Justina Chen Headley is an award-winning novelist for teens who won the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature in 2007. Her books have been distinguished as an ALA Popular Paperback of 2008, IRA Notable Book, New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, Junior Library Guild Premier Selection, and Chicago Public Library Best of the Best. She is also the co-founder of readergirlz, the world’s largest online book community for teen girls.
I’ve been writing for teens ever since I was 8 years old and wrote my 50-page epic novel about Kitty and Dot. After a professor at Stanford told me that I couldn’t write, I put away my dreams of being an author. Sad, but true how demoralizing one person’s opinion can be. After I had my kids, I realized that it was shameful to allow one person to derail my dream! So I took a children’s writing course at the University of Washington Extension Program and on my last day of class, I sold my picture book, THE PATCH. My first two novels—NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (AND A FEW WHITE LIES) and GIRL OVERBOARD—were sold at auction not too long after. (So there to naysayers!)
It was easy to get into Terra’s head because in many ways, it’s my head! So many things make me uncomfortable—finances and balancing my checkbook, for one. I love to travel, but the logistics of getting from place to place sometimes scare me. Living in China without any hard cash scared me. So did not speaking the language and knowing people were making fun of me. BUT. Like Jacob’s mother in North of Beautiful says, I don’t want fear to stop me from having an experience I want to have. So I’ve learned to throw myself into whatever it is that I want to try. And then remember, bumps are part of the journey. That’s how we learn. And we need to be scared at least a little bit to keep us growing. And humble.
Like so many of my stories, the inspiration for this story came through a chance conversation. I had just finished speaking at a middle school and I recognized one of the boys there. He was Mr. Cool on campus: athletic, good-looking, witty. And he has a portwine stain on his face. A couple of days later, I bumped into his mom and I was telling her what a great job she had done parenting him because he didn’t let his birthmark get in his way. She looked at me and said, “That’s because he’s a boy.” That got me thinking: what would it be like for a girl to be under constant scrutiny? What if she had a father who put a premium on physical perfection and her birthmark was a personal affront to him? With Terra, I was able to tackle the whole notion of beauty, a topic that’s been at the forefront of my mind as a mother, woman, and writer! When did size 00 become the figure we are all supposed to attain?
Fitting in everything I wanted to say—exploring the notion of True Beauty fully—within the confines of a novel was challenging to say the least.
Writing any scene with Terra’s father was really difficult for me emotionally. I’ve been around too many controlling men. One of my teen readers was the impetus for tackling a story with an emotionally abusive relationship. She approached me after one of my readings and commiserated about how she, too, had been afraid of going after her dreams. Instead of a professor mocking me, it was her father who belittled her ambitions. I knew I had to write this story for girls who have been knocked down by Those Who Think They Know Better (but don’t).
My editor’s first words to me when she finished NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL: I am in love with Jacob.
Jacob is based on two dear friends of mine. One is my best friend from college who was always there for me—as steady as a friend could be. And the other a man I met years ago when I was working on another novel. Totally irreverent and adventurous. And then, of course, there was a whole bunch of fantasizing (I mean, harnessing of my imagination) to create the gestalt of Jacob, black fingernails and all.
I’m a disorganized planner! Meaning: I like to make my plans for my future, for my year, for my day, for my travels. But I’m the first person to give my plans the old heave ho when an unexpected opportunity emerges. As my friend, Lorie Ann Grover, says, I’m fluid. (Which I like to think is a nicer way than calling me flakey.)
Fluid is my mantra for writing, too. Before diving into a book, I spend time simply dreaming about my character. I never make lists, which would probably be smart to do, but it’s too linear of a process for me. I don’t feel close to my character through a laundry list. Instead, I make character and story collages. I journal from my character’s perspective. I outline and play with plot, which at that early stage is simply another character development exercise. Plot informs my character: what choice would she make? Is that decision truly consistent with my character? What would she think about that situation? What would make her act badly? That’s how I play with my story early on.
Only when I can picture the beginning and the end solidly do I write the story in earnest. The story gushes out of my heart. If I stop and censor, if I doubt, if I listen to my internal critic at this nascent stage, then my story will stagger. And stumble. And ultimately, stop. So I just have to flow. Ideally, I’d like write my books from finish to end, but there are certain pressures (say, paying the bills!) that make it necessary for me to hone the first 100 pages and share it with my agent. And he’s usually been able to sell my books at this stage.
Two years ago, I made my first trip to China, traveling with my mom and former mother-in-law. We visited many of the places in the book—Shanghai, Beijing, the Great Wall. Being responsible for three generations of family on that trip, I didn’t have the energy to keep a detailed journal. At the end of the day, I’d collapse! Luckily, all the sensory details—the sights, the smells, the tastes—flooded back when I sat down to write about Terra’s life-expanding trip. For the places I didn’t visit, I studied photographs of China on www.pbase.com. (That is my super secret research tip, all you writers out there. Fabulous photographers showcase their work on pbase. So if you need fast inspiration for setting, browse the website.)
Unfortunately, my mother’s gift as an artist of many media did not pass down to me. Her fear of driving did. That said, I’m an avid collager. Creating a vision board for every book is part of my writing process. I dedicate a week to collecting images that symbolize my character and her dreams and fears. Once finished, I place the completed board prominently in my office where I can gaze on it and lose myself into my story as I transition from mom to writer.
I could not have written NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL without first writing about Patty and Syrah. Working with my editor, Alvina Ling, and her assistant editor, Connie Hsu, I have learned so much about pacing and character arc. I also learned to trust myself when I write. To run with the manuscript when I am feeling impassioned by it and when the characters are talking nonstop to me. And then to be okay with taking breaks from the work, too. To allow my mind to go fallow and to live. Life—and being open to new experiences and emotions—all of that informs my current and future books.
Writing what’s in my heart and having those words connect to thousands of people in the world. Finding out from my readers that my stories have touched them. Changed them! That’s what makes writing worth every single minute of sitting in front of the computer.
The reality of the business is probably the most difficult part for me personally—that writing is just half of the job. Then there’s the business side and all that comes with it: Keeping track of expenses. Paperwork! Bills! Bleah!
What’s exciting me most is my new YA fantasy trilogy, a complete reimagining of one of the most romantic myths in Chinese lore. I am having so much fun with it.
Check out my Find Beauty Challenge. Load a 90 second video of you telling the world what True Beauty means to you, and you might win an iPod Touch. Plus, I’m donating $10 per video loaded (up to $1000) on www.youtube.com/northofbeautiful to Global Medical Surgeries which does pro bono work in third world countries, helping kids with cleft lips and palates.
The best way to reach me is to leave a comment on my blog: www.justinachenheadley.blogspot.com. And then there’s always email: Justina@justinachenheadley.com.