Susin Nielsen is the YA Queen behind ‘We Are All Made of Molecules’, ‘Word Nerd’ and now ‘Optimists Die First‘ and it might be our favourite yet.
Petula has been consumed with anxiety since the accidental death of her little sister, Maxine. She blames herself. Now Petula sees the potential for disaster in everything and her anxiety is getting out of control. Enter art therapy class. Here she meets Jacob, an amputee with secrets to rival her own. When they’re paired together for a class project, she can’t help but start to like him.
We chatted to Susin about all things pessimism and writing.
Describe ‘Optimists Die First’ in emojis.
You’ve written for TV as well as books. How different are script-writing and novel writing? Writing for TV is very structured, with a lot of steps (springboards, beat sheets, outlines) before you get to write a draft. And of course you’re often writing for someone else’s world, and there are more cooks in the kitchen, in terms of producers and network executives. You tend to work with a room full of smart, funny writers, breaking story, so it isn’t all on one writer’s back alone. Writing books is much more solitary, which has its pluses and minuses. I love that I can just start writing, and see where the story takes me. And my editors are helping me achieve my vision, instead of trying to impose their own, which often happens in TV. I think TV writing helped make me a better novel writer; I learned a lot about pacing, and dialogue, and those skills translate well into the novels.
Can you tell us how you came to be a writer on ‘Degrassi’? I was writing all the time, had been since I was young. I’d graduated from Radio and TV Arts at Ryerson in Toronto and was trying to find work in film. I’d also been trying, unsuccessfully, to write screenplays. A friend told me about a new show that was hiring, Degrassi Junior High. They hired me to do craft services, which meant feeding the cast and crew muffins, sandwiches, etc. I loved working on the show, and between first and second season I wrote a “spec” script for them; the head writer read it, didn’t like it, but saw a spark in my writing and gave me a shot at writing an episode. I was really lucky – it was my lucky break. I was only 23. I went on to write 16 episodes over the next 4 or 5 seasons.
Is there a TV show running at the moment that you’d love to write? Probably ‘Orange is the New Black’. I love all of the diverse female characters and the blend of drama and comedy. I also love ‘Veep’ but I don’t think I’d be sharply funny enough! If you’d asked me a few years ago I’d have said ‘Breaking Bad’.
Jacob in ‘Optimists Die First’ is a big movie buff. Do you have that one movie you’d happily watch on repeat? Why? I watch ‘West Side Story’ on my own once a year (I have the deluxe DVD!) and just sing along and enjoy the dancing and have a good cry. I think it’s because I saw it first when I was only about 11, and I could not believe Tony died in the end. It was my first experience with an unhappy ending. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we watch ‘Elf’ every Christmas, and every Christmas it makes me laugh out loud.
Did you ever catch some of Petula’s paranoia while researching the ridiculous deaths she keeps track of? No, not really … but I probably went into it already paranoid about certain things. I don’t like walking past construction sites (I do, but I don’t like it). I get nervous when I see an unattended backpack. All of the freak accidents in the book are loosely based on things I read about. So to be fair to Petula, she’s not entirely wrong to be paranoid!
Are you a crazy cat lady like Petula’s mum? (We totally are.) Definitely! I’ve told my husband that if he wasn’t around, I’d probably have far more cats than we have now. I would become a “foster mom” like Virginia. We have two right now, and that is my husband’s absolute limit.
Please can you send us a snap of where you write? We’d love to see where the magic happens!