Interview: Suzy Vitello on Her YA Debut, Pacing, and Place

Suzy Vitello smiles at her official book launch party, held in January at Voodoo Donuts.

Suzy Vitello smiles at her official book launch party, held in January at Voodoo Donuts.

Suzy Vitello’s debut YA novel, The Moment Before, opens after art student Brady Wilson’s sister dies in a cheerleading accident. This tightly woven novel braids the after-effects of a tragedy with a smart coming-of-age story, fueled as much by Brady seeking the truth about her sister as by what she learns about herself. It’s actually two coming-of-age stories, one cut short.

The Moment Before is a skillfully written page-turner, going deeper and darker with each revelation, while retaining Suzy’s tight control of language and plot. The  twists are entirely organic, and they—amazingly—echo the moment of the accident itself. What’s expected isn’t what happens, what’s believed isn’t necessarily true.

Suzy will be reading from The Moment Before, alongside  Kate Scott, the author of Counting to D, at 7 p.m. Tuesday, February 18, at Annie Bloom’s Books in Southwest Portland.

I’ve known Suzy for nearly ten years, and I couldn’t be more excited for her long-awaited debut. I’m so glad she could join us today for the Seven Questions Series.

1. Tell us about The Moment Before.

coverLRFirst, there is no better invitation than that of an interviewer asking a debut novelist to tell the world about her book. So thank you for that.

The Moment Before zooms up close to the life of a family after the death of one of their children. The filter for the book is the other child in the family—the younger sister, Brady, who at seventeen is battling the usual obstacles faced by a quiet teen who is more artsy than outgoing.

Brady stumbles upon some evidence that re-explains factors in her sister’s death, and the boy held accountable becomes her ally in uncovering a truth nobody wants to believe.

The book is about this quest for truth. Not just the truth about a girl’s death, but an inquiry into authenticity generally.

2. Every scene—and every sentence—of this fast-paced novel seems essential. Did you have to cut a lot to make the plot zing and sizzle the way it does, or did you have a plan all along?

I’m not very patient with scenes. Not as a reader, and not as a writer. It’s a style choice, I suppose, but I prefer a more accelerated pace that accentuates image and voice over pretty much everything else. That becomes problematic when you consider plot–and YA must have a somewhat “zingy” plot. So, to help with this, I constructed an outline with sticky notes pasted to a science fair board. Then, I tried to write every chapter to some sort of confounding end. A puzzle, a surprise, a question.

3. You’ve beautifully grounded your novel in the landscape, traditions, and flavors of Portland, Oregon. Do you have any advice for other writers on how to create a powerful, multi-dimensional sense of place?

Oh, wow, thanks. So nice to hear! Place is about senses and imagery, and if I have any advice to writers on evoking a sense of place, it would be to take walks and pay attention to nuances of environment. Even if you’re setting your novel on the moon or something, it’s helpful to exploit the familiar: the way pebbles feel on tender feet. The smell of damp tree bark. The Doppler effect of a screeching bird as it chases intruders from its nest.

4. I have to ask, Suzy, because I’m so excited about your debut: how did you celebrate your very first book birthday?

Chained to my seat! As you know, Laura, these days, the world of your book launch takes place largely on a screen. The community of people who celebrate with you are vocal, and you want to hug them all, right? Acknowledging tweets and shout-outs seems not only polite, but celebratory. I also drank a wee bit of champagne.

5. You’re a member of one of Portland’s hottest writing groups. What’s that like, working with such talented, and incredibly popular, authors?

Seven Questions LogoHonestly, I thank the spirits and goddesses and whoever’s in charge every day for my fantastic literary community. The generosity of my writing group cannot be overstated.

Even though we have a diversity of style in our group–we write vastly different books, really–there is a palpable energy in our circle. A commitment to our stories and our readers. And we understand that about one another, and respect it. So on our best days, we work hard to filter our comments and ideas on one another’s pages to serve the final audience. Also, we really have been together a long time in dog years, y’know? We approach the work knowing what we know about each other’s processes and stages of draft.

6. Your next novel, The Empress Chronicles, will be coming out from Diversion Books this summer. Can you tell us a bit about that project?

Oh, my yes! I just got confirmation that we’re looking at a July 29th launch day.  My husband and I spent this snowy day brainstorming this very question, so here’s where we are with it.

The book is a mash-up of contemporary and historical with a bit of fanciful mystery thrown in for good measure.  Liz is fifteen, and has been sent to live with her father and his girlfriend after her mother takes a job overseas. She’s got a pretty nasty case of OCD, so the ramshackle farmhouse where she’s been consigned, with all its farm dirt and critters, is really difficult for her.  Her therapist, a German woman, introduces her to a historical figure–the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as Sisi. Turns out, the therapist is in possession of the empress’s girlhood diary (a distant forebear had been governess to the empress).

The book is alternately narrated by the young empress-to-be herself, and the diary (along with an enchanted locket) becomes a bit of a deus ex machina device to bring the heroines together.

The settings for this novel: the edge of Portland in a farmhouse (where I, myself, lived in for three years), and the Bavarian countryside (where I wish I lived), are the backdrop. The concept, distilled to a couple of sentences, might be: What if you had the power to change the timeline of your personal history? How would you balance your desires with those that affect the greater good?

7. What are you working on now?

An adult novel, and I’m super excited about it! It’s told from three points-of-view, third person, and has a very messy love story at its center.

Thanks so much for participating in the Seven Questions Series, Suzy! 

Find The Moment Before at Annie Bloom’s or Amazon. You can read about her friendship with Cheryl Strayed and Lidia Yuknavitch in this recent BuzzFeed interview. And check out Suzy’s website and her writing blog, Let’s Talk about Writing.

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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