Former science student finds true love in fiction, lands book deal
Susan Dennard always kind of figured she’d be researching and writing for a living, but in just a few short years, her subject matter has changed from halibut in the Canadian Arctic to zombies in Philadelphia during the last half of the 19th century—with some wildly successful and unexpected results.~
A former grad student in professor Aaron Fisk’s lab at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, Dennard has moved on from marine biology to authoring novels of young adult fiction.
“I always wanted to write a book, but I didn’t know how,” Dennard said in an interview from her home in Germany. “I was a little naïve when I started and I thought it might be fairly easy. So I wrote a book and it was terrible. But you have to write a book in order to learn how.”
Her second stab was a little more successful. She pitched Something Strange and Deadly—the story of a 16-year-old girl in the City of Brotherly Love whose brother is kidnapped by rancid corpses who refuse to stay dead—to Harper Collins last year. The publisher agreed to a three-book series, a deal listed on one literary blog as one of the top six-figure young adult book deals of 2010. The first part is scheduled for release next summer.
“A lot of it is luck and timing,” Dennard said of the book, set in 1876 Philadelphia against the backdrop of the Centennial Exhibition, the first American World’s Fair. “I pitched the right idea to the right editor at just the right time.”
Dennard majored in English literature in her freshman year at the University of Georgia, but soon switched to science and took an introductory course with Dr. Fisk while he was still teaching there. When he came to GLIER, he recruited the Georgia native as a grad student.
“She was an excellent student who had a broad range of interests and skills that you don’t always find in science students,” said Fisk, who studies Arctic food webs and ecosystems. “I always knew that she’d be successful at whatever she chose to do.”
While a student here, she traveled to Cumberland Sound on the south end of Baffin Island to study the catch-per-unit effort of a commercial halibut fishery there. She published an article about her research in the academic Ice Journals of Marine Science.
“Cold,” she replied when asked what the experience was like. “It was fun though. I had never done anything quite so hard-core. And working with the Inuit was a once in a lifetime experience.”
Besides a master’s degree, Dennard also found a spouse in Windsor. She met Sebastien Jaeger, an automotive engineer originally from France, at a GLIER party and the two moved to Germany in 2009 to follow his career.
Even though she’s no longer working as a scientist, she has no regrets about the path she chose and in fact, said her time in Windsor contributed to her current success.
“I became a very disciplined worker,” she said. “A lot of it comes down to self-motivation and just getting it done, sitting down and doing the work. I write all day now. And there’s a certain amount of creative thinking required in science.”
Dennard continues to work on the second two instalments of her series, and is also co-authoring a new book she describes as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea meets Percy Jackson, the fictional central character in Rick Riordan’s Camp Half-Blood series.
Susan Dennard’s new book, published by Harper-Collins, will be launched next summer. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Plavich Photography.)