After a three-year absence from the YA scene, Susan Juby returns this April with The Truth Commission, a novel (publishing with Razorbill Canada) that proved to the author of the lauded Alice series that the truth can set you free (from a dead-end manuscript).
“I was about 200 pages into a crime novel when I realized that for a huge chunk of the plot, I was using the story of someone close to me and I hadn’t even really been aware of it,” says the Nanaimo-based author. “I had gotten that far into it using details and material from someone’s life and it had just happened.”
The incident raised some troubling questions for Juby: are writers entitled to borrow liberally from real life if it’s in service of their art? Does an author have a responsibility to maintain the privacy of friends, loved ones, and acquaintances?
“When something interesting happens to someone around me, I think, ‘Oh, that could be useful for me.’ That’s such a creepy, natural thing for writers to do,” Juby says. “When does using that turn into betrayal?”
With her crime novel at a standstill, Juby took the advice of a friend and opted to de-stress by exploring these issues in a separate writing project. The result is The Truth Commission, written as the wryly funny, first-person account of Normandy “Norm” Pale, who spends a year asking difficult questions of her fellow students at Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design. Norm’s best friends, Dusk and Neil, have conscripted her into the Truth Commission, a group that seeks to unburden classmates of secrets, lies, and omissions. Norm’s uneasy relationship with honesty runs particularly deep: her sister, Keira, is a high-maintenance artist who pens a best-selling graphic novel series in which she caricatures her family’s foibles and personal crises.
“I wondered: if you have someone who’s entirely ruthless about representing her family and people close to her, what would the natural psychological reaction to that be? It struck me that people would … freeze like rabbits,” Juby says. “They would have a very hard time acting in a natural way.”
Indeed, Norm becomes so terrified of creating more fodder for her sister’s books, she bottles up secrets and grievances for years. It’s only as she writes her memoir as part of a creative-writing class that she finally finds a way to assert ownership over her story.
It’s a process Juby knows well. In 2010, she published Nice Recovery (Penguin Canada), a memoir about overcoming teenage alcohol and drug addictions. Writing honestly about her past, making decisions about what and how much to reveal, was harrowing but ultimately freeing. “I felt exposed and terrified and anxious,” says Juby. “But the minute it was done and out there, it felt incredibly useful.”
Juby credits the experience, in part, with enabling her to craft a book that treats Norm’s authorial apprehension compassionately and humorously – qualities that put the book front and centre in Razorbill/Penguin Canada’s #PenguinLOL campaign celebrating funny books and their value to young readers. “There were lines that I had read five or six times and I still laughed at every draft,” says Lynne Missen, publishing director of Penguin Young Readers Group. “It’s a return to her strength. … [Juby] can make a point and make someone laugh, but also make them think and make a moment poignant.”
It appears Juby is back in fine form and as busy as ever: in February, she released Republic of Dirt (HarperCollins Canada), a follow-up to her first adult novel, The Woefield Poultry Collective. Last November, Juby (who teaches creative writing at Victoria Island University) was one of just two fiction writers to be appointed to the Royal Society of Canada’s 91-member College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists, which comprises the country’s emerging intellectual leaders. “It’s a little intimidating,” says Juby, “if I’m being quite honest.”