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Interview with Justin Chen Headley

by debbi michiko florence


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.

You’ve had several novels for young adults published.  Can you tell us about your journey to publication?  Did you always want to write for children?  And of course, tell us about that first sale!

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!)

In your newest YA novel, North of Beautiful, Terra’s story is about her journey of self-discovery – in learning to accept herself and others, rather than trying to escape what makes her uncomfortable.  I think that many of us have a natural tendency to do this – to avoid things that are out of our comfort zone.  How did you get into Terra’s head?  What things make you uncomfortable and how do you overcome your fears?

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. 

How did this story come to you?  And what challenges did you face in writing this rich and layered story?

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.

Terra struggles between feeling abandoned by her brothers and feeling loyal to her mother, all while resenting her father.  How hard was it for you to dig into all these characters and get to know them?  What do you do as a writer to get to know your characters?

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).

I love Jacob – the Goth Chinese boy who unnerves Terra with his straight-forward honesty.  He might be my favorite in this book.  Was he based on anyone you know?

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. 

Maps and compasses play heavily in this story.  How much do you like to plan and organize?  Or are you spontaneous?  And how about in your writing? Do you outline or do you write by the seat of your pants?

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.

Part of the story takes place in China. How much of you is in Terra as she experiences China for the first time?  What kind of research did you do?

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  (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.)

Love the collages Terra does – I wish I could see them.  Are you an artist yourself?  What kind of art moves you?

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.

This is your third novel – how was writing this one different from your previous two?  What things did you learn from writing the first two that helped you while writing this one?

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. 

What is the best thing about being an author?

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.

What is the most challenging thing about being an author?

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 are you working on now?

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.

Wow! That sounds exciting!  Anything else you’d like to share?

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 to Global Medical Surgeries which does pro bono work in third world countries, helping kids with cleft lips and palates. 

How can fans and teachers contact you?

The best way to reach me is to leave a comment on my blog:  And then there’s always email:

Thank you!


Interview © February 2009 By Debbi Michiko Florence


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For more about Justina and her books, see her website:

Justina Chen Headley


You can also keep up with her on her blog: