Optimists Die First's Susin Nielsen: 'All young people feel like they don't fit'
Optimists Die First author Susin Nielsen tells Alex Strick how she crawls inside her characters' heads - and why we can all relate to people who feel like they don't fit.
Can you tell us how the idea for Optimists Die First came about?
Oddly, the first image that came to me was a girl sitting in a nubby-fabric chair in the principal's office, a chair she'd sat in so many times she felt it was grooved to fit the contours of her bum. And it grew from there.
Your characters are always very individual or distinctive and convincingly flawed - how do you succeed in creating such fully-dimensional personalities?
I think one of the things that helps me do this is my choice to write in the first person. It really means I can crawl into a character's skin, and head, and innermost thoughts.
Where did the key characters in Optimists Die First come from? How did they come to you?
Boy, this is a hard question! I knew I wanted to try my hand at a first-love story, but in a very Nielsen way - no mushiness, no roses, no sparkly vampires. Petula was always the lead; it was always going to be from a female point of view. Jacob took a little more time, although I always knew what he looked like, and I knew he'd have a carbon fibre arm. The members of YART were sheer fun - I always love developing my secondary characters. I like to have convincing adults in my books - real people with their own struggles.
How would you say your background in television, working on shows like Degrassi, affects the way you write novels?
I think my TV background has been quite useful, with a few translatable skills. I know how to write snappy dialogue and I like to think the TV writing has really helped me with pacing, writing good chapter endings, and recognizing flab and being able to cut it out. TV writing taught me not to be too precious about my writing, too. You develop a thick skin when you write for TV, and I think that helps me absorb notes from my editors. I can 'kill my darlings', as I believe William Faulkner said!
How did you go about ensuring Petula's obsessive behaviour rang true? Do you have any experience of conditions such as OCD?
I don't have OCD, although I know people who have that diagnosis. I've had my fair share of irrational fears and worries over the years. I have a number of people read my manuscripts, but generally speaking I just try to put myself in my character's shoes. Petula winds up being my guide and compass in a way, as I try to figure out how she, not anyone else, would react in any given situation.
What are the challenges involved in depicting mental health-related conditions like this?
For me, the entire process of writing a novel - and particularly this novel, for some reason - is a challenge. So I'm not sure writing about mental health-related conditions was any more or less challenging than the rest of it, if that makes sense. I try to never make my books be 'about' an issue, but about the people I'm portraying. I think every single person's experience with mental health is so personal and unique - I am only portraying one person's journey (or a handful if we include all the YART members and Petula's parents). I hope that what shines through is my utmost love and compassion for Petula.
What about Jacob's prosthetic arm? How did that come about, and how did you research it?
It's strange, but I always knew Jacob was going to have a carbon fibre arm. I'm trying to remember if I even knew the reason behind the arm right away… I think I probably did! I did a lot of online research, and my husband is an engineering professor with a spin-off company - the company's area of expertise is carbon fibres, so I went over everything with him and had him vet all of that stuff.
Diversity, bullying, dysfunctional families, and generally feeling 'different' are all familiar features of Susin Nielsen books. Would you agree that, rather than being about a minority, these are elements to which actually the majority of young people can relate?
Absolutely. I think all young people - and most of us adults - feel different or outside or like we don't fit, either all the time or some of the time.
Can you tell us anything about what we can hope to see from you next?
I just got my editors' notes on my next manuscript, in fact! The working title is No Fixed Address.