Saturday, 26 September 2009

Interview with an Author: TABITHA SUZUMA

Tabitha Suzuma is the Award Winning author of A NOTE OF MADNESS, and its sequel, A VOICE IN THE DISTANCE; FROM WHERE I STAND and WITHOUT LOOKING BACK.

Hi Tabitha and welcome. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

Hello and thank you for interviewing me!

I was born in 1975 and grew up in London where I still live to this day. I went to a French school which I hated, but when I changed to an English school I was still equally unhappy. So I finally forced my parents into letting me leave school at the age of 14 by behaving so outlandishly in class that I ended up under threat of expulsion. I had always been a school-refuser and so it was somewhat ironic that I returned to the classroom twenty years later –this time as a teacher.

I am the eldest of five and my youngest brother was born when I was fourteen. I played a big part in bringing him up and when he was two, I discovered he had an extraordinarily musical ear. I started teaching him the piano and found him a proper teacher shortly after. He subsequently went to music school, gained a place at the Royal College of Music (where A Note of Madness is set) but chose instead to do a course in music informatics. Although his personality is nothing like Flynn’s, it was my brother’s extraordinary talent that inspired the character: a musical genius studying piano at the Royal College of Music.


Life as a student is good for Flynn. As one of the top pianists at the Royal College of Music, he is put forward for a big concert, the opportunity of a lifetime. But beneath the surface, things are changing. On a good day he feels full of energy and life, but on a bad day being alive is worse than being dead. Sometimes he wants to compose and practise all night, at other times he can't even get out of bed. His flatmate Harry tries to understand but is increasingly confused by Flynn's erratic mood swings. His friend Jennah tries to help, but Flynn finds it difficult to be around her - she evokes in him feelings that he can't accept. With the pressure of the forthcoming concert and the growing concern of his family and friends, emotions come to a head. Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better.

A Note of Madness was your debut novel. Was it your first attempt at writing a novel or did you have other manuscripts hiding away?

When I was seventeen, my favourite author at the time, KM Peyton, encouraged me to try my hand at a book of my own after I’d written her many a fan letter. Inspired by her encouragement, I wrote a book about teenage gangsterism called ‘Angels on the Wild Side’. KM Peyton liked it so much, she sent it to her editor David Fickling. He wanted to publish it, but at the last minute the deal fell through as others felt it was too risky. Despite the disappointment, I remember KM Peyton telling me ‘as sure as one can ever be of anything in this life, I am sure you will become an author.

I always kept her words at the back of my mind along with the almost-published ‘Angels on the Wild Side’. However, I was taken up by doing a degree, postgraduate study and various other jobs including teaching over the next ten years. I never stopped writing but I never attempted to write a book until 2003 when ‘A Note of Madness’ happened – sort of by accident really. It wasn’t until I was half way through writing it that I thought, ‘Hey, maybe I could try to get this published.

Your books to date have dealt with various mental health issues and a family on the run. What inspired you to write about these themes?

I write about what I am passionate about, what fascinates me. Abnormal psychology is a subject that fascinates me and one I have studied at university. Mental illness is something that I have experienced first hand for the best part of my life. I first developed depressive symptoms as a child, these worsened in my teens and culminated in a suicide attempt when I was 22. At this point I sought help and have been on various different anti-depressants and other medications since then. Some have worked for a short time, most haven’t been very successful at all. I live with severe clinical refractory depression on a daily basis. It is something I know only too well. I wanted to write about mental illness in order to express some of the traumatic times I’d been through but also to share by experience with many of the other thousands of people who have suffered in similar ways too.

Do you feel drawn to writing gritty realism and do you enjoy writing this genre more than any other? Have you tried writing any other genres?

Gritty realism is what writing is all about for me. These are the kinds of books I read as a child and especially as a teenager. I was a voracious reader in my youth and never had much interest in fantasy, horror, comedy or any other genres. I sought out books that reflected the truth, stories that I could believe in, that were based on something real, that dealt with the harsh realities of life. Books that made me realise I was not alone in my suffering – that others had been through similar things too, and had found a way through. I haven’t tried writing any other genres and I think it unlikely I will.

Anne Fine was recently misquoted in the press about questioning the bleakness of children’s/teen books. She clarified that she was in fact asking the audience of social workers and teachers who deal with vulnerable children if bleak endings had any effect on the children. Regarding your own books, you write about mental health problems which are sadly still considered a rather 'taboo' subject. How open do you think your teenage audience are to reading and understanding these issues?

I think there is much more interest in mental health problems and other ‘taboo’ areas amongst teens than many adults realise. Teenagers have a real hunger for the truth. They also, almost without exception, experience some form of mental malaise during their adolescence. So even if they have never suffered from a mental health problem themselves, they almost invariably know someone who has. Or else they have the capacity to imagine their own feelings magnified to a point where they are uncontainable. Teenagers are incredibly open-minded and passionate. It is usually during the teen years that people feel the most keenly and are thus best able to empathise with someone suffering from a mental illness. Adolescence, in a way, is a form of madness itself. The child goes from a relative state of innocence to realising what the real world is all about and it is usually a hell of a shock to the system and the time when the big existentialist questions are asked.

Do you think reading about characters suffering from similar problems or displaying traits they can relate to helps the teenage (or any age) reader feel like they are not alone if they too suffer from some kind of mental illness?

CS Lewis once said, ‘We read to know we are not alone.’

So absolutely. When I was a teen, and even now, I turned to books about others going through similar experiences to my own for comfort and advice and reassurance. A book doesn’t have to give you the answers – works of fiction rarely do that – but they can remind you there is hope, that even if you feel alienated from your peers there are many, many people who have gone through what you have, who have suffered in similar ways, who have asked the same questions, who have questioned the reason for their own existence.

Do you get much feedback from your readers? And if so, would you like to share your readers’ thoughts on your books and their themes?

I am extremely fortunate to get a huge amount of feedback from my readers. Teenagers email me, but so do adults. Some of them have been through experiences similar to my characters and an often recurring line is ‘I felt as if it was a book written especially for me.’ They tell me how my books have helped them to come to terms with their own problems, to seek help if necessary, to recognise symptoms of a certain mental illness and to find the courage to speak out. They talk of lending my books to friends and family as a means of conveying to the people closest to them what they themselves are going through.

The readers who contact me have not always suffered a mental illness themselves. For some, it has helped them understand a friend or relative. Others say it has made them view the term ‘mental illness’ in a completely new light. All of them have identified with the main character in some way. After all, we have all felt sad at some point in our life – it doesn’t take a huge leap in imagination to envision what it would be like to live life with that feeling constantly, and often for no external reason. One thing my readers all seem to have in common however is a high degree of emotional intelligence – even if they have not experienced the main protagonist’s feeling first hand, they have the imagination and empathy to walk in that person’s shoes and imagine what ‘a life of madness’ could be like.

You are very open about your own struggle with depression but in regards to any other mental health problems you may not have experienced first-hand, how much research do you do to better understand the condition?

I am passionate about mental health issues so I don’t view my ‘research’ as such. I read all the memoirs and biographies I can find of people who have experienced mental illness in some shape or form. I have also studied abnormal psychology and continue to do so – mainly in an attempt to help myself and my own condition. I have friends and acquaintances who have been through different types of mental illness and I am always fascinated by their stories. Abnormal psychology is a passion of mine. My own psychiatrist has even been known to take my advice over a course of treatment!

Are your publishers open to all your ideas or do you have to censor yourself because of your target audience? Are some issues still considered too risky or taboo?

My publishers have been brilliant in that they have embraced all of my ideas and I have never been made to feel that anything was too risky or taboo. In fact, the book I’ve just finished writing, due out next May, would be considered by many as ‘the final taboo’. It doesn’t get much more risky than that, even in adult fiction. I don’t write for teens in a way any different than I would for adults. I just prefer my protagonists to be teenagers and that’s why my books are considered ‘teen fiction’ and not ‘adult’. But as I’ve said, many adults who have come across my books in one way or another have written to me to say how much the books have resonated with them.

Your main protagonists are all teenage boys. How difficult, or easy, do you find it to get inside the head of a teenage boy? Do you use memories of how you were at that age and adapt them to a boy’s mindset?

I find it very easy to get inside the head of a teenage boy. I have a teenage brother which helps! No two teenage boys are the same anyway, so there is no such thing as your ‘typical’ teenage boy. Especially as my characters tend to be purposefully atypical. In ‘A Voice in the Distance’, I write from both the male and female perspective in a dual narrative with alternating chapters, which is a technique I’ve also used in my latest book. I have vivid memories of my life and emotions as a teen because it was during those years that I suffered and felt the most. However, writing predominantly from a male perspective has been a deliberate choice. In part because many boys find it more difficult than girls to express their emotions in a society which still expects boys to keep their feelings to themselves and girls to express them more openly. But of course mental torment and suffering and illness affects as many boys as girls. The other reason I prefer to write from a male perspective is because my own adolescent feelings are still there, as raw as ever, and I draw on those constantly in my writing. I don’t want to feel as if I’m writing about myself, however – I want to create a brand new character and so it helps me feel less self-conscious and less exposed if I write about many of my own experiences but from a male perspective.

Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your novels?

My teenage brother, along with my other three siblings and my best friend all give me a great deal of feedback on my books. I have discussions with them which often leak well into the night. Their input is invaluable. I also ask my readers what kind of issues they would like to read more about, which characters they identified with the most, which of my books they preferred…

Did achieving your first book deal change the way you approach your writing?

Getting published was quite a shock to the system. I don’t think I was fully prepared. I knew no other authors at the time and so didn’t know what to expect. I have felt a lot more pressure since being published. In the past I would just write for myself, or for my siblings and friends to entertain them. Now I know I have a certain reputation to protect, there are expectations made of me and a certain level of writing that I have to maintain. I think every author lives in fear of writing a ‘bad book’. Now that I’m published, I think a little more about my target audience, I suppose I have been forced to think a little more ‘commercially’. For example if I felt passionate about writing a book about trainspotting, I would have to step back and think ‘is this going to get published? Is this really going to sell?’ On the other hand, I refuse to have my books dictated by the current market. I can only write and certainly only write well if I’m writing about something I’m a hundred percent passionate about.

Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

I do a bit of planning, but very little compared to most authors I’ve spoken to. I either start off with a character, or an idea. For example with A Note of Madness, I was walking around Helsinki in the snow and the dark, listening to Rachmaninov on my iPod when the character of Flynn came to me. I knew I wanted to write a book about mental illness, and bipolar disorder was a condition I was particularly interested in and the character and the subject matter seemed to fit well together. So I just started writing, with no particular story in mind, but the ideas came to me as I went along. With something more plot-driven, for example From Where I Stand, I needed to plan a little more because of the psychological twist at the end.

Rewrites, Revision and Research: How long does it take you, roughly, to complete each novel? Do you tend to do much rewriting? Do you do much research if the theme warrants it?

I don’t do a huge amount of research because I tend to write about what I’m interested in and what I know about anyway. If there is a specific incident, for example an arrest, then I will get in contact with the police and ask as many questions as I can, read first-hand accounts of people who have been arrested in similar situations, etc.

I do very little rewriting. My first draft is usually my last. Then I hand it over to my editor and at that stage we put our heads together and see how much rewriting – if any – needs to be done. I tend to prefer to go with my instincts. Occasionally I will take a wrong turn and think ‘hey, that doesn’t quite work’ and have to backtrack and head in a slightly different direction - but fortunately that doesn’t happen to often!

On average I take 8 months to write a book from start to finish.

What made you think ‘I want to write for teenagers?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

I have been an avid reader throughout my life but it was when I discovered teenage fiction that my interest in books really became an obsession. I love teenage fiction above all other genres and still read it to this day. I went through what was probably the worst period of my life as a teenager, and the books I read then literally saved me. And it was when I was devouring teen fiction that I started writing my own first novel. I particularly love teen fiction because good teen fiction is brave, direct and pulls no punches. It treats the reader as an equal: it doesn’t talk down to them, nor does it try to impress them with fancy, wordy, unnecessary purple passages. I love the rawness, the grittiness, the pace. Good teen fiction makes me think, ‘Yes, this is the real thing, this is what it’s really like.’

Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

As a child and as a teen, my favourite authors were KM Peyton, Joan Aiken, SE Hinton, Lois Duncan amongst others.
Titles that have particularly stuck with me are I AM THE CHEESE by Robert Cormier, FLAMBARDS by KM Peyton, THE OUTSIDERS, RUMBLE FISH, THAT WAS THEN THIS IS NOW by SE Hinton.

I think in the last 15 years or so since I was a teenager myself, children’s fiction has changed considerably. It seems to have become much more commercial, more accessible in some ways but lacking in depth in others. There is obviously this huge interest in fantasy currently, which feels quite alien to me as it has never been a genre that has appealed, even as a child. There also seem to be a lot more comedy out there and a lot more ‘pink & sparkly’ books. I think it’s great there is so much more variety, but I do sometimes feel that ‘escapist’ books dominate now to the detriment of more ‘real life’ novels.

I think children of today want variety. I don’t think that just because one genre (re the HP phenomenon) has had sudden success that everyone should be pushing to publish those types of books. I think there needs to be more of a balance. Children and young people will read what is on offer. If it’s mainly wizards, vampires and mermaids then that is what they will read. I would like to see more ‘real life’ books being published. There is a need to read for entertainment and escapism. But there is also a need to read to help make sense of the world we currently live in, of life issues, for reading novels about ‘real’ people leading ‘real’ lives. To read to know that you are not alone.

Have you ever tried writing for adults? Is it a market you'd like to write for in the future?

Yes, I have recently completed my second novel for adults. It is definitely a market I would like to write for and I am currently taking steps to achieve that aim.

How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

I declared to my mother I wanted to be an author when I was six. Since then I’ve been writing almost continuously. At first I wrote stories for my younger siblings and their friends, and after the one I wrote when I was 17, I mainly wrote for myself – always fiction – often creating a sort of alter-ego to share some of my angst, which I found very therapeutic. I also wrote to escape – when life became too unbearable, becoming another person in another set of circumstances was a way of entering another world.

I haven’t consciously done anything to improve my writing, but I do remember my mentor, KM Peyton, telling me that no writing was ever wasted. So I believe that all the writing I did just for myself over the years has helped me become the writer I am today. I have also had the privilege of reading some of the greatest book that have ever been written. I know these have influenced me enormously.

Before finding your current agent and achieving publication, did you approach many agents and publishers? Have you had to deal with rejection along the way?

Yes. Unless you happen to be very, very lucky (not talented – lucky!) rejection letter after rejection letter paves the only way to publication. There are simply too many people who want to write books and too many books for them all to sell! It’s very, very difficult to ‘break in’ because an agent or a publisher has to take a huge gamble on a new author – not knowing whether the book they invest their time and money in will sink or swim. Agents and publishers receive hundreds of manuscripts a week and sadly, rarely have time to read them all. It’s a tough, tough business. I sent out ‘A Note of Madness’ to countless agents and publishers – I’ve even lost track of the number. As soon as it was returned, I would send it out again. It took me six months to find an agent and another six for my agent to find me a publisher.

Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

No writing is wasted, even if it’s never read by anyone other than yourself. If you really want to be published, make sure it’s for the right reasons: for example if writing for you is like nourishment, if you need to do it in order to survive; not because you want to be rich or famous (very few writers ever are!) Perseverance is the key when approaching agents and publishers: make sure you follow their guidelines to the letter, expect rejection, ignore it and move on. And finally, make sure you have a good day job. Few authors earn their living just by writing alone.


In his final year at the Royal College of Music, star pianist Flynn Laukonen has the world at his feet. He has moved in with his girlfriend Jennah and is already getting concert bookings for what promises to be a glittering career. Yet he knows he is skating on thin ice - only two small pills a day keep him from plunging back into the whirlpool of manic depression that once threatened to destroy him. Unexpectedly his friends seem to be getting annoyed with him for no apparent reason, he needs less and less sleep, he is filled with unbridled energy. Events begin to spiral out of control and Flynn suddenly finds himself in hospital, heavily sedated, carnage left behind him. The medication isn't working any more, the dose needs to be increased, and depression strikes again, this time with horrific consequences. His freedom is snatched away and the medicine's side-effects threaten to jeopardize his chances in one of the biggest piano competitions of his life. It seems like he has to make a choice between the medication and his career. But in all this he has forgotten the one person he would give his life for, and Flynn suddenly finds himself facing the biggest sacrifice of all.
Told in alternating chapters from both Flynn and Jennah's points of view, this is the breathtaking, poignant sequel to A Note of Madness.


Raven is a deeply disturbed teenager, who, after witnessing the death of his mother, is placed in foster care. The Russells do their best to earn his trust, but only little Ella manages to get through to him. Meanwhile, at school, bullies are making his life a living hell. An unexpected companion comes in the form of Lotte, a classmate bored by her 'ordinary' friends. Together, they track down Raven's mum's killer, with the goal of exposing him to the police. But their carefully crafted plan goes dangerously wrong and suddenly nothing is as it seems. Everything is falling apart and, ultimately, there is only one, final way out.


I used to be called Louis Whittaker, he thought to himself. I had a sister called Millie and a brother called Max. I used to live in a big house in Paris. I used to speak French every day. None of this is true anymore...

Louis is a young Parisian with a lot on his plate - his parents are locked in a custody battle over him and his brother and sister, Mum is always working late and Dad is rarely allowed to visit. But his passion and talent for dancing and his friends at school mean that life in Paris is good and certainly not one he ever thought he'd be forced to leave behind. So when Dad suddenly whisks Louis and his siblings away on a surprise holiday to England, right in the middle of the school term, he isn't too thrilled, especially as Dad is acting strangely again. Why is he being so secretive and paranoid - could it be he has not fully recovered from his mental breakdown? The rented farmhouse in the Lake District is nice, but why is Dad furnishing it and why won't he let them call home? Then Louis comes across a poster - a missing person's poster. And it has his face on it...


Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Terrific interview, thanks Tabitha and Tracy!

Clare said...

Excellent interview!
I have to be honest and admit I have never come across Tabitha's work before - but I shall be remedying that now.
I can still remember my (far away!)teen years and that rare feeling when I found an author who UNDERSTOOD - this interview brought that all back!
Thank you Tabitha for sharing your vulnerabilty and thank you Tracy for yet another insightful interview.

Louise said...

Great interview. It's always good to hear authors tell the truth and say how difficult it is to get the "big break" instead of saying it was easy.

I bought Without Looking Back for my teenage son last Christmas (trying to get him into reading), and was really pleased that it worked!

Stephanie Campisi said...

Great interview, with some really interesting questions and responses. I'm not familiar with Tabitha's work, but I'll be keeping an eye out now.

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