This month is rich with wonderful book launches! It's my pleasure to introduce Susan Fine and her debut novel, INITIATION. (I was delighted to learn that Susan had co-authored ZEN IN THE ART OF THE SAT. Her book was one reason my son had what he needed to score well on the SAT this past year!)
Congratulations on the publication of your novel, INITIATION. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?
It's a coming of age story set in an all-boys school in New York City. The novel covers the freshman year experience of Mauricio Londoño, the main character and narrator. Mauricio pretty much struggles all year, not only because of the huge academic demands but also because of the social dynamics he encounters. Throughout the year he feels like an uninvited guest at his new school, although he's simultaneously attracted to the world of some of his seemingly precocious peers. There's a cruel digital scheme that sweeps through the school, and, as you would guess, Mauricio is one of its victims. A friend recently said that she found the novel very "dark." It's definitely for high school aged kids (and beyond).
I was interested in exploring the world of adolescent boys and also wanted to look at the role digital tools plays in kids' lives. There are so many stories these days about trouble for kids on Facebook and MySpace (and now there's also the whole sexting phenomenon, which wasn't as visible when I was writing INITIATION as it's become in recent months). I don't think cyberspace trouble is so much the stuff we had originally been fearful of (e.g. stalkers and the like) but rather cyberbullying and kids' making bad decisions about what they post -- or the images they are sending to each other on cell phones! The novel reveals pretty starkly how wrong some of these things can go.
How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or is this your first effort?
I wrote a nonfiction book for young adults, ZEN IN THE ART OF THE SAT, which came out in 2005. I've also written a chapter book for 7-9 year olds, but it's still in search of a home. I've been writing for children for about five years, but I did a lot of fiction and essay writing before that.
Can you describe your path to the publication of INITIATION? Do you have a writing mentor or critique group?
I started writing INITIATION in the fall of 2006. Originally I didn't think of it as a young adult novel, but I realized along the way that's what it was. I had the first draft done in about six months, but then a lot more work set in! I rewrote and revised the manuscript a lot before my agent, Laura Dail, started working tirelessly to find a home for it. The acquisitions editor at Flux, Andrew Karre, who bought the book also provided excellent suggestions for improving the novel and became a big inspiration for me with fantastic suggestions about various YA books to read and think about.
When I was drafting and revising INITIATION, I got great support from my agent with the manuscript. I also have an amazing friend, who used to teach English with me, who provided endlessly helpful feedback.
Along the way, I read the whole thing out loud to my husband, who patiently listened and offered many suggestions. So while I don't have an official writing mentor or a critique group (although I would like to have both!), I got a lot of help from other people. During the fall when I was first drafting the novel, I took a class at The Writers' Loft. The teacher there, Jerry Cleaver, and his book, IMMEDIATE FICTION, were very helpful, especially because Jerry has a clear and specific way of explaining how a story works. During college I took two fiction classes with Jim Shepard, and I learned a lot from him. He gave meticulous feedback! I wish I were still in his workshops now!
Do you have any advice for beginning writers?
For me, being an English teacher was an incredible education about so many things! Teaching English led me to read, read, and read some more AND to think about how authors put together sentences, paragraphs, stories, and novels. Of course, being a student of literature does this, too, but when you're in charge of teaching others about language, you discover more -- I've found. Careful thinking about language is invaluable for anyone who wants to write. I also believe that you do need to understand language grammatically -- know the rules and then consciously break them. The other big thing to emphasize is the kind of commitment and tolerance writing requires. It's very hard to endure the awful drafts that
Can you tell us something about your personal life – inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?
I said to a friend the other day that I need to define more clearly my professional mission! I was an English teacher for 16 years to 5th-12th graders, and there are days when I miss the students and the school community and the work of teaching English very much; however, I don't miss grading papers late at night and on weekends! I'd like to do some teaching -- perhaps in a community with fewer resources than the ones where I did my previous teaching -- but I want to continue writing, too. I also want to be active in the world of writers and recently joined the SCBWI. I am hoping to attend some of their conferences this year and look forward to that. I loved professional development and conferences when I taught and deeply appreciate learning new things, having mentors, and participating in lively discussions with people in my profession. I do have two little boys who figure largely in all of my plans. I'm also thinking that I'm in need of and ready for a new athletic challenge. I did a couple of marathons a number of years ago, and my mind and my body are telling me that I need another big athletic goal. My second son is heading to a full-time school program soon, so that's also part of my thinking about the future and what's next and how best to shape and schedule the various parts of my life.
Do you have any new writing ventures underway?
Yep! I'm about halfway through a second YA novel and hope to have a manuscript done this summer.
Do you have a website where readers can learn more about INITIATION?