An Interview with Justina Chen Headley
How much of this book is drawn from your own life experiences? Did you experience some of the things that Patty does in the book?
Truth: This book is a work of fiction. That said, about 10 percent of what I wrote about happened to me: my mom did, in fact, make me a mysterious Tonic Soup to drink. My family belonged to a potluck group where the favorite parental activity was one-upping each other in their children’s accomplishments. And I did go climbing—although it was in a climbing gym, not a building. And sadly, I have encountered my share of racism just as Patty does. Other than that, this is purely a work of fiction.
Patty’s aunt helps her when she is in need. Is Patty’s aunt inspired by a family member of yours?
I think all of my characters are a reflection of me, but Patty’s aunt is really a conglomeration of the best of some of my friends.
We’re dying to know if you’ve ever been subjected to belly-button fortune-telling? How about other kinds of fortune-telling? If so, did anything the teller predicted come true?
There really is a belly-button grandmother who divines the future by pressing her thumb into your belly-button. One of my roommates actually visited her in Korea, but I have not. I’d be a little scared to visit her! While no belly-button grandmother has figured in my life, one of my acquaintances is a lipsologist. She reads people’s lip prints and can tell what’s going on in their lives as well as read their personality. She’s uncannily accurate! As a gift to me, she read lips at my book party for Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies). Let me tell you that more men than women were in line to put on lipstick and kiss a piece of paper to have their lip prints read!
Do you feel as though you’re perpetuating stereotypes of Asian mothers or that is such a common stereotype that it needs to be addressed?
When I wrote the novel, my intention was to create true-to-life characters, and that applies to the mother. She feels real to me. Now, is she a stereotype? Possibly—but then when you learn what she went through and what her motivations are, doesn’t it sort of shatter the stereotype? I think that’s the beauty of literature—that you can think you know a character, and then within two or three sentences, your first impression of that character is shattered.
Could you please describe your writing process?
I typically write three - four hours a day, more when I’m in the throes of a project. I believe in writing from the start to the finish and not to slow down by rewriting until that first draft is done. Of course, with my second novel that’s coming out in January, Girl Overboard, I didn’t have that luxury. My editor wanted to see the first 100 pages or so, and I really had to work on making that first third of my book as perfect as possible. Before I start a writing day, I take about 10-15 minutes to journal from my character’s point of view about the chapter or scene I’m writing. That really focuses me.
What audience is this book directed at? Is it easier for you to write picturing a particular teen reading your book?
While my publisher categorizes my work as “young adult”—for readers 12+—I find that many of my most ardent fans are college students to fortysomething women and men. While teens inspire me like no other group, I write to please myself.
Was it important for Patty to be specifically Taiwanese versus just plain Chinese?
YES. I’m Taiwanese-American and there’s been a dearth of literature featuring Taiwanese—or half-Taiwanese—people. So I really wanted my first novel to have a Taiwanese American protagonist. Plus, I thought having her be an ethnicity that’s not as widely known would heighten her identity issue.
What writers influence you?
Someone once called me the Amy Tan of teens, and that to me is a high compliment. I love Amy Tan’s writing. I also marvel at Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson and K.L. Going’s ability to capture the teen voice in a truly authentic way. If I could pace my novels half as well as Meg Cabot, then I’d really be doing something right—plus, I really respect her amazing generosity in grooming new writers.
How did you come up with this particular story about being half-Asian and half-white?
My children are hapa—half-Asian and half-white. This novel is a love letter to them. I want them to be proud of who they are and relish their completeness—the way I want all teens to be cool with themselves.
Would you consider writing a part two to Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies)?
Hmmm…should I? Actually, I think that Patty’s story is pretty much complete and that to write a sequel would lessen the impact of everything that she’s learned—to be satisfied with herself. That said, I think Jasmine is an interesting character and she’s been bugging me to write a novel just about her. So we’ll see.
If you had to write a truth statement, what would it say?
Truth: I want to write the best books that I’m able and to take risks so that I keep growing as a writer. I want my books to tell the truth about life and to inspire my readers to do amazing things with their lives. Truth: I want to find that perfect balance in life—where I can be a great mother, wife and writer—as well as make a difference in the world beyond my words.
When you published Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies), you stated that you wanted to ensure some percentage of the profit from your books went towards a community service or the teen community in general, and we appreciate that. What inspired you to do this?
My mom is a huge mentor in addition to being a wonderful mother. We didn’t have much growing up, but she always found something to give to people who needed it more, whether it was a sweatshirt, a can of food or our old car. I was able to go to Stanford because of the scholarships I won. So I know how important it is for most teens to get a little help. That’s why I funded the Nothing but the Truth college scholarship, and why I’m co-sponsoring the Go Overboard Challenge Grant with Burton Snowboards and Youth Venture in honor of my forthcoming novel, Girl Overboard. We’re giving away a bunch of $1,000 Challenge Grants to fund community service projects spearheaded by teens.
Could you tell us more about readergirlz and how you became inspired to found it?
I made a concerted effort to visit inner-city schools when I was touring for Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies), and that experience made me realize how few of those students ever even met an author. I came up with the idea of readergirlz—an online book community—which could be run and accessed on the Internet so that everyone, no matter how much or little they had, could have equal access to authors. Three other amazing, award-winning authors—Dia Calhoun, Janet Lee Carey and Lorie Ann Grover—founded readergirlz with me. Our mission is to celebrate gutsy girls in life and literature, featuring a different acclaimed YA novel every month PLUS a corresponding community service project.
Besides 31 Flavorite Authors for Teens, what other plans do you have in store for readergirlz?
You’ll see readergirlz create innovative, unprecedented literacy initiatives to engage teens in books in fun, hip and relevant ways. For instance, come this holiday season, you’ll see our new program called Best Books for BFF—which are sassy bookmarks that highlight overlooked novels so that teens read beyond the bestseller list. And then we have something very cool in the works with YALSA.
On you readergirlz site, you state you are not only celebrating strong girls but inspiring them…. What do you think are the chances of something like this happening and how can we help?
Launching and running readergirlz is and has been an enormous amount of work—especially considering that Dia Calhoun, Janet Lee Carey, Lorie Ann Grover and I are all working writers with families. We just believe in teen literacy so much that it is worth the extra hours we spend on readergirlz instead of our other projects. I am extremely hopeful that authors who write primarily for guyz will take the challenge and create readerguyz. We have the domain name waiting for them! I’d suggest that teens and librarians who want readerguyz to start lobbying their favorite authors to create it!
You’ve expressed that “deep thinkers are readers.” As teens who are involved in making reading and libraries more exciting and meaningful for others, as well as speaking to an audience who serve teens through books and other resources, we thought this was an inspirational quote. Could you please elaborate on it?
I truly believe our world’s leaders need to be readers, because you could say that the ancillary statement is that thoughtful leaders are avid readers. Just think about it: reading introduces so much more than merely providing multiple viewpoints on an issue. The very act of reading cultivates the concentration that tough decision-making on gnarly issues demands. Reading provides us with wisdom, not just smarts. It teaches us to hope in dire circumstances. It teaches us to see the complexity in conflict, yet to sift through it to its core. Isn’t that what literary analysis is? Getting to the heart of a story: its theme? So, yes, I definitely believe that deep thinkers and thoughtful leaders are big readers.