Nova Ren Suma On Ghosts, Unreliable Narrators, & "A Room Away from the Wolves"

The YA author talks about the inspiration for her latest and what she hopes readers will take from her haunting story.

In Nova Ren Suma’s electrifying follow-up to her New York Times bestselling The Walls Around Us, a young woman flees the toxicity of her blended family dynamics and heads to New York City to stay at a rooming house where her mother once found freedom and sanctuary. The YA author talks about the inspiration for A Room Away from the Wolves (Algonquin; Sept. 4, 2018, Gr 9 Up) and what she hopes readers will take from her haunting story.

Have you always been in love with the magical or fantastical?

I have—my favorite books as a child were the “Dorrie the Little Witch” series, and I had an intense dalliance with a Ouija board when I was a young teenager—but I haven’t always written about it. My first novel attempts were set in the real world without any fantastical twists or ghosts at all, almost as if I didn’t have permission. Maybe I was afraid. I got my MFA in writing literary fiction for adults, but I can admit that my writing then was flat and filled with window-watching epiphanies, not enough happening to my characters. It was only later, while working at a children’s book publisher, when I discovered YA and truly found my voice as a writer. The shelves of my office revealed treasures like Laura Kasischke and Bennett Madison and, oh wow, Francesca Lia Block. My whole world opened. I began writing my first story that played with the fantastic—a girl drowns in a reservoir and inexplicably comes back to life; a magnetic older sister has an unnatural hold on an entire town—and that became my first fantastical YA novel, Imaginary Girls. Once I started writing with magic in mind, there was no going back.

What is it about an unreliable narrator that is so irresistible to readers? Especially one who is her own worst enemy, making one bad decision after another?

I adore unreliable narrators—reading them and writing them. As a reader, when I encounter a narrator I can’t trust, one who teases with the truth and full-on misleads me, I find myself on edge in the most delicious way. (Two of my favorites include Mary in Tiffany D. Jackson’s Allegedly and, and of course Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.) There are some readers who embrace surprise and enjoy having their trust torn to shreds and illuminated by the end in shocking ways. I’m a reader like that. As a writer, it’s both a fantastic roller-coaster ride writing a narrator like this, and also a maddening puzzle, because even if the reader isn’t meant to know the full truth, I always need to, and I need to make sure all angles and avenues are covered. There were times I felt like my own worst enemy when writing my new book, A Room Away from the Wolves! I wanted to shake my narrator, Bina (and to be honest, myself), for being so slippery and getting us into so much danger.

Did you set out to write a ghost story or did you find yourself checking in to Catherine House and being as captivated as the rest of us?

I was literally staying in a “Catherine House” of my own (in a way) when the idea for a ghost story started itching at me. I’d been awarded a writing residency at an artist colony called Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, and I was staying in the “winter mansion” on the property with a group of other artists, there to draft an entirely other book. I woke up one night sure I saw a woman in my room, who disappeared seconds later. And I found myself drawn to the portrait of the colony’s founder above the mantel in the gold-velvet-decorated living room, spending many an afternoon pacing there during “quiet hours” in the house. Months later, safely at home, I realized there was another book I wanted to write next. It was a ghost story, there was a boardinghouse with gold-velvet furniture in it, and it would be called A Room Away from the Wolves. So I guess you could say this ghostly idea took me by surprise!

For all of its Gothic creepiness, the book has a lot to say about parental bonds, betrayal and trust, coming-of-age, and the notion of freedom vs. safety and security. Can you see it as a mother/daughter book group pick?

Oh yes, absolutely. The heart of A Room Away from the Wolves—its anchor—is Bina’s love and longing to reconnect with her mother, after a betrayal that gets Bina kicked out of the house and running off to the place her mother once stayed when she herself was a teenager. The whole story centers around this, and the New York City and Catherine House that Bina comes to know are the ones from her mother’s memories and legacy. I love to think of a mother/daughter book group taking a deep dive into this story, discussing interpretations and character motivations and more.

To your enormous credit, all of your characters (even the ethereal ones) feel fully formed and corporeal even if their backstories are not fully revealed. Is it a leap of faith to leave readers’ inevitable questions unanswered?

I always tell my readers there is no wrong way to interpret my novels, and there are multiple ways the story can be understood and seen. Same with some of the most enigmatic characters. A Room Away from the Wolves has all the seeds there for the collecting, and it’s open to different interpretations, even if I know what I think happens. I wanted to give just enough closure so that some parts of the story are satisfied, but more are left for imagining beyond the confines of the last page of the book. It’s a leap of faith, each time, to write a story that’s not tied up in a neat bow, but there are always the readers who take off running with you, who make the story passionately, personally their own and come up with the most brilliant interpretations. This book is for them.

Who were your favorite writers when you were a teen? What books or media are you currently enjoying?

When I was a teen, I devoured everything on my mother’s bookshelf—she is an even more voracious reader than I am! That’s how I discovered Margaret Atwood when I was 12 years old, which was like a bright light bulb blazing on above my head. I also read anything and everything in the house (fromThe Gate to Women’s Country and The Clan of the Cave Bear to my stepfather’s collection of alien abduction memoirs). But my own favorite writer during high school was the poet Anne Sexton. I had her poems underlined and annotated and often hanging on the walls of my bedroom. Then, thanks to my AP English teacher, I discovered the writer that tore me open and blew my mind: Toni Morrison. It began with Beloved, and then every novel before or since. Now I’ll tell you what’s on my own bookshelf, since I’m too far away from my mother to steal from her book pile: Some upcoming YA novels includingHearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith, We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia, Here to Stay by Sara Farizan, and Damsel by Elana K. Arnold. The writers surrounding me continue to awe and amaze me, just like that first day I discovered YA.

Can you give us any hints about what your next project might be?

My next novel with Algonquin is still a highly guarded secret. (I may be the only one guarding it, but still!) I’d love to tell you about another project that’s about publishing other writers, something I’m really excited about. My cocreator Emily X.R. Pan (author of The Astonishing Color of After) and I are launching a new online venue to publish YA short stories , and it’s called FORESHADOW: A Serial YA Anthology. Our debut to the world, Issue Zero, is now available, featuring stories by Dhonielle Clayton, Samantha Mabry, and a brand-new writer and new voice selected by Nicola Yoon: Nora Elghazzawi. Our mission is to showcase marginalized writers and highlight emerging voices, and to offer this for free for everyone to read online. We’ll be publishing three new YA short stories a month for all of 2019

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