Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Author Interview: Justina Chen Headley on Nothing But The Truth (and a few white lies)

Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen Headley (Little Brown, 2006)(read excerpt)(author photo). From the promotional copy: "Hapa (half Asian and half white) Patty Ho has never felt completely at home in her skin. Life at House Ho is tough enough between her ultra-strict Taiwanese mom (epic-length lectures and all) and her Harvard-bound big brother. But things get worse when a Chinese fortuneteller channels Patty's future via her bellybutton...and divines a white guy on her horizon. Her mom then freaks out and ships her off to math camp at Stanford. Just as Patty writes off her summer of woe, life starts glimmering with all kinds of probabilities. Written with the perfect balance of humor, poignancy, and sharp wit, Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) is the debut of a bright new talent." Ages 10-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Let’s just say that nothing much is fiercer than a writer-mom. One day, when I took my very young hapa (half-Asian, half-white) kids to the Children’s Museum in Seattle, a few pre-teens hung-twung-wung’ed us (you know, mocked us with pseudo-Chinese). For the next couple of months, that incident stayed in my head, which must have primed me to write Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies).

A day after an inspirational SCBWI conference, this character started soliloquizing about what it feels like not to fit in either at home with her ultra-strict Taiwanese mom or at high school with its predominantly white student body. Her observations were so wry, I started to laugh while I was jogging, which probably accounts for why the other runners on my path veered out of my way (or not).

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Isn’t it funny that going from brain to bookshelf is actually shorter with a novel of a couple hundred pages than a picture book with a couple hundred words? At least that’s been my experience. My picture book, The Patch, which I sold three years ago to Charlesbridge, is being published February, 2006, just a few months before my novel, which has been in the works for two years.

My novel’s odyssey began at my first SCBWI conference where an editorial consultant conducted a first-page critique. That session was my master’s class on writing. It showed me how quickly someone could assess writing and pinpoint problems. After the former editor lacerated a few first pages, she got to mine. I cowered in my seat, wondering how she was going to eviscerate my picture book manuscript, because she was so silent after reading my page out loud. Then like an oracle, she pronounced, “This is a voice I have never heard. Whoever this is should be writing novels.”

That was the shove I needed to write something longer than five pages. So the next day after going for a run, I wrote the first chapter of Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies).

I will be honest: it scared me how fully formed that first chapter flowed out of me. I know writers relish the moments when the character talks. But this outpouring, frankly, was frightening, especially when I thought I would just, you know, try out a novel.

Worse than being scared, I didn’t think I was up for the task: write about a girl who was grappling with her self-identity, particularly where it intercepted with her ethnicity? No, thank you. I’d rather write about dancing jellyfish (which I did and the manuscript is still looking for a home in case anyone you happen to know is dying to publish a picture book about an undersea jelly jubilee).

So I shelved the chapter for six months, but signed up for a novel-writing class, taught by the incredible Janet Lee Carey, which catered to adult fiction. Since the other writers in that class looked decidedly unimpressed with my fairy novel—compared to their high-concept tales of espionage and kidnapping—I decided to focus on Patty.

Midway through that class, Steven Malk, a literary agent, called me and told me he liked but didn’t love the picture book manuscript I had shared with him. Thankfully, he asked me what I was working on and I mentioned my novel. I sent him three chapters and a synopsis. About two weeks later, Steve called asking for the rest!

On the day I went into reconstructive surgery for my knee (stupid ski injury; inspiration for Girl Overboard, novel number two), Steve sent out my manuscript to a bunch of publishers. Four days afterwards, Steve called with news: “We got multiple offers!”

Those words were and still are so utterly unreal to me. Steve mentioned the word “auction,” and I laughed out loud, because, really, he couldn’t be serious and I must be suffering the hallucinatory effects of too many pain meds. But Steve meant it and held an auction for my book that next week.

Surreal, isn’t it? I mean, just a few months before, I was writing groveling cover letters to editors, begging them to glance at my work, and now a bunch of them were vying for the same manuscript?

For two days, the bidding whittled from four publishers and then down to pinging back and forth between two publishers. The natural high I got from the auction worked better than any prescription painkiller for my post-op knee! That auction is an experience that I wish I could gift to all my writing buddies.

I count myself as incredibly fortunate to have Alvina Ling for an editor. She welcomed me to my publishing home (Little, Brown) with an enormous box of books, which is the way to this writer’s heart.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing this book to life?

To be honest, I had to do a ton of research to write the book, which is a good thing because I adore research, right down to going to a climbing gym. I, however, did not do any buildering (climbing on buildings). For that, I located one of the remaining extant copies of Freedom of the Quad, a guide book to the climbing routes at Stanford University on eBay, went onsite to scope out the routes, and then interviewed two avid Stanford builderers.

Math camp? Okay, to tell the truth, I resisted that one, trying to sweet talk Patty into a different summer experience since I had never been to math camp, never wanted to go to math camp, and didn’t know where to start. Call it coincidence or fate, but my first writing teacher, Meg Lippert, and I were talking one day and she reminded me that her husband not only coached the national-award winning math champion, but was the director of a summer math camp!

When Patty, the protagonist, kept creating new terms, I had one of those a-ha moments that makes writing so much fun. I just knew that she would somehow end up in the naming field, and in my Microsoft days, I had worked with a naming company for one on my products. Anyway, I remembered how I thought it was fascinating (others thought it was scandalous) that people could make that much money slapping a name onto a product or a feature.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to experience Belly-button Grandmother for real. She’s back in Korea somewhere!

I noticed a mutual friend, Janet S. Wong, mentioned in your acknowledgments. Could you share with us a little bit about the connection that led you to describe her as someone "whose belief heartened and humbled me from the very start"?

A few months after I started writing picture books, Janet read three of my manuscripts and then invited me over for tea. Before I could even utter a “thank you,” she led me to her dining room where my manuscripts were sitting on the table. Of course, I tried to see if she had written all over them—you know, things like, “God, this sucks! You think you can write?” Instead, laying a hand on them like a benediction, Janet told me, “You are going to be published.” And only after that did she ask me what kind of tea I wanted.

Her unwavering faith in my writing sustained me during the very lean first year when I was submitting but not selling. I got lots of invitations from editors to share more work, but no one was offering a contract. Still, over a lot of dim sum and sushi, Janet kept predicting that I would be published. She is one of the most generous, talented women I know, and I count her as a very, very dear friend.

What is it like to be a first time author in 2006?

Can you say, "wonderful, scary and busy?" Did I mention "scary"?! I am truly blessed that in addition to Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies), I have a picture book, The Patch, coming out a few months earlier. But that of course, means it’s an extra busy time for someone who’s totally new to book marketing, not that I’m complaining!

What’s helping me over that huge mental hurdle of eek-my-words-are-going-public are the authors—my publishing heroines, Meg Cabot, Julie Anne Peters (author interview), Lisa Yee (LJ)(author interview), and Deb Caletti—who wrote blurbs for my novel. With them on my cover, I feel flanked by a posse of fellow authors who are supporting me.

And to be honest, what’s keeping me grounded right now are my two new novels with all these characters who are clamoring for me to spend time with them in the wild, wonderful imagination stage.

What advice do you have for beginning children's novelists?

Every conference you attend, every market report you read, every author you talk to, you’re probably going to hear the same doom-and-gloom. You know, editors aren’t acquiring! Readers aren’t buying! Well, just remember that behind every spoken No, there is a whisper of a Yes. You bet editors are still looking for new voices. You bet readers are still clamoring for good stories.

So I’d say to people who are actively working on their craft (and I do mean, actively--as in writing more than they’re talking about writing) to think hard about what’s compelling them to tell that particular story instead of another one.

I love this quote from Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter (Putnam, 2001)(reading guide): “…when you push an inkstick along an inkstone, you take the first step to cleansing your mind and your heart. You push and you ask yourself, What are my intentions? What is in my heart that matches my mind?”

Know the answers to those questions, and you will write the Truth that will speak authentically and directly to an editor and an agent somewhere. I believe that.

What insights do you have to share about writing humor?

This is a hard question to ask someone who doesn’t think of herself as particularly funny and who laughs inappropriately at inopportune moments. But by wonderful happenstance, I happen to have just finished John Irving’s A Widow for One Year (Ballanatine)(excerpt) and this is what he says: “…comedy is ingrained. A writer doesn’t choose to be comic. You can choose a plot, or not to have one. You can choose your characters. But comedy is not a choice; it just comes out that way.”

So I’d have to say that comic moments, which can be the most poignant ones, simply present themselves. When they do, write it fast. During the editing process, watch the wording and pacing to see what can be cut or rewritten to heighten the humor. A quick quip sometimes accomplishes more than an endless page.

How would you describe the landscape today of Asian American children's/YA literature? Interracial children's/YA literature?

Well, I’d say publishers are pushing into the Great Unknown, taking lots of literary risks in all of children’s/YA literature, not just stories that feature any specific ethnicity.

I think editors—and readers—are hankering to hear new voices, explore new experiences, and inhabit new lives within the safe boundaries of a hard-bound book. It’s exciting that we’re in a time where David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (Knopf, 2003)(excerpt) and Julie Anne Peters’ Luna (Little Brown, 2004)(author interview) are being met with critical and audience acclaim at the same time that authors are exploring other previously taboo topics.

Given the growing population, why do you think YAs with interracial characters still so rare?

Already, I think that’s changing. I’m seeing more kids with different background in stories, and not just in books that are written by authors of color. In other words, I see more diversity in the supporting cast, which is now trickling into starring roles.

Here’s the exciting thing: as more writers of different backgrounds are being published, we are going to get an even richer, more varied cast of characters. And we’re going to see authors pushing storytelling itself, incorporating different traditions, whether it’s magical realism from South America or the griot’s oral stories from Africa.

Of the children's/YA books you've read of late, which are your favorites and why?

I don’t know about other writers, but after turning in my second novel, I’ve been binging on books. It’s like my one-story diet these last couple of months with my own plot has made me ravenous for other stories.

So for Young Adult, I finally read Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade, which my agent has raved about since I’ve known him. She creates character and tension in such an economical way. Another living genius is Marilyn Nelson whose A Wreath for Emmett Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) should be required reading for young adults everywhere. The craftsmanship of her interwoven sonnets is something worthy of study. Deb Caletti’s Wild Roses (Simon & Schuster, 2005) is her best book yet. The protagonist’s voice is so sure and smart. And I had a wonderful time with The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp [by Richard Yancey (Bloomsbury, 2005)(excerpt)(author talk). I swear, give that book to any reluctant boy reader and you will turn him into a book lover for life.

For the middle-grade set, the most entertaining book I read in 2005 has got to be Rick Riorden’s The Lightning Thief (Hyperion, 2005)(author interview), and not just because I’m a sucker for Greek mythology. My son and I battled over the book, which speaks for itself.

And then I read Nancy Farmer’s landmark, The Ear, The Eye and The Arm, to my kids who were absolutely riveted. Also, I loved Sally Gardner’s I, Coriander (Dial, 2005), and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy [by Gary D. Schmidt (Clarion, 2004)].

As for picture books, my all-time favorite from my recent reading binge is Show Way [by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott (Putnam, 2005)]. I loved the topic and intergenerational aspect of this work.

Is there anything you would like to add?

My parents sacrificed so much so that all four of their kids could go to college. In my small way, I’d love to honor my parents and help alleviate the financial burden for a college-bound student. So I am personally sponsoring a Nothing but the Truth Essay Contest for a $5,000 college scholarship. More details can be found soon on my website, www.justinachenheadley.com and on www.nothingbutthetruthnovel.com.

And for my picture book, The Patch, I am donating half of my advance to InfantSEE, a program that aims to provide free eye assessments to every baby in the U.S. As well, I’m working with www.patchpals.com to offer a limited edition eye patch, featuring the characters in the book, with proceeds benefiting InfantSEE.

I am truly lucky to have two publishers (Little, Brown and Charlesbridge) who are in full support of these philanthropic efforts. They have done everything they could to make these programs as straightforward and successful as possible.

Cynsational News & Links

San Gabriel (TX) Writers' League Writingsmarter Contest is accepting entries in: children's; novel; poetry; short fiction; and short nonfiction. They entry fee is $15.00; manuscripts will be returned with the judges' comments. First prize (in each category) is $50, second prize is $35, and third prize is $20. Contest brochures, including entry forms are at http:/groups.yahoo.com/group/SanGabrielContest. More information about the SGWL can be found at www.sgwl.net.

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