Janet Lee Carey-Dreamwalks DreamWalks Janet Lee Carey Award-winning author of novels for children and young adults

Justina Chen on Lovely, Dark, and Deep

Welcome to Creative Conversations, discussions on the creative process. Find a comfy seat, lean in close and eavesdrop in on our conversation. Today I’m talking with the inspiring, multi-talented, Justina Chen

Justina is known for her brilliant, award-winning YA novels. Her forthcoming novel, LOVELY, DARK & DEEP is due out July 31 with Scholastic. A storyteller and advocate for the power of story, Justina is the co-founder of Chen & Cragen, a boutique communications agency that transforms good executives into extraordinary leaders. And co-founder of readergirlz, a cutting-edge social media project for teens, which was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Prize for Innovations in Reading

I know Justina as a friend and a fellow Wayfinder. We’ve been writing partners for years, sharing story dreams and early drafts. Here we are returning from a writing retreat.
Some lucky Dreamwalker will win a signed Advanced Reader Copy of Justina’s upcoming book LOVELY, DARK, & DEEP. (details at the end of this CC)
Scholastic. Pub July 31st
“Readers won’t be able to help but root for Viola in this moving, empowering book about a teen recalculating her well-laid plans, all in a vivid voice.” Booklist Starred Review

Janet: It’s so great to have you here, Justina! I’m sitting at my desk with my sparkling coconut water, sipping a little bit of Maui. I’m interested in talking about the writing process—an evergreen topic with us! And, of course, your new book.

Justina: So lovely to be here! I am sipping my aloe vera drink–a new obsession–delighted to be here with you today!

Janet: It’s always good to talk with you. I’m ready for a story. Can you tell us a bit about how Lovely, Dark and Deep came to be?

Justina: About a year or so ago, I announced to my agent that I thought I had said all I needed to say to teens after 5 novels, all coming of age, all about girls finding their voices and place in the world. He shot back, “Are you kidding? You still have stories to tell.” I demurred. HOWEVER. As with all great plots, there was the great “but then.” But then…a few weeks after that momentous conversation, I received a call from Scholastic asking if I’d take a pitch from them. The editor gave me a single line: a girl who becomes allergic to the sun. I saw the entire book in my head. Honestly, as I spoke with the editor, the major story strands were there…Viola, the love interest, the stars.

Janet: I’d say that’s impossible from one line, but then, you’re you. Pretty mind blowing.

Justina: It was a dream project in every way. I feel so blessed. As it turns out, one of my besties, talented author, and co-founder of readergirlz, the fabulous Lorie Ann Grover, has this condition. What are the chances of that, right? And so every word in this novel is a Valentine to her.

Janet: My heart opens hearing that, Justina.

Justina: Thank you for saying that! This is the book of my heart. And then, of course, there was the day when you, Martha Brockenbrough, and I were plotting our next novels together. You two really pushed my thinking for this book. So thank you for that day and all of our walks where we, step by step, work through plot points.

Tina, Lorie Ann, Martha, Dawn, Janet

Janet: Ah! Loved those strong sessions with you and Martha B! And our walk/talks. Though we should maybe rename them Lost Walks since I’m usually so deep in story, I lose all sense of direction. Fortunately, one of us usually knows how to get us back. I was lucky enough to read an early draft of Lovely, Dark and Deep. I loved Viola from the start. How did you find her or is that a mystery? Plot and character come almost simultaneously to me though the character has a lot of detailed growing to do. Also, did her name come the moment you thought of her, or did it come later?

Justina: Our walks are so special to me…we have unlocked so many plot problems together, starting with step one. I heard Viola’s voice before I saw her: I knew that she wanted to travel. What surprised me in the writing was that she really wanted to be a foreign correspondent. And then, of course, with the attack on the free press, that felt like an important angle to take. So her personality became more sassy, as befits an intrepid reporter. I loved that progression in her character! As well, I knew what her name had to be because of Twelfth Night, which felt apropos considering she is banished into the dark given her skin condition.


Janet: I love the connection with Twelfth Night! You mentioned hearing Viola’s voice before you saw her. Most authors I talk to see the story first. You and I lean toward our auditory strengths, hearing before seeing. Letting the character speak also means hearing her and listening to what she wants. The surprise that she wanted to become a foreign correspondent was perfect for her and for the book. Do you think as authors we need to listen to our character’s more? It often feels daring because there’s, well, you know, the plot to consider.

Justina: That is the such the writer’s dilemma, isn’t it? The plot that we conceive before we write–and the plot that unfolds as we write! The problem happens when the unfolding becomes cataclysmic and disrupts what we think we’re writing about and leaves us not knowing what we’re writing towards anymore. But I think that’s the point of breakthrough. 🙂

Janet: What do you do then?

Justina: I listen to my character! It all goes back to listening, doesn’t it? Listening and being open to new ideas, even the uncomfortable ones. I think being open to letting the character take us to places we’d rather not go makes the plot fresh–and makes us into better storytellers. For instance, In Lovely, Dark, and Deep, I really didn’t want Viola and her sister to have the contentious relationship that they do. But that’s what the character demanded, and that’s what I had to explore.

Janet: Yes. Writing is a deep form of listening. It helps to keep asking, “What do you want?” “What do you really want?” through all the twists and turns of the story and to stay true to the character’s answers. For some reason that you may not have known in the beginning, Viola needed to talk to you about the contentious relationship. You had to listen and let her. It added a good tension to the story and made the siblings Very real. So much of our personalities form around family dynamics, loves, powerplays, rivalries. And I was touched by the moment between the sisters late in the book. (Won’t say what it is here.) The short, but powerful scene could not have happened without the tension beforehand.

Justina: It can be so uncomfortable writing into the unknown, but I think we trust the process. One more thing about Listening: I think it is so important to listen to your trusted reader(s). My new editor is one of those people–Nick is able to hone in on what’s missing or what’s off. As well, YOU are one of those fine readers with a tuning fork for emotional resonance. How do you handle the unknown–when the plot shoots off in an unexpected direction?

Janet: First of all, thanks for saying that. Your eyes, ears, heart, and mind guide my early drafts in wonderful directions. Now for the big question. Sometimes I freeze. I’m stubborn and can tussle with my characters. We argue in my journals. Sometimes I win. Sometimes my character wins. But, here’s the catch. If I win and the plot goes in the direction I’ve been planning, I still have to find a way for the character to truly resonate with it. This is also true when an editor requests certain changes in the book. After some good, hard revising, the plot changes might work terrifically, but getting my character to agree with the new scenes is something else again.

Justina: I love what you said about character tussles: so true! As well, the changes our editors might ask for may be technically easy to do, but making it consistent with our characters and flow within the book structure is so much harder! For instance, there was one scene at least a third of the way into the book that my editor thought needed to be set within the first 30 pages. Physically moving the chapter was EASY. What was hard was all the impact on set-up: character motivation, establishing her medical condition, creating her relationships. And in the end, it was such a lesson on how to be much more expedient with my storytelling– learning how to raise the stakes quickly and trusting the rest of the story do its job. Not everything needs to be said in the first 10 pages. 😉

Janet: So true! My first reaction to these major move suggestions is to throw up my hands and say, “It’s impossible!” Then the little grey cells start to work, and I get this tiny “What if?” and I find a way to make the change. It reminds me of the quote, “What’s in the way is the way.”

Each story I write has something to teach me. Something I didn’t fully know before I started writing. Did that happen with you in Lovely, Dark and Deep?

Justina: That is SO TRUE, Jannie! Every story is a teacher. For me, I learned that we are asked to LIVE–really live–even in the midst of tremendous hardship. That means, finding hope and seizing joy where we can. As well, what I have loved is the bookends of my debut novel and this latest one–both featuring mixed race protagonists. Where my debut focused almost entirely on racial identity–asking big questions about fitting in to two worlds, in Lovely, Dark, and Deep, Viola’s racial identity is only one part of her story. I love how the industry is able to support this–where racial identity doesn’t have to be the FOCUS of a book.

Janet: Beautiful bookends, though I HOPE this is not your last novel. But, yes, I see how the stories dovetail, and how Viola takes off in a broad direction, bringing her mix race identity into the challenging journey of self-discovery of — given this devastating discovery of my allergy to the sun, who am I now? What is my future? How am I to live in the world? You do a beautiful, absorbing and believable job with Viola’s questions.

Justina: YOU set the bar on beautiful and absorbing and believable in your work. Thank you so much for having me here! And don’t worry–Lovely, Dark and Deep is definitely not my last novel. I find that I have a lot to say about Love. That may have something to do with finding love now when I least expected it.

If you live in the Seattle area, come join us join the book birthday for LOVELY, DARK, & DEEP!
July 29, 5-7 p.m.
Brick & Mortar Books
Redmond Town Center

As a part of her book launch, Justina is linking to the nonprofit: Moms Rising. This powerful organization advocates for many causes, including medical insurance for kids. Speaking up for those who can’t speak is vital to Viola–who herself must re-find her own voice after life devastates her.

And now for the Giveaway. Justina is offering a signed Advanced Reader Copy of Lovely Dark & Deep along a mini-lantern and chocolates.

How to Enter. To those of you who are new to Rafflecopter, you can simply sign in (your name remains private and is only viewed by Janet when she spins final list to pick a random winner). Or you can to tweet the giveaway. (The tweet is written for you ahead of time. You just need to click. Also, you need to click “I Tweeted” to confirm the entry). Good Luck All!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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