Book Nerd Interview
When she isn’t writing for teens, Justina is a communications strategist for executives and was the speechwriter and executive communications manager for a president of Microsoft.
She conducts popular corporate storytelling workshops and has presented at prestigious organizations ranging from the Mayo Clinic to NASDAQ and AT+T to SAS.
Was there a defining moment during your youth when you realized you wanted to be a writer?
In second grade, I wrote my first 50-page YA novel about two teens named Kitty and Dot. What I would give to have that manuscript now…
What’s one thing that readers would be surprised to find out about you?
I’m afraid of water! Chalk that up to nearly drowning three times in my life. Scary!
What was the greatest thing you learned at school?
The resident fellow, Professor Kennell Jackson, in my dorm at Stanford impressed upon me the importance of being curious all the time. He had no compunction about asking questions of anybody—even perfect strangers at the gas station. But as Kennell said, we’ve got to ask if we hope to learn.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
Embrace the discovery draft. Just write the entire story down, get the first draft out, and then you’ll know what you’re trying to say. Then start over. If you keep tinkering with the first chapter, that’s all you’ll ever have.
In your new novel; Return to Me, can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about it?
Return to Me is a Valentine to every person who’s ever been betrayed by his / her boyfriend, best friend, or parent. It follows Rebecca, an aspiring architect, immediately after she finds out that her dad’s leaving the family, which forces her to reassess everything she’s known…right down to her own career dreams. Most of all, the book is about becoming better, not bitter after an ordeal.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating Rebecca?
Reb’s passion for tiny, intimate spaces, especially treehouses opened my eyes to how space could shape our emotions. Her appreciation of design made me view buildings, structures, and rooms with a much more sensitive and appreciative eye.
For those who are unfamiliar with Jackson, how would you introduce him?
Jackson drives at one speed: sexy. Need I say more?
You have the chance to give one piece of advice to your readers. What would it be?
Nothing is ever wasted in life. Nothing, not even the hard and horrible experiences. If you are open to it and you are willing to do the work, you can become such a much better, much stronger and much more authentic person. Better, not bitter: remember that!
If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
Actually, Terra from North of Beautiful makes a cameo appearance in Return to Me. So Terra, please meet Reb from Return to Me. I think you two would have a lot to say to each other about overcoming hardship, whether it’s a birthmark or a lost dream. So pull up a couple of coconut caramel macchiatos and block out a few hours. You might become besties.
When asked, what’s the one question you always answer with a lie?
Might I cite one of the best YA titles ever in answer to this question? If I Told You, I’d Have to Kill You.
What decade during the last century would you have chosen to be a teenager?
The ‘80s were such a fun time to be a teenager. I mean, look at the movies of my era: Pretty in Pink! Sixteen Candles! The Breakfast Club! Say Anything! I wouldn’t change the time, place, and especially my posse of friends. Nope, not even if you dangled porcelain, acne-free skin.
What's the most memorable summer job you've ever had?
Well. I had the most chiseled biceps after working for a high-end department store, thanks to all the rich ladies who hauled armloads of merchandise into the dressing room for their own private fashion shows. Truly, my arms have never looked as good. But my biggest adventure happened over a summer internship at an ad agency in New York. Living in the city was a shock to my suburban system—in a great way. I learned that I could navigate a city on my own and find a community of friends wherever I went. Plus, my love affair with lox began that summer, thanks to a traumatic shopping expedition at Zabar’s.
Who is the first person you call when you have a bad day?
When was the last time you told someone you loved them?
Just now—to my daughter who’s home sick with the flu. (It’s a nice treat for me to be able to baby my teens.)
Do you remember your favorite teacher?
Not only do I remember my favorite teacher, but I based a wonderful character on her in my first novel, NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (AND A FEW WHITE LIES). Mrs. Nina Myers from Kennedy Junior High School in Cupertino, California: you were a transformative force in my life, somehow seeing potential in a gawky, bespectacled, brace face of a girl. Thank you.
When was the last time you cried?
This morning when I opened a letter from the media director at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools where I had spoken to hundreds of students back in October. As a speaker, I never really know if my words have made a difference. But this is what she wrote: “It was wonderful hearing from someone who has raised her voice in the struggle for justice, compassion, and humanity.” And then she included some feedback from students. And that’s when I began to cry good, happy, grateful tears.
Most horrifying dream you have ever had?
I cannot even begin to put the nightmare into words. Suffice it to say, I will never write horror.
Where can readers stalk you?
Come visit me anytime on my website: www.justinachen.com. Or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/justinaychen) or Twitter (@justinaychen).
And if that isn't enough to deal with, mere days after moving cross-country, Reb's dad drops shocking, life-changing news. With her mother and brother overwhelmed and confused, Reb is left alone to pick up the pieces of her former life. But how can she do that when everything can change in an instant? How can she trust her "perfect" boyfriend when her own dad let her down? Reb started the year knowing exactly what her future would hold, but now that her world has turned upside down, will she discover what she really wants?
Justina Chen, the acclaimed author of North of Beautiful, has created a moving and powerful novel about the struggles that arise from betrayal, the uncertainty of life after high school, and the joy that ultimately comes from discovering what's truly in your heart.
Rebecca’s journey is one that most can relate to. This aspect of the story truly made this book engrossing and moving. Author Justina manages to capture all of the deep emotions Reb goes through with each expected and unexpected turn of events. I enjoyed that she provided a touch of paranormal as the women in Reb’s family get premonitions and visions about the future. With no hints of this book encompassing this, I was thoroughly surprised and entertained. Although the main character is a teenager who is trying to figure out her life, the storyline had more of an adult feel. The voice for Reb is mature for YA with her life transformations being more established than what is expected from a teenager. Even in the state of feeling betrayed, by someone who she really loves, these life-changing events cause her to learn a lot from forgiveness. The way she handles these trying times in her life were done in a very mature way. Justina’s writing style will captivate readers and directly place them into Reb’s shoes where each drop of emotion is felt. Return to Me is an amazing story about pain, understanding, and discovery.