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When Characters Take Over
An interview with Tabitha Suzuma, author of 'A Note of Madness'
Ambrose Musiyiwa (amusiyiwa)     Print Article 
Published 2007-04-16 11:23 (KST)   

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Tabitha Suzuma's first novel, A Note of Madness tells the story of a teenage musical genius struggling with manic depression. The novel has received a lot of critical attention from newspapers, magazines and websites that include The Guardian, Hackwriters.com, Cherwell, Medical Humanities, CMIS and Write Away.

A Note of Madness, which is now available in both hardcover and paperback, was also shortlisted in the 2006 NASEN & TES Special Educational Needs Book Award.

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Suzuma spoke about what she has been working on since making her debut as an author, in May last year:

How would you say you have you been received so far?

A Note of Madness came out in paperback this February and I am hoping it will sell well because its sequel, A Song for Jennah, will only be published next year if sales figures are high. And as soon as I get the green light from Random House -- with luck by August -- I will start work on the third book in the A Note of Madness trilogy. It will be about Flynn and Jennah post-university making their way on the classical concert circuit.

My second novel is coming out in May and has already received some great reviews. It's called From Where I Stand and is a psychological thriller about a deeply disturbed teenager trying to track down his mother's killer. I have a fourth book under contract with Random House: Without Looking Back, about a family on the run.

In the last interview we had, you spoke about wanting to venture into writing books for adults. How is this going?

Tabitha Suzuma
©2007 Tabitha Suzuma
At the moment, Random House want to build me as an author and so they are only publishing one of my books each year. This, in part, prompted my decision to branch out into adult fiction. It's not easy making a living on one book a year. Another reason I wanted to write for adults was because most of the fan mail I received for A Note of Madness (which is set at university) has been from older teenagers and adults of all ages. Nonetheless, I do plan to keep writing for teenagers too.

I have just finished my first novel for adults, Maya which is based on a relationship between a father and his young daughter. It's about a man who loses everything. It's about letting go. It took me seven months to write.

My agent is sending it out to publishers at the moment. It does mean starting out from scratch in a way, which is a bit daunting, because my current editor only publishes books for young adults.

I have recently started work on my second novel for adults which aims to be another psychological thriller. It will be based on the idea that the people closest to us are not always who they seem to be.

Perhaps we could also talk about the writing process itself. What do you start with? And how do you proceed from there?

I start with a character, or an idea. With A Note of Madness, I was trudging through the snow one winter in Helsinki, listening to Rachmaninov on my iPod. That's when the character of Flynn came to me: a Finnish concert pianist suffering from bipolar disorder. I was severely depressed at the time (hence my choice of holiday destination), and everything sort of fell into place. Flynn became very real to me, more so than the people around me, a character born out of my passion for classical music and my fascination with the link between mental illness and the artistic genius.

I came home from my tour of Scandinavia and instantly started writing, without any plan or any real idea of where the story was going. Things just came to me as I wrote, and I wrote as much for myself as for anyone else.

With my second book, From Where I Stand, the process was a little different. I had secured the contract for book one, so this time I was writing to be published. I deliberately moved away from the first book and chose to write something more plot-driven, with a twist at the end; yet still retaining the psychological slant.

This second book was much harder to write because I knew it was going to be read -- at least by my editor if no-one else -- so it was a struggle not to feel self-conscious. There was suddenly a lot more at stake: I had something to lose, and I knew A Note of Madness was going to be a tough act to follow.

Other writers have said they find starting a story to be the most difficult part of the writing process. How similar or different is your own experience?

The starting point of a story comes to me quite easily -- it's the rest which is hard! A scene appears before me, I see it in my mind's eye, as vivid as watching a film. A chair in a psychiatrist's office; a teenager standing at the window waiting to be taken to his new foster family... The starting point is always obvious, somehow.

I try to write plans, but I'm not very good at it! I always start off with a very real sense of my main character -- I make sure that I know that character really well before I write the first word. I will also have a general idea of the outline of the story, kind of like a rough charcoal sketch.

As I write, I fill in the detail and ideas come to me as I go along. Often the characters seem to take over, and starts pulling in directions I had not previously thought about. I'll go with them, and sometimes this results in a very different book from the one I set out to write. But it also means that the end result is almost always richer and fuller than the idea I started with.

Sometimes, however, things do go awry. You take a wrong turn, and suddenly you find yourself writing a scene which doesn't work, or which is taking you in a direction that doesn't fit with the rest of the book. Then I will have to backtrack -- find the point at which the story changed, and see if you can bring it back on course.

That can be really frustrating: suddenly realising that the intensive labour of the last few weeks was all in vain. But it's all part of the writing process: often you have to explore different avenues before you find the one which feels right.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ambrose Musiyiwa

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