Courtney Summers and Nova Ren Suma on Telling the Stories of the Girls Who Haunt Us

Any year Nova Ren Suma or Courtney Summers delivers a new book is bound to be a banner year for YA, and this year things have lined up so gorgeously we get both of their trademark haunting styles, powerful and nuanced female main characters, and righteous-anger-inspiring narratives not just in the same year but on the same day. What better way to celebrate this momentous day, marked off with black hearts on our calendar, than to have them chat about their booksSuma’s A Room Away From the Wolves and Summers’ Sadieand the girls who drive them? And to that end, there was one way I had to kick off the conversation:

Dahlia: The biggest reason I love the idea of pairing you two up is that you both write about girls who’ve been forgotten, overlooked, and/or effectively silenced. Which makes me wonder: where do you pull your voices, your volume, from? What incites both your ability and your desire to channel the stories of these quieted girls so well?

Nova: I love this pairing, too! It’s a thrill to have this conversation with Courtney, who I’ve known from way back before we started publishing novels.

Courtney: I’m excited because this means I can ask you questions I’ve always wanted to ask. When you’re friends with one of your favorite authors, you try to keep the fangirl in check, but now I’m totally required not to.

Nova: I feel just the same about you, Courtney. And I suspect we were always writing the girls Dahlia speaks of, even if no one was listening in the beginning. These are the characters that haunt us and drive us forward, these overlooked and often aching and angry girls. I think I’m able to channel characters like this because I was the quiet one in the corner you’d maybe never guess was vibrating with things to say, who let herself get pushed down, used, ignored. I know I was overlooked. I relate with the misfit, maybe because I’m trying to understand her, and all of us. Or I’m avenging old wrongs. Who knows.

Courtney: My reason touches on something Nova put so beautifully—“I was the quiet one in the corner you’d maybe never guess was vibrating with things to say.” We underestimate teen girls so much, take for granted the complexity of emotions bubbling under their surface. I love being able to explore that, to make it visible in my work.

Nova, my first question is extremely evil: Describe A Room Away from the Wolves in one sentence and tell us what inspired the novel.

Nova: I can’t believe you’re forcing me to do an elevator pitch in front of all these people, Courtney! I thought we were friends!

Courtney: I’m sorry! You know the world loves a good elevator pitch!

Nova: Okay, okay, A Room Away from the Wolves is a ghost story about a broken girl who runs away to the city from her mother’s stories and ends up in a refuge for troubled girls where the choice to stay or go may be entirely out of her hands. (That was a long sentence.) You’d think my inspiration would be creepy ghost stuff, huh? It goes deeper. I’m thinking about Bina, my narrator, drunkenly running through the woods, chased by a pack of girls. I think of her mother kicking her out of the house. Is there ever a point when you’ve made too many mistakes? When you’re just…rotten and not worthy? Never. There is a line in the book that speaks to this: “There were places a girl could go, and disappear another way, and keep on living.” I wanted to write about such a disappearance and such a place.

Courtney, you know I’m obsessed with stories of missing girls. I wrote a whole book about them (17 & Gone). So much of what you write is expressing the voices of those forgotten, overlooked girls. But here in Sadie, you also flip this. You show so powerfully how strangers view the disappeared girl. So first, you owe me an elevator pitch. But also, what made you decide to show other points of view through the adult voices in the podcast?

Courtney: I should have seen that coming. Sadie is a book about a girl, Sadie, who disappears while on the hunt for her little sister’s murderer and the popular radio personality who starts a Serial-like podcast dedicated to finding out what happened to her. I’d been thinking a lot about true crime (which I’m a fan of), how we consume acts of violence against girls as a form of entertainment, what that might say about us as an audience and what the personal cost of choosing to tell these stories might be. When I realized the podcast gave me the perfect opportunity to explore all of that, I had to write it. More than that, it allowed an invisible third perspective—that of the audience. It’s easy for us to passively observe the pain and suffering in someone’s world, whether in fiction or in life, and I hope this makes readers consider their own role in a story like Sadie’s. Because we all play one.

You’ve explored complicated female relationships in your previous releases, from tight sisterly bonds to intense group dynamics. A Room Away from the Wolves features the mother/daughter bond. I was moved to tears by the way Bina almost seems to pine for her mother and how much that informs her decisions. You never shy from the complexity of these relationships—these fragile and fiery push-and-pulls. Why are they important to you?

NOVA: I hear sometimes that my books are lacking in love stories—and that may be true about romance, but there is always a love story at the center of my work. In A Room Away from the Wolves, the anchor of the book is the love between a daughter and her mother, and how it’s tangled and threatened and could be lost forever. That was the center of my own life as a teenager, and I was trying to express it. I found myself deeply moved by the center of your own book, Sadie. Could you tell us what you see as the heart of the story?

Courtney: The heart of Sadie is the unconditional love between two sisters; I almost view the book as an aftermath of that love. Sadie, who has been neglected by her drug-addicted mother for most of her life, finds her purpose when her baby sister Mattie is born. When Mattie is murdered, Sadie will stop at nothing to avenge her. I love what you said about there always being a love story in your work, regardless of whether or not there’s romance. I think that’s such an important thing to express, especially in YA literature—that there are many different kinds of love stories and they’re all worth being told.

A Room Away from the Wolves vision of New York is beautifully realized, not only showcasing its boldly beating heart, but quiet, secret pockets of it that feel like worlds unto themselves. Can you describe Bina’s relationship with New York, what it represents to her, and your relationship with New York and what it represents to you?

NOVA: I’m responding to your question with some sadness because New York City was the city of my childhood dreams—the place I vowed to one day live… And I did, until this spring. The city in A Room Away from the Wolves is mythical, made of gauzy memory and all the magical thinking a girl could bring to it. That’s Bina’s New York as much as it’s mine. I miss it every day. Maybe this book is my way of saying thank you for everything that cold and gorgeous and terrifying and perfect city gave me, and also, for now, goodbye.

Courtney, last question! I believe that Sadie is your best work yet. I found myself addicted to Sadie, obsessed with every moment, much as a dedicated listener to “The Girls” podcast would be. This plotting is taut, full of shocking, daring moments. Full of honesty and pain. It’s an astounding achievement. Was there anything that surprised you about the writing process of this book, or any tips you could offer for those of us who want to reach that deep in our own work?

Courtney: I was surprised by how willing I was to follow Sadie wherever it wanted to take me. I usually struggle with that—I let the idea bend the heart of the novel, and realize (too late) that I should have done just the opposite: bent the idea to its heart. I caught on quickly this time around, for whatever reason. I hope I remember it the next time and that’s the tip I’d offer everyone else staring down a blank page.

Nova: We have to cut this to a close, at least publicly. (I’ll email you later.) So I’ll end with this: For the first time ever in the history of our author lives—with more than ten novels between us—Courtney and I share a pub date. Both A Room Away from the Wolves and Sadie come out on September 4. I can’t wait until Sadie is in the hands of every reader. You may spot me in the streets tagging #findsadie on the walls! It’s an honor to share this day with you, Courtney.

Courtney: Nova and I have shared such similar publishing timelines over the last decade, and I can’t imagine what it would have been like navigating any of it without her friendship. She continually blows me away with how beautifully constructed her novels are. It would be impossible for me to pick a favorite but let me tell you: A Room Away from the Wolves possesses a wonderful, unlike-anything-else-you’ve-read kind brilliance and I can’t wait to see it take readers by storm. Happy pub day, Nova. And ditto.

A Room Away From the Wolves and Sadie are both on sale now.

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