The Writer’s Block: Interview with Susan Ross

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If you watch the news, chances are great that you been thinking a lot about refugees lately. Susan Ross is way ahead of you. Her middle-grade novel, KIKI AND JACQUES was inspired by the large influx of New Mainers from Somalia to Susan’s hometown in Maine in the early 2,000s. It seems like a perfectly-timed release. As Publisher’s Weekly says, “Jacques is a model for readers facing their own ethical dilemmas.”

The blurb: Preteens prove that cultural differences can be overcome in this middle-grade novel about a native Mainer and a Somali girl who form an unlikely and supportive friendship.

Twelve-year-old Jacques’s mother has passed away, his father is jobless and drinking again and his grandmother’s bridal store is on the verge of going out of business. Plus he’s under pressure from an older boy to join in some illegal activities. At least Jacques can look forward to the soccer season. After all, he’s a shoe-in for captain.

But the arrival of Somali refugees shakes up nearly everything in Jacques’s Maine town, including the soccer team. So Jacques is surprised to find himself becoming friends with Kiki, a cheerful and strong-minded Somali immigrant. Despite their many differences they are able to help one another triumph over problems with friends, family and growing up.

Susan was kind enough to sit down with the Mafia and answer a few questions.

Middle Grade Mafia: Writers and readers love hearing about the publication journey. Can you tell us a bit about yours?

Susan Ross: I was living in London when I saw a New Yorker article about the large influx of Somali families moving to my childhood hometown susanrossin Maine, an old mill town mostly populated by Franco-Americans, whose grandparents and great-grandparents had originally come from Quebec to work in the mills. My great-grandparents on my father’s side had immigrated to Maine from Russia, and my family had a shop in town for several generations, starting in the late 19th century. My mother was a refugee who came to the states before the Second World War. I instantly felt connected to this new wave of Somali immigration and the hardships they faced — and thought wow, this would be a terrific setting for a middle grade novel.

I had done some freelance writing before I started the book, but had never published fiction. My mother always used to say, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…” The first time I tried writing the story, the manuscript was rejected by several editors. They all pointed to the same problem — too much “agenda” and too little plot. I started over from scratch, keeping the same characters — whom by this time seemed like real people to me — and put them into a more exciting and engaging story. I was also able to add more universal themes — sports, bullying, friendship, and the ethical dilemmas all kids face (starting with what to do when the new kid is better at soccer than you are), in addition to the focus on immigration and crossing the cultural divide.

My publisher, Holiday House, could not be more supportive, and I am extremely grateful. I also lucked out with the most wonderful editor in the world, Mary Cash. There has been a lot of discussion about publishers embracing diversity books, and the truth is that publishing houses will publish what sells — it’s extremely important for schools and libraries to lead the way in buying and using these books if we hope to encourage many more of them.

Middle Grade Mafia: Editors talk so much about voice. How were you able to authentically capture the voice of a Somali teen?

Susan Ross: Capturing the life and voice of a Somali teen in Maine was one of my greatest challenges. Of course I did lots of research and spent time in Maine at the teen section of the library and at the park — places where teens of all sorts might hang out. Later, I met with some wonderful Somali teens through the library and a terrific writing organization in Portland, Maine, called The Telling Room. Talking to these Somali teenagers was humbling and inspiring. One girl had only begun her education when she came to Maine as a teenager, yet she managed to graduate from high school and had strong professional goals and dreams.

There were many fascinating details that came out in discussing my book with these kids, and it became clear that, like all teens, they were sharing certain parts of their lives with me that probably their parents didn’t even know about. My most nerve-wracking experience was waiting for a Somali teen to finish looking at the final revision. I held my breath as she read. She not only loved the book, she wanted to know what had inspired me to write about her life. That was an amazing and tremendously gratifying moment.

Middle Grade Mafia: What else did you find challenging to write?

Susan Ross: Soccer! I don’t play sports, and relied on my son and niece, who are terrific soccer players, to read and edit the sports passages. I smiled when my editor commented that “I was good at writing sports” because I was always the kid picked last for any team. A pivotal scene in this book takes place on the soccer field. Jacques and Mohamed, Kiki’s brother, are co-captains. Mohamed has been accused of robbing the Army Navy Store, and Jacques is the only one who knows he’s innocent. The other boys on the team shun Mohamed, and it’s up to Jacques to get them all on the field and face their tough competition. When Mohamed is unfairly flagged and thrown out of the game, Jacques has to step up and show true leadership. Then, he has to go and confess his involvement in the robbery plot. Getting that scene right was a good day.

Middle Grade Mafia: What would you like kids to take away from this book?

Susan Ross: I think the world would be a far better place if every kid had a friend from an entirely different culture and community. The power of fiction is that it allows kids to get to know someone from a vastly different background by imagining themselves in a book. I hope kids can relate and feel what it’s like to be a brave, cool, determined girl who wears a hijab and can whack a soccer ball straight into the goal.

Given the current refugee crisis, it is more important now than ever that every single kid reads a book (hopefully, this one!) that introduces and explores the topic of cultural differences and understanding.

Middle Grade Mafia: Finally, a lot of pre-published authors read this blog. What is the best piece of advice you ever received about writing?

Susan Ross: When I first started writing, I fretted about agents, websites,  and social media, etc. I asked various author friends for advice on all these things. The best advice I received was simple —  write a beautiful book.  My suggestion is to find small goals along the way that are attainable. Sometimes, for me, this has been as small as hoping to see a member of my writing workshop wipe away a tear when I read a particularly moving passage.  Also, I believe in celebrating! Find and get to know other writers in your community and celebrate each other’s successes, even if they seem minor. Someday, the celebration will be for the publication of your first book!

To read more about Susan, check out her website.

To purchase KIKI AND JACQUES click HERE.


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