What is your blurb policy?
All blurb requests must go through my agent, Michael Bourret. You can email the request to him at email@example.com and he will get an answer quicker than if you email me directly.
Where did your name come from, and what does it mean?
Yes, Nova Ren Suma is my real name. People often ask what it means or where it came from. My first name, Nova, is said to mean “chases butterflies” in The New Age Baby Name Book where my mom found it, but I’m pretty partial to the galactic definition myself. My middle name, Ren, means “lotus flower” in Japanese. Suma, my last name, is Sicilian. I’m Jewish on my mom’s side, Italian on the other side, and the child of 1960s hippies (obviously, right?). I’m married to the love of my life, but how could I change my name?!
My books should be shelved under S.
Where are you from?
My family moved around when I was a kid. I say I’m from the Hudson Valley, and mostly I am, though not entirely.
I was born at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York State, and I’d always thought that meant I was born on Long Island. But I recently discovered I was actually born on the Queens side of the sprawling medical complex… so I was born in New York City! That was a fun surprise. But you wanted to know where I’m from…
I lived on Long Island when I was a baby. Then I lived for a short time in New Jersey and then moved to the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. Until I was five I lived in Saugerties, New York, where my parents had two enormous gardens and a roadside vegetable stand. When my parents divorced, I moved with my mom and brother to Pennington, New Jersey, where my mom remarried and I gained a beautiful baby sister. I attended Bear Tavern Elementary School through sixth grade. When I was twelve, we moved back to the Hudson Valley and I went to middle school at Rondout Valley Junior High when we lived up a mountain road in Kerhonkson, New York. I spent one year—ninth grade, my most unhappy year—living in Matamoras, Pennsylvania, just across the river from New York state, and then we moved back one last time to the Hudson Valley, this time to Woodstock, New York, where I spent my last three years of high school at Onteora High School. My family moved a few miles away to nearby West Hurley, New York, when I was in college.
So you could say my most formative years were spent in Woodstock when I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen, but I haven’t lived there since.
Don’t you live in New York City?
I moved to New York City for graduate school straight out of college and stayed there for twenty years. For the last sixteen of those years, I lived in a shoebox-size apartment in the Village and wrote my books at cafés in the area and at the Writers Room. (How could I live so long in such a small space? Two words: rent-stabilized.) In 2018, after completing a novel set in downtown Manhattan, quite near where I lived, I let go of my apartment and moved away. It was time. But it was also heartbreaking to leave the place where I’d become an author and an adult.
Where do you live now?
I live in Philadelphia. I moved there to be closer to my sister* and her baby.
* If you’ve read Imaginary Girls, yes, this is the same sister who the book is dedicated to.
WRITING & PUBLISHING
When did you start writing?
I remember a creative writing class in fifth or sixth grade that opened me up to writing stories, and writing poetry all through junior high, but I became serious about becoming a writer when I was in high school. A significant moment for me was when I attended a summer writing workshop at Simon’s Rock College when I was 17. I had to work many months to pay back a family friend’s loan that helped me afford to go, but it was so worth it. That Simon’s Rock summer workshop changed my life—and, in fact, it’s still running. You might look into it if you’re a teenager or know a teenager who loves writing.
Did you study writing in college?
I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I also wanted to be something else, too: a photographer. So I had a self-designed major at Antioch College that combined all the things I loved: journalism, creative writing, and photography. When I got accepted to writing MFA programs while still in college, I decided to focus on studying fiction first and went off to Columbia University. I told myself I’d study photography next, but I never did.
Do you have an agent?
My agent is Michael Bourret at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. I signed with him for my second novel, Imaginary Girls, in 2009. (I didn’t have an agent for my first novel! This is not something I would recommend to any author who wants to traditionally publish.) He’s an outstanding agent, and I recommend him highly, but please do not use my name as a referral unless I’ve offered to refer you. He’ll know if you fake it.
If you want to know how I found him, I saw his name in the acknowledgments of one of my favorite books by one of my favorite YA authors: Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr. I queried him because of that.
Want to query him, too? You’ll surely find glowing mentions of him in my book acknowledgments… And here is his current Manuscript Wish List.
Did working in book publishing help you get published?
Yes and no. I worked for years in book publishing—mostly as a copy editor or production editor—and my most recent day job was as a senior production editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books. I left this job in the fall of 2009.
Yes, it helped because I made contacts in children’s publishing that I would not have had without my day jobs. And these contacts led me into writing work-for-hire projects and ghostwriting, which taught me a lot and helped me publish my first book under my real name.
At the same time, no, working in book publishing as a copy editor did not help me get published. It was a non-creative job, and most of my contact with editors was in this capacity. I tried to keep my writing and my work separate (for a long time, I even kept the fact that I was a writer a secret), and I always made the books I worked on a priority while I was at the office.
Getting a day job in book publishing isn’t the way to get a book published. Writing a good book is.
Did you get your MFA in writing for young adults?
When I applied for MFA programs, not only was I completely unaware of YA-specific writing programs, I didn’t realize I even wanted to write YA at the time. I got my MFA in fiction from Columbia University, and the program focused solely on literary fiction for adults. When I was a student, there were no classes in writing for young adults even available. It just didn’t come up. If I’d waited to get my MFA, or could get a second one, I might choose a program where I could focus on writing YA. I used to wish I’d gone to Vermont College of Fine Arts for an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults… so I did the next best thing: I joined the faculty.
Do you think I need an MFA to publish a novel?
Absolutely not. Especially to publish a YA or middle-grade novel—and this is not because YA or middle-grade novels are lesser or easier to write (it makes me angry when people assume this!), but because there are simply fewer MFA programs for writing for children, so having an MFA is not as common as it is in adult literary fiction circles and hasn’t become such an accepted stepping stone toward publication.
You should get an MFA if you want to—you should do it for you and your craft. It is not a necessity, but it can be a wonderful way to focus on craft and elevate your skills as a writer and knowledge of your field to new levels, if it’s something you passionately want to commit to for two years. Having an MFA will also allow you more opportunities to teach, if that’s something you’re interested in pursuing. It can be a life-changing experience, if you are ready to commit yourself to it fully.
How do I know if my novel is a YA novel?
I see YA as a perspective. So, are you writing from that perspective?
Is your main character a teenager? Is the story being told from the moment of being a teenager and not looking back from a nostalgic distance? If you can answer yes to those questions, it’s quite possible you’ve written a YA novel. But, still. There is no hard-and-fast rule for what is YA and what isn’t YA. Novels from the teenage perspective are often published in the adult market. The lines are often blurred and it can come down to a choice made by you, your agent, or your publisher.
Want to know how I decided? I read YA novels. Lots and lots of them. I devoured books and fell in love with YA and I actively decided that YA was what I wanted to write and publish for the stories I was writing at the time. When I decide to write a novel with an older protagonist—when I think I need that long lens of distance in order to best tell the story—I will write an adult novel again.
What made you decide to write for young adults?
I always assumed I’d write novels for adults. My first two (unpublished) novels are both literary fiction for adults. I started writing work-for-hire books for children and tweens on the side simply to pay my bills. But then everything changed when I discovered an author who opened my mind to the possibilities of YA. That author was Laura Kasischke (Boy Heaven; Feathered), and here’s a blog I wrote about that moment.
Do you get to pick the covers on your books?
No. Most authors who are traditionally published by trade houses do not get to pick their covers. The publisher has a design team who does just that, coordinating with editorial and sales and marketing. I’m often shown the cover for feedback, but I don’t choose the image or design.
Will you tell me what books you ghostwrote?
Of course not.
I would like to take a writing class from you. Where are you teaching?
I teach writing for young adults in multiple capacities. In January 2016, I joined the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts as visiting faculty, and I became core faculty of the program in January 2018. I joined the faculty of the creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 2019 and teach a course on Writing for Young Adults in the fall semester.
However, you don’t have to be a student in one of these programs to work with me on your writing.
Visit my Workshops page for listings of upcoming workshops and retreats.
And take a look at my Mentoring page for opportunities to work with me privately on your manuscript from anywhere in the world.
For testimonials from writers who have worked with me before, please see the Testimonials page.
If you would like to book me to lead a writing workshop or present at your conference, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you take private students or do manuscript critiques?
I have in the past, but I am currently not taking on any new clients while I focus on teaching and a book deadline. Please see my Mentoring page for details.
Do you teach online?
I don’t have any online class coming up, but keep an eye on the Workshops page in case this changes.
Is Imaginary Girls your first novel?
Imaginary Girls is my debut YA novel, but it’s not my first novel. My first published novel—not including work-for-hire novels I ghostwrote—was a middle-grade novel called Dani Noir, which was later reissued for the YA shelves under the title Fade Out.
I actually started writing the book that would become Imaginary Girls before I even started Dani Noir. I put it aside to fulfill my Simon & Schuster contract… so even though I started it first, it ended up getting published after.
I also wrote two adult novels that I did not end up getting published before I started Imaginary Girls.
I’ve read one of your books and I’d like to know if my interpretation is right. Will you tell me?
So you won’t tell me what happens at the end of The Walls Around Us?
What do you think happens?
There’s your answer.
Will you tell me what is real and actually happening in A Room Away from the Wolves?
Again, I say… What do you think happens? I know what I think happened to Bina and what’s “real” and what’s a fantasy, but I love knowing that the book can be seen and interpreted in numerous ways. It comes alive even more thanks to that.
But I do promise… if you want to know what I see, the clues are all there. I left you breadcrumbs.
Wait. Really? Not even a hint? I need everything explained to me or I will tear my hair out!
I like my books to be open to your interpretations, and I will never say that an interpretation is wrong.
I have answered questions from readers in the past, and it felt uncomfortable to me. So I have stopped answering. Thank you so much for having strong feelings and ideas about my books. That’s the most incredible thing in the world to me! I hope you’ll respect that I don’t want to be cornered at a party or a book conference with questions about my plot like a pop quiz I can’t run from (yes, this has happened).
Please, embrace the ambiguity.
And, seriously, don’t tear out your hair.
I live in the Hudson Valley and recognize the town and the reservoir you wrote about in Imaginary Girls. Why did you never name them in the novel?
The town found in Imaginary Girls is most certainly inspired by Woodstock, New York, the town where I lived and hung out with my friends when I was a teenager.
However, this was a town where I haven’t lived for many years. So the place was inspired by the town of my memories. I wrote the town as I remembered it, distorted and reimagined to suit the story, and so much of it isn’t necessarily true to local maps and actual reality. As I wrote, the place began to take on a magic all its own. And there seemed to be even more magic in leaving the town unnamed, and the reservoir too (which was based on the Ashokan Reservoir), though I know many people will see the truth in it. I love when real things twist and turn into something new in fiction.
Also, I find that people not from the area have preconceived notions about “Woodstock” and that’s not what Imaginary Girls was about. It was important to me to leave that out of the story. Maybe I’ll write about Woodstock in another way, in a different story one day.
Is the drowned town of Olive in Imaginary Girls based on a real place?
There really was a town called Olive in the area and you can read a little about its true history on this Wikipedia page.
Much of what is in Imaginary Girls is fictionalized and changed to fit the story, but it was inspired from real facts. For some history about the Ashokan Reservoir and the towns that were demolished to build it I’d recommend the book The Last of the Handmade Dams: The Story of the Ashokan Reservoir by local historian and author Bob Steuding.
Is Fade Out (published in 2012) actually your first novel, Dani Noir, in paperback and under a new name?
Yes! My middle-grade novel Dani Noir (originally published by Simon & Schuster/Aladdin in 2009) was lucky enough to get a second chance at life on the YA shelves in the summer of 2012. Simon Pulse—a YA imprint at Simon & Schuster—published the book in paperback under the new title Fade Out. It is a clean YA story appropriate for readers grades 7 and up. And there have been small updates made to the story, too… so it’s a little different from Dani Noir.
In order to distinguish the YA paperback release from the hardcover tween release, my publisher wanted to give it a new title and cover. But Dani Noir and Fade Out are effectively the same book.
Is Catherine House in A Room Away from the Wolves based on a real place?
There are two real-life inspirations for Catherine House. The first was a house where I stayed while a resident at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. I have been lucky enough to be a resident at Yaddo twice, in 2010 and 2014. I blogged about my experience in 2010 here and here and here and here. And in my newsletter I wrote about how my 2014 residency compelled me to write A Room Away from the Wolves here. The founder of Yaddo was named Katrina, not Catherine, but a painted portrait of her could be found over the fireplace in the house where I spent both of my residencies.
However, if you walk the weaving streets near where Waverly Place crosses Waverly Place, you won’t find the street where I set the fictionalized Catherine House. I invented an imaginary block in that area of the West Village where I used to wander around, visiting Three Lives and stopping to jot down ideas and getting lost somehow again and again, even though I lived nearby for sixteen years.
Do all of your novels take place in New York State?
Yes, so far.
Imaginary Girls takes place in Woodstock, New York, and the surrounding area and features the Ashokan Reservoir, though these places are left unnamed.
17 & Gone takes place in a town I modeled on Rhinecliff, New York, though I renamed it in the novel.
The Walls Around Us takes place in Saratoga Springs, New York, and in a fictional girls’ prison.
And A Room Away from the Wolves begins in Saugerties, New York, and travels to downtown Manhattan.
The YA novel I’m writing now is set in a hidden place deep in the Catskill Mountains.
But an adult novel I’m working on is set somewhere new… where I live now: Philadelphia!
That’s all I’ll say for now.
When does your next book come out?
I have two more novels under contract with Algonquin. I’m working on the first of these as we speak, and I hope it will come out in 2022.
…do an interview with me or write a guest post for my blog?
I am taking a break from blog interviews and guest posts right now, but thank you for thinking of me.
…send me your latest book to review?
No. My publisher sends out review copies. Please contact them instead.
…sign my book?
It’s become too complicated to have books with self-addressed stamped envelopes sent to my PO box—mainly because I hate waiting in line at the post office!—so please don’t send me books to sign and send back. If you want to get your book signed in person, check my appearances page for upcoming events.
…send me a signed bookplate?
I don’t have any more bookplates, sorry! I’ll make some more when my next book comes out.
…be going on book tour to my city?
You can check my Appearances page updated with any new events. However, I don’t enjoy public appearances, so I am hoping to take a break from events until my next book comes out.
…visit my school or library?
I am unable to do school or library visits at the moment due to my teaching schedule and book deadlines.
…Skype or chat with my class or writing/reading group?
I need to focus on my book deadlines and teaching right now, so I am sorry, but I cannot do Skype visits.
Hey, are you really shy or something?
Yes, you caught me. Events are not my favorite things. I’m now focusing only on teaching and writing my next book, and I’m putting my public, out-in-the-world author self aside for a while. Thanks for understanding.
…read my fiction and tell me what you think?
I’m afraid that I can’t read and critique other writers’ work at this time unless they are my students. I teach at Vermont College of Fine Arts, the University of Pennsylvania, and also do writing workshops at various places around the country and you can keep up to date on announcements here.
…give me advice on applying to a writers colony?
There is no magic answer to advise you on how to get into a writers colony like MacDowell or Yaddo. All I can say is apply and keep on applying even if you get a no. Always send your best work, and always try to get a reference from an authority in your field who knows your writing. Good luck!
…answer my email if I send you one?
I will try. But I’m overwhelmed and bad with replying in a timely manner. I’m so sorry!