Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
I’m pretty sure I originally picked up Alice, I Think because of the homeschooling angle. There weren’t (aren’t?) many books about homeschooling back in 2000 and I was definitely interested, partly because the topic was rare, and partly because, while I had spent my requisite 12 years in the public school system, my seven siblings had been homeschooled. (You can make of that fact what you will. You’re probably right.)
I loved the book, of course, and Susan Juby became one of those authors I followed, anxious to see what was coming next. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be…more books that I loved. Another Kind of Cowboy? Bright’s Light? The rest of the Alice MacLeod series? Such great books. If you haven’t already, you need to read The Truth Commission immediately. Really.
Somewhere along the way I came across the essay she references below, “Directed Studies”, which tells a specific and highly personal story with which I totally connected, despite the difference in the details. Like her books, the Susan Juby in that essay comes across as honest and funny, clear-eyed but optimistic, able to articulate and share painful, embarrassing truths in a single bound. This is no small feat.
Thank you, Susan, for talking truth, bad 80s hair, identity, and the danger of peach wine coolers with me. If you wrote a “hauntingly elegiac volume that is mostly description of landscape” I would read it.
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
I find this hard and sort of painful because my teen years were, well, hard and painful. I think by the time I hit fifteen or so, I looked okay on the outside, at least by the low standards of the 1980s. But inside I was a churning mess of anxiety and insecurity. This situation was exacerbated by the fact I had developed a serious drinking problem by the time I was thirteen.
I was one of those people who never ever went in public without makeup and hair done, clothes carefully chosen. It was all a camouflage for what I saw as a deeply flawed self. I was convinced that if anyone saw the unadorned me, they would run away in horror.
On a lighter note, I was a serious fashion experimenter in a time and town where that was unexpected and not terribly welcome. Not one 1980s trend passed me by! I wore: Madonna-esque bloomers and puffy blouses, satin blazers that hung to my knees, perms, faux punk looks, heavy metal looks, prep looks. Fashion filled in all the blank spaces for me. In spite of how messed up I was then, my adult self looks back and applauds my teen self for having the guts to experiment in the face of quite a bit of despair.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
When I was very young, I thought I could be anything. As I grew, that confidence was pounded out of me by my peers, my schools and my own bad choices. Those bad choices were legion―making them was basically my superpower. But here are some of the things I dreamed of being before I stopped dreaming: writer, lawyer, zoologist, professional dressage rider, fashion designer.
What were your high school years like?
At risk of belabouring the point, my teen years felt like I was just hanging on. I had friends and a busy social life, consisting of going to parties and recovering from parties. Only the people who saw me at the end of a party knew just how messed up I was. Because of that, I only vaguely remember most of my teen years. They’re a blur of parties, boyfriends, abandoned hobbies and, I must say again, bad choices.
That’s why I write a lot about teen life. I feel like I missed mine, including all the coming-of-age tasks a person’s meant to experience between thirteen and twenty. I got clean and sober when I was twenty and started fresh. (And, as an adult, I wrote a memoir about it: Nice Recovery.)
When I started high school, some of the kids (and a few teachers) seemed to make it their mission to clip my wings. It was partly classic bullying, and partly a result of who I was at the time—very opinionated and socially awkward, which is a tough combination that leaves you wide open.
Several teachers and adults and friends were in my corner—or, at least, wouldn’t give up on me. I wrote about one of them in an essay called “Directed Studies”.
What were some of your passions during that time?
My mom kept me very busy with hobbies as a way to deal with my tendency to get into, ahem, trouble. I began 4-H when I was in elementary school, I also drew and rode horses, showed horses, ran track, was crazy about fashion, and I worked in a video store and saw every movie in the place. I loved music but didn’t develop snobby music taste until after I graduated and sobered up. It is the truth that most music sounds great when you’re under the influence of peach wine coolers.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
Having to face the fact that I had a substance abuse problem and that I needed a major lifestyle change. Being the most intoxicated girl at every party was painful. The process of getting clean and sober and, in many ways, reliving my adolescence in my early twenties was profound. I had to learn to date, go to school, have friendships without the aid of alcohol and drugs. HUGE difference. It made me treasure the idea of second chances for people. And sometimes third and fourth and fifth chances, too.
I was on the board of the local branch of the John Howard Society for a couple of years. Part of the John Howard’s mandate is to support prisoners re-entering the community. Most of the people we work with started getting into trouble when they were still teens. I would like to see a world in which mistakes can be overcome with honesty and compassion. Well, mistakes other than some of my mid-to-late eighties haircuts. Some things should never be forgiven.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
I remain grateful for all the people who encouraged my passions when I was slowly losing them. Those people didn’t know it at the time, but they were saving my life. The easiest one to point to is the one I wrote about in “Directed Studies.” Programs that treat teens like they have potential are critical, no matter whether the kid is flailing around or not. People often don’t know how much good they’re doing because the results aren’t evident until years later.
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
The older I get, the more I realize that while my teen years were a disaster, I was absolutely doing my best. In a funny sort of way, I was coping. And when my method of coping (which, admittedly, was wildly unhealthy) stopped working, I tried a new way. Thank God it worked.
I guess advice I should have gotten was that it’s important to talk about things and to tell the truth. But my lived reality, thanks to a few notable betrayals and social wipeouts, was that the truth, and being vulnerable enough to tell it, were way too risky in my school and social scene. Vulnerability and honesty made more sense when I was a little older and had a better sense of people.
One piece of advice that has never left me: Always have a new job before you quit your old one. I’ve ignored it a few times, but I think that’s a genuine golden nugget of life advice.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
Good lord. I suppose that staying out for two or three days at a time when I was thirteen wasn’t a great move. Neither was having wildly inappropriate (read: much older) boyfriends. Sigh. I did a lot of things that would horrify me if I saw a kid my age doing them now. But they made me the person (and the writer) I am.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
The sense of new horizons opening up every time I did something new. As an older person, it’s really easy to stay stuck. I love my routines, but they come at the expense of new horizons.
Every Day I Write the Book
Describing your own struggle to navigate the murky high school social scene, you explained that you “put [your] mind to it and decided [you were] going to fit in,” successfully transforming from “a bookish kid into a smoking, drinking bush party queen,” despite feeling that “something profound was lost in the process.” In essence, you decided that being a party girl was “easier than being an outcast,” and became “really committed to the fitting-in project.” On the other hand, you’ve said your “books are, at heart, about the pressure to fit a mold and how difficult it is to defy expectations,” and you’ve professed your love of oddballs. So I’m wondering, what happened? How did you find (or regain) the self-confidence not only to be yourself, but to create “stories about peculiar people finding someplace to belong?”
My books are animated by wishful thinking. What happened is that I got honest about who I was and what my problems were. I figured out that I had to quit drinking and taking drugs like they were life-giving oxygen, or nothing in my life was going to improve.
When I quit, I discovered I was a nearly pathologically fearful person. I was afraid of people, new experiences, my own self. With the help of friends and a few professionals, I changed profoundly. It was, in essence, my true coming of age. It took me a long time to trust that if I kept walking in the right direction, people would appear along the way to walk by my side. Even when I was doing my best to walk the wrong way down a one-way street, people appeared and tried to turn me around. I didn’t thank them at the time.
My books are a way of thanking those people now. My life has been improved immeasurably by people who are nonstandard and people who tolerate and even celebrate those of us who screw up.
You’ve written about a special project you worked on in high school, “19th Century Costume Design and its Social Relevance,” as well as your brief time at fashion design school, and talked about how you’ve “always been interested in identity and ‘trying different things on,’” because “fashion is one of the only ways that young people have to assert themselves without opening their mouths.” Despite it’s obvious importance, fashion is not something a lot of writers seem to consider or use in the same way you do, whereas you often “write novels in which fashion tends to figure prominently,” including Bright’s Light, which tackles the subject head on. I’m wondering if you’d talk about how clothes can shape your identity and maybe share some of your current thoughts about fashion and how you use it in your work.
Fashion is our most immediate signifier of identity. It allows us try on personas: tomboys, glamourpusses, cowboys, goths, construction workers, death metal fans. When people opt out of caring about clothes, that’s another signifier. How people create identity is my obsession.
When I was young and floundering, fashion allowed me to at least change who I was on the outside. Caitlin Moran, whom I love, wrote that when women say: “What should I wear today?” they really mean “Who should I be today?” It’s meant as a put-down on fashion. Well, I’m in love with clothes. There are few things that make me happier than buying a nice piece of clothing. I would happily be a new woman every day, at least on the outside. I love the humour and style and responsiveness to culture and the moment. I love the craft that goes into well-made clothing and the sense of history and economics and social and ethnic considerations we can find in clothes. That said, I don’t love the practices of mass-market clothing, disposable fashion, the exploitation of people who make clothes and the expressionless, underage, underweight models who currently walk most runways. As the art that most directly and intimately influences people’s lives (a close runner-up is architecture), fashion is also the one that is vastly problematic on many levels.
I still remember being twenty and discovering that “dressing rich” (or at least using my last $400 to buying a $375 sweater hand-knit by a nice lady in Ireland) did not draw wealth into my life or lead to me spending time in a house in the Hamptons. Instead, I ended up with an itchy, ill-fitting, sheep-smelling cable knit sweater and no money for food or rent.
Also, when I went to fashion design school, I stood out for being insufficiently talented and committed. Another grave disappointment. Fashion has often let me down.
The book I’m working on now is about two people trying to get into the ultra-competitive fashion program at Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design, the setting for The Truth Commission. So at the moment I’m up to my eyeballs in fashion. I’m thinking about it, looking at it, writing about it, and thinking about it some more. I’m also wishing I was buying a lot of it.
Many of your books explore the notion of “truth” from various angles—discovering and being true to yourself, the shifting nature of truth, the benefits and consequences of telling the truth. Your current novel, The Truth Commission, is explicitly about “how we live with truth, whose truth we get to tell, when it’s good to tell the truth and when it’s a real problem to tell the truth.” Normandy says, “Writers create the truth, for better or worse,” but also questions whether the truth can really set her free. What do you think? And would you talk a little about why this particular theme resonates so strongly with you?
There’s something a bit cold about how writers operate. As we experience situations, we stand outside them taking notes. At a certain stage, almost every experience, ours or other peoples’, becomes material that may or may not end up in a book. Whenever we write a story with any bit of truth in it, we’re shaping that story. I really felt that when I wrote my memoir, Nice Recovery.
I felt it again when I was working on an adult crime novel and 200 pages in realized I was telling the story of someone close to me. I hadn’t even realized I was doing it. That made me wonder what would be the worst-case scenario for a family. I think it would be having a talented artist who had no compunction about portraying her family in illustrations and words in such a way that they looked like themselves, but in the most unflattering light possible—making them the butt of the joke.
The other thing I’ve realized is that coming of age is partly about learning hard, messy, exhilarating truths about life. Although teenagers aren’t supposed to be exposed to everything, they’re often eager to be treated as adults—which involves exposure to difficult things. That’s another thread in the book.
Genre-hopping has become a lot more common among writers lately, as well as writing for more than one audience, but, as usual, you manage to put a unique spin on it, writing fashion-conscious, funny, dystopian science fiction; a gay coming-of-age novel about dressage and fancy horses; a personal, informative, and humorous recovery memoir; a hilarious detective story set in a small town high school, and so many others. “I decided that my goal is to write every kind of book I love to read,” you’ve said, so I’m wondering what kind of books might you tackle in the future? Is there any particular genre or subject that totally turns you off? Anything you’re willing and able to share about your next projects?
As I mentioned earlier, I’m working on another book set at Green Pastures. For the time being, I think I’m done experimenting in new genres. Contemporary realism is calling my name. And comedy. Always comedy, which allows us to tell the truth in a palatable way ― it’s how we survive. I will never write a hauntingly elegiac volume that is mostly description of landscape. That feels certain.
Just Can’t Get Enough
Question from Laura Ruby: I once saw Emily Jenkins/e. lockhart give a lecture called “How to be Funny” in which she talked about using jolly words, among other things. You write comedies. What advice would you give about writing comedy? What makes something funny?
That’s hard because closely examining humor causes the subject to dissolve into unfunniness. Humor is a mode, and some people can work in it very naturally and some can’t. If you’re straining to be funny, chances are you won’t be. That said, some of the basic ingredients are hyperbole, understatement, a nice sense of the absurd, and a willingness to go past where you feel comfortable. Seriously self-important people aren’t usually very funny.
Susan Juby has contributed a question for the next writer in the series, Matt de la Pena. Watch for an interview with him coming soon!
Susan Juby has written a number of acclaimed novels for teenagers, including Another Kind of Cowboy, Getting the Girl, and the Alice MacLeod trilogy, the first of which, Alice, I Think, was made into a successful television series. Her most recent book for teenagers is The Truth Commission. She is also the author of two comic novels for adults (Home toWoefield and its sequel, Republic of Dirt), and an adult memoir, Nice Recovery. She is currently working on a companion novel to The Truth Commission, also set at the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design, and teaches creates writing at Vancouver Island University.
Susan and her husband James live in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, with their Australian Cattledog, Rodeo (AKA Rodie).
–Julie Bartel, currently reading Ms. Marvel Vol. 3: Crushed