Poised at the Edge Author Interview
Justina Chen Headley
Congratulations on your third extraordinary YA novel NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL. It’s a richly woven, theme-driven, thought provoking piece of work. The story’s protagonist Terra Cooper can check a lot of the boxes in today’s oppressively rigid standards of “true beauty.” She’s got the cascading flaxen hair, the long lean legs, the perfect six-pack abs; but that’s not what makes people stare. People tend to gape unabashedly at her unfortunate birth mark. Terra has a large port wine stain on her face. What inspired you to write about this subject?
For a long time—as a woman, a writer, and a mother—I’ve wanted to tackle our society’s super narrow definition of beauty, but I wasn’t sure what the entry point to a story would or should be. It wasn’t until I was telling an acquaintance of mine what a great mothering job she was doing because her son is well-adjusted, popular, confident—and has a port wine stain on his cheek. She stopped me in the middle of my accolades and said, “That’s because he’s a boy.” With that one comment, my story was born and Terra sprang to life in my imagination like Athena from Zeus, fully-formed.
When you first began writing the story did you plan how Terra was going to handle her situation (or how her family, friends, boyfriends and peers would?) Or did her character lead you as you began writing?
Even before I began writing North of Beautiful, I knew precisely how the story was going to end down to the very last line. But the murky middle? That revealed itself as I wrote with Terra leading the way. She kept making choices that made me uncomfortable—her relationship with her first boyfriend, her deception with her second—but it was Terra’s story. And her decisions were real and made sense and, most important of all, they helped her grow.
NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL is a highly educational book on so many levels. One subject of particular interest to me was geocaching. Will please explain this pastime for the benefit of the uninitiated?
Think of geocaching as high tech treasure hunting. Armed with a GPS device and specific coordinates for latitude and longitude, you search for caches filled with goodies. There are literally thousands and thousands of caches around the world—even in Antarctica, on the Great Wall, probably in your neighborhood. What can I say? Embrace your inner geek.
There are so many supporting characters that add richness (in both positive and negative ways) to Terra’s life. Probably the most significant supporting character is Jacob, her unexpected love interest. Even though at the beginning of the story Terra starts with a different boyfriend she ends up bonding with Jacob. Jacob is truly empathetic toward Terra. He’s also been the recipient of endless unsolicited stares, as an adopted Chinese boy, with a repaired cleft lip, and an uber-white family. Where did the inspiration for this wise beyond his years character come from?
I’ve been lucky to have incredible men in my life. Two inspired Jacob: one is a guy who was one of my best friends in college, and the other someone I met when I was researching a novel early in my writing career.
Terra’s fractured family members all have fascinating personalities and serious issues. They all play a huge role in why Terra is the way she is. Are any of these characters inspired by real people? Was it difficult to write a character like Terra’s father (I found myself seriously wishing he would drop dead?)
Let’s just say that of all my books, North of Beautiful is probably the most autobiographical. But I also want to get it out there: people can change for the better. And people do change to be their personal best. Take heart because it does happen. I’ve seen it.
Unlike many other YA novels NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL has adult characters who are well defined and interesting. Both Terra’s mom Lois and Jacob’s mom Norah are well-developed and have very interesting stories of their own. Have you ever considered writing an adult novel?
Yes! A number of my readers have asked me for a novel told from a woman’s POV. While my main love is YA, I do have an idea for an adult novel.
Along with writing you like to do philanthropic work. Can you please tell us what you (and the readrgirlz) have been up to on that front?
To celebrate North of Beautiful, I’m hosting the Find Beauty Challenge where I’m asking people to tell me what they find to be truly beautiful. For every uploaded video, I’m giving $10 to Global Medical Outreach, which sends surgeons to third worlds to help kids with cleft lips. You can find all the info on www.youtube.com/northofbeautiful.
Then with readergirlz, we’re gearing up to host our second annual Operation TBD (Teen Book Drop), working with Guys Lit Wire, YALSA, and publishers to drop thousands of free YA novels into pediatric hospitals around the country. Teen patients need the solace of story; we’re giving it to them!
The video url: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qg3y2JXPjI
Are you willing to tell us a little about your next project?
I’m not working on two…one is a YA fantasy, the other is another YA contemporary.