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Interview: S.T. Underdahl

April 1st, 2007 (09:18 am)
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The Other Sister by S.T. Underdahl tells the tale of a family. The parents have been happily married for two decades. Their middle child and only girl, almost-16-year-old Josey, thinks everything is fine. Then her mother reveals a family secret: They had a daughter when they were in college - ten years before Josey was born. Audrey, now all grown up, wants to meet her biological parents. She has no idea that her parents are still together and have had three subsequent children. While the parents are thrilled and the boys adjust fairly well to the news, Josey feels displaced. She is no longer the only girl. She is no longer the middle child. She is now the other daughter, and she is not quite sure how to act around her newfound sister.

The Other Sister is a deeply personal story for S.T. Underdahl, better known as Susan. We discussed her story and many others in a recent interview.

Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, The Other Sister. How long was it from inspiration and first scribblings to completed novel and book deal?

Thank you so much! I wrote "The Other Sister" for a contest in 2005, which it did not win (or at least I think it didn't win - I never heard [the results]!) After the contest ended, it occurred to me that maybe someone else might be interested in publishing the book, so I started sending it around, and sent it to a publisher in Minneapolis called Llewellyn Worldwide. After I sent it, I realized that most of what they published was books on metaphysical topics like tarot card reading and astrology and the paranormal, and I thought, "Oops, I don't know why I sent it there!" But there must have been some kind of cosmic forces at work, because it turns out there were just getting ready to launch a line of 'edgy young adult fiction,' and they decided that The Other Sister was just the kind of thing they were looking for!

Your book is for teens but is wholly G-rated, which is all too rare in this day and age. Did your editor or any other influential types comment on the squeaky-clean nature, anyone urge you make it racy and "hip"?

Since it's the story of something that actually happened in my family, I just told it like it was. After I finished writing it, I did think, "Hm, should I try to spice it up a bit?" but it seemed like doing that would be dishonest and would detract from the integrity of the story I wanted to tell.

I applaud you for your honesty and integrity. Tell us about the conference you recently attended.

I just got back from presenting a workshop at the American Adoption Congress 28th Annual Meeting in Boston, where I found out that there really is a lot of great literature out there, addressing adoption from all angles. The conference was great. Darryl "DMC" McDaniels (of Run DMC) was the keynote speaker; he told about his adoption reunion and it was really amazing.

What other works regarding adoption do you recommend for kids, teens, and families?

Whew, that's a great question! There are so many books that I would hesitate to list them lest I leave something important out. I would advise anyone looking for that kind of literature to check out the books recommended by American Adoption Congress or through Adoption.com.

How long have you been a clinical neuropsychologist? What made you pursue that field of work?

I've been a clinical neuropsychologist for sixteen years (good grief, has it really been that long?!) Neuropsychologists work with patients who have some kind of injury or disease of the brain, like traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer's disease. These conditions cause them to have changes in their memory, language, judgment, personality or other aspects of their daily functioning. I kind of fell in love with the specialty of neuropsychology when I was in grad school and did a placement at the local rehab hospital. There I found that I really enjoyed working with patients who were having problems due to strokes, multiple sclerosis, and brain injuries, and the specialty of neuropsychology just felt like a great 'fit' for me. I like the science of it, and I love working in medical settings.

You also supervise graduate students at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. How do you split your day between your many jobs?

Well, the week just kind of works itself out. During the day, I see patients who come to my office for evaluation or treatment, but I also may leave my office and go to one of the local hospitals to do a consult, which means that a doctor has asked me to see a hospitalized patient and give my opinion. For the last two years, I've also worked as a clinical supervisor for psychology graduate students, as you mentioned, and I see them on Tuesday mornings. Oh, and I write over the noon hours!

It sounds as though you have a happy, busy household. Have any of your children read The Other Sister?

Indeed, with six kids, and five pets, we DO have a busy household, with people and animals coming and going at all times! The Other Sister has created some extra excitement. The kids think that their mom/stepmom is a bit of a celebrity right now! My stepdaughter, Alexa, is reading The Other Sister and my daughter, Fiona, just finished it last night. She was reading it upstairs in bed and actually got up to come down and tell me that she loved the way it ended! She also tells me that a lot of her school friends are reading it and it's resulted in a lot of late-nights of reading, due to end-of-chapter cliffhangers...

Did any of the pets give it their (paw) stamp of approval?

Of course the pets love it too. They've been trying to figure out how to get Amazon accounts so they can leave their reviews!

Your website mentions two additional manuscripts, Catching Air and Summer On Lake Tulaby.

Catching Air is a novel I wrote about a year and a half ago. It's the story of a group of boys who are best friends and avid skateboarders. The plot revolves around the things that happen when one of them starts showing some signs of mental illness. Originally I wrote it as a middle grade novel, but now I'm reworking it into a YA novel because I think it might be better that way. It's being represented by my agent, Alison Picard. (Doesn't that sound important?)

While I was writing Catching Air, my husband and I impulsively bought a little store/bar on a lake in Minnesota, and I quickly realized that there were SO many great characters out there that a story had to be written about them. So by the time I finished writing Catching Air, Summer on Lake Tulaby had practically written itself in my mind. It's a story which is for the general adult audience and is currently being "shopped around."

I took part in the National Write A Novel In A Month [NaNoWriMo] event last November, and actually wrote mine in just 19 days. It's currently being edited so it doesn't have a name yet, but it's about a teenage girl whose life gets turned upside down when her grandmother, newly diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, comes to live with the family.

What are your top ten books of all time?

Only ten? Man! Alright, I'll give it a shot:

1. Anything by Judy Blume
- Notice how this is only one selection? Tricky, aren't I? When I was a young reader, "Deenie" and "Then Again Maybe I Won't" were racy stuff, and forget about "Forever." I think JB is just incredibly skilled at writing sensitively about the issues that touch all of our lives at some point or another. Plus, I learned a lot about boys from her.

2. "The Outsiders" by S.E. Hinton
- It just doesn't get any better than this; a story no one could ever forget. I didn't realize until just recently that S.E. stands for Susan Eloise; I'd always thought S.E. Hinton was a man!

3. "Gone With the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell
- I read this twice when I was a teenager, and it was just as good the second time around. Hm, now that I'm thinking about it, perhaps it's time to read it again!

4. "Cold Sassy Tree" by Olive Burns
- An amazing first novel, flawlessly written. Tragically, OB died in the middle of writing her second novel, "Leaving Cold Sassy."

5. "Memoirs of a Geisha" by Arthur Golden
- I just admire the beauty and complexity of this story so much, not the least of which is because Arthur Golden rewrote it from scratch THREE times!

6. "Christine" by Stephen King
- I went through a l-o-o-o-ng Stephen King period in my youth, and this was one of my favorites. It just really captures the essence of Stephen King's ability. I mean, how many writers could manage to make a car the main character of a story, much less a novel?

7. "The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck
- Simple and beautiful.

(Sheesh, only three more; the pressure is killing me!)

8 and 9. "These Is My Words" by Nancy Turner and "The Diary of Mattie Spenser" by Sandra Dallas
- My two favorite works of historical fiction; both detail the hardships of life during the settling of America. Wonderful, strong women as main characters, amazing plots. I could read them again and again! (Oh, and speaking of the frontier, now I'm sad I didn't mention the "Little House" books!)

10. "Last Days of Summer" by Steve Kluger
- If you've never heard of this book, it's a must-read. It was the first book I've ever read (and probably the last) where the entire story is told by letters between characters, notes scribbled on napkins, ticket stubs, newspaper clippings, etc. It's also one of the only books I've ever read that made me cry.

Now I'm not going to be able to sleep tonight, I'll be so filled with regrets over all the fantastic books I've neglected to mention. Maybe next time you should ask me for my Top 100.

I know what you mean. I could talk about 10, 100, 1000 books... Have you always been a reader?

When I was young, my best friend, Susan Degele, and I would go to the library and check out ten books apiece, then we'd stop by the Family Thrift Grocery Store and buy as much candy as we could afford (candy bars were 15 cents back then, so we could usually afford A LOT). We'd go back home and just hang out in the back yard for hours, eating candy and just losing ourselves in our books. Then, a day or two later, we'd do the whole thing again. I honestly think we read practically every book in the James Memorial Library.

Great books have played an enormously important part of my life, and I can't tell you how exciting it is to think that now people are reading a book that I wrote! I really appreciate all the awesome people I've met through writing The Other Sister - It feels like everyone who touches my life right now is a part of this new, exciting journey. Stay tuned, hopefully there will be more S.T. Underdahl books to come in the future!

Visit Susan's official website.