Today I am so happy to host the oh-so-talented and inspiring Justina Chen Headley, writer and readergirlz diva, whose third YA title, North of Beautiful has just been released. Already, the book has received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. I cannot say enough good things about this book (actually… I think I have said lots of good things. Read my review). I’m Justina’s second stop on her blog tour this week and next. There is a great giveaway too! Answer this skill testing question in a comment below: Who was Justina’s editor for North of Beautiful? The first correct answer is eligible to win a signed copy of the book. Wow.
You wrote recently at your blog that before you start writing a novel, you make a Vision Board to express your character’s dreams and fears and identity. Could you describe the vision board you made for Terra, and how making it helped you throughout your writing process?
My vision boards are collages of images and words that symbolize my protagonist and her dreams and struggles.
For Terra, I wanted to show how boxed in she was at home and in her small town. How narrowly prescribed her definition of beauty was—based on her father’s harsh comments, her friend’s unwitting putdowns. I also wanted to capture her growth—and the amazing expansion she’d feel once she ventured out of her comfort zone. That’s what travel is—an excursion into the Unknown, an expansion of what we know about others and ourselves. It’s both an external and internal journey. Out there where no one knows us or has defined us, we can experience who we are and who we could be.
Your novel is a bit like Terra’s artwork, since it is almost a “story-collage” of rich and surprising subjects: port-wine stains, geocaching, the art of coffee tasting, cartography and international adoption. I’m interested to understand how you began to make a story out of all of those topics. Did you set out with the intention to work them all together into North of Beautiful, or did you begin by focusing on one of these subjects and the others just found their way in?
When I initially concepted the story, Terra was an adopted girl from China with a port wine stain. My editor liked the character, but thought there were far too many things for one novel and one girl to tackle. So I sat with that feedback and realized that I actually didn’t want to write a book about an adopted girl and her journey to find her birth mother in China or something like that. That is someone else’s story to write, not mine. Instead, I wanted to focus on beauty and our universal quest to accept ourselves: our bodies, our personalities, our weaknesses, our strengths.
North of Beautiful is a patchwork quilt of several epic journeys. (Read: several manuscripts that never came to fruition.) So much research I’ve done over the years for other potential stories finally made it into a book! For instance, I had been working on a non-fiction book eight years ago and interviewed the coffee buyer for Starbucks, Mary Williams. She brought me into the Starbucks tasting room and taught me how to cup coffee. Then I had wanted to write a picture book about a kid who was fascinated with maps, which led me to a long detour researching the history of cartography. That made it into North of Beautiful, too.
Considering the diversity of subjects that you wrote about in your novel, you must have spent a lot of time doing research. Could you tell us a bit about that process and perhaps describe one of the most interesting or unusual experiences you had during research?
I love research so much so that the danger is that I will only research, never write. This book was so fun to research, too. To get the port-wine stain information correct, I interviewed one of the top pediatric dermatologists in the Northwest, Dr. Julie Francis. She invited me to her operating room so that I could see all the equipment for myself. I wasn’t expecting her to tell me to hop onto the operating table. Everything that Terra felt—the fear, the tears—all of that was true to my experience. I started crying when I got on the table. Then Dr. Francis and her nurse actually zapped the back of my hand with the laser. The sick thing is that I asked them to zap it TWICE so that I could really remember the sting, the sound of the laser, everything. What we writers suffer to document the truth.
Some stories really inspire readers to imagine a character’s future. Because North of Beautiful is in large part about Terra’s physical and emotional journey, readers can’t help but think about where she might go next. What path do you think Terra would take after the story ends? Where could you see her a few years down the road?
Terra is actually the one character whose story I would love to continue in another book. I think it’d be fascinating for me to hear her tell me what she ends up doing in college and beyond.
I like to think that all of my characters—whether Terra or Patty or Syrah—end up in good spots in their future. They are all on their way into the world.
Thanks so much Justina, for your answers, and for North of Beautiful.
To add to Justina’s overall brilliance, you’ve got to know that she has made the promise to tie every book she publishes to some form of activism or community service. For North of Beautiful, Justina’s asking readers to get involved in her North of Beautiful Find Beauty Challenge. You must check this out. All of the details of this exciting initiative can be found at Justina’s blog.
Here’s where Justina will be for the rest of the tour this week. Follow her around (and read her book!):
February 2: Mitali’s Fire Escape
February 3: Um… she’s here… right now.
February 4: Archimedes Forgets
February 5: Bibliophile
February 6: Teen Book Review
Don’t forget to answer the skill-testing question (Who was the editor of North of Beautiful?) in a comment below. The person who leaves the first correct answer will win a signed copy of Justina’s book. There will be more give-aways throughout the tour, so visit the other sites too! One final bit of coolness… Barnes and Noble is featuring Justina’s book all this week at their Teens Page. Check it out.