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Q&A with Author Susan Currie

Iz the Apocalypse is a young adult novel about a foster kid pursuing music and learning to trust her own strength. As the book comes out this fall, author Susan Currie answered a few questions about the book and her writing process.

What inspired you to write this book?

This book came about because of a few different things.

One is my personal experience as an adoptee who was briefly in the foster care system and whose Indigenous heritage was “lost” until I grew up, found my birth aunt, and learned I was Haudenosaunee (Cayuga nation, turtle clan).

Another is my background in music. As a kid, I attended the Gifted Youth program at the Banff Centre and earned my ARCT in Piano Performance from the Royal Conservatory. When I got older, I worked in a bunch of music jobs including accompanist, dinner pianist, choir leader, church organist, and piano teacher. Now my daughter is pursuing studies in music at the University of Toronto. These things are all part of Iz.

As well, this book has also grown out of my many years as an elementary teacher, working with kids in foster care. One little girl in particular, who was musically very talented, inspired my thinking.

Finally, this book possibly represents a kind of deliberately-not-pinned-down musing about the experiences of generations of Indigenous kids in Canadian history, whose history and culture were taken away through residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and continuing overrepresentation in foster care. I wanted to write about an everychild, who simply “Iz,” whose history has been lost, who is caught in a system called “Dominion,” and whose fragmented present is haunted by dark experiences in a place so horrible it cannot be named. Ultimately, to escape, she needs to craft her own voice, wrestling European music into her own unique perspective. This book is a hopeful fable, really, a kind of wish-fulfilment, about how someone could apocalyptically overturn the systems that confine her.

What was the most rewarding and/or challenging thing about writing this book?

I really struggled to figure out how to embed a piece of classical music not only into the story but into the way that the story is told, if that makes sense. Franz Schubert’s Winterreise is a song cycle that Iz learns about, and it is also the central metaphor lying at the heart of the story. I structured many aspects of the story in ways that mirrored the text of Winterreise, and experimented with creating musical effects—modulations and cadences—in text form. If you read the lyrics of Winterreise closely, you will discover all kinds of ways that they appear in Iz’s story.

Do you plan/plot out the story before you write?

I usually start by planning everything quite carefully, but once I start writing, I frequently throw the plan out of the window because something comes along that feels much better. After that, I often go back to the plan and rework it…only to find that inspiration strikes again when I’m actually writing. It’s a continual push-pull between being organized and being open.

Did you have to do any specific research for this book?

I did a lot of research into Schubert’s history, as well as his song cycle Winterreise. I also belong to a number of online groups for former foster children, and was a witness to the difficult experiences of many people. I also had to learn about the court system.

Did you put in any personal Easter eggs into the book (characters based on people you know, places you know, situations you've had in real life)?

My daughter attended a regional arts high school where she performed with a really special jazz choir. She also spent many years performing with a wonderful children’s theatre group. Now she’s at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. Little snippets of her experiences pop up here and there in this story, in fictionalized ways. Also bits of special teachers and mentors have come together to form Dr Perlinger, Iz’s beloved instructor.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

If the writing is going well, I’m on a high! However, I’ve started to learn that when I feel exhausted or like I’m pulling teeth, I’m often going in the wrong direction. Then I need to step back and figure out what’s wrong.

Do you believe in writer's block?

Yes! I had writer’s block for a decade after my first book. I am extremely good at second-guessing myself.

How many hours a day do you write?

I work full time as a public school teacher so can’t necessarily set up a regular schedule. Some days, I manage a few minutes, and other days I can put in a few hours or more. I try to go easy on myself, so I don’t feel like I have some magic number to live up to each day. Otherwise I’d probably be too overwhelmed to write at all!

What is your favorite childhood book?

I love The Gammage Cup, by Carol Kendall. It’s all about being yourself, not giving in to powerful voices trying to enforce an ideology. Honestly, The Gammage Cup is still quite relevant today—maybe more than ever. I wrote to Carol as a kid to tell her the impact that The Gammage Cup had had on me. She wrote back the most extraordinary letter, signing it Siggy. For years after that first letter, Siggy and I corresponded back and forth. She sent me postcards and little gifts from all over the world. We always signed off, “your K.S.,” which meant, “your kindred spirit.”

Iz the Apocalypse

A fierce voice longs to break free.

A spark ignites inside fourteen-year-old Iz Beaufort when she hears school music group Manifesto perform. Even though she hasn’t written a song since That Place, she recognizes herself in the moving performance and longs to be part of the group, certain that they might actually understand her. But Manifesto is based at the prestigious Métier School, and Iz has bounced through twenty-six foster homes. Plus, there’s no way Dominion Children’s Care would ever send a foster kid to a private school when a public option is available. So Iz does what any passionate, broken, off-the-chart wunderkind might and takes matters into her own hands.

Iz fakes her way in only to face a new set of challenges: tuition fees, tough classwork, and new classmates she can’t immediately identify as friends or foes. And if she can’t handle all this while keeping how she got into Métier a secret, she could get kicked out of both school and her current home. But a life with music—a life where Iz gets to have a voice—might be worth risking everything.

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