Interview with Justina Chen, Author of North of Beautiful

To celebrate the publication of her latest book, North of Beautiful, Justina Chen graciously answered questions for readers of Mother Daughter Book Club.com. Read on to find out what she has to say about the writing life and her book. For a review of North of Beautiful, see my previous posting.

How did you know you wanted to write books, and how long have you been writing?

JC: Ever since I was a second grader who was scolded for reading too much, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Stories have always rolled around in my head, words bursting out of me, demanding to be written down. I’d say I got serious about writing, though, about five years ago. Before that, I’m sure people thought I was really weird because I’d zone out in conversations, narrating scenes in my mind.

What’s your favorite thing about being an author?

JC: I love almost everything about being a writer: playing with words and ideas. Creating worlds out of my imagination. Connecting with readers.

Maps and travel play an important role literally and figuratively in North of Beautiful, how did you get the idea to weave a theme relating to cartography throughout the book?

JC: My friends who have had the misfortune of being a passenger in my car know that it’s absolutely ironic that maps figure so importantly in my novel. I am geographically dyslexic. I cannot read maps.  And the GPS built in my car? I’ve named her Louise the Lost. She is, I’m sad to say, the dunce of GPSes. I swear, the thing gets me lost on purpose. Even so, I love antique maps—they’re works of art, a bit fact, a lot fantasy. The more I researched about the history of cartography, the elements of map-making, I knew that maps would be the perfect metaphor for Terra whose controlling father locks her into a very small grid box of his making. The question was, would Terra have the strength and gumption to break through those boundary lines?

Terra’s port-wine stain birthmark has gotten her a lot of attention as she has grown up—negative attention from strangers who stare at her face, and positive attention from her family, who has put much effort into both ignoring her birthmark and trying to get treatment for her that will lessen its prominence. How do you feel that has contributed to the person she is?

JC: Living under the scrutiny of both strangers and family made Terra intensely hyper-conscious of her appearance. The last thing she feels is beautiful. Or worthy. With that much self-doubt, it’s no wonder she doesn’t have confidence in her art, much less herself. So she settles for a guy—a miracle boyfriend—and makes choices that she thinks will make her feel better about herself. But decisions made to please others rather than honor our true selves backfire. They always do.

Terra’s mom seeks to lessen the stress of her husband’s verbal abuse by eating, Terra’s brothers escape it by leaving home as soon as they can, and Terra tries to control as many details of her life as possible to deal with the abuse. How can one person’s words have such a ripple effect on everyone in a family?

JC: That’s the amazing thing, isn’t it?  How powerful all of our words can be. They can embolden, strengthen, build up. Or they can destroy as surely as a sledgehammer. That was true in Terra’s family.  The threat of their father’s sledgehammering words made them all duck-and-cover in their own way.

Terra’s family members keep their Dad’s verbal abuse fairly well hidden, and friends often don’t understand why Terra and her family are nervous around him. Do you believe verbal abuse is not very well recognized and confronted the way that physical abuse is? If so, why do you believe that is so?

JC: Physical abuse leaves visible wounds—wounds that you can point at and say, “Look, a bad thing happened. See?” Verbal abuse leaves scars on the heart and spirit. Those invisible wounds are so much harder to quantify, to point at as definitive proof. But I believe that emotional wounds linger where physical ones heal.

Were Jacob and his mom able to see and understand what was happening behind the scenes in Terra’s home because they were outsiders?

JC: More than outsiders, they were astute and keen listeners.  They read into the silences and heard what was left out unlike so many people who hijack cries for help and turn them into opportunities to pontificate. Or who foist their own problems on the ones who need support the most. The beauty of Jacob and his mom was they knew when to be quiet. And when to throw the lifeline.

MDBC: Have you gone geocaching? If so, have you ever hidden a cache of your own?

JC: I love geocaching (high-tech treasure hunting) and am always looking for opportunities to find more caches. My dear writer-buddy, Dia Calhoun, created and hid a North of Beautiful cache in the Methow Valley where the book is set. That cache was one of the most thoughtful presents I’ve ever received.

Did anything surprise you about your characters as you were writing about them?

JC: Oh, yes! Terra started out as an Asian-American girl. But I realized that the story would be more profound if Terra embodied our society’s concept of beauty-tall, willowy, blond-except for her “flaw.”

Is there one overriding message you would like readers to take with them after reading North of Beautiful?

JC: Rock the world, not the mirror. Be phenomenal, not merely beautiful. Reach your potential, and you’ll discover that you are far more beautiful than you ever imagined.

How long did it take you to write it?

JC: North of Beautiful gestated inside me for about a year, and then it took about eighteen months to write. And revise. And revise. Did I mention revising?

What are you working on now?

JC: I took a small hiatus since I was tired from writing three novels in three-or-so years and then moved temporarily abroad. But now that I’m back home, I’m working on a YA fantasy trilogy. I also have a kernel of an idea for my next contemporary, realistic YA novel. I adore this open-ended ideation stage where everything is a possibility, and I’m just now falling in love with the characters.

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