Please Welcome Nova Ren Suma to the Ball

Nova Ren Suma wrote the middle-grade novel Dani Noir, which came out from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin in 2009 and will be out in paperback this fall, and the upcoming YA novel Imaginary Girls, which is due out from Dutton in Summer 2011. She blogs about writing at And Deb Joelle adores both Nova and her writing, so check out Dani Noir! Thanks for joining us, Nova.

On Fathers and Writing What’s Difficult

I’m excited to be a guest here at the Debutante Ball—thank you for having me! My debut middle-grade novel, Dani Noir, came out this past fall, and my debut YA novel, Imaginary Girls, will be out in 2011, so I often feel like a lucky author with two entirely different debuts. And here you’ve caught me sitting smack between them!

When I agreed to be a guest poster here and saw the topic of “Fathers,” my immediate reaction was that I couldn’t write about that, no way, no how. But sometimes the things you shy away from happen to be the things where you have something to say.

The truth is, I have a conflicted history with my father, and we haven’t spoken in years. I was raised more by my stepfather, but we, too, have a conflicted history and are no longer in touch. So how do these damaged relationships make their way into my writing and color my characters? How can I write a realistic father who is something else entirely from the ones I’ve known? I’ll admit that it can be a hurdle. And I don’t know if I succeed. But it’s something I strive for every time.

I reached a difficult place while writing Dani Noir. In the story, my narrator Dani’s dad has done something unforgivable—cheat on her mom and lie about it. And while this is in no way autobiographical, I think maybe my own experiences growing up came through in the story and peeked out in my narrator’s view of her dad. My struggle as a writer came especially at the end of the book, when I was facing the resolution. I couldn’t leave Dani hating her dad, even after all he did to make her so angry; I knew I needed to show a more positive ending, leave the door open for healing between them, especially since this was a middle-grade novel. And yet I couldn’t just tie everything up and have it be all happy-go-lucky “I love you, Dad!” / “I love you, Dani!” either—my hands refused to write that ending. If you’ve read the book, you know that the final note between Dani and her father isn’t fully tied together with a bow—I won’t say anything more in case you haven’t read the book yet and are planning to. I’ve heard from some readers that they found this ending to be realistic and they appreciated that. I’ve heard that others wanted it to be more resolved. To me, it did feel realistic, and it felt far more positive than I expected. In fact, the scenes between Dani and her dad were the hardest ones for me to write in the entire novel.

The dynamic between fathers and teenage girls is something I still haven’t worked through in my fiction. In my next novel, Imaginary Girls, there are fathers—but they’re obstacles in the story and stay on the periphery. Will I ever have a story with a kind, loving, physically-in-the-picture father who’s not a caricature but a real, fully developed guy? Yes, I sure hope so, when the story calls for it. Because not every character is me. And I may be the writer, and these hands may be doing the writing, but I hope my characters and their stories trump my own experience every time.

How about you? How do you keep your own personal dramas from revealing themselves on the page? Does it ever seep through—even when you aren’t consciously aware? Or are you always able to keep up the dividing wall between fiction and real life?

How do you write what’s difficult?

9 Replies to “Please Welcome Nova Ren Suma to the Ball”

  1. Hi Nova! Congrats on Imaginary Girls and Dani Noir. I’m eager to check out your books after this thought provoking post. I suppose for me, when writing what’s difficult, I try to remind myself to put the characters first. My own personal issues might fuel or inspire the story, but they can’t direct it. That has to be up to the characters, and as a writer, I serve my characters. Thanks for stopping by the Ball!

  2. Nova, just by reading this post I know I love your voice. It’s honest and that’s what I love. I have my own teenage daughter. Last night someone wrapped Saran wrap around my car. They didn’t damage it and I know somehow it has to do with my daughter – but I can see the humor in it (I think).

    The amazing writer, James Lee Burke, gave me some great advice about raising daughters. He said I will never win an argument with her and I shouldn’t say something I’ll later regret. I think of his words everyday!

    As far as working through problems I have lost a lot of sleep over them. But they work themselves out over time. Like Alicia, my characters show me the way.

    Thanks Nova, I enjoyed reading your words and writing my own. I’ll look out for your books. I teach 9th grade English and my readers are reluctant.

  3. Gosh, Dani…that last question caught me off guard! How do I write what’s difficult…lol…I think I avoid it. There are a couple of subjects I could tackle but then I can _feel_ the fear bubble up and nothing gets written.

    _Loved_ your post! Thought provoking to say the least.

    Congratulations on both of your books!!

  4. Thank you for this honest and insightful post. I think bits and pieces of my experiences get filtered onto the page, but during the writing process, they’re transformed and mixed up into very different scenes. But hopefully the emotions ring true.
    Thanks for guest blogging today!

  5. Thank you for the wise comments and advice, and thank you to Joëlle and the rest of the Debs for having me as a guest! Writing this post has given me some ideas for my story, and we all know how wonderful a surprise that is… 🙂

  6. Such a critical question: it’s the difficult thing that we writers MUST write! Now, my father has been IN my life ALL my life to the nth degree. He had an absentee father, and so he decided that he would be an INVOLVED father–and he took this resolution literally, becoming involved in every single minutiae in my life, and becoming so overprotective and controlling that it became oppressive and questionably abusive. And he is the thing that is difficult to write. And I made a vow that I would him over and over. (He is so much of the novel I’m working on). HOW I do it is by crying and banging my head on the wall, btw.

    But the side effect of this struggle: peace and understanding with my father.

  7. I think the more realistic endings can be the most inspiring ones, because there is genuine possibility there. If you push for too happy an ending after real suffering, it doesn’t feel really true. Kudos to you for what sounds like a genuinely inspiring book.

    And I love the title “Imaginary Girls”…

  8. Nova, this is a beautiful, thought-provoking post. Thank you!
    I struggle with this in my writing too. It’s funny, writing about the bad relationships is hard, but even harder is trying to depict anything other than those bad relationships (as you said, for example, writing a GOOD dad would be hard). But I think there’s something healthy in writing relationships that have caused me difficulty personally. It helps me to see them better, to see the world through others’ eyes, and in the end to find some hope, even if there is no joyful resolution.

  9. Hi. I have a difficult relationship with my dad and I find it hard because it is unresolved, I still see him when I visit my family and it still hurts.

    In my first novel (at first draft stage) my main character has a difficult relationship with her dad too. I don’t think it was a bad thing to do, and I wrote out a lot of stuff that I think I needed to get off my chest. But now that I’m re-writing, I’m changing it. I need to give my characters more than my life – it doesn’t mean that they will suddenly be all lovey dovey – but maybe their relationship will be broken in a different way from mine.

    I feel I need to draw a dividing line because in my first draft I moved from things which actually happened, to things which didn’t and I don’t want people to think both types of thing were based on my dad. It isn’t fair on him or the rest of the family.

    That said I think you are right not to wrap things up neatly. Your real readers may have similar problems, and whilst you want to give them hope, you don’t want to give them a lie (that broken father/daughter relationships are easily fixed) that will invalidate their own experiences. They will think you are sugar-coating things, or worse, make them feel like its their own fault that they can’t fix it.

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