The PEN Pod: Avenues for Magic with Emily X.R. Pan and Nova Ren Suma
Bestselling young adult authors Emily X.R. Pan and Nova Ren Suma are out with a new anthology Foreshadow: Stories to Celebrate the Magic of Reading and Writing YA. The collection features 13 stories that were originally published on Foreshadow’s web platform, and the text is interspersed with exercises and prompts for budding or experienced writers. Emily and Nova joined us on The PEN Pod to discuss writing Foreshadow, using their respective backgrounds as editors to promote new young adult authors, and the benefits of exercises for writers of all experience levels.
Emily, what connects these stories in your mind?
EMILY X.R. PAN: As you mentioned, this had originally been this online platform where our purpose was to celebrate the short story format within the YA category. There’s this long, very rich tradition of short stories being published in the adult sphere—both in the literary world, and adult sci-fi fantasy. In the young adult publishing world, there have started to be a lot of anthologies in recent years, and they’ve been completely focused on established writers. An author has an idea for a theme and collects a whole bunch of authors together to all expound upon that theme in various short stories, and it comes together as this nice tidy collection. But there hasn’t been so much opportunity for brand new authors, who have no publication credits under their belts to submit something, get it published, and potentially launch their career—jumpstart into the world of publishing that way.
We were very excited about the possibility of taking our own backgrounds, having been editors for literary magazines in other capacities, and we wanted to create this opportunity where we would celebrate the very beloved YA authors who were already known entities. We would also discover these new voices who were super talented from an extremely wide range of backgrounds and identities, publishing this incredible writing. I think that even though that’s such a sort of broad way of choosing—we didn’t limit it to any one genre or any one style.
But this project was very much made in the aesthetic that Nova and I personally have and which we share—if I hear Nova loves the book, I know I’m going to love it. We pretty much have the same aesthetic, and that combined with this mission actually very organically and created this cohesion. I love when readers are writing reviews and talking about how all the short stories just really complement each other so perfectly. I think there’s this energy to all of the stories that organically exists—by nature of these being from such different writers, from new writers, from writers who are very experimental—and then all of it just fits within that framework of the type of storytelling that Nova and I really love.
Nova, is that true—same sensibility on what you both love, in terms of books?
NOVA REN SUMA: We absolutely do. If Emily tells me, “You have to read this story. You have to read this book,” I know that it’s something I’m going to love.
“We wanted to just share possible avenues for magic—on a personal note, I used to be the kind of writer who avoided writing exercises at all costs. I just thought, ‘That that’s not going to work for me. That’s too specific.’ When I found myself experimenting with writing exercises and prompts, in my own work, I kind of loosened up and found something deeper that I didn’t realize.”
—Nova Ren Suma
The book has obviously the stories, but as I mentioned, there’s also these prompts and these exercises that are sort of scattered throughout. Why did you all decide to take that approach?
SUMA: This anthology is meant for writers of YA fiction as much as it’s meant for readers. We want it to hold a space for both things in this book somehow. Somebody picking up the book could follow whichever direction speaks to them. Interspersed writers will find not just little craft talks that call out some of the elements of the stories that Emily and I thought were so special and wanted to highlight, but also writing prompts that writers might be able to try on their own to see what might spark for them. We wanted to just share possible avenues for magic—on a personal note, I used to be the kind of writer who avoided writing exercises at all costs. I just thought, “That that’s not going to work for me. That’s too specific.” When I found myself experimenting with writing exercises and prompts, in my own work, I kind of loosened up and found something deeper that I didn’t realize. Some of those things ended up in my own published novels, and thinking about trying something that might intimidate you could transform you as a writer.
We wanted to offer some exercises and opportunities for writers to try this on their own. Some of the prompts included are ones I know that I have used in my own teaching with my own students, for their YA novels or their stories. My favorite thing is seeing something bloom from a blank page when a writer had no idea what might emerge when they’re given a prompt, a word, an opportunity, or something that opens a door for them.
For the writers who pick up Foreshadow, we hope that they read and consider the stories and look at the craft elements that we thought were worthy of highlighting and gushing over and getting excited about. That’s one spark—that’s one piece of the stories that we love, and there’s so much more. We’re also hoping that they bring their own notebook, their own imagination to this, and try the prompts, alone at their writing desks. Teachers can also bring these exercises and prompts and these craft talks to writing groups, to workshops, and to their classrooms. That option is there for anyone who wants to take this book and wants a little bit of help approaching the blank page.
I even think for nonwriters, it’s cool to see those prompts and think about how they shaped the craft—even if you don’t do it yourself.
SUMA: Absolutely, and in those craft talks, we highlight something that we love, and maybe a nonwriter might see something in there and think, “I never realized that about this story,” or “Yes, that’s part of why I love this story so much.”
“I feel that writers can be optimistic because we’re in this period when publishing is starting to really wake up and pay attention to the need for diversity across the board. The need for wide representation for writers of all backgrounds—and also thanks to the internet and things to social media, such as Twitter pitch events—gaining this validity that, a decade ago, nobody would have actually paid any real attention to them, I think that there are actually more opportunities than ever.”
—Emily X.R. Pan
Emily, turning to you—it does feel like a tough time right now, but in particular for writers who might be seeking to get published or get a manuscript read. How do you see this book in regards to both the authors that you’re introducing to readers, as well as the craft tips and the exercises itself? How do you see that helping writers who might be facing the very daunting challenge of trying to get published?
PAN: I really hope in general that this can serve as a point of inspiration, more than anything else—not just for writers, but also maybe for people who might be interested in creating their own platforms to showcase YA stories and create new opportunities for people. I think that it is a really tough time right now, but maybe more so mentally than anything because all the events of the world are grinding down on us right now. But in a lot of ways, I feel that writers can be optimistic because we’re in this period when publishing is starting to really wake up and pay attention to the need for diversity across the board. The need for wide representation for writers of all backgrounds—and also thanks to the internet and things to social media, such as Twitter pitch events—gaining this validity that, a decade ago, nobody would have actually paid any real attention to them, I think that there are actually more opportunities than ever.
I hope that with our collection, somebody might pick it up and think, “Maybe I haven’t tried this way of writing before, but reading this makes me feel inspired to read more YA and see how my voice fits into the YA sphere.” Maybe somebody who’s never written short stories before might feel inspired to try experimenting with the shorter form, and that could potentially be what they get published first and what leads to them finding an agent, etc. There are so many different pathways to getting published, becoming an author. I think that this project from the get-go—from when we created the platform and now with this anthology and perdurable print with craft talks in it—it’s really just about creating space, holding the door open for people and trying to inspire them.
Nova, one thing that Emily touched on initially was talking about the sort of canon of YA and short fiction in particular. How do you think this book might support both the popularity, but also the way that I think it is becoming sort of central in our literary culture?
SUMA: I love so much of what Emily said—it’s so important to this project and to this book. As she was telling you, these Foreshadow stories are all by new voices, those just beginning their careers, and they’re showing a range of genres—there’s gritty, contemporary realism, fantasy science fiction, sweet and hopeful romance, horror, and strange touches of surrealism. This is a diverse range of voices, of styles, of experiences, and it is just the tip of the iceberg of what the YA umbrella encompasses. We wanted to acknowledge and share some of the beauty and the power that YA fiction has, especially in the form of the short story. Those who come from outside the YA space and they think of what is YA, they might first go to the stereotypes. The big commercial hits, the books that become the blockbuster movies—whatever genre is the fad at the moment. But really, YA is a mix of every genre under the sun.
We think that this collection is showing a taste of what YA really is and what it can be—it is not just one thing. As YA increases in popularity—every year, even more so. As more writers strive to publish it and join us, perhaps Foreshadow can be an open door for them, an inspiration, and
just an example of all the possibilities that are out there. These stories that we published were read by a big reading team that we had for our online project, our fiction editors. They were championed by Emily and me, and they were selected by superstar authors in our field. There’s a lot of love that went into the selecting of these stories, and we’re hoping that these new voices, who may be new now, are going to become the beloved authors that readers know tomorrow.
“We wanted to acknowledge and share some of the beauty and the power that YA fiction has, especially in the form of the short story. Those who come from outside the YA space and they think of what is YA, they might first go to the stereotypes. The big commercial hits, the books that become the blockbuster movies—whatever genre is the fad at the moment. But really YA is a mix of every genre under the sun.”
—Nova Ren Suma
Finally, what books are you both reading right now?
SUMA: This probably is no surprise after all of this talk of short stories, but I’ve been finding myself really hungry for short stories lately, especially in the midst of all the stress and the pandemic. Somehow, a short piece of fiction is the exact right thing that I want to digest at the moment. I’ve been reading a lot of story collections, and the ones that are up next for me is What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi and Animal Life by Lara Ehrlich.
Did you already know that she was going to name those, Emily?
PAN: No, I didn’t, but now I have to add them to my list because anything Nova likes, I like.
What’s on your shelf, Emily?
PAN: I just finished reading Watch Over Me—the newest book by Nina Lacour, and it’s excellent. I also just finished Nobody Knows But You by Anica Mrose Rissi, an excellent
psychological exploration of what causes a teenager to murder someone—it’s delightful. I’m in the middle of reading Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I just want to shout out a book that comes out January 19th—you cannot miss it—Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, which is about this Chinese American girl in 1950s San Francisco, realizing she’s queer and falling in love for the first time, and it will break your heart—it’s so good.