Interview: Justina Chen Headley
Current Mood: awake
Current Song: Ramalama (Bang Bang) by Roisin Murphy
Justina Chen Headley has thoroughly impressed me with her kindness, her thoughtfulness, and her novels NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (and a few white lies) and GIRL OVERBOARD, as well as her picture book, THE PATCH.
I interviewed her in September of 2006, when the TRUTH was out and the GIRL was a work-in-progress.
The title for your first YA novel is bound to grab readers. Was the second part (and a few white lies) meant to have a double meaning, referring to both untruths and racial identity, or was that a happy accident?
Justina: There's nothing harder to write than the book's title. I'm being serious! I went through 20 titles until I hit upon this—and even then, I angsted that it was way too long. Sheesh, how many more words can I stick on the cover? But my editor liked it, and so did sales & marketing at Little, Brown. So that was that.
And you nailed it—the title plays on both the white lies we tell ourselves as well as how my main character is half-white.
From happy to hapa - Can you explain to readers what that phrase means, and when it was that you first heard it? Do you find it offensive, empowering, or a little of everything?
Justina: "Hapa" was originally a derogatory Hawaiian term for someone who is half-Chinese, but it's since become a term of power—even though a lot of people now use "mixed race" since it's more inclusive. I first heard "hapa" in a conversation with one of my friends at Stanford who's from Hawaii. I love "hapa" since one of my intentions with this novel was to show that we can redefine ourselves just as we can redefine labels.
In this book, Patty gets shipped off to math camp by an incredibly strict mother who wants her daughter to excel. Did you ever attend an accelerated academic summer session? What school subjects were your favorites when you were a teen?
Justina: TRUTH: math and I don't compute!
So even though there was no math camp in any of my summers, when I was in high school, I went to this amazing political science camp at Stanford where we got to meet community leaders at the national, state and local levels. Talking to people who were making things happen is one reason why I've committed to tying philanthropy to every book that I publish.
I had never heard of buildering prior to reading this book. Have you ever climbed buildings? Do the maps described in your novel really exist?
Justina: Not only does buildering actually exist, but so does the (ahem) STANFORD route guides to buildering, not Berkeley. (Sorry, it's a Stanford-Berkeley rivalry thing.)
When I was researching, I came across the FREEDOM OF THE QUAD, on eBay. It arrived, this tattered, obviously well-used leaflet with a hand-drawn cover from the ‘70s or so. Since I am directionally challenged, one of my best friends tromped all over the campus with me so that I could actually see and describe the routes.
No, I have not and will never builder. But I did scale walls (harnessed in) at a climbing gym. I was fine until I hit 35 feet or so…which is when I realized that humans are meant to walk, not climb walls. At least, this human is.
Did you title the chapters as you went along?
Justina: Yes, the chapters sort of named themselves as I wrote, which is funny since my next novel, GIRL OVERBOARD, didn't lend itself to named chapters.
At what point did you write Patty's closing essay?
Justina: That closing essay was the very last thing that I wrote, and it came fast. I could hardly get all of Patty's words down, I knew it that clearly.
Have your children read the books?
Justina: My kids have read my picture book, but not the novel. Here's the deal: they've got to be at least twelve to read that one.
Speaking of your munchkins, tell us the personal tale behind your picture book, The Patch.
Justina: When my daughter was three, she was diagnosed with amblyopia, an eye condition where she had to wear an eye patch for a couple of hours a day. In a moment of utter mommy stupidity, I took her to ballet class for her first outing with a patch on…and a kid made fun of her. Hell hath no fury like a writer-mom whose kiddos are scorned! I went home and wrote this book for her—and for all kids who feel remotely different.
Your books have encouraged readers to eschew labels and be proud of themselves. You have also set up philanthropic endeavors related to the storylines of The Patch and Nothing But the Truth. Have you been surprised by their successes?
Justina: I have been utterly amazed at the support I've received for both philanthropic efforts!
For NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (AND A FEW WHITE LIES), I sponsored a $5,000 college scholarship essay contest to honor my parents, first gen immigrants who sacrificed everything to send 4 of us to college. Over 60 national and regional organizations, a bunch of bloggers and podcasters promoted the scholarship. I received over 400 essays from 35 states! These essays are so heartwrenching and gorgeous. My editor at Little, Brown is selecting the winner from the finalists and we'll be announcing the scholarship recipient in mid-September!
For THE PATCH, I donated half of my advance to the American Optometrics Association's InfantSEE program, which provides free eye assessments to every single baby in the U.S. free of charge! That group sent me on a 19-city satellite media tour and invited me to speak at their annual meeting. These optometrists are my heroes. They're using their talents to better our community. How amazing is that?
Tell us more about your next YA novel, Girl Overboard. What is it about, and when can we expect to see it on the shelves?
Justina: GIRL OVERBOARD is about the dark side to the rags to riches story, and features a girl whose dad is the Asian Bill Gates. The only time she feels real is when she's riding the mountain, anonymous in her snowboarding gear. But then she blows out her knee and can't snowboard. That's where the story starts.
Visit readergirlz, a literacy project co-founded by Justina Chen Headley, Janet Lee Carey, Lorie Ann Grover and Dia Calhoun.