Blog peeps, in case you find yourself short of things to celebrate this year, may I present the fabulous Suzy Vitello. Her new YA novel The Moment Before is coming out January 14 and I couldn’t be more tickled about it. I had the chance to read the book before it got its beautiful new cover and title, so I feel the sort of proprietary zeal of the insider groupie, crowing to everyone I know about Suzy and her remarkable talent.
Here’s the back cover blurb:
Brady and Sabine Wilson are sisters born eleven months apart, but they couldn’t be more different. Popular Sabine, the head cheerleader dating the high school hunk, seems to have all the luck, while her younger, artsy sister “Brady Brooder” is a loner who prefers the sidelines to the limelight.
After Sabine dies in a horrific cheerleading accident, grief unravels Brady and her family. Once recognized for her artistic talent, 17-year-old Brady finds herself questioning the value of everything she once held dear. Her best friend betrays her. Her parents’ marriage is crumbling. And the boy everyone blames for the accident seems to be her only ally in the search for answers in the wake of her sister’s death. As an unlikely friendship emerges, Brady learns more about Sabine—and love—than she bargained for.
Which…come on. If the words “horrific cheerleading accident” don’t intrigue you, then you are jaded indeed.
I hope you’ll pick up a copy or three for the young people in your life. But if you crack this book and find yourself as charmed by Suzy’s writing as I was, the teens will have to wait awhile.
Congratulations on The Moment Before, your first published novel. Can you talk a bit about the journey to writing this book and how you developed the idea for the story?
Thank you! The road to publication has been circuitous indeed. The impetus for the book, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit, was frustration. I had poured my heart into writing a novel about an iconic figure of 19th-century Austria (Empress Elisabeth), and had tried multiple approaches. Finally, I hit on this idea of a young adult, fictionalized version, and spent two years writing it, getting an agent, and then making the rounds – getting several close deals, but hearing, over and over again, that the timing wasn’t right for historical-contemporary mash-ups.
Consequently, I lamented (and I can remember saying this aloud), “It’s not rocket science, this writing a marketable book, right?” To which the cosmos replied, “If it’s so easy, why can’t you do it?”
The challenge was on! Me and my projected version of Muse-God had drawn the battle lines. My quest was to brainstorm a high-concept idea I could pursue and make viable. Like I said, not exactly noble.
Imagine my surprise when I hit on the idea of a dead cheerleader and the mystery surrounding her death only to hear from my agent that my particular execution of the concept wasn’t “high” at all! Turns out, The Moment Before ended up being more of an homage to art, artists and Portland.
The book opens soon after the death of Brady’s sister, Sabine. Why was it important to set the story in this time of fresh grief and loss for the characters?
One thing I have learned over the years is that beginning a novel with an inciting event and its aftermath offers an explosion of emotion, and the way a writer translates and delivers that emotion on the page can give the reader immediate access.
In the case of Brady and her family, I was interested in exploring the continuum of grief – how a devastating, sudden loss, much like an earthquake or volcanic eruption, sends ripples of wreckage to all affected. And from this wreckage, a rebuilding begins almost immediately – because that’s the nature of living. Only the rebuilding is never predictable or linear, and brings with it new information, new relationships, unprecedented insights – often unwelcome ones.
Brady’s voice as narrator was striking. Sharp, funny, but young and vulnerable as well. How did you settle on a voice for the book? Did it change at all as you went along?
Brady’s voice arrived on its own. I know that sounds all floaty and abstract, but I had little to do with it. Somewhere in my decades as a “fly-on-the-wall” type spy, my subconscious channeled (oh, my God! Did I just say “channeled”?) this stubborn, willful, sensitive, self-possessed girl and threw her at me. Many of the plot details changed, but Brady’s voice remained pretty much the same from the first sentence I clacked on the keyboard.
Throughout the book, we see Brady encountering new pieces of information about the people she loves, including her dead sister. In some cases she seems to be actively seeking out this knowledge; in others, it comes to her unbidden. Was this something you decided on consciously? Does it say something about adolescence, grief, or self-awareness?
That’s so cool that you picked up on that! I think it’s common for artists (like Brady) to develop very strong relationships with their intuition. Brady’s a bit of a loner. In our culture, loners don’t have an easy time going through adolescence. The teen years in the Western world are very expansive and causally reactive – especially now, with Snapchat and all that business. I mean, the way kids have to react and perform pretty much constantly is crazy.
Brady is a throwback. She lives in a sensate world and is a bit of a “seer,” which makes her ripe for these bits of information to penetrate, and in her state of grief, she’s even more vulnerable to this. She absorbs bits of evidence and that compels her to seek the truth, despite the unpopular outcome. It’s like her self-possession, her self-awareness, trumps her need to be popular, to go along – which, of course, makes her heroic to me.
The Moment Before is set in Portland, Oregon, your home town. What was it about Portland that seemed to fit the story?
Ah, well. There is a bit of memoir in this book. I walked those same hills and parks that Brady does when I first arrived in Portland twenty-four years ago fresh from my own loss. My husband had died the year before, very suddenly. I had been pregnant with my second child, and not terribly much older than Brady – I mean, I was in my twenties, but still naïve and raw.
So, I had these two babies, and I’d put them in a double-stroller, and off we would traipse, up and down the magnificent Portland hills. And all the while, I would have this conversation in my head with my dead husband, consulting him on the questions of the day. I would stop and marvel at a feral tomato vine still pushing out fruit in December, and I’d say, aloud, as if Frank were next to me, “We live in a place where life exists through winter. Imagine that?”
The backdrop to my year of grief-related pondering was various Cascade snow-capped peaks. There is something both vast and intimate about Portland. The way it simultaneously offers the long view of life while cradling you in its hand.
I remember your post about the plot board you used to outline this book. Can you talk about that? Is it something you’ll be using again?
Plot has always been hard for me. I like to dwell in the existential meanderings of things, which has proven deadly in my quest to “write a marketable novel.”
The plot board? Well, maybe we could think of it as literary gastric-bypass surgery. It put necessary limits on the gorging of delicious conundrums. You know, I’ve been in workshop with some amazingly talented plotters for many years. Chuck Palahniuk, Chelsea Cain. They made me realize that I had to seek a power greater than myself when it came to narrative arcing – and that turned out to be the plot board.
Chuck likes to ask those less plot-abled in workshop, “So, what is the job of this particular chapter?” To which I typically answered, “Uh… mmph … well…? To illuminate…”
And he’d put up his hand all stop-sign and go, “Illuminating something isn’t the job of the narrative, it’s the job of the reader.”
Plotting out Moment, physically plotting it out on a science-fair style segmented foam board, taught me how to distill action and build it up to something while curtailing my gluttony for interior rumination. But, it still doesn’t come naturally. Alas, I will need to use it again, because, you know, my name is Suzy and I’m a daydreaming pantser.
You’ve already sold another book. What is that one about, and when can we get our hands on it?
Thank you for asking! Well, the happy ending here is, my empress book has also found a home with the good folks at Diversion. Last summer I hired an outside editor to be “fresh eyes” and made a few changes to the book. It has a twined narrative, a dovetail of my teenage empress with a contemporary heroine who unlocks a secret that could potentially rewrite history. I see the book as a series, actually, so I’m very, very excited that Diversion is enthusiastic about launching this first book this coming summer, and from there, we’ll see.
What lies beyond? Are you working on something new?
I am wrapping up a rewrite of an adult novel I began years and years ago, and then I’d like to turn my focus to another empress book and possibly a sequel to Moment, though nothing’s for sure – except, you can probably find me walking the hills of Portland with my new Rottweiler puppy!