Susan Cullen on her thought-provoking dystopian novel, The World Collective, shortlisted for the 2023 Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize.

When environmental disaster threatened to end all life on earth, humanity came together and created The World Collective. Using The Code, a computer program that tracks every detail, citizens live in harmony, each ensured a full life story with access to food, medicine, education, and meaningful work as part of the collective.

But what happens when The Code is hacked?

The last terrorist attack happened eight years ago. Ry was the only survivor. Now fourteen, she can’t help but notice everything is happening too fast, especially when she is activated for her vital role four years early. A terrorist has tampered with the coding that controls vital roles and Ry has been assigned to the very team tasked with his capture…

Stories are how Susan Cullen makes sense of the world so it was only natural they would be a part of her life. But it would take going off to university, getting married, spending over a decade supply teaching, and starting a family of fellow book-lovers before she would finally battle that beast called self-doubt and pursue her dream of writing. A lover of all four of Canada’s seasons, Susan lives in Chatham-Kent and can be found cheering on her fellow NaNoWriMo writers, walking her pup, and collecting books. The World Collective is her debut novel.

Congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2023 Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize! Please tell us a little more about The World Collective.

The World Collective is a YA dystopian novel set in the far future where humanity has conquered the problems that plague us today. Everything has been made perfect: the environment is in balance, no one wants for anything, and all have an equal place within society, all possible because of The Code, a computer program that monitors every aspect of life.

But what happens when The Code is hacked?

The last terrorist attack happened eight years ago. Ry was the only survivor. Now fourteen, she can’t help but notice everything is happening too fast, especially when she is activated for her adult life four years early. A terrorist has tamper with the coding that control vital roles and Ry has been assigned to the very team tasked with his capture. She soon learns that more is at stake than a couple of kids being forced to grow up too fast. Because The Code controls every aspect of life… and death.

The World Collective is perfect for young readers looking to get into dystopian fiction for the first time and long-time fans of the genre.

How does it feel to be on the shortlist for the prize?

Amazing! I am honoured to share space with so many other outstanding Canadian authors and their wonderful stories. The fact that my novel is featured with Genki Ferguson’s Satellite Love, a Canada Reads longlist, blows me away.

What first drew you towards writing? How did you start out as an author?

Stories have always held a special place in my life. My childhood was full of books and I was surrounded by adults who read for pleasure. It made sense that dreaming up elaborate stories was my favourite past time.

But child me never thought I could be an author. While I loved writing stories spelling and grammar just didn’t stick. If I couldn’t spell how could I ever publish a book? So, I set writing aside and focused on other things.

Fast forward to 2009 when I first learned about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I had recently read a book with a main character I couldn’t stand and I was home with my first baby. It sounds arrogant but I wanted to see if I could write a better a character. I thought, what did I have to lose by trying – no one was ever going to see it. I went into the month expecting to fail and came out with the hugest confidence boost. I wrote 50 000 words in a month and it was a half decent story (and all while keeping a baby alive!).

That was the turning point. I got back into writing. At first, I focused on doing it for myself, it was my escape, but over time and with lots of encouragement from others I began to put my work out into the world. Today I feel incredibly lucky to be able to share my imaginings with others and I’m grateful for the access to technology and resources to help me develop my craft and tackle my still weak spelling.

What inspired you to write The World Collective?

I wanted to write a YA dystopian that was accessible to the younger YA readers, high stakes but not dark or overly violent, and I wanted it to be laced with hope. I have a 12- and 14-year-old, they don’t need more stories about the world failing, their lived experiences have been dark enough with a global pandemic, social inequalities, and very real concerns about the climate crisis. I wanted to inspire readers to imagine a positive future while also seeing that no matter your age, you matter. We each have a part to play.

Just for fun: describe your writing style in five words or less.

Quick paced with snappy dialogue.

Do you have any advice for emerging writers like yourself? Any advice you wish you had had when you first started writing?

Writing isn’t any different from playing a sport or instrument. Yes, natural talent has a role but more important is putting in the time. Behind race day, the big game, or the sold-out concert, are hour and hours of practice and training. We don’t count the time spent learning scales or lifting weights as wasted, why then do we count our multiple drafts or unsold stories as failures? They were teaching us new skills and honing our story telling muscles.

Keep studying the writing of others, find books and people who can help develop your skill, and keep writing! Your biggest battle will be self-doubt and imposter syndrome. Don’t let them win! Focus on telling a good story, spend more time editing, and get yourself a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus (an amazing resource for “show, don’t tell”).

Do you have any writing projects in the works right now?

The World Collective is the first book in a trilogy of the same name so I am currently busy with edits for book 2, The United People (set to release late 2023), while also writing the final book.

Please recommend us a book or audiobook, or let us know what you are reading or listening to right now!

This is a terrible question; I want to list all the books! But if I have to pick I’ll suggest When the Stars are Scattered by Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson. It is my counter argument to anyone who says graphic novels don’t count ‘real’ books.

The Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize was created to bring literary recognition to Canadian talent and kick-start the careers of debut authors. A $10,000 CAD cash prize will be awarded to a book in each of three categories: Nonfiction, Literary Fiction, and a rotating Genre Fiction category. In addition, each winning author receives promotional marketing and ongoing communications support throughout 2023.

Susan Cullen is one of six authors nominated in the Speculative Fiction category for 2023. Best-selling author Robert J. Wiersema will select this year’s winner, to be announced on June 22, 2023.

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