Interview: Elissa Sussman

I met Elissa Sussman by breaking the rules.

“I know it’s easy to do a little Googling and find these people, but please don’t contact these authors,” our instructor of the day said on a blazing hot day sometime last summer, as we all riffled through the pages on our tiny fold-out desks.

I peered over my printed out excerpt from what is now Stray, my foot looking for my lost heel somewhere on this stupid row (my big fidget then was popping one of my wedges on and off, thus my predicament), and made a face. Well, I thought, that’s not happening. It’s pretty simple: genre feminists think other genre feminists are pretty groovy. If you put feminist fantasy in front of me, I will seek it back to its source.

Said source turned out to be Elissa Sussman. Animation production manager turned YA novelist, Elissa’s first novel, Stray, will be making its grand debut next Tuesday. Elissa’s a busy lady—Stray is a series, huzzah huzzah!—but kindly carved out some time to talk to me about the book. But first, the book’s description, to get everybody up to speed:

sussmanstray“I am grateful for my father, who keeps me good and sweet. I am grateful for my mother, who keeps her own heart guarded and safe. I am grateful for my adviser, who keeps me protected. I am grateful for the Path, which keeps me pure. Ever after.”

Princess Aislynn has long dreamed about attending her Introduction Ball, about dancing with the handsome suitors her adviser has chosen for her, about meeting her true love and starting her happily ever after. When the night of the ball finally arrives and Nerine Academy is awash with roses and royalty, Aislynn wants nothing more than to dance the night away, dutifully following the Path that has been laid out for her. She does not intend to stray. But try as she might, Aislynn has never quite managed to control the magic that burns within her—magic brought on by wicked, terrible desires that threaten the Path she has vowed to take. After all, it is wrong to want what you do not need. Isn’t it?

Stray is the first in a collection of intertwined stories, all set in a world where magic is a curse that only women bear and society is dictated by a strict doctrine called The Path. A cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Wicked, with a dash of Grimm and Disney thrown in, this original fairy tale will be released October 7th, 2014 from Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins.

First of all, I am so excited to see a fairy tale-inspired novel that explicitly tackles gender politics. You just don’t see a lot of young adult novels that do that beyond the basic girl power narrative. Were you inspired by that dearth or were you inspired by feminist-minded speculative fiction narratives written for adults, like The Handmaid’s Tale? 

Thank you! There’s that old adage “write what you know,” but for me it’s always been “write what interests you.” Gender politics fascinate me and because of that I tend to read a lot of feminist non-fiction and women’s history, which in turn influences my writing. When I read fiction, I am absolutely drawn to stories with a strong feminist heart, such as The Handmaid’s Tale. And I think that more and more YA authors are doing the same, which thrills me, since it gives me a lot more to read!

Professionally, you’ve taken quite the leap from production management in animation to writing novels! Were you interested in writing as a kid, or did it come to you later?

I’ve always been a scribbler and have kept journals since elementary school. I wrote stories for my friends in high school and took fiction classes in college, but never really imagined writing a book. Production management was my attempt to find a steady job contributing to something I love: animated movies. Writing became something I thought about, but basically stopped doing. When I finally discovered that film production is anything but steady work, I decided that it was time to take the skills I had learned managing the deadlines of other artists and apply it to my own work.

Why this audience? I always think of that story about Malinda Lo and Ash, where she wrote it for an adult audience but her publisher realized that it would be perfect for the young adult market if she made the heroine a little younger. Was Stray always a young adult novel, or did it become one? 

Stray was always a YA novel. In fact, very early versions of Stray were my (failed) attempt to recreate my favorite teen fantasy book: Dealing with Dragons. I think I write for teens because I remember how passionately I felt about reading at that age and how influential it was. Reading was an emotional experience, which I think is something we can lose as we get older. There’s this unfortunate belief that there is a certain type of book that is acceptable reading material (usually written by white, middle class, straight men about white, middle class, straight men) and you can’t possibly be a good writer/reader/person if you don’t write and/or enjoy those types of books. I think that is a very distancing philosophy, and definitely something I experienced in both my college fiction and literature classes. You begin to feel like your tastes and preferences aren’t valid unless they line up with those of the literary world, which is so very narrow. Rediscovering YA, both in reading it and writing it, has caused me to fall in love with books the way I did when I was a teen—with complete joy and utter abandon.

What should someone read while they’re waiting for the next installment in the series after finishing Stray

I’m glad you mentioned Ash before because I absolutely adore Malinda Lo’s take on Cinderella and highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a fairy tale retelling with an awesome subversive twist. The same goes for Briar Rose by Jane Yolen and Six Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente. For more traditional fairy tales with a feminist twist, I can’t say enough about Robin McKinley’s Deerskin and Heather Dixon’s Entwined. And of course, everyone should read The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede.

As a self-proclaimed animation nerd, what are your favorite animated films?

Oh my god. There are so many amazing animated movies out there—I’ll have to limit it to my top ten or we’ll be here all day:

The Little Mermaid
Lilo and Stitch
The Secret of NIMH
An American Tail
Howl’s Moving Castle
Chicken Run
How To Train Your Dragon
A Bug’s Life

These are all movies that I have seen a billion times (and could see a billion times more). Some of them even have some pretty fantastic feminist characters – Lilo (and her sister Nani), Mulan, Ginger (from Chicken Run), Sophie (from Howl’s Moving Castle) and Mrs. Brisby (from The Secret of NIMH). One day I’m going to need to expand my thesis and write a book about animated female characters. One day.

And, lastly, I have to ask—who’s your favorite Disney princess? Mine’s Jasmine. 

Ariel, hands down. I think her character arc often gets (incorrectly) boiled down to “girl gives up everything to be with boy”, but let’s not forget, that Ariel was fascinated with humans long before she laid eyes on Prince Eric. And sure, she makes bad decisions throughout the movie, but for the most part they’re her decisions. Plus she’s determined to get what she wants and completely willing to make a fool of herself, which I think is awesome.

Thanks, Elissa! (And you have to write that book about animated female characters.) Check back here same Battime, same Batchannel on Monday for my review. Spoilers: it punched the patriarchy in the face and it was awesome.

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