"Who in their right mind wouldn't want to read a book by Mark Barry!" (Mary Quallo, St Louis)

"Who in their right mind wouldn't want to read a book by Mark Barry!"  (Mary Quallo, St Louis)
Coming next week - Carla Eatherington

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Suzanne Van Rooyen talks about Obscura Burning

From South Africa to Finland, via Australia, Suzanne Van Rooyen has certainly travelled and this infuses her novels with a latent maturity.

Her second novel, ahd her first YA novel, Obscura Burning, has just been published. Featuring a bixexual protagonist, a cast of sexually confused teenagers and a planet on a collision course with earth, the novel plays on apocalyptic fears, both intra-social and extra-terrestrial, and examines the hopes and fears of a world under pressure. 

Suzanne expects flak - this is a thoughtful piece of work which she expects to generate a certain controversy but whatever the reader's preferences, they are guaranteed  strategic plots, taut sentence construction, internal coherence, great characters, profuse, elegant dialogue (her current speciality) and a sense of topical importance which is essential for all fiction to emphasise credibility. 

I also noticed a sneaky, almost cunning, amorality in the prose - a clear allegory for the inevitable apocalypse Suzanne wryly hints at throughout the book. At times, you can almost hear the neighing of the horsemen's steeds as they hover in the clouds. 

Whatever. You are guaranteed an excellently written read whenever you see the name Suzanne Van Rooyen anywhere near a book cover. I got on the Wizphone, managed to catch up with her in a snowy, windswept park just south of Helsinki and tethering her wonderful pup, Lego, she spoke to me about writing and writers. 

Original Interview with Wiz Green. 

Suzanne's acclaimed debut

Hi Suzanne. Tell us about your publication history? What have you published so far?

Well, in a nutshell: I've had one adult cyberpunk novel published by Divertir Publishing - that would be Dragon's Teeth. I've also had a bunch of short stories ranging from children's to erotica published by various print and online magazines including Storm Moon Press, Earthbound Fiction, and Niteblade. 

"Niteblade recently nominated my short story Where Dreams are Grown for the Pushcart Prize which is a fairly big deal, I hear.  
Congratulations on that, Suzanne. Deserved too, if I may say so. So tell us about Obscura Burning, your latest published work.

This story really came out of nowhere one day while I was listening to the whimsical music by the band Explosions in the Sky. The music conjured the image of a boy walking in the desert and so Obscura Burning was born. There was definitely some extraneous force working through me in the writing of this novel. This is Kyle's story, I just helped shore up his sentences and deleted a few expletives. This book is about a boy caught up in a quantum event, which threatens the very fabric of his reality and the future of the planet. 

As the tagline says: The world's going to end in fire…and it's all Kyle's fault. 

To what extent does Obscura Burning represent an evolution in your writing career?

It's my first published novel-length young adult work and represents a definite shift in my focus from adult to YA. 

"I much prefer writing teenagers with all their excesses and insecurities, their narcissistic tendencies and rash decision making because it allows for complex characters, disastrous situations and plenty of room for these characters to grow. "

I'll definitely write for adults again but right now, I love writing teenage characters for the YA bracket.

Who is your target audience? How do you know that you are connecting with your readership?

Older teenagers - 16 and up - given the content of my book (some bad language and sexual content) and of course all the adults who love reading YA. 

Since Obscura Burning has a bisexual boy MC, I'm hoping teen and adult readers from the LGBT community will be enjoying my book. I think you know you are connecting with your readership when you see who comments on blog posts and who's posting reviews on Goodreads. I'm predicting a lot of 20-something women :)

In "Non Fiction," Chuck Palahniuk lionises Amy Hempel for her strained, skeletal style.  I don't agree with him, but his views are incredibly influential. Your books are increasingly sparse and dialogue based. Is this deliberate? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this for a writer?

No, it's not deliberate. It really depends on the character and their unique voice. The style of the prose reflects the narrator's personality so Obscura Burning is less purple and more dialogue based because that's Kyle - he loves comic books so that's kind of how he sees the world, in thought bubbles and clipped dialogue. 

I'm not sure there is an advantage to any writer to conform to an apparent trend in fiction since trends change so quickly. 

"Most of the books I love do not conform to any kind of formula or trend. I think it's more important to be genuine in your craft and story telling than to try to write the 'correct' style."

How would you answer the argument that dialogue-rich novel writing "abrogates the writer from the arduous responsibility of painting pictures in the reader's head".

That's ridiculous! Dialogue paints it's own picture. Syntax and delivery of dialogue speaks volumes about a character, about how they see the world and the people in it. I think dialogue does a far better job of showing a character's personality and perspective on life than paragraphs of description do. 

Dialogue can be used with very subtle but profound effect, helping the reader paint comprehensive pictures in their head. I don't know who said this 'abrogates arduous responsibility' nonsense but I think they've missed the point of dialogue completely. 

Does that mean you should write dialogue only and get rid of exposition - of course not but it largely depends on the genre and who you're writing for. 

Teen readers are all about communication - text messaging, IMs, emails, Facebook, 140 character tweets - so Tolkien-esque paragraphs aren't going to go down well with them.

That's a terrific answer, Suzanne. I can remove the spotlight now! haha. So who influences you as a writer nowadays? Who are the YA writers the discerning reader should look out for?

Cath Crowley and Maggie Stiefvater are my favourite YA writers. 

They both have a very definitive style and aren't afraid to daub on the purple every now and then. I also enjoy Barry Lyga's writing because he doesn't shy away from controversial subject matter. 

I think YA readers should look beyond JK Rowling, John Green and Suzanne Collins, and can go in search of the less well known writers like Lisa Burstein, Janice Hardy,  Cath Crowley, Laini Taylor and Lissa Price. 

They should also look outside of America for writers in the UK and Australia (like Cath Crowley who is just awesome and everyone should read Graffiti Moon by her!)

I've shared with you that I think you are an Old School writer in a YA writer's body. Do you agree with that? Do you think there will ever be a time when you start using exposition as a tool, and/or creative, allegorical and descriptive paragraphing to embellish your skeletal style?

Hahaha. I do have a soft spot for the classics and I love the description rich works by Carlos Ruiz Zaf√≥n and David Mitchell. Maybe I am a bit more old school in my approach because I don't really like the minimalist novel. I don't consider my style skeletal at all. In fact, it's been criticised for being too purple. 

I try to strike a balance and make description count as more than just a word painting, but to reflect some deeper theme or to reveal some new aspect of the character doing the describing. I don't mind exposition but it's the section I tend to skip when reading books, looking for action and dialogue, so I tend to write what I enjoy reading. 

I do use allegory, a lot, and my works usually have little Easter Eggs (the hidden message kind) for those with a keen eye. Obscura Burning has a few and Dragon's Teeth has many. 

 I have seen some savage reviews of writers lately. Can you take criticism? How do you respond?

Oh yeah. Criticism doesn't bug me because opinion of books is so subjective. Not everyone will love my book. Some are going to hate it, especially Obscura Burning. 

If the review is scathing vitriol, I can laugh it off. That sort of review serves no purpose to me. 

"On reviews: A review that deals out constructive criticism, I take far more seriously and mull over what they've said. If I find myself agreeing with the review or understanding why the reviewer felt the way they did, that's fantastic because I've learned something and can apply it in my next project. If I disagree, well then different strokes for different folks and there's no point getting upset over it. "

I never respond to bad reviews and rarely respond to good reviews with more than just a 'like' on Goodreads because everyone's entitled to their opinion.

What's your next project?

My next project involves robots and violins. Although the manuscript is technically finished, there's a lot of work to be done with it still. I've sent a few chapters to my agent and I'm also waiting for feedback from a few critique partners. I'm sure I've got some rewriting in my future with that one. 

Suzanne, thank you very much for coming back to cast a few more spells, and I wish you all the best in the future! 

You're welcome, Wiz and thank you for inviting me.

Buy Obscura Burning here:

Read more Suzanne Van Rooyen here:


  1. Great interview with Suzanne Van Rooyen ... especially loved her answer to 'dialogue-rich novel writing' ... kudos for her.

  2. Interesting interview, great questions.

  3. Thanks Wiz for having me once again! :)


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