Quill and Quire

Susin Nielsen

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Susin Nielsen: the queen of tragicomedy

While Nielsen has an uncanny ability to get inside teenagers’ minds and speak their language, she always seeks feedback from young test readers, including her son, Oskar, who read early versions of the first two novels. He was a busy 15-year-old when she finished Henry K. Larsen, so the process required a little more cajoling. “I wound up paying him 50 bucks to read it,” says Nielsen, laughing. “I was worried about it, because it was darker.”

Susin Nielsen story quoteClearly, Nielsen worried in vain. The morning Henry K. Larsen received the Governor General’s nomination, Nielsen was browsing Facebook after returning from a run. “Someone had written, ‘Congratulations to Susin Nielsen on her GG nomination,’” she says. “I thought, ‘Who’d post something like that? That’s kind of mean.’” The book had been released just two weeks earlier, says Nielsen, who quickly learned the post was not a prank. When her novel won, it was “Mind. Blowing,” she says. “You almost start feeling sheepish or guilty, because it did really well in the awards that year.”

Of all the accolades, Nielsen says her two Red Maple Awards (for Word Nerd and Henry K. Larsen) are perhaps the most gratifying, because the approval comes directly from young readers. The first time she attended the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading awards ceremony, Nielsen stood in front of “about 1,500 screaming kids who haven’t figured out yet that you’re not nearly as cool as Justin Bieber,” she says. When Word Nerd was announced as the winner, the reality of her work set in. “This sounds so stupid,” says Nielsen, her tone reminiscent of one of her sweetly reflective young characters, “but it was the first time, honestly, that I understood that people were reading my books. That was cool, and actually kind of scary.”

Writing the second novel in her two-book deal is also a little daunting, says Nielsen,­ because it’s the first time she’s had a real deadline. The new story will target older teenagers instead of Nielsen’s typical middle-grade audience. The author won’t reveal many details, only that the story (currently) features a 16-year-old female protagonist, and is being written from
her perspective.

“The first-person narrative lets me get into [the characters’] heads in a way that allows, hopefully, the reader to laugh at the things they’re doing that they wouldn’t necessarily laugh at [about] themselves,” says Nielsen. “We’re all like this. My god. If people could see into our heads, it would be awful and ridiculous.”

That may be so, but it’s a safe bet that fans can’t wait to go inside the mind of another of Nielsen’s funny, flawed outsiders.