Suzy Vitello was one semester ahead of me in the MFA program at Antioch University, a member of the illustrious “Mustard” class. (I was a “Jade” incidentally.) From the first time I met her, I knew Suzy to be strong . . . not falsely strong in the way that covered up something but really strong – the kind of person who would bend with the gale force and not break. And this has proven to be true. She is a talented writer and an inspiring person, and I hope you will take as much joy in her words as I do.
1. Tell me about your latest project.
The Moment Before is a novel that begins a month after the death of an 18 year-old girl, amidst all the chaos that overwhelms the family and community following this sudden, rather gruesome accident. Brady, the younger sister and narrator, is lost and feels deeply betrayed, but what she doesn’t realize is that she’s on a journey that will begin to piece her community/family together again in the wake of the tragedy.
The book is chock full of Pacific Northwest references, and I’ve heard it described as a “love story to Portland” – which makes me smile.
The other strong component in the book explores the place of art in society. How a child who doesn’t readily conform to the normative world will often struggle in high school, but once she truly embraces what it means to make art, to be an artist, there is transcendence, grace and wisdom that can connect her with the world in a fully realized way.
The book is slotted as a teen-read, but I’ve gotten feedback from adults who seem to think it speaks to them, which also makes me smile.
(Andi’s note - The Moment Before is available for pre-order here.)
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
Oh, Andi, the world of fiction was everything to me. I wasn’t a voracious reader the way some people are though. I would say I was a voracious daydreamer. Rather than turning pages quickly and wanting more, more, more! I was the sort of reader who would horde each sentence and take it to the caverns of my brain and heart. I would linger on scenes for days. Fiction enveloped me deeply. Language, settings, characters. Harriet the Spy, for instance, sucked me in so completely, I mourned when I finished it. Upon reaching the end of a beloved book, my heart would just break.
I began writing books in my head before I could hold a pencil. The first six years of my life I lived in an international apartment building in Vienna. My neighbors were from Germany, India, the UK. Language, the way people spoke, their accents, all of that informed the scenes I played out in my head. I had this sense of myself as an invisible recorder from a very early age. By the time I was eight, I was writing poems and stories secretly and quietly.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
I am really blessed to have finally carved a life of balance in that regard (it took me 20 years). My kids are mostly grown (except for the 14-yr-old), and my day job is a sort of steady pastiche of copywriting, editing and teaching – all in handle-able doses.
Like everything in my life, my “writing practice” changes day-to-day, week-to-week. First drafts are more immersive. Revision, more of a binge-relax schedule. I’m not big on word count or time-based goals. I’ve discovered that, for me, writing up to and a bit beyond the “aha!” moment, where there is something new I’ve learned, and something new I must wrestle with, is best.
Then, if luck is on my side, I’ll be able to take a hike up the hill or go do a gym session and allow the epiphany to reveal itself as real or fake – something I found can’t be done in the chair, alas.
4. Who are you reading now?
I just finished this fantastic book (out December 31st) Alice Close Your Eyes. Full disclosure, it’s written by a friend of mine. But it is so fantastic! Dark, delicious, sexy.
The stack of books I have on my nightstand (I just received en masse from the library) are all the
YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) recommended titles:
• Andrews, Jesse. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Abrams/Amulet Books, 2012.
• Bray, Libba. The Diviners. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012.
• Hartman, Rachel. Seraphina. Random House/Random House Books for Young Readers, 2012.
• Kontis, Alethea. Enchanted. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Harcourt Children’s Books, 2012.
• Levithan, David. Every Day. Random House/Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2012.
• McCormick, Patricia. Never Fall Down. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, 2012.
• Quick, Matthew. Boy 21. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012.
• Saenz, Benjamin. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Simon & Schuster/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2012.
• Stiefvater, Maggie. The Raven Boys. Scholastic, 2012.
• Wein, Elizabeth. Code Name Verity. Disney/Hyperion, 2012.
I hope to read them all before the end of the year.
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy, as mentioned before. It’s the first book that encouraged my natural tendencies in sneakiness and observation-gathering.
Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose. The epic saga. The metaphor. The landscape. And, of course, the love story.
Joann Beard, The Boys of my Youth. I return to it again and again for craft. It’s such a deftly-
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that
I’m struggling with that. When I start to feel icky (visions of myself as a huckster on a self-made stage saying “Step right up”!), it simply dissolves me. Nothing feeds failure of spirit for me more than when the voice in my head sounds like bullshit. Some writers are better wired to sound like themselves in whatever they do. Their tweets are brave, their facebook posts are genuine. The trouble I have is that I’m a bit of a chameleon, and I’m a pleaser, so I often find myself adopting the voice of commerce when I’m in that platform-building mode.
For me, it’s less a problem of time-management, and more of a deep, existential question. Using words like “giveaway” and “for a limited time” and “rankings” and, even, “platform” make vomit happen in my throat a little bit.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
My office is in a tiny room off of the garage, and I’m there—either writing, or emailing, or working as an editor, or compiling scraps of paper, or rebooting my printer (that seems to go offline every third day), or dreaming up the next character—most of the time. I intersperse writing with moving around. Blood flow is an important part of creativity, I think. Keeps neck, back and headaches at bay.
Other things that occupy me: my chickens and garden. Driving my teen boy around. Watching soccer matches. Occasionally hiking or skiing. Sneaking off to art house movie theaters for matinees. Hanging out with my husband. Touching bases with extended family. Going to friends’ and colleagues’ readings and events.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
I used to think I wanted a comfy, dedicated ADU that you get to via a romantic walk through the woods (Laurie Halse Anderson, I hear, has one of those). But I don’t, anymore. I’m pretty happy with my 9X9 box off of the garage, across from the laundry room. Though I’d like a more ergonomic set up, and a more organized brain so my books and references aren’t the hodge-podge they are currently. It’s really one of those “whatever space you occupy, you’re limited by your natural slovenly tendencies” things.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
It was when I was a journalist in the 90’s. I’d done an article on shit for one of the Better Homes and Gardens spin-offs. It literally was about shit. Organic fertilizer. I’d interviewed all of these farmers and entrepreneurs all over the country (so many of them claimed to be #1 in the #2
business). This was before e-mail was the way to get info. We’re talking the old fashioned land line. Or traveling and interviewing subjects with a cassette recorder. I went to a llama farm and to the zoo (back then the local zoo sold elephant dung to gardeners). Really researched the heck out of it and thought it came out fantastic! I was so proud of it. Then the editor ripped it to shreds. Told me to rewrite it. Which I did. Then only a fraction of it got pubbed. And it did look good. It wasn’t as detailed, but much smoother and easier to navigate.
I learned that gatekeepers and editors are both necessary and smart.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
Stay sacred to the small voice inside you. Coax it, love it. Nurture it. There is so much out there trying to flood it out, carry it down the river. Dilute it.
As a founding member of what the Oregonian has dubbed Portland’s “hottest writing group,” (whose members include Chuck Palahniuk, Chelsea Cain, Lidia Yuknavitch, Monica Drake and Cheryl Strayed), Suzy’s name has graced the acknowledgement pages of many a book. Her own award-winning writing has appeared in various journals and anthologies. THE MOMENT BEFORE, is her debut novel.due out from Diversion Books on January 14th, who is also set to publish her second young adult novel, THE EMPRESS CHRONICLES, in summer of 2014. Suzy lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, Kirk, and son, Carson.