Jennifer Soosar is a Toronto-based writer who has just had her first novel Parent Teacher Association published. It is a suspenseful mystery set in the small, strange Pennsylvania town of Splinter Wood, where two children have died in the past two years under mysterious circumstances. You can read a full review of Parent Teacher Association here.
Miramichi Reader: Jennifer, please tell us a bit about your background, etc.
Jennifer Soosar: I was born in Toronto and grew up in North York. After attending York Mills Collegiate Institute, I went to York University and earned a degree in anthropology (that’s a lot of ‘Yorks’). Upon graduation, I went on a trip to New York and started writing my first feature length screenplay, a story inspired by the life of the photographer Diane Arbus. Back in Toronto, I shopped the screenplay around and landed a literary agent. I wrote several more screenplays but soon found out how difficult selling one to a production company is. I got a job writing for a kid’s show on YTV and switched to short stories. Then life got very busy and I took a break from writing. Once my kids were older and I had more free time, I decided to get back into it and write a novel.
MR: Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to become a writer.
JS: I wasn’t too keen on reading until I discovered Stephen King sometime around grade 5 or 6. His characters were so realistic, compelling and true that reading suddenly became entertaining. He also wrote about offbeat things, stuff I didn’t think anybody was “allowed” to write. I found that inspiring. His work transformed me from somebody who wasn’t very interested in fiction to wanting to try and write like that for myself.
At age 13, a teacher influenced me in an unexpected way. I had written a short story for a class assignment about a group of delinquent youth who spent every school day sitting on the bench in front of the principal’s office. This teacher gave me a lousy mark (a C-minus, I think) on the story which deflated me because I really liked it, and had tried to use some good techniques I’d learned from Stephen King. Anyway, my dad convinced me to submit it to the annual short story contest run by the Toronto Star. To my surprise, they published it. After that, I learned not to allow others to discourage me from writing the stories I wanted to tell.
MR: Let’s talk about PTA, your first novel. How does it feel to be a published novelist?
JS: Three years after starting with a blank page, it feels amazing to have this novel published! Every step of the way has been a learning experience, from writing, and to now promoting it. I’m excited about going to ThrillerFest in July as a Debut Author. The book will get some really good exposure there and it’ll be fun hanging out with some of the top thriller writers in the world.
MR: Did any of the situations in Parent Teacher Association come from actual events?
JS: All of the situations in Parent Teacher Association are fictional. I let my characters drive the story and they took it to a place I didn’t anticipate. All I started with was the desire to set a suspense thriller in an elementary school. My kids were in the early grades and I was spending a lot of time going back and forth with them to school. My protagonist Lizanne started off in my mind as a policewoman but then morphed into a teacher. It worked better since I wanted a demanding ‘helicopter’ parent as the antagonist. I thought pitting a teacher against a parent would make for a thought-provoking conflict. Each side is striving for the same good, but each with their own personal motivations. Of course, to make it fun, I wanted those motivations to lean toward the pathological side. The characters did the rest.
MR: Early in PTA, Lizanne decides to become pen pals with a convict, so she can have control over the relationship (or so she rationalises), so I just have to ask: have you ever been pen pals with a convict?
JS: No, I’ve never communicated with a convict before, but I remember watching an episode of Geraldo or Maury Povich or Donahue when I was a kid that featured women who did. Apparently, even Charles Manson received love letters from female admirers. I remember thinking, “why would women do that?” It made absolutely no sense to me. I thought it was weird and confusing and, therefore, it stuck with me. I really wanted to understand what sort of mind-set these ladies had that would compel them to write letters to murderers and rapists and the like. I explored a possible answer to that question with Lizanne.
MR: If they were to make a movie based on the book, who do you envision playing Lizanne and Naomi?
JS: That’s a fun question with a lot of possibilities. I could see Maggie Gyllenhaal for Lizanne and Amanda Seyfried for Naomi.
MR: Many authors use pen names in place of their real ones. Have you ever considered using one? If so, what might it be?
JS: For me, one of the hardest parts of writing fiction is choosing names. A character’s name gives the reader a lot of subtle clues about them, and I think It’s extremely important to get that right. Choosing a pen name would be similar. You want the reader to get a feel for your work and style ahead of time. While Jennifer Soosar is my real name, I suppose I could go for something like “Margo D’Mint” for a pen name. It has a bit of that Noir, crime fiction feel, I think.
MR: Do you have a favourite book, one that you like to revisit from time to time?
JS: I really like Of Mice and Men. It’s a short and powerful book and a wonderful example of a situational story. I love the writing and the characters and the cause and effect of it all. I also like to re-visit the short stories in Stephen King’s Night Shift. There are some incredible gems in there like ‘Quitter’s Inc.’ and ‘The Mangler.’ He’s a natural-born storyteller. The Old Man and the Sea is another one because it’s a lesson on simplicity and choosing words wisely.
MR: If you could write a biography of any person, living or dead, who would that be?
JS: How about Gordon Ramsay, the chef. He’s a passionate, complex person with some rough edges. I would be interested to know more about him. He’s fantastic on TV. I love Kitchen Nightmares and Hotel Hell. It’s obvious he cares deeply about things but often chooses to express it by screaming and ranting. Luckily, he’s very articulate and has a colourful way with words. I imagine he has quite the intriguing backstory.
MR: What are you working on now?
JS: A noir-suspense crime novella set at a Cuban resort called Cayo Cuba. I’ve travelled to the island of Cayo Guillermo several times and was inspired to find out that Ernest Hemingway had spent time there. He mentioned it in Islands in the Stream, and there’s a stunning beach there named after his boat, Pilar. The story came to me while I was lying by the pool and centres around a young Cuban resort worker named Homero. Homero has one of the best jobs in Cuba. By day, he manages the towel hut and, by night, he entertains in the theatrical show. But exposure to wealthy foreigners has come at a price. Homero now lusts for a life of fame and fortune beyond the ocean’s horizon line.
When a mysterious guest—known as the ‘White Lady’ due to her odd, bleached appearance—offers to whisk Homero out of Cuba, he jumps at the opportunity. But there are deadly strings attached to her proposal. As Homero performs the most dangerous dance of his life, he grapples with the unforeseen consequences of his most tragic decision.
Cayo Cuba re-visits Hemingway’s Cuba at a pivotal new time. After decades of hardship from the embargo, the country anxiously awaits openness with America. I hope to have this novella ready for release in the fall, in time for Bouchercon in Toronto.
MR: Finally, what do you like to do when you are not writing?
JS: I am trying to read more. I set my reading challenge on Goodreads this year to 26 books, and plan to increase the number every year. My husband and kids keep me pretty busy! I like walking around downtown Toronto, going to Kensington Market or Chinatown, getting a coffee at Moonbean or a bowl of Pho. I suppose a little gardening, dog walking, and watching my favourite reality shows, too.
Jennifer Soosar’s website: http://www.jennifersoosar.com/