I am delighted to host Justina Chen today, and to celebrate her latest book. Justina is a human dynamo, not only working as an executive communication strategist and young adult author, but also finding time to give back to the community, most notably as founder of ReaderGirlz. Take it away, Justina!
Odd, Strange, and Bizarre:
The Workings of an Author’s Mind
The questions I’ve fielded as a novelist have run the gamut of odd, strange, and bizarre: How old are you? How much money do you make? When are you going to write a really good book like Twilight? But the most consistent question I get from readers, teachers, librarians, and booksellers: Where did you get your idea for your book?
If only they knew the odd, strange, and bizarre workings of my mind and musings.
Case in point: we have bedbugs, French kisses, and Machu Picchu to thank for my latest novel, A BLIND SPOT FOR BOYS.
Bedbugs. Two summers ago, my son brought home the worst possible souvenir ever from a month-long stay in the remote reaches of India: 324 bedbug bites. Yes, bedbug bites. 324 of them.
Scratched, scabbed, and riddled with angry red bumps and pockmarks up and down his body: this was not the smooth-skinned boy who had flown with a little trepedition into the wide blue sky for an adventure. No, a young man returned to me, scarred but no longer scared. Given the choice to leave his homestay family whose three-room hut was teeming with bedbugs for a bug-free house, my son chose to stay. He adored his adopted family, and staying with them was worth the sure promise of more bug biting.
That is the choice of a man who understands loyalty and sacrifice.
French kisses. The morning started out idyllically enough…until my then-boyfriend got enraged yet again about who-knows-what this time while we were ostensibly working at Starbucks. Two minutes later, glowering, he stormed out with the coffee that I had paid for, leaving me alone at a now-empty table. As it happened, a tall, dark, and handsome man sat down on one side of me, and on the other, an old lady whose thick white hair topped her head like a pouf of cream. There I was, typing away on my manuscript, still trembling inside from my soon-to-be ex’s latest burst of anger when the old woman started chatting with me.
I smiled politely, nodded once or twice, then continued to type. After all, I had a scant two hours before I turned back into a mom when the kids came home. Did the old woman notice that I was working? No, she continued to chatter and as she gestured, she knocked over her cup. Hot coffee cascaded all over the table, her bagel and her lap. I sprung up to help just as Tall, Dark, and Handsome did. Together, we mopped up the old woman and the table. I bought her a new coffee, he fetched her a fresh bagel. And this time, when I sat down, I thought to myself: Well, we’re sitting here next to each other for a reason.
So I leaned into the conversation that the old woman continued as if there had been no coffee-spill interruption and I had been engaged in the first place. And what she told me was this: two years ago, her husband passed away. He refused to die in the hospital so their sons brought him home to her. As he was fading away, she leaned over to kiss him goodbye. Her husband didn’t just kiss her back. He French kissed her! Gleefully, she told me, “He was sexy to the end!”
After she finished her coffee and trundled off, Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome asked for my number. It was almost as if I were being told: there are many more friendly fish in the sea instead of the great white shark of a boyfriend you’re with. Don’t you dare settle. It’s fishing season.
|Justina at Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu. I truly believe that there are sacred spots in the world. Spots so special that even the air feels different: lighter and more luminous somehow. Machu Picchu is one such place. To this day, no one—not archaeologists, not historians—knows definitively the what and why of Machu Picchu: was it a vacation spot for the royalty? Or a religious sanctuary for priests? Whatever it was, standing before the ruins, I could feel my depleted soul refilling and soaring heavenward. There, standing atop a flat rock, I marveled at the rubble—at the beauty that lay not just in ruins, but because of the ruins. And there it was: my aha moment. That even if my world had fallen apart a few years before, I could still be standing amidst unimaginable, inexplicable beauty.
Those three different stories became the entwined DNA strands for my new novel. The trial by bedbug that turned my boy into a man became the foundation for the father in my book: How one man has to weigh the cost of loyalty and self-sacrifice when he learns that he’s going blind. Were his choices to put family above his own personal dream worth it?
The lasting passion and playfulness of a forever love became the key question for my protagonist: Could she heal from the heartbreak of a forbidden love and risk her heart again for real love?
And finally, Machu Picchu, the setting for the bulk of the novel. And more than that, the trek to Machu Picchu tested each and every one of my characters, stripping them of their veneer of outward perfection. I love the transformative nature of journeys. Setting off into the uncharted and unknown forces you to see yourself more clearly as you hit the unexpected but inevitable bumps. You—and all your travel buddies—see your every foible and your every strength.
As the ever astute Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, pointed out to me: all my books feature some kind of journey, whether it’s a girl healing at her grandfather’s home in Hawaii in Return to Me or one venturing on a pilgrimage to China in North of Beautiful. On these expeditions, all my characters become so much more self-aware and world-aware.
How could I not share the majesty and mystery of Machu Picchu with readers when the place had so rearranged me, heart and soul? And now, one of the greatest gifts I have received are the messages from reader after reader, telling me how this special place in our world is now on their bucket list. I love that.
During one particularly meaningful college internship at an ad agency in New York, the founder advised me to braille the world. Get out there and read everything: newspapers, novels, milk cartons, cereal boxes. Take a big bite of life and write about it all. I’ve taken that sage advice one step further: get out there and mine our life experiences for all possible learning. Don’t just live it all, but learn from it all—love, heartbreak, and yes, the odd, weird, and bizarre.
Justina Chen is an executive communications strategist skilled at crafting powerful, resonant, and Tweet-worthy narratives. She conducts popular storytelling workshops and has presented at prestigious organizations ranging from the Mayo Clinic to NASDAQ and AT+T to Disney.
Justina’s multi-dimensional storytelling style draws from her experience as an award-winning novelist for young adults. Her titles include Return to Me, North of Beautiful, Girl Overboard and Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies). Additionally, she co-founded readergirlz, a cutting-edge literacy and social media project for teens, which won the National Book Foundation’s Prize for Innovations in Reading.