Profile by Dave Jenkinson.
Although an Albertan by birth, Susan, the second of four children and the only girl, grew up in British Columbia. "I was born in Ponoka, AB, on March 30, 1969, but we moved to Smithers, a town in the interior of BC, when I was six-years-old or younger. I have no idea why we moved there." Susan also spent one of her adolescent years in Salmon Arm, BC, and she knows the reasons for that move, describing them as "a couple of behavioral issues I developed along the way."
"I have a group of aunts and uncles in Salmon Arm, and I used to spend all my summers there. It was idyllic because we were on the lake, and it was fun. The idea was that I would move to Salmon Arm for my grade 10 year and that my pleasant summer behaviour would carry over into the school year. It really didn't at all, and these relatives weren't prepared at all for the kid that joined them. I plunged into a huge depression, and for several months I wouldn't eat with the families I was staying with. I would only eat Ramen Noodles. I think I actually developed a mild case of scurvy because I wouldn't put any vegetables in my noodles either."
"I ended up getting moved from one branch of my family to the next until I actually came to appreciate my own family. I prepared my aunts and uncles for the worst that teenagers can be. I asked to be returned home, but was not allowed, and had to stick out the entire year. I don't present those kinds of experiences directly in my books. What I do is filter my experiences and turn them into something else. I am motivated by regret. I wish I had been a little more together. Even though Alice, the 15 year-old heroine of my books, seems fairly eccentric and doesn't fit in, she's still got this amazing sense of integrity and holds it together in some fairly difficult situations, something I couldn't do. Instead, I took the ‘eating Ramen Noodles and refusing to come out of my room' route."
While the circumstances which led up to Susan's "exile" to Salmon Arm were complex, some of their roots reside in her experiences in the social environments of schools. "When I was very young, through not paying attention, I would get into the most outrageous getups. My mother likes to tell a story about how I arrived at primary school one day with a shoe and a boot on. My choice of footwear was the result of having my head in the clouds. I paid a price for that, socially. I later became very conscious of what I was wearing and how I was wearing it. Clothes became a way to reach an identity and to enter different worlds."
In addition to Susan's concerns about how she dressed, she also recalls another way in which she stood out, again in the wrong way at least in terms of apparent social norms. "I grew up with the idea that having a good vocabulary and speaking your mind were great. I still have memories of my aunts and uncles and my parents putting me up on a table to do song and dance routines. (Later, I put that in one of the ‘Alice' books.) This was terrific stuff, and I thought kids did stuff like this. Then I went to school and learned that kids, especially girl kids, weren't supposed to put themselves out there like that. They were supposed to shut up and figure out their position in the social structure. I don't know if I was obtuse, but there was a lot of reading of social situations that I wasn't prepared for or any good at. I still have trouble understanding the minutiae of how society operates. All of this came as a terrible shock. Later, I put my mind to it and decided I was going to fit in. Like a lot of kids, especially the ones who are a bit eccentric, something profound was lost in the process."
About the age of 12-13, Susan, tired of not fitting in, transformed herself from "a bookish kid into a smoking, drinking bush party queen because it was easier than being an outcast, even though being a party girl was kind of a hard life. I was really committed to the fitting-in project. When I was 13-years-old, I would stay out for two days at a time. Now, I look at 13 year-old girls, and I think, ‘I can't believe I was doing what I was doing when I was their age.' It was outrageous, and it was trauma, trauma, trauma, but it was still easier than being a person that no one would talk to or a person that got called names. That's hard for anybody, sensitive, not sensitive. It's easier to block it all out with substances and that's what I did from a young age. I was an enthusiastic promoter of ‘better living through substances.' A certain kind of kid can go out and get herself a very adult life style. It's a dangerous life style, but it's available right around the corner. That's been happening for a very long time."
"Initially I wanted to be a writer, and then, as I got more and more badly behaved, that goal started not to become an option any more. I lost touch with this idea that I could tell stories. I went for the precocious careers - a lawyer because I talk a lot and then a fashion designer because I've always been interested in clothes. I think part of me has always been interested in identity and ‘trying different things on.' Fashion is one of the only ways that young people have to assert themselves without opening their mouths. It's a role you can take on, and you can do it in this really concrete way."
Despite her wild behavior, Susan never got expelled from school. Susan explains, ‘Suspended, never expelled. I believe I got suspended for smoking, and I may have gotten suspended for drinking. My attendance was not so bad, but there was a high price to pay at home when I got into these difficulties. I still had this idea of myself as somebody who went to school, and so I didn't completely give up on school. There was this tension between what I actually did and what I wanted to do. That's part of what kept me going to school. One of my friends quit before we graduated, but I kept going. Out of school, I had to dumb myself down. For some of the people in my particular set, the big vocabulary was not acceptable. As well, for them, my reading was a bizarre thing to do. I had to make myself into somebody who didn't read or have a vocabulary. I had to keep those things private."
In a piece entitled "Directed Studies," which can be found at www.HarperTeacher.com, Susan talks about the influence Mr. Law, one of her high school teachers, had on her life. "I had read all the stuff on the reading list for English, but I wasn't demonstrating my understanding in class at all. Occasionally I had good ideas, and I would say, ‘My essay's going to be about this,' and Mr. Law would get excited, thinking I would write something good. Then, of course, I never did because I spent no time doing homework, and so my pieces were crap. However, Mr. Law still gave me an opportunity to be part of the ‘Directed Studies' class, which was composed of the school's gifted students. He still treated me like I still had something to say, even though I wasn't sure where he got that idea. I sent him ‘Directed Studies' after I wrote it, and he wrote me back this incredibly gracious letter saying why he thought I could do what I wasn't even sure I could do. It was fascinating. He said he could see that I was negotiating two worlds, and I thought, ‘Wow.' He had an absolutely profound impact on my life. I'm sure that teachers don't realize the impact they're having because the effects aren't felt right away. They might be felt 10 years later, and so teachers don't know what giving somebody a new chance every single day might accomplish. Students hold on to those things."
After high school, Susan worked for a year in a bar in Smithers and then went to fashion design school in Toronto. "It was a pretty big deal to go from Smithers, BC, population 5,000, to Toronto whose population seemed like 50 million to me. I had never taken a bus or done any of those things that kids from big cities take for granted. I launched myself into this place where I didn't know a soul, something I couldn't even contemplate doing today. But of course, when I got there, my ‘lifestyle' caught up with me. It didn't take very long before I'd spent every penny on Yonge Street on clothes and going to parties and had to leave school because I couldn't pay my tuition. I was waiting for a tax return or something and asked the administration, ‘Can you give me a little longer to pay?' and they said, ‘No, in fact, we can't.'"
"I still have some regrets about not being a costume designer, but I quickly figured out that I didn't have the commitment to fashion per se that the other students in the program did. They would stay late and work on things, but I had no interest in staying late. I wanted to go party. Plus, I wasn't all that interested in fashion conversation. I did one project for the Ontario Costume Society Award where you had to reinterpret 19th century costume design for the modern day. I wrote an essay about it and found the writing part interesting, but the actual making of the garments was much less so."
That Susan experienced some challenges in actually producing the garment is understandable, given her criteria for course selection in school. "In high school, I took whatever was easy, and Home Ec. was one the easier ones. I was allowed to use fabric glue instead of actually learning how to sew. I can still remember the backpack I made. I shouldn't say this on the record, but I'm sure I didn't have the prerequisites to graduate. I'm not sure how I actually did. I think there was a little bit of ‘getting-rid-of-Juby' going on."
After leaving design school, Susan had a series of part-time jobs, including working in a wool store, being a bus girl in a restaurant, and managing a record store. "The first two jobs have appeared in the ‘Alice' books, but not the record store. It was too traumatic. It was an awful experience for a 20-21 year-old. People around the Toronto neighborhood seemed to have figured out that I was somebody who knew nothing about running a store, and I was the target for every shoplifter around, including my staff. People would shoplift right in front of me. It was a nightmare, and I didn't last very long even though I was trying so hard and working 16 hours a day."
Susan acknowledges that the music she played over the store's sound system into the street may have also contributed to her dismissal. "It was a chain store, and I was more interested in the music the kids outside were listening to. There was a group of street punks who would bring in things like the Dayglo Abortions and ask me to pipe it out into the street. We were only allowed to play bands like Milli Vanilli and the Doobie Brothers. I guess it didn't help my reputation that I was blasting out this stuff that we didn't even carry, but I just preferred the punk music to what we were selling."
In Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last, Alice has an outdoorsy job, and so did Susan. "I worked at a fly-fishing lodge up in northern BC where I was a housekeeper for a grueling two and a half months in the bush, seven days a week, 16 hours a day. It was a crazy job." However, Susan found it preferable to spending the summers in Toronto. "I spent one summer in Toronto when I was working at a yarn store all day and ‘Just Desserts' most of the night and thought, ‘Summer in Toronto is unholy. I don't know how anyone survives this climate,' and so that's why I started going away in the summers."
Susan also began her B.A. while she was in Toronto. "I was living with a bunch of very smart people who were all doing their undergrad degrees. I admired them, but I had a lot of fear built up around my own academic abilities. Some of my roommates were education students, and they were very supportive. I can still remember them saying, ‘Come on. Take one class.' At that time, if you were 21, there was a back door entrance into university. You could take one English class, and, if you did well enough, you could get into university part-time. If you did really well, you could get in full-time. I can still remember going to apply for this English course. I think my knees were actually banging together. I was afraid that someone would see me going up the stairs to the University of Toronto Admissions Office and shout, ‘You! Susan Juby! Get back down here.' I was terrified and horribly intimidated. It was a gulf to cross that bridge and actually walk into a university classroom, but I did it, loved the course and loved the teacher. I ended up going full-time."
"I did the first two years at the U. of T, and then the last two at UBC, although those two took three years. I was going to be an editor on the student paper, The Ubyssey. The UBC student government was pretty right wing at that time, and the newspaper satirized them and so the student council, in a very underhanded move, actually closed down the newspaper office. They fired the collective that was elected to run the paper the next year. I was supposed to be the culture coordinator, the arts editor. For that ‘extra' year I found myself with, I messed around taking courses and doing work study."
After graduating in 1997, Susan went to work at a Vancouver self-help/how-to book publishing house, Hartley & Marks. "I started there as an intern, and I also worked at a liquor store. In a small publishing house, because of the low wages, a lot of leaving goes on, and so I got promoted really, really rapidly. First, I was a typesetter, the world's worst typesetter, and then I was the world's worst this and then the world's worst that. I ended up as the managing editor, hopefully not the world's worst managing editor, but there's every chance I was. It was while I was there that I started to work on the ‘Alice' books. The first ‘Alice' came out in 2000, and I quit Hartley & Marks to go into the Master's of Publishing program at Simon Fraser University in 2001."
"I entered the master's program with the idea that I would write part-time and teach creative writing/publishing part-time when I was finished. I found that a lot of writers don't know very much about publishing, and it's a real handicap to go into it not understanding how it works. There are a lot of expectations that don't get fulfilled, and so the more you understand about how publishing works, the more effective you can be in your career (even though the hard facts can be a bit unpalatable but you try not to dwell on those)."
In a roundabout way, Susan can thank a failed relationship for her becoming a writer. "I had this tendency to date musicians. I think it was my way of being around the creative process but not actually having to be creative. Anyway, I had a big, bad breakup with someone who had been reading The Artist's Way. I read the book and found this description of something called the ‘daily pages.' I thought, ‘Daily pages? Oh, maybe I could do that.' I took a bus to work and, instead of taking a novel to read, I took one of the very beautiful journals that Hartley & Marks publishes, and I started to write. In fact, the first words in that journal ended up in the book that became Alice, I Think."
"I'm not sure where Alice came from. She just seemed to rise from the ashes of my imagination. Eventually, at age 27, as part of this process of coming into my own, I learned how to drive a car, and so I started to drive myself, my journal and my dog to a coffee shop where I'd write. Then I would drive to take the dog for a walk, and sometimes I'd sit in the car and go over what I'd written before walking the dog on the beach. All of this occurred before I went to work, and so I was getting up very early."
It was during one of these dog walks that Susan found the model for Alice's first boyfriend, the character known as ‘Goose.' "I was sitting in the car, editing the book, when this guy came plunging along. Now, you have to understand that Vancouver's a place where you wear the ‘right' exercise gear. It's all Mountain Equipment Coop, and you have to have expensive running shoes and wear a lot of lycra, but here's this guy running along in army pants, boots and a not-approved shirt of some kind that's not breathable and doesn't wick away sweat. He probably didn't realize that anyone was watching him, and he made a big leap onto a post before dashing off down the beach in this absolutely carefree way. I thought, ‘Oh, Alice loves him and wants to date him.'"
"‘Alice' just didn't shut up, and I enjoyed her stories. I had such a great time thinking, ‘Oh, what is she up to now?' or ‘I can't believe she just did that.' When I had three journals-worth of Alice's adventures, I took the Greyhound to Salmon Arm and to my godfather with whom I had lived when I was 16. After the trauma of having to live with me, we were just starting to put our relationship back together. He's a real reader and has the same sense of humour I have, so I gave him the journals to read. As he was reading, he was laughing out loud, and hearing his laughter was the greatest thrill for me. He was the first person to read the journals, and it was wonderful to realize that they were making someone laugh."
"After his reading and laughing, his next response was, ‘These should be published.' My thought was, ‘It was hard enough to show you my grubby little handwritten journals. I don't think I could show them to anyone in the publishing world.' I'd worked in the publishing world, and I knew how cold, uncaring and unfeeling it can be. No, I don't want to be one of those people getting a rejection letter, but he started sort of a campaign of terror in which he called every day and said, ‘Have you sent out a sample yet?' Based on his pushing and pushing, I started sending samples of the book to agents because I thought that's what you're supposed to do. You get an agent, and then you get published. Of course, no agent had any interest in dealing with me, and the publishers weren't very interested in dealing with me either until one publishing company finally said, " We think you've written a YA.' I said, ‘Oh. Ok, then,' and that's when I started submitting to young adult publishers and that's also when people began to be interested in the book."
"When I first wrote the books I didn't think of them as YA. I thought of them as books about a teenage girl. Later, I got interested in the idea of, ‘What is a YA novel?' I started looking at developmental tasks of adolescence and realized, ‘Wow, they're all in these books.' When you think about your teenage years, that's what you do whether you want to or not - you confront these tasks. I had no conscious idea that I was getting right back in touch with those things."
"I owe everything to Thistledown because I don't think another publisher would have taken that chance on Alice, I Think because the book's a little raw for young people and are a little juvenile for grownups. Rod McIntyre was my editor, and he was terrific. I had no craft, and he was very supportive. I'm still learning the craft. I've never taken a creative writing class. It's all been seat of the pants stuff, and Thistledown was great and patient. Rod said, ‘I love it. It's so funny. Now I want a beginning, a middle and an end.' Because of my university English courses, my first thought was, ‘Plot? That's so passé.' I fancied myself post-modern. Nobody needed a plot. I've since grown to love the idea of having a plot, and Rod brought me around to that idea in a nice gentle way."
Susan credits Alice, I Think's being nominated for the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award with her being able to secure an agent. By this time, she had also written Miss Smithers, and she explains that "I had a clause in my contract with Thistledown that said, ‘If you or your representative sells foreign rights, you get the lion's share of the profits.' My agent took Miss Smithers and the foreign rights to New York. There, she met with an editor over lunch and sold the book. In fact, Harper US bought Miss Smithers, the rights to Alice, I Think and a third book. When Harper US was republishing Alice, I Think, my editor asked, ‘Do you have anything you'd like to change?' to which I replied, ‘Yes, I'd like to change the beginning.'"
"After I'd rewritten the beginning, I was then in a position of having almost a new book, and so I asked Thistledown if they would sell Alice, I Think to Harper Canada because Harper Canada had gone in on Miss Smithers and the third book, which became Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last. Unlike most publishers, who would have stood in the way, Thistledown agreed to sell Alice, I Think to HarperCollins Canada. If they hadn't, we would have the weird, disjointed situation of having the opening volume of a trilogy being with one publisher and the remaining books with another."
"Alice, I Think changed a lot from the Thistledown edition to the HarperCollins edition. For example, the HarperCollins edition has the whole home-school thing in it, which wasn't in the original Thistledown version. After the book first appeared in 2000, I did all these readings and people asked two questions, one being, ‘Why does Alice treat school like she's never experienced school before?' The truthful answer is that Alice treats school that way because she's like me. School remained a mystery from grade one right until I graduated. The other thing people asked was, ‘How is it that Alice seems to have a very good sense of herself in spite of all this stuff that happens?'"
"So, as I was rewriting the beginning, I thought, ‘Well, what would cause that?' I decided to make it her being home-schooled. I gave her a terrible experience in grade one where she goes to school for the first time dressed as a hobbit, and then she's taken out and home-schooled for 10 years. All this time at home would account for some of the eccentricities that Alice's gotten from her family, and it would account for public school being really a new thing. Because what I do is make jokes, I made some perhaps not-so-smart remarks about home-schooling, and not everyone has been amused."
"Having to produce a third book was a whole different thing than what I'd been doing which was working on Alice, I Think in the morning before work. I wrote half of Miss Smithers on a Canada Council grant. I was at Simon Fraser when I finally finished Miss Smithers around Christmas time. However, I had no experience with producing something that was already under contract, and I'm a real worrier. When I was working on the third book, I was thinking, ‘This is so scary. I'm supposed be working on this all day, and people are now actually reading it and caring if it's lousy of not.' With the other two books, I had an element of entertaining first myself, then my godfather, and, after that, whoever happened to be around. Now I was forced to be professional about it. It gave me nightmares. I didn't sleep for three months before I handed it in to my editor. I was absolutely sickened by the process. I'm still a little nervous about the process. I'm under contract with Harper for two more books, the ‘Cowboy' one and the next one. The certainty translates itself in my twisted mind into a lot of uncertainty and anxiety."
Certainly, many aspects of Susan's growing up made their way into the "Alice" books. Susan admits to actually being a contestant in the Miss Smithers contest. "I was the Northern Saddle Club representative. I would say that every girl in Smithers, or her best friend, ended up in the that pageant. The contest had this great cross section of people. Former contestants are still emailing me saying things like, ‘I was Miss Smithers in 1992.' Some have even sent me their sashes, while others have made jokes about the impact that it had on their lives. When I recall growing up in Smithers, I think fondly of that competition. When you live in a small town, you do things you would never do in a city. Yes, some of the girls who were in it were beauty contestant material; others of us, not so much."
"The pageant was a fun experience in a weird twisted way, but it is NOT a city experience. It's very Canadian in that it was more of a citizenship thing. There was a fabulous irony about the contest, and most of us had an idea that being in the pageant was a funny thing to be doing. For my ‘talent,' I performed a monologue. I can't remember who wrote the story, but it was about a woman who has just shoplifted a black negligee. It was a very inappropriate monologue, but I mumbled my way through it, and so no one heard what I said anyway. Afterwards, some woman came up to me and said, ‘I think that would have been amazing if I could hear it.' My friends and I were not really town-representative material. We stood out for getting the drunkest after the Sweetheart ball. The organizers usually did manage to pull the pageant out of the fire and actually crown the right girl ‘queen'. By that I mean no bush party queens won. The pageant is no longer held, which is a shame."
Susan points out that Alice is, herself, a writer, and that her development in that area can be traced over the three books. "In each of the books, Alice is writing, and so there's always a bit of a meta thing going on. In the first book, she's writing her lists of life goals; in the second one, she's writing her 'zine, and, in the third one, she's writing screen plays. I wanted to have fun with the idea that we're one person when we're producing something and another in real life. So in Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last, there's that tension between this screen play that she's producing and her actual life. I liked the fact she's supposed to be becoming a realist and her life is getting harsher in some ways but in her screen play, which is where she goes for a respite, everybody is fabulously beautiful and wealthy. She is fantastic, her hair is long and blonde, and Quentin Tarantino wants her. Even through we tend to poo-poo films and television, kids need a bit of a break because life can be very difficult. Also, Alice's screen play is incredibly, incredibly bad, and writing bad screen plays, I discovered, is a lot of fun."
Because people's senses of humour are all so different, writing humour can be quite challenging. Asked how she knows when something she writes is funny, Susan replies, "I don't know. Peter de Vries wrote something along the lines of, ‘I don't know how I'm funny. Do you ask a cow how it produces milk? You just excrete it.' That's kind of how the humor thing works for me. I don't actually know. I have no idea. It's either funny, or it's not funny. I just need an entry point and to let it go off on crazy tangents. It's a big mystery to me. I think it would be hard if you were trying to make something funny and you're just not built that way. But, if that's your sensibility, then you just go with it. I'm a big one for cracking up on my own jokes. I've sat in coffee shops where I'm writing and laughed and laughed surreptitiously. Then I'll take it away and read it in private and giggle some more. That's either the sign of a personality disorder, or just how the writing process works for me. Either I'm amusing myself or not. My husband, James, does not get involved in my writing, but he's very funny, and I steal from him constantly. He's funny in a different way than I am and has a different comedy style, but he's really an entertaining guy just to hang around with. Occasionally I tell people that I'm stealing funny things that have happened to them. "
Reflecting on the trilogy's audience level, Susan suggests, "Perhaps a 10-year-old who's reading way above grade level, but my instinct has always been to say 14 or 15 and up. It very much depends on the kid. Some kids like really sweet stories, and this trilogy would not be appropriate for them. I have a lot of 12-year-olds who write to me saying, ‘I love this,' but if they're coming to the store with their mom, I suggest, ‘You might want to pick that up when your mom's not around.' When I was younger, I read stuff that was grotesquely inappropriate, and so it's really all about, ‘Do you like it? Do you think it's funny? Are your parents going to write me angry letters?"
Those "angry letters" could touch on the book's purported ‘sex' and ‘bad language,' but Susan responds by pointing out, "It's all ‘prelude sex' in the books. Having Alice's and Goose's attempt to have sex interrupted by a moose was, I thought, such a weird, Smithery sort of thing to happen because, when I was a kid, moose used to walk across our lawn. As well, I read on the internet about all these instances of people having threatening encounters with moose during the mating season and when they have young ‘cubs' (as Goose would put it). What better way to stop Alice's attempt to lose her virginity?"
"People have been upset about swearing in the books because, up to a point, the language is realistic. The F word is a boundary that's only crossed once and then just in the third book. Some people are upset by violence and by Alice's method of coping with the world. I don't see the book's contents as being all that harsh, but some people like things ‘pretty' and ‘cute' and when things aren't nice and fun, it's upsetting to them. When a book is packaged like chick lit, any kind of rawness can upset people. I see Alice as living in a very happy little world. She's not living on the street. She has extended community support. She doesn't have abusive parents. They are inept, but they love her a lot. She has an ideal life. It always surprises me when people don't think it's funny. Humour is a language. Some people aren't going to speak that particular language. When they tell me it's too harsh, I think, ‘What world did you live in? That's not harsh. That's not even a little bit harsh.'"
In making her decision to place the "Alice" books in Smithers, Susan recalls that "when I was growing up, I was a real reader, but everything in books seemed to happen in England or in New York or Los Angeles. Nothing happened in Smithers, and I had a sense that no story could happen here and that whatever's happening to me is just tawdry and not at all the stuff that could ever be of interest to anyone else. Consequently, it was a bit of stubbornness that made me say, ‘In my mind, all of this is taking place in Smithers, and I'm going to leave it set there.' Stories happen everywhere, even in small northern British Columbia towns that you've never seen treated in fiction. One of the cool things that's happened in the last 20 years is that stories are now set everywhere."
In describing her approach to writing, Susan says, "I start with the seed of a character, and then I put that individual into situations and see what happens. With the new book, I was writing about two girls. One has money and one doesn't. (The dressage world has a lot to do with money). The girls had a friend, this boy whose name was Alex, and he was gay. I became so much more interested in him and his journey than I was in them that I got rid of both of them and started to concentrate on Alex. I added his friend, Cleo, later. The book's set on Vancouver Island, but there's a lot of fictionalized stuff in the setting, including a fake girls equestrian riding school.
"I used to be a write-all-the-way-through person. Also, I used to write longhand. I would write, write, write and then send it to someone else and get it keyboarded. Now, I use the write/revise approach, but I think I'm going to try and stop that because I find it more useful just to get all the way to the end of the story. I still have some problems with plotting. I find it really tough."
"My primary editor is in New York, but my Canadian editor funnels her comments through the American editor. I am edited by both of them, but I only have one set of comments though to deal with." As well, Susan has as a UK and Australian editor, but she says, ‘With them, generally the only discrepancies I have to deal with are cultural references where people don't understand things. For instance, the Australians didn't understand 4H, and so with things like that, I need to put in explanatory sentences."
About working with her editors, Susan observes, "From a craft level, I'm often asked to tighten up my plots because they have a few holes in them. My editors are really supportive about what I want to do. Where I do run into trouble more often is with copy editors who can be a bit more literal minded. For example, they'll say things like, ‘What you wrote is not correct. It's not "gristle for your artistic mill." It's "grist for your mill."' Then I'll have to write back and explain, ‘No, in fact, according to Alice, it's "gristle." That's a joke.' Sometimes, they have problems with teen terminology. I used the term ‘face plant.' The copy editors e-mailed all their teenage acquaintances asking, ‘What's a "face plant?"' I got a sheaf of their responses, and I guess none of the kids they asked are snowboarders because they didn't know what a face plant was. Instead of asking me to set the trilogy in some US location rather than Smithers, BC, they did ask me to use more American terminology. Sometimes I think Canadian wording is just funnier. For instance, we had a big argument over my use of the word ‘gumboots' instead of ‘rubber boots.' I just think that a ‘gumboot' is a funnier item than a rubber boot. I'm sure that this is the kind of thing that Dostoevsky used to fight with his editor about."
Alice is all around the world. In addition to Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, she can be found in other countries like Finland and Indonesia. However, some of the English-speaking nations elected to change the books' titles. According to Susan, in the UK, Alice, I Think became I'm Alice, I Think while Miss Smithers is called I'm Alice (Beauty Queen?)." Book covers have also changed. "The first American cover was much like the present one, but the girl was dressed with hobbit feet. On the back, there was a picture of a little girl holding a stick and a knapsack jumping in the air. I loved it, but it was really young looking and made the book look like it was for six-year-olds. Consequently, the publisher changed her footwear to moon boots to make her look a bit older."
Not only is the Alice trilogy very funny, but amusing happening are connected to the books' production. Susan recalls the creation of the American cover for Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last. "There is a photo of a girl wearing a white dress, the same kind of white dress that gets Alice into all kinds of trouble. During the photo shoot, the art director asked the teen model to ‘please lift up your hair' and twirl around. When she lifts up her hair, she reveals a neck covered in hickeys. Her mother's right there, and they have this huge fight. I loved that so much, and every time I look at the cover, I think, ‘Right on, man!'"
Alice will also be on the small screen. CTV and the Comedy network ordered 13 episodes. "They've hired writers. They've got scripts, and they started shooting in Sept., 2005. They're using all three books. They have a list of scripts that are from the books, and then they have a B list where the characters go off to do their own things. The head writer is a woman who worked on the first Degrassi Junior High TV series. She's a great writer, really funny, and I loved Degrassi. There's another writer who has worked on Saturday Night Live and King of the Hill whose got the half-hour comedy chops for sure. It will be really interesting to see what they do. I'm excited and a bit nervous."
Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last marks the conclusion of the Alice books, but Susan says that her editor wants a MacGregor book. However, that volume will have to wait as Susan is presently working on a "coming-of-age story about two young dressage riders. I think there are certainly elements of both Goose and MacGregor in my young man character. He's a kind of obsessive, thoughtful, interesting young person. There is also an exploration of sexual identity. The female character, she's something else again. For the moment, the working title is ‘Another Kind of Cowboy.' Sometimes it's ‘Riding Straight.'"
"As initial research, I started reading a ton of horse books, like Walter Farley's The Black Stallion and all those amazing old horse books. Then I started hanging around with dressage teachers, watching their lessons and seeing all the kids going through process. Next, I started going to clinics. I progressed to half-leasing a horse, and, before I knew it, I had my own horse again."
"Actually, riding was something I did when I was younger. It was part of my other life. I think the horse helped to keep me from going right off the rails. It may have worked because, while I managed to get into all kinds of trouble in spite of having a horse, horse ownership did take up a lot of my energy. There was an element of responsibility, and I treated it very seriously. When I was 10, I took all my savings and bought this giant horse called Echo's Little Wonder. He was a rotter, but I loved him. I had horses until I left Smithers to go to fashion design school in Toronto."
"We lived a mile out of town, and the horses were in the back yard. My first horse was boarded about a mile away, and so I would trudge over to see him. Later, he was in our back yard with the other horses. My horse life was kept apart from the bush party life. Occasionally, the two parts of my life would meet up. Sometimes there were horse shows with fairs attached to them. I would do my horse show thing, and then I would go out to the fair afterwards and get into all kinds of trouble and not show up for the horse show the next day."
"The new book, ‘Another Kind of Cowboy,' has a little bit of that stuff, and I have since met some young people who ride. Some of them are very together, but I've met kids for whom horses are almost like therapy to help them keep it together. They live on the edge of things, and that interests me a lot. The female character has quite a sense of humour. The book's alternating between third and first person, and I'm doing some new things with it that I'm really excited about. The ‘coming out' stuff has been fascinating to write about. To get in touch with the male character's process, I talked to my friends who have come out about what that felt like and what it was all about for them. If you don't go in for drugs or whatever, horses are a good way to escape the world. Horses, drugs, books, they are all ways to cope for those of us who don't fit in completely. Horses have a way of chilling you out that's quite profound."
"The other things about horses is that, when you are young, having a horse is the next best thing to owning a car because there's all this freedom associated with having a horse. When I was growing up, some of the other kids in the neighborhood also had horses, and we would get up in the morning, pack a bag, and go riding bareback for eight hours straight. It was awesome. You could go out on your horse and be totally free, crossing rivers, going into lakes. This was powerful stuff. I was absolutely obsessed by horses. It's not just not adults who have hidden lives and who compartmentalize them. Teenagers do that, too. I had three lives - bush party girl, student and horse woman - all in one small, teenage life."
"Susan and husband James now live in Nanaimo, BC, on Vancouver Island. "We'd visited Nanaimo quite a bit because my adoptive father lives there. We realized we could have a very decent house there for a reasonable price and could actually own a home. James still works in Vancouver. He's a financial planner, but he's really a fly fisherman. Now we have a house, and I have a horse and we do all these things that would be completely out of the question in Vancouver. We can have a small town life style, which certainly has its benefits, and I can spend all day in my pajamas because I don't go anywhere."
"In our Nanaimo house, there is a place for me to write, but when we first moved here, instead of using the studio, I drove 20 minutes downtown to a coffee shop trying to recreate how I used to write in Vancouver. I thought, ‘How stupid is this? You have all day, and you have this special place to write in. Get it together and go write in your studio.' In Vancouver, I wrote for four years in coffee shops, and nobody ever said anything to me. It was perfect, but in Nanaimo, the people would come into the coffee shop and ask, ‘Can I sit down? What are you doing? What's happening in the book?' I thought, ‘This isn't going to work. So, I've started writing in the studio on the computer. I'm still up at 6 to write."
As to what comes after ‘Another Kind of Cowboy,' Susan says, "I have a first draft of a detective novel starring a 14-year-old boy. He's pondering the mystery that is the female gender. It's been quite entertaining to write."
Books by Susan Juby.
Visit Susan Juby's website at http://www.susanjuby.com and the Alice, I Think TV show website at http://www.aliceithink.tv/ or http://www.the comedynetwork.ca
This article is based on an interview conducted in Winnipeg on May 11, 2005, and revised and updated May, 2006.