Susan Juby on Story, Dandelion Seed Puffs, and Wreckage
By Anita Daher
Susan Juby writes books that resonate and make us smile. Whether she is writing for teens, or for adults, she wrangles words into stories that connect reader to character.
Juby was raised in Smithers, BC, studied fashion for a while in Toronto, then English lit, finishing her degree back in BC, where she also received her master’s degree in publishing. Her first novel, Alice, I Think, was made into a television series. It, and the nine books that followed (including her memoir, Nice Recovery) have been widely celebrated, and for good reason. If they sprouted legs and walked around, they’d be the sort of folks we want to hang out with. Sure, they’re funny and fun to spend time with, but they also slip in important truths right where we need to hear them.
Her ninth novel, The Truth Commission (Razorbill), follows the journey of Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design student, Normandy, along with friends, Dusk and Neil, as their self appointed “Truth Commission” invites staff and students to unburden themselves by speaking honestly. While her friends discover truth can be liberating, exhilarating, Normandy recognizes that it can also be dangerous. She chronicles the work of the Truth Commission, as well as the spin-off effects on family and friends, in a work of creative non-fiction submitted as her grade eleven Special Spring Project—which is also how we receive her story, complete with footnotes.
In this novel, as in previous works, Juby celebrates the oddball-edness of life and people, and shows us that families are messy, not always perfectly “put-together”— and that’s okay.
On her website she writes: “I always tell people that if one person who is feeling isolated or left out reads my book and laughs and thinks “I’m not alone’ or ‘at least I’m not as bad as the people she writes about,’ then I’ve achieved my goal.”
Juby takes big bites out of life, often gallivanting with her spirited (and extremely photogenic) Australian cattle dog, Rodeo, but slowed down enough recently to answer a few questions.
Does story come to you in a blinding flash of inspiration, or does it come to you in bits, thread by thread, like dandelion seed puffs? How did your latest novel, The Truth Commission find you
Thread by thread. With dandelion seed puffs stuck here and there as I pulled it from the wreckage of another book.
What comes to you first, character or a story idea?
Always a character. Then I usually get an idea for a scene or scenario that is best suited to the character.
How do you find and build your characters?
I get them speaking to one another and they tell me and each other who they are. Dialogue and details about clothing are great sources of insight into the characters. The next most important thing to discover is their cultural leanings.
What is the most fun-to-you quirk you’ve given a character? What quirk of your own amuses you the most?
I’m not sure it qualifies as a quirk since it’s really more of a hobby or art form, but in The Truth Commission one of the characters does small scale taxidermy. That’s extremely au courant in some circles. My quirks are legion but I’d sound even more self-involved if I listed them. I’m a little too self-amused already.
What are your thoughts on toe-socks?
I’m for ‘em. I don’t have any because my toes are extremely codependent and like to be together all the time, but I love to see a good toe sock, especially unexpectedly.
There are great wisdoms in this book, like, “If you rock the boat in a fragile family, the concern is that everyone will drown.” And, “‘Don’t look away,’ I repeated, thinking that would make a good mantra for life.” Do these sorts of wisdoms occur to you before writing and you weave them in, or are they birthed through story?
I suppose they are things I’ve picked up in life but when they show up on the page they always feel revelatory. My characters are always wiser than I am.
If you could hang out with any member of the Breakfast Club who would it be?
John Bender, obvs.
Were there any truths the Truth Commission wanted to uncover that didn’t make it into this story?
So many! There are as many truths to uncover as there are people to cover things up.
Do you find there are certain themes you return to again and again in your writing? Is this deliberate, or do you realize it after the fact?
I try not to be repetitive, but like all authors I have my obsessions. Belonging and identity, art and culture and identity. What and how am I going to be when I grow up. These are the basics.
Is there anyone—besides Normandy, Dusk and Pale—from Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design you would like to spend more time with?
Brian. I’ve made him a minor character in the next novel set in and around Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design.
Anything else you wish I’d asked?
Let’s just say they would involve me discussing how I got so charming, vivacious and in what bank I’d like the cheque deposited.
Another novel set partly in Green Pastures about fashion students. If all goes well it should be out in early 2017.