In which Nova Ren Suma talks about teenage ghosts and her new novel, The Walls Around Us.
We Book Smugglers are huge fans of Nova Run Suma’s work. Both of us loved her YA novel Imaginary Girls – a creepy, dreamy, strange book about a very different girl and an isolated town. So, it was with great pleasure when we learned about her new book, psychological YA thriller The Walls Around Us, billed as “Orange is the New Black Swan”, and were invited to host a guest post from the author (plus a giveaway).
Please give a warm welcome to Nova Ren Suma!
Teenage Ghosts and The Walls Around Us
I was thirteen. I didn’t have a boyfriend or anything close, but I had a solid relationship with my Parker Brothers–brand Ouija board.
I would play the Ouija with any friend willing. During that year of my most intense focus in contacting spirits from the other side, I “spoke” with people from beyond the grave, long-dead and before-unknown ancestors, as well as self-professed evil spirits who wanted my soul. I believed wholeheartedly. I believed enough that I was afraid to climb down from my loft bed in the night and would lie there, shivering, convinced I was being watched by eyes I couldn’t see that could see me.
Playing with the Ouija opened a whole new world to me, and it was a world beyond the painful existence of junior high school, where I started as a new student in the seventh grade. My first week or so in school, I starred in the stereotypical scene from TV movies: eating my lunch alone in a bathroom stall. Slowly I made friends, but no one knew the real me. At home, with my Ouija, I was important. I was interesting. People (well, spirits that were once people) wanted to talk to me. On the board, my fingertips light on the planchette, my heart pounding. I learned I had past lives, and what they were, and how I died. I asked what I would be in the future, where I would live, if anyone loved me. When a spirit said he loved me, I said okay, but what about anyone alive? There was no one, said the Ouija. I was all alone.
In real life, I was unpopular, awkwardly shy, and teased for my funny name. I finally got a boyfriend at a school dance. It lasted a week and then he made fun of me in front of his friends in the school cafeteria. In the spirit world, there wasn’t a popular table I couldn’t sit at. There wasn’t the need to dress in designer knock-off blue jeans because my parents couldn’t afford the real thing. I didn’t need to try so hard. I was welcome.
I also had a wild imagination, so I’m not sure to this day what was true.
It was not so many months later when I was staying over a new friend’s house and had packed my pajamas and toothbrush and, gleefully, thinking it would be fun, my well-worn Ouija board. At first it was fun, and my friend seemed curious, if a little wary. Then her father found out what we were doing in her bedroom and burst in, yelling.
He forced us outside, in our pajamas and bare feet, and made us watch. He dropped the Ouija board and its box in a barrel and lit it with kerosene. It burned and was gone in moments, and I was banned from coming over ever again.
I was afraid to get another one. I was afraid.
* * *
I was fourteen. Now I was moving away from that small Catskill Mountains town, and a group of girls I had befriended in eighth grade were over at my house for a good-bye sleepover. One thing led to another and we watched a scary movie and then ran, shrieking, into the back fields behind the house because we wanted to see the full moon. The night seemed infinite, the girls I was leaving behind seemed like friends I would never be able to find again. I wanted to stay. I didn’t want to move away because my parents’ jobs made us have to, again. I was just starting to feel a part of things there.
Then, suddenly, I realized I’d gone running too far and I looked back. The moon made the ground glow gray, but I couldn’t see any of my friends’ faces. The trees were light-black shadows against the darker black sky, and something was moving out of them from the horizon. It looked like little creatures, demons even, angry spirits, spirits who remembered me and wondered where I’d gone, coming for us, no, coming just for me. I was afraid, even terrified. The girls—my so-called friends—had mixed in with the shadows. They were shadows themselves. Were they demons? Had they always been? Was I escaping just in time?
Then everyone started shrieking and pointing at the trees, and it was a game. It was only a game. They were girls again, but I never forgot that distinct and certain sense of fear.
One of the last memories I have of leaving that small town for another the summer after eighth grade was overhearing my friends talk about me.
“She’s so gullible,” they said about me, laughing. When I turned the corner, they pretended they hadn’t said anything at all.
I was gullible, and am. Or maybe it’s that I’m keeping an open mind. About everything.
* * *
There is this question I keep getting asked, now that The Walls Around Us is out in the world and people have started reading it. Where does all this creepy stuff in my novels come from? Why all the ghosts and scares and dead girls?1
When I think on how to answer that, I keep finding the response somewhere in the deep past. I go back into my early teenage years, when it all started, when I first became the person I am today. That’s when I discovered the Stephen King and the alien abduction books on my stepfather’s bookshelves and when I saw The Exorcist. That’s when I found and lost my Ouija board, and believed in ghosts though I couldn’t seem to see any, and that’s when I felt sure there was more to the world than this but couldn’t explain how I knew or why I felt so sure. I was scared all the time.
Scared of not being cool enough at school. Scared of saying the wrong thing and embarrassing myself. Scared of making awful mistakes I would never live down, and scared of not trying hard enough and regretting that forever. Scared of how long it would take before I could grow old enough and move away, on my own.
Scared I wouldn’t make it here, where I am today. I had nothing and everything to be scared of.
* * *
I wasn’t thirteen anymore, and I wasn’t fourteen. I was a published author, which meant the dream from my teen years had finally and actually come true.
This was not so many months ago, and I was what you’d call a full-grown adult. It was my second night in an unfamiliar bed at an artists’ colony in upstate New York, in the same town where some pieces of The Walls Around Us happen to take place.
I was tossing and turning and couldn’t sleep. I flipped over, facing the wall with the windows, and then realized there was someone in my room.
She had dark hair that made a distinct jagged shape along her shoulders, and she was turned away from me, mid-movement, as if I’d walked in on her and not the other way around.
My mind ticked through all the possibilities until it hit on this one: I had drawn the deadbolt on my bedroom door closed before I’d gone to bed. My door was locked. There was no way an actual woman could be in my room.
My body took over. In a flash I leaped across the bed to turn on the lamp. She vanished.
For the rest of my stay—almost three weeks—I avoided talking about this completely. It was a trick of my eyes in the low light, I told myself. It was my sleepy brain playing a game. I had never seen a ghost before, no matter how I longed to when I was younger… and this wasn’t that.
On my last night, I admitted to some of the other artists that I had seen a woman in my room a few weeks ago, playing it off like a joke. We were staying in an old, elegant house, having this conversation on gold velvet furniture with portrait paintings of the house’s former inhabitants all around us. Eyes followed me wherever I went.
Two of the artists turned to me in recognition. “So you saw the woman,” one of them said. Turned out that, over the years, many others who’ve stayed here have seen her around the house. She’s harmless, they said. She’s benevolent.
I changed the subject. I didn’t know what to believe.
I had one more night to sleep through in the room before I could go home, so I told myself stories: shadows. A trick of light or my brain. It was nothing. It wasn’t real. Still, of course, I slept with the lights on, the way I had when I was thirteen, shivering in my bed.
* * *
What is it about those urgent, frantic years of being a teenager—when you’re not yet an adult but no one better dare say you’re a kid—that draws some of us to step away from reality and connect with the strange and unusual?2 Some of us may need an escape. I did.
So to answer that question I keep getting asked: Why do I find myself drawn to writing these creepy stories?
I do it because to me it feels true. It feels just as it did way back when, when maybe you’re not the cheerleader or the girl with the seat at the good table in the cafeteria, when you’re quiet and too sensitive for the cruelties of high school. When you’re strange, inside or out, and you’re unusual, even if no one knows it because you’re too shy to tell them. There are a lot of us. The ghost of the girl I was followed me here, which may be why I write YA. I can’t shake her.
Even now, I want all the ghostly things to be true. In order to write down the most wild stories such as The Walls Around Us—which begins in a haunted girls’ juvenile detention center the night the locks on all the cell doors inexplicably and miraculously snap open—I have to believe anything’s possible.
When it comes to writing fiction, there are worse things to be than gullible. Even when I freak out and turn the lamp on, I’m still keeping my mind open.
About the Book:
“Ori’s dead because of what happened out behind the theater, in the tunnel made out of trees. She’s dead because she got sent to that place upstate, locked up with those monsters. And she got sent there because of me.”
The Walls Around Us is a ghostly story of suspense told in two voices—one still living and one dead. On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement. On the inside, within the walls of a girls’ juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom. Tying these two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries.
We hear Amber’s story and Violet’s, and through them Orianna’s, first from one angle, then from another, until gradually we begin to get the whole picture—which is not necessarily the one that either Amber or Violet wants us to see.
Nova Ren Suma tells a supernatural tale of guilt and innocence, and what happens when one is mistaken for the other.
The Walls Around Us is published by Algonquin Young Readers and goes on sale 3/24/2015.
Preoder the Book:
About the Author:
Nova Ren Suma is the author of The Walls Around Us, which is the #1 Kids’ Indie Next Pick for Spring 2015 and is coming March 24 from Algonquin Young Readers. She also wrote the YA novels Imaginary Girls and 17 & Gone, which were both named 2014 Outstanding Books for the College Bound by YALSA. She has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and has been awarded fiction fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Millay Colony, and an NEA fellowship for a residency at the Hambidge Center. She worked for years behind the scenes in publishing, at places such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Marvel Comics, and RAW Books, and now she teaches writing workshops. She is from various small towns across the Hudson Valley and currently lives in New York City.
Find Nova online at novaren.com or follow her on Twitter at @novaren.
We have THREE signed copies of The Walls Around Us up for grabs, courtesy of the publisher! The contest is open to addresses in the United States, and will run until Sunday, March 29 at 12:01am EST. To enter, use the form below!
Full Disclosure: Thea works for Workman Publishing, of which Algonquin Young Readers is an imprint.
- It is not a spoiler to say someone is speaking from beyond the grave in The Walls Around Us. That’s kind of the whole point. ↩
- A movie I probably saw seventeen thousand times when I was a teenager was Beetlejuice, which I watched with devotion due solely to the character of Lydia Deetz, the angst-ridden girl in all black who could see the undead and said such endearing things as “I, myself, am strange and unusual.” ↩