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Susin Nielsen

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Susin Nielsen: the queen of tragicomedy

Susin Nielsen2

(photo: Taby Cheng)

Nielsen spent the next several years working on a slew of teen and tween shows (Ready or Not, Liberty Street), racking up more TV-writing credits (Madison, Braceface) after moving to Vancouver with husband Goran in 1995. She also adapted Canadian author Susan Juby’s YA novel, Alice, I Think, into a TV series and served as showrunner and co-creator of the CTV series Robson Arms.

During an unexpected Robson Arms hiatus, Nielsen found herself without a project – or a purpose. “I was feeling really mopey and really sorry for myself and maudlin,” says Nielsen. Suddenly, a lightbulb went on. “I thought, ‘What are you? You’re a writer,” says Nielsen. “So write! Just write something, you idiot. You don’t have to be at the mercy of other people.” The 25 pages about a boy named Ambrose that she had scribbled a year earlier soon became Word Nerd.

It’s worth noting that Nielsen had already written three picture books: Hank and Fergus (Orca Book Publishers, 2003), Mormor Moves In (Orca, 2004), and The Magic Beads (Simply Read Books, 2007), so she wasn’t exactly a publishing newbie. But after Nielsen mentioned it in a friendly catch-up email, Juby asked to read the Word Nerd manuscript, then introduced Nielsen to her agent, Hilary McMahon, executive vice-president of Westwood Creative Artists.

“I felt that her humour was so authentic,” says McMahon, who signed Nielsen in 2007. “It was warm, it wasn’t mean-spirited, and it was just so natural and so appropriate for the characters.” Word Nerd snagged multiple Canadian bidders, including several creatively scrambled offer letters in honour of Ambrose, the novel’s Scrabble-playing protagonist. Led by Kathy Lowinger, Tundra Books won out – partly due to the financial strength of their offer. “We all know money’s important,” says Nielsen. “It was more important that I found somebody who I thought was seeing the book the same way I did, but also who would put me through some editorial rigour. I wasn’t afraid of hard work.”

Tundra has published the Canadian editions of Nielsen’s four novels (Word Nerd, 2010’s Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom, Henry K. Larsen, and now Molecules) and sold rights into 11 territories to date. The publisher distributed Nielsen’s previous titles in the U.S., but with Molecules, Nielsen and McMahon decided it was time to break off U.S. rights. “A Canadian publisher just doesn’t have the same reach in that market as an American publisher,” says McMahon, “in terms of getting the book into the bookstores, as well as getting it reviewed, eligible for prizes, and all those different components.”

Thanks to her strong sales record – Nielsen’s previous three novels combined have sold more than 50,000 copies to date in North America – and bulging award file, publishers south of the border took Molecules seriously, says McMahon, adding that all parties read the book the first weekend after it was submitted. Multiple bidders came back with two-book offers (Wendy Lamb Books landed the deal). While such offers were common a decade ago, they’re seen less frequently in today’s market, says McMahon. “For Susin, it was a really strong sign of the support from these publishers,” she says.

With Molecules, Nielsen had two priorities during the U.S. sale: that Tundra executive editor Tara Walker would continue to serve as the book’s lead editor, and “that nobody wanted to mess with the fact that it was set in Vancouver,” she says.

Both requirements were non-issues with Wendy Lamb, which means U.S. readers will envision the same Vancouver locations and cultural references (such as the city’s ubiquitous laneway houses) as B.C. teenagers. Only Nielsen’s U.K. publisher, Andersen Press, asked to change the word “barf” for “vom” – a uniquely YA editing scenario.