb in the States will publish “Molecules” simultaneously in Spring 2015. Argh, the waiting’s gonna kill me. 

HALLIE: So excited for you, Susan! Because there is a huge audience for US editions of your books.

So Susin  will be checking in today, joining our conversation. Were you a nerdy kid, too, and do you still find yourself channeling your inner nerd??


  1. Hi Susin.

    I adore your diary entries! It's amazing that you were so aware, at that young age, of what you wanted to do "when you grow up." I love it.

    I kept a diary for a while but I have no idea where it is. I remember keeping it hidden from my sisters. Like there was something a 10 year old needed to keep secret. LOL

    Good luck with the books and thanks for visiting JR. :-)

  2. Yep, I was a nerdy kid (although I don't think we used the word "nerd" in the fifties and sixties). At school I was super-shy and never spoke unless spoken to. At home, it was better; it was not a great neighborhood but the kids were more accepting of all sorts of people - even kids who liked to spend lots of time reading. (I ended up sharing my favorite books with my best friend a couple doors down from us.) I'm not sure what I did with the diaries that I started and then stopped. They were not actual diaries but were notepads. (I didn't want anyone to know that I wanted a "real" diary!) I most likely threw them away, afraid to have someone reading my inner thoughts!

    I can't wait to read your books, Susin! Where WERE you when I was a kid???

    Proud to be a nerd!

  3. These novels sound fabulous (I love YA) and yes, I was a nerd at that age. Nerdy girls unite!

  4. Susin, love this post. Your titles are fantastic! (Tell us about the spelling of your first name?)

    I'm going to have to root around and see if I can come up with stuff from that painful era--I'm certain they weren't as insightful as yours...

  5. Marianne - I so agree. And I think the person who deserves a blue ribbon is Susin's mom who SAVED her diaries. She must have known how talented Susin was. (Susin... you can shatter my theory if you tell me that she saved all your drawings and potholders, too).

    (I saved all of ONE daughter's essays (she's the writer) and the OTHER daughter's drawings (she's the architect.) Mothers know...)

  6. My mother pitched my diaries, but they were full of angst about the family drama around her and my dad. They divorced when I was fifteen, and it was so hard on all of us. I suspect my mom read them and decided no one needed to see that again. She still does not want to talk about it. "What do you want to think about the past for? That's all over.".


    It's a rare gift, the ability to rechannel all those feelings of doubt and insecurity that we all felt to some degree. Well done, Susin.

  7. Oh, Karen... if I'd written a diary it would have been like that, too. And my mother would have been mortified.

    And now I realize that if you're a writer, a dysfunctional childhood is the gift that keeps giving. And writing is a lot cheaper than therapy.

  8. Writing is such excellent therapy!

    This is precious stuff, and I plan to read the book.

    I guess I was pretty nerdy -- I think of myself as being unsophisticated and naive, until I wasn't. But there still is some of that lack of cynicism in myself that I treasure.

  9. I love all of these comments and I'm so delighted to be on jungle red Writers! Sorry for the slow response. I'm actually on holiday in Maui and there's a five hour time difference! To answer Hallie's question my mother did save almost everything. I honestly don't know if she thought I was talented! I am quite certain she didn't read my journals as she took privacy quite seriously. She is alive and well so I will ask her if she thought I was talented! More in a minute. I'm going to make sure I can post this from my iPad.

  10. Whew it worked! So to answer Lucy aka Roberta, it is a truly lame story re the spelling of my name. But it also says more about my 13-year-old self. When I was 13 I thought my name was terribly boring, so I changed it to Susin with an I. But I never legally changed it. And now in this post-9/11 world, it causes me trouble when I travel! Sometimes the decisions one makes at thirteen are not very sound!

  11. OOH, Maui. My husband is talking about going to Hawaii. My brain exploded while trying to research where to go. I tried to keep a diary when I was a kid. I remember opening it up to the last page I'd written, which was about how mad I was at my older brother. He had gotten my diary and written a rebuttal next to my entry. That was the end of keeping a diary. I kept it all in my head after that. Probably one of the reasons I am the way I am now!

  12. Susin, I LOVE the story about your name. I thought my name was horribly boring, too (Debbie, then. Still hate it.) So I tried Debi, and DeeDee (my initials) and even Lynn, my middle name, but nothing stuck. At some point I even tried to get people to call me Denny--God knows why. Maybe something to do with the Beach Boys?

    But my daughter decided at thirteen that Katie was boring so she changed the spelling to Kayti. She's thirty now and although she is still legally Katharine, she is Kayti in both her personal and professional lives. I guess I just didn't have as much conviction....

    I love YA books and yours sound fabulous. Can't wait to read The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen. Brilliant idea.

  13. So delighted that there are so many nerds out there in the world. I used to feel perpetually trapped within my 12 year old self as an adult, but now I embrace it!

    Some of my favourite books are children or YA from way back like Are you there God, it's me Margaret by Judy Blume and Love and Betrayal and Hold the Mayo by Francine Pascal. Years ago I sent an email to Judy Blume telling her how much I loved her books, my first adult fan letter, and I never thought I'd get a response, but when I did I was in heaven! When an author acknowledges a reader, it's fantastic!

    I used to want to change my name too when I was a kid. I thought of April since I was born in that month, so glad I kept Mary.

    Susin's also a great writing instructor! My favourite one at UBC all those years ago. Looking forward to reading more of your YA.

    Will you one day write a novel geared towards adults? Or maybe a graphic novel?

    Mary P.

  14. COMPLETELY nerdy. NO friends, no dates, no anything.

    I decided I was Hyacinth.

    My mother told be I could NOT be Hycainth, I was Ann. Harriet Ann.

    SO I changed it to An.

    Which is ridiculous. I made myself an article.

    SO terrific to read about your journals..incredibly touching.

  15. I am loving all the comments here! I will try to answer all the questions. First of all, for all of my fellow nerds, You really should read my first young adult novel entitled Word Nerd. Especially if you like Scrabble! Pat D, re Maui, we are staying at Andaz in wailea. It's a new Hyatt hotel and it is absolutely gorgeous. Not cheap but currently about half the price of the four seasons next door. Screenwriting spinster I remember teaching you, and in fact I'm teaching again for the first time in 10 years at UBC - this time writing for children and youth, starting next month! I too was a huge Judy Bloom fan growing up. Ha. I'm using Siri because the keyboard is so small on my iPad and Siri spelled Blume's name wrong. I don't know if there's an adult novel in the cards. Right now I love writing for this age group. Deb I'm glad you didn't change your name to Denny because it sounds like a fast food chain! And Hank, or Harriet, or what ever your real name is now - Hyacinth was a brilliant pick! And "An" completely cracked me up. Nerds of the world unite!

  16. This talk about names reminded me that when I was in Third Grade I wanted to change the spelling of my name from Deborah to Debra - my teacher's preferred way to spell my name. My parents were dead-set against it. I kept thinking "but fewer letters in the name, quicker to write it down!" In retrospect, I wonder why my teacher would not accept the spelling of my name. (She was not my favorite teacher.) I'm glad I kept the long spelling and take delight in telling people who ask for the spelling that "I spell it the old-fashioned way."

  17. Deb R., that's one of the worst teacher stories I've ever heard. How odd.

    Hallie, you know it, on the translation of angst into writing. More of a relief than therapy!

    Susin, I'll look for Word Nerd.

  18. The older I got the more self absorbed and angst-y and head up my own butt my journals became! They stopped being cute at about age 14, and just obnoxious. But that serves me well for my new book, which has one self absorbed girl narrator! (And a nerdy and decent boy narrator).

  19. Me? Nerd? I always carried a comic book to hide the real book I was reading.

    "Pete's Diner in Billerica is not where the nerds went after school. That's why Tyker Jones was there with a comic book wrapped around the real book she was reading. She called it a Supergirl sandwich."

  20. Total nerdster! I still have all my journals too, and you've inspired to go back and take a look at them.

    I used to think Lisa was the all time most boring name. Growing up, there were always six other Lisas in my classes. For awhile, I thought Ariadne would be a great name because I likes the myth so much. I tried to go by "Elise" for awhile too.

    I used to whine, Why did you give me the boring name? (My sisters are Nicole and Kara.)

    Susin, I'm almost afraid to reread my adolescent journals. I'm sure I hated everything except for the boys I loved from afar. :-)

  21. Lisa, I mention a boy named Greg in that first diary entry, who is even growing a moustache. I had a huge crush on him. He s in the top row of the photo In a yellow shirt! Please re read your journals and post an entry that isn't too painful!

  22. Greg is adorable! Whatever became of him??

  23. There was a bar in Lahaina, Maui I'll never forget -- built over the water on a dock, nothing but open windows and sea breezes. Always wondered if it was still there.

  24. Hallie I wish I knew! I even remember his last name, but it's common so don't think I could find him. As for jack's question I'm afraid I don't know because we've barely left our resort! Just snorkelling and reading and swimming.

  25. You got it, Susin! Here's a little excerpt about a boy I loved...I kid you not. I'm 15...

    David Sxxxxxx smiled at me today! Why didn't I smile back? I'm such a dunce. I just don't get why I get so nervous. What's the big deal anyhow? He's just sooooooo cute. Kxxxx likes him too, but I think he'd like me better ....

    And on and on ... I still remember David. He was quite the heart throb.

    P.S. I still have a problem with "just"s. :-)

  26. That is great, Lisa! Hallie thanks again for a fun day of posting!

  27. Lisa - that's so darling! Thanks for posting!!