“Whycome Normandy Pale?” Susan Juby Guest Blogs On Her New YA Book, The Truth Commission
The Alice, I Think author joins us for her latest book tour!
Normandy Pale is the protagonist of my seventh young adult novel, The Truth Commission, and she was born, like almost all my characters, out of a basic frustration with myself.
But before we get into that, let me back up and explain her name. The surname speaks for itself, suggesting the pallor in which the family exists in the unflattering reflected light of the familial superstar, Keira.
But Normandy? What kind of teen novel namery is this? Her father, who enjoyed creating military dioramas, named her Normandy after the famous battle. But I allowed him this privilege because I love it when girls have boys’ names. My novels have featured girls called Frank and George and I’m working on another novel with a character called Charlie. I should probably call myself Sam. All of this may be because I have a wonderful cousin named Tim. She runs a catering company in San Antonio called Tim the Girl. She was named after an aged Norwegian woman who lived, according to family lore, in the shed out behind my aunt and uncle’s dome. Tim (the aged Norwegian woman, not my cousin) was a bit of a gin drinker, but also a family favourite. But all that aside, I think gendered names are as limiting as preconceptions about masculinity and femininity. And that’s the truth.
Regarding the character herself (in concert with the theme of The Truth Commission as a whole), I’ve once again created a character who faces something with which I struggle myself and have tended to avoid. Normandy Pale is put in a position where she has to decide whether it’s worth the risk and effort to tell the truth.
When I was a teenager, and even a child, I was a big talker. If you asked me about ANY CONCEIVABLE SUBJECT you were likely to get an animated, highly biased, and usually not well-informed answer. But ask me the truth about something that made me afraid or ashamed? Crickets.
Sometimes I think the lesson I learned at the hands of my school and society in general was that painful, vulnerable-making, boat-rocking truths are best left untold.
Polite people, women in particular, don’t talk about problems at home or anywhere else. For heaven’s sake, don’t tell your friends when your feelings are hurt and never, ever tell people in authority things they might not want to hear. I fancied myself quite a rebel, but it was all external posturing and poorly executed punk clothes. Instead of getting honest about my issues, and I had more than a few, I participated in gossip and other people’s dramas, and became an inveterate party girl.
Where I found truth in those days of lies was in books and movies and music. That honesty, I think, is what I most treasure about art. When I got a little older, I started acknowledging some of the truths I’d kept hidden as much from myself as from others. I admitted, to take one critical example, that I had a serious drinking problem. I admitted I was ashamed of who I was. All very liberating, to be sure, but when I looked for the truth of myself, I discovered nothing but a void.
The terror of that void-gazing moment happened when I was twenty. It’s with me still and the process of reconciling with myself is what drives my work. Most of my novels are set in a milieu of teenage turmoil and involve the process of coming of age, which to me means coming to terms with who we are and who we are not.
I think that’s why teen fiction is so critically important and has such a profound impact on young readers. The most honest books I read, the ones that taught me some truth about life, helped me make sense of the world and told me that honesty was possible, even if I couldn’t quite pull it off.
In The Truth Commission the protagonist, Normandy Pale, has to deal with some tough situations, among these, confronting a crime of which I’ve been guilty. That crime is taking other people’s stories and using them without any consideration for the victims.
Sometimes the act is inadvertent. I’ve written things that I was sure were 100% the product of my fertile imagination only to realize years later that they were inspired by someone else’s experience or just someone else.
I got the idea for Normandy and The Truth Commmission while I was working on a crime story aimed at adults. It was, I thought, a “gooder,” meaning the plot was ultra gritty and high stakes. I had written about 200 pages of the story when I realized that, although one part came from a recent news story, a major plot line was very close to the story of someone very close to me. Cue screeching brakes!
It’s one thing to add a little taste of someone’s experience to your story. It’s another thing to make someone’s painful experience the main plot.
Sure, I could have shifted things around and hidden key details and massaged my crime story until it was no longer so close to the source. But I was rattled at the idea I’d spent months writing the story and hadn’t considered where it came from. Stuck, I followed the advice of a wise person: if you get hung up on one project, start another.
So I began a story about a girl, Normandy Pale, whose sister has been writing wildly successful graphic novels about her family, without their permission and in a particularly pitiless way.
Normandy ends up torn between telling the truth and keeping the peace. This not so uncommon dilemma becomes the central confIict in the story. The truth is that some stories aren’t ours to tell. The other truth is that it takes courage to be totally honest even with ourselves. I hope people enjoy reading about Normandy. I certainly loved writing her.
The Truth Commission is a “hilarious, deliciously provocative and slyly thought-provoking” look at how three intrepid art students get to the bottom of one unexpectedly dark secret, and is on sale now, published by Penguin’s Viking Books for Young Readers.
Susan Juby is the bestselling author of the internationally popular Alice MacLeod books, which were made into a television series, and the critically acclaimed novels Getting the Girl and Another Kind of Cowboy. Her work has won the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize, been selected as a Children’s Book Sense Pick, a Kirkus Editor’s Choice, and an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, and been shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, an Edgar Award, an Arthur Ellis Award, and the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Susan lives in Nanaimo, B.C., Canada, the setting for many of her books—including this one. Visit her online a twww.susanjuby.com, follow her on Twitter @thejuby, or check out her hilarious video series, “The Writer’s Life,” on YouTube.
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