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OPTIMISTS DIE FIRST follows Petula who is still struggling to come to terms with the death of her younger sister, Maxine, several years previously. As her family falls apart, Petula focuses on keeping safe and avoiding any hint of danger - walking around construction sites, refusing to shake hands and searching for news of accidental deaths to avoid. Each week, she attends a therapy group at school and then new boy Jacob joins them - and starts to change how she sees the world. But Jacob has secrets, too...
We asked author Susin Nielsen more about her new book:
Q: What do you enjoy about writing for YA readers?
A: I love writing for YA readers. When I have the chance to meet my readers they are the most enthusiastic people ever. And it has been a truly magical experience to meet some of my readers in countries other than Canada as well, like when I was in the UK and Ireland last fall.
Q: What were your teenaged years like?
A: Not the best years of my life, that's for sure. It's such a hard time. I was definitely not my best self.
Q: On to your latest book - do optimists die first? And when did you decide on the title for this 'love story for cynics'?
A: According to various research studies, yes, optimists do die first! I was so thrilled when this title finally popped into my head. The original title for this book was a steaming turd, and I'm not going to tell you what it was - my editors wanted it to change and so did I.
I am forever in debt to my dear author friend Susan Juby, because we were talking about Goodreads one day, and how it's such a dangerous site to visit as an author - if you read nine great reviews of your book, then one crap one, it's the crap one you remember. And Susan said, it's because that's how we're programmed from an evolutionary point of view; to be on the alert for the out of the ordinary, the trouble signs, because it might have saved your life
An example: You're at the beach one day, and the water dramatically recedes, the birds stop singing, the beach is calm and beautiful - an optimist would think "how lovely". A pessimist would think: tsunami. A few weeks later the new title popped into my head, and it fit perfectly.
Q: Each of the main characters in this story is dealing with grief, and guilt - why did you want them to work through these emotions?
A: I don't know why I started toying with the ideas of guilt, and shame, and blame. I notice I like to sometimes dig into behavior and situations that I've tended to look at in a very black-and-white way, because of course nothing in life is ever black and white, and I think it's a novelist's job to explore the greys. I also wanted to explore what happens when a good person does a bad thing.
Q: How well did you know Petula's character before you started writing her - and why did you call her Petula?
A: I didn't know her super-well. I knew she went to the principal's office a lot, I knew she belonged to some sort of counseling group. I knew her mom had too many cats. I'm trying to remember if she was a crafter off the top... she probably was. I like strong names for my characters, and because her dad was so into music, Petula popped into my head (after Petula Clark).
Q: Why is it written in the first person?
A: All of my books so far have been written in first person. It's automatically where I go. It took me a while to figure out that it's because I can get so deeply into the psyche of my protagonist that way, and I can write all their innermost thoughts, which is also where a lot of the humour comes from.
Q: Humour is a big part of the story and, despite her grief, Petula's observations are astute and funny. How difficult was it to find the balance of humour and seriousness in this story?
A: As I mentioned above, writing in first person means that we, the reader, can find some of Petula's thoughts pretty funny, even if she doesn't see it that way.
Having humour in my books is hugely important. Some of the subjects I've tackled have been pretty dark, and without the humour it would just be relentlessly bleak. Without the humour they'd be books I'd have no interest in reading. That said, I never try to be glib, and I always try to be true to my characters, and I always, always have love and compassion for them.
Q: As a result of her experiences, Petula, fears everything and makes up a scrapbook of accidental deaths - did you research these or make them up?
A: Every single one of those freak accidents is based on some form of truth. I rewrote them enough to be fictional, but people have actually died in those ways. I don't share Petula's level of fears, but I will admit that I don't love walking by construction sites, and I always feel a frisson of anxiety if I see an unattended backpack.
Q: The students all eventually talk about and deal with their guilt except Jacob, who is reluctant to discuss or to revisit his past. How hard was it to pace their 'reveals'?
A: Very hard! I struggled with that, and thankfully I have great editors, and they gave me good notes/suggestions. At one point I seem to recall I had a real "info dump" in one section of the book. It definitely took a few drafts to get the "reveals" right.
Q: In this story, are you also exploring the shift that teenagers make from childhood into adulthood - that realisation that the world is more shades of grey than black and white?
A: Yes, definitely. I did it also in 'Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen'. The idea that sometimes, good people do bad / stupid things. Does that make them a horrible person from that day forward? Of course not.
But that's not just a lesson young people are learning. I think so many of us still haven't figured that out even as adults. We like to have villains. I can still be terribly judgmental when I read about certain things certain people have done; and sometimes I like to explore that, and break it down, in my writing.
Q: How hard is it to leave your characters once you've written their stories - or do you feel you might want to revisit Petula and Jacob?
A: They always keep living with me. But it's not that hard, usually because I'm so darned relieved to be done! That said, I do have characters from one book appear in another sometimes, when it makes sense. I love checking in on them in this way, and seeing how they're doing.
Q: When do you write and where is your favourite writing place?
A: Mornings are best for me. I do most of my writing in my home office, on the second floor of our house. But oddly, I love writing on airplanes. It's completely uninterrupted time. Believe it or not, I'm answering these questions on a plane!
Q: Are you working on a new book?
A: I just got my first round of notes on my new YA manuscript, working title 'No Fixed Address'.
Q: What's your favourite escape? Do you have any hobbies, like Petula's crafting bug?
A: I am not a crafter, have no skills like that, and would be the world's worst crafter. My favourite escape is hopping on my road bike and going out for a great bike ride. I also like gardening while listening to a good podcast.