Sisters have a special bond - and sometimes a complicated one, especially when you throw some parental turmoil into the mix. When Nadine and Rachel's Dad leaves, and their mom falls apart, the two sisters are left to their own devices and older sister Rachel makes the most of the opportunity. Beautiful and unpredictable, Rachel makes it her business to torment Nadine - hence the title of Susan Marshall's NemeSIS (Blue Moon Publishing).
With her sister hounding her and her parents essentially out of the picture, Nadine's in a dark place - until she meets Anne and her handsome brothers. Nadine finally has something to hold onto, but Rachel will do her best to take that away too, driving the sisters to a final confrontation.
NemeSIS is a gripping page-turner and a coming of age story for young readers that feels rawly honest. We're excited to speak with Susan today for our In Character series, asking her about crafting her memorable and relatable characters. She tells us about why she loves writing first person narrators, what she and Nadine have in common, and the CanLit character who has stayed with her for years.
Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?
I know that my characters can take on a ‘life of their own.’ It didn’t happen when I was writing NemeSIS, but it did happen with my second novel. Early in the process, a character made an offhand comment—surprising and definitely ‘off-script.’ I went with it. As a result, an important plot line, which added an interesting layer to the story, was born. In hindsight, I feel hard-pressed to take credit for that plot line.
I’ve never taken a drama class and I suppose it’s not too late, as I do feel that the writer’s ability to fully inhabit their characters makes for a much richer story with more original and realistic plot twists and turns. Just like the way an old friend can say or do the unexpected, I think characters, even the ones that you know really well, also have the capacity to surprise the writer.
Do you find yourself gravitating to one narrative point of view (e.g. first person, third person)? If so, what do you like about building a character in that particular format?
I’m a big fan of coming of age novels, and I think the first-person POV is a great choice for this type of storytelling. Luckily, I gravitate towards this narrative style, which works particularly well for children and young adult audiences, who like to make quick, direct emotional connections with the narrator.
When developing a character, a first person narrator allows the reader to experience the slow and subtle shifts in the central character’s perceptions and attitudes. The resulting personal growth and maturity experienced by the protagonist, that typically happens over the course of a coming of age novel, becomes much more personal and impactful.
Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?
I do share some personality traits with the main character of NemeSIS, Nadine. I’ve always fallen on the shy side of the spectrum, and while I did not hide away in the library during high school, I have hidden in other ways, at other times. I have a Master’s in Library Science, and like Nadine, I’ve always been drawn to libraries. I easily could have ended up there, where at least if you’re feeling alone, you can take solace that you’re surrounded by book-friends.
While Nadine has one older, formidable sister, I had two older sisters with big personalities. Like Nadine, I also chose a different path, opting to be a lower maintenance, placating type of family member. To her credit, Nadine decides to stop ‘hiding’ and feeling sorry for herself, giving herself concrete ‘steps’ to improve her life. And while she realizes that many things are out of her control, she owns up to her own personal shortcomings and actively tries to fix them.
Nadine is a much quicker study than myself at fifteen, and is much more willing to put herself out there. What Nadine accomplishes in a few pivotal months, by following through with her ‘steps,’ likely took me all of high school to figure out. And in those days, we even had an extra year—grade thirteen!
Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?
The most memorable young-adult character that I’ve encountered is seventeen-year-old Nomi from Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness. With a wry sense of humour, Nomi recounts her struggles with authority and family in a stifling, ultra-strict Mennonite community. Set in nowhere Manitoba, a watchful, hypocritical religious authority constantly inserts themselves in all aspects of community life, intent on stomping out joy and individuality.
Narrated from the first person POV in both the present and the recent past, the wise and irreverent Nomi experiences her own crisis of faith and general teenage angst. Refusing to be cowed by the church hierarchy, and despite all evidence to the contrary, Nomi strives for a different future, away from the poultry slaughtering plant and the religious fundamentalism that dominates East Village.
Edgy and sarcastic, Nomi is incredibly loyal towards her downtrodden, deserving father. Traumatized by the departures of her mother and sister, Nomi still dreams that her family might somehow reunite. Even though she is sorely tempted to follow her sister and mother out of town, and she cannot imagine staying, she also cannot fathom abandoning her father
What are you working on now?
I am working on a young adult novel with the working title Pond & Prejudice, that is geared to a slightly older demographic than NemeSIS. Following the mysterious disappearance of her Grandfather, the main character Josie is parachuted from the big city to his tree farm in a small northern community. Distraught to be living at Highland Farms where Granddad’s absence in palpable, Josie is made even more miserable by the judgy locals, bugs of epic proportion, and the general absence of decent shopping.
When the police investigation stalls, Josie channels her inner Nancy Drew, pointing her finger squarely at next-door neighbour Bob, who is aggressively trying to purchase the Highland Farms back acreage. Meanwhile, Josie and her mother become fodder for the local gossips, and are soon accused of their own offences, including crimes against fashion.
Quite on theme, after the release of NemeSIS, I approached a bookstore owner in the small tourist town where I spend most of my summers. When I inquired if the store would consider stocking my book, the owner responded, “While we do support local writers, that support does not necessarily extend to summer residents.” And I’m sure my eyes practically bugged out of my head! Big-city/small-town prejudices are definitely alive and well, and fun to write about.
Susan Marshall was born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario. A big fan of university life, she graduated with a history degree from Western University, and library science and teaching degrees from the University of Toronto. Naturally disorganized, Susan opted out of the library field, instead working for The Globe and Mail and then Seneca College. Four kids later, she decided to stay-at-home, becoming a specialist in offspring dispute resolution. An avid reader, Susan loves e-books and falls asleep nightly to the soft glow, oblivious to what happened on the last page. Susan lives in Toronto with her husband, three sons, a daughter, a dog, and a cat. NemeSIS is her debut novel.