Today we are thrilled to present an interview with long-standing Book Smuggler favorite Nova Ren Suma and a giveaway to celebrate her newest novel, A Room Away from the Wolves. We’ve been huge fans of Nova’s since reading and loving her eerie first novel Imaginary Girls, and love her trademark lyrical prose, combined with feminist themes and powerful, flawed, fully-dimensioned characters. Naturally, we jumped at the chance to interview her about her newest novel, which blends magical realism and gothic horror against the backdrop of New York City.
Your newest novel, A Room Away from the Wolves, tells the story of a young girl who runs away from home for New York City, in a women’s residence shrouded in secrecy and magic. Tell us a little bit about the idea behind Catherine House, and what inspired Bina’s tale
New York was the destination of my dreams, ever since I was a child. I’ll never forget the stories my mother told me about the best year of her life… It was 1969, she was 19, and she’d ride the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan to have glorious adventures downtown every weekend. It was these mythic city stories she wove that inspired my own move to New York (first, for a summer, when I was 19; and more permanently, after college, when I was 22). They inspired the first novel I ever wrote—never published—and years later they became the spark for A Room Away from the Wolves.
The story centers around a boardinghouse where Bina’s mother rented a room the summer she was 19, calling her daughter to do the same two decades later. I wanted a physical place to bind them together across time and memory, and I found it in Catherine House, an imagined house based on a real place I discovered from an old New York Times article. The original boardinghouse that set my imagination running wild was called Katharine House, and it used to be on West 13th Street. It was a residence originally only for Protestant young woman, although that rule did get lax in later years. I thought of this place and knew immediately that my narrator wouldn’t fit there—she’s Jewish—and then an idea about the house’s namesake came to me, and some magic slipped in… and the house took on a life of its own.
A central theme examined in your novel is the power of mother-daughter relationships (especially as they are frayed with lies and failures over time)–and beyond that, women’s relationships between other women. Please elaborate on those bonds and what they mean to you in this story.
The heart of this story is Bina’s relationship with her mother. We begin at a tense moment when all seems lost—Bina’s mother kicked her out of the house, and Bina is hitchhiking to the city with a black eye and a borrowed suitcase. As the story progresses, Bina tries to reconnect with her mother in various ways. She wants to prove she’s not a lost cause; she’s worth giving a second, third, fourth, fifteenth chance to… though she barely believes that herself. The tangled relationships I love to explore in my writing are always with girls and other women, from obsessive friendships to unhealthy ties between sisters to fraught mother/daughter bonds, like in this book. Stories about girls and women’s relationships with one another are often relegated to the background, seen as less important and not always worthy of being told unless there’s a love story in there, too. I’d say A Room Away from the Wolves is also a love story—just not the kind you might expect.
One of the most impactful things about A Room Away from the Wolves is Bina’s narrative–a consummate and admitted liar, her words and observations are subject to scrutiny as from first to last word. Talk to us about Bina, and your take on the unreliable narrator.
All first-person narrators are at heart unreliable—I don’t trust that anyone telling me their story is telling me the whole truth, unbiased and undistorted. This is something I like to embrace in my novels, with narrators who are unreliable in various ways, for various reasons. It feels most honest to me. It feels most like real life. Also, it’s a fun, mind-bending way to tell a story (and write one). Bina in A Room Away from the Wolves prides herself on being a smooth liar, and there are certainly parts of her story she’s keeping submerged, though that’s not always in her control. At Catherine House, she comes across a girl who is an even more skilled liar than she is, a girl named Monet whose stories are so outrageous and yet somehow she can pull it off, she’s believed. Monet is everything Bina wishes she could become… even her identity in the story is meant to be slippery and under question. What happens when a liar comes across an even better liar—someone who is a true enigma? Confronting the truth from all directions will make Bina’s world crumble.
A Room Away from the Wolves channels gothic novels in a big way–what are some of your favorites in the genre?
I’ve talked time and again about how much I love Shirley Jackson’s novels. There’s the clear mark of influence from We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House on my work. Also it may be telling that the first novel I fell in love with and read again and again when I was young was Jane Eyre. I was a terribly shy kid, but for my monologue in theater class, I shakily recited Jane’s panicked imprisonment in the red room. By extension, a later obsession in college was the incredible re-imagining of Jane Eyre told through the eyes of the discarded wife in the attic, Bertha: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. (To follow the connection even further, the title for A Room Away from the Wolves comes from a quote in Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight.) In terms of contemporary gothic works, however we may reinterpret them, two of my recent favorites include Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke and In the Shadow of the Blackbirds by Cat Winters.
Finally, a question we ask all of our interviewees: We Book Smugglers have faced condemnation because of the sheer volume of books that we carry back home on a daily basis. As such, we have on occasion resorted to “smuggling books” home to escape judgmental, scrutinizing eyes. Have you ever had to smuggle books?
For all the years I lived in New York City—in fact, I only left this spring, a few months after finishing the final revision of A Room Away from the Wolves—I spent the last chunk of years in a tiny rent-stabilized walkup apartment in the Village. It was filled with books. So many books, our double-packed bookshelves could no longer hold them and so towers of books were wedged in wherever we could find space. The old floorboards could have collapsed from the weight. And yet… I somehow had the habit of still coming home with more books. I didn’t live alone, and I knew we didn’t have room… but how could I not bring this book home? Or that book? Or this other? So yes, I have been known to conceal a book in a bag to smuggle it into the apartment and then act like it had been there all along.
…Now just imagine trying to move with six flights of stairs and dozens of cartons of books, even after a sizable donation to Housing Works. I couldn’t believe I’d collected that many books over the years. But now here I am, in a new apartment, starting over… and I just got another new book yesterday.
About the Author
Nova Ren Suma is the author of A Room Away from the Wolves, a ghost story set in a refuge for troubled girls deep in the heart of New York City, and the #1 New York Times bestselling The Walls Around Us, a finalist for an Edgar Award. She also wrote Imaginary Girls and 17 & Gone and is co-creator of FORESHADOW: A Serial YA Anthology. She has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in the Hudson Valley, spent most of her adult life in New York City, and now lives in Philadelphia. Find her online as @novaren on Twitter and Instagram and at novaren.com.
About the Book
Bina has never forgotten the time she and her mother ran away from home. Her mother promised they would hitchhike to the city to escape Bina’s cruel father and start over. But before they could even leave town, Bina had a new stepfather and two new stepsisters, and a humming sense of betrayal pulling apart the bond with her mother—a bond Bina thought was unbreakable.
Eight years later, after too many lies and with trouble on her heels, Bina finds herself on the side of the road again, the city of her dreams calling for her. She has an old suitcase, a fresh black eye, and a room waiting for her at Catherine House, a young women’s residence in Greenwich Village with a tragic history, a vow of confidentiality, and dark, magical secrets. There, Bina is drawn to her enigmatic downstairs neighbor Monet, a girl who is equal parts intriguing and dangerous. As Bina’s lease begins to run out, and nightmare and memory get tangled, she will be forced to face the terrible truth of why she’s come to Catherine House and what it will cost for her to leave . . .
In A Room Away from the Wolves, critically acclaimed and New York Times bestselling author Nova Ren Suma weaves a spellbinding ghost story about who deserves a second chance, how we lie to those around us and ourselves, and what lengths girls will go to in order to save each other.
One (1) winner will receive a copy of A Room Away from the Wolves! The giveaway is open to addresses in the US only and will run until Sunday September 16 at 12:01am EST. To enter, use the form below. Good luck!