Several years ago (*cough* nearly thirty *cough*), in a small church camp in western New York, two girls met — two girls who had similar interests, and who looked so much alike, people mistook them for sisters. Though one was a city mouse and one was a country mouse, they spent their teenage years as fast friends.
One of those girls is Julie Berry.
The other is me.
Some of you might know Julie from her debut, The Amaranth Enchantment, or her sophomore novel, Secondhand Charm. My gingerbread boys love her best for her work on the Splurch Academy series with her sister, Sally Gardner. I’m thrilled to have Julie come talk to us about her young adult novel, All the Truth That’s in Me, which has already garnered much praise, and many starred reviews.
I’ve read it, folks, and I’m not biased when I tell you it’s fantastic. So don’t be surprised when you hear the title being tossed around as a Contender. You know, a CONTENDER.
Since I know Julie, I felt no obligation to ask her real questions. Serious questions. Questions that might be found in, you know, a School Library Journal interview, or a review in Publisher’s Weekly or New York Journal of Books (here). Instead, I returned to our teenage years and asked her some teenage questions. Without further ado, here’s Julie.
GJ: You know that food is a priority for me. Judith Finch has no refrigerator. If she did, what would I find in hers?
JB: Food has less to offer Judith than it offers you or me because of what’s happened to her. And it’s somewhat more difficult to eat. Bitter and sour are flavors she can taste, and that’s not me trying to be metaphorical, though I do find it interesting. I think she’d have a fairly pragmatic relationship to food. She eats it because she needs it to live, not as a source of much pleasure. So, I think she’d have the sorts of nourishing staples she can produce herself on the farm. We’d find bread and grain cereals, then; vegetables and stews; eggs and milk and cheeses and butter. Probably an occasional chicken.
GJ: Oh yeah. This is a serious book, even if this isn’t a serious interview. So with the appropriate level of seriousness, I ask, what would I find in your refrigerator?
JB: Some of the same things. I never met a dairy product I didn’t like. I often say that when my children grow up and leave the house, I won’t bother with meals anymore. My entire diet will consist of things that can be eaten on a cracker or a celery stick. I went to Trader Joe’s Saturday and stocked up on some of my faves: hummus, feta/yogurt dip, blue cheese/pecan dip, roasted red pepper spread. Cheese, rice crackers, veggies, and dips are about all I need, plus cereal with fruit. And an occasional chicken.
GJ: My brother-in-law brought a rubber chicken to his prom. What would Judith wear to the prom?
JB: Judith would so skip her prom. So did I, come to think of it. I probably would have gone with my boyfriend, but he won a trip to Fermilab National Particle Accelerator, and so he missed it, and I didn’t bother going. Spend all that money on a dress? No way. What was wrong with me? You went to a zillion proms. I used to love looking at all your prom pictures and outfits. You were so cool and glamorous. Our goofy church youth group dances and “Rock Lobster” were more my style.
GJ: Ha. Yes, I guess I attended far more proms than the average 16-year old. But, to my credit, I went to an all-girls’ high school, and then there was that all-boys’ high school….but honestly, I preferred our goofy church youth group dances, too. Since a dress plays an important role in the novel, I have to ask what was your favorite dress?
JB: My mom used to sew all my dresses, growing up. I loved picking out the patterns and the fabrics with her, and designing unusual combinations. It meant every dressy outfit I owned was both a creative statement on my part, and a token of my mother’s love for me. The dress she made me that I still keep is my wedding dress. It’s very simple, not wedding-y at all. Just a basic cream dress overlaid with lace, and it fits like a glove. As I think about this, I recall that Judith learned to sew from her mother, and holds onto those memories as fragments of her mother’s love. Hmm…
GJ: Your wedding dress was beautiful. And your mom is delightful. Especially when she talks in her sleep. Anyway, back to you and Judith. We know that Judith has been made mute. If she were a teenager today, would she tweet or use Facebook?
JB: Wow, it’s hard for me to picture Judith living today. I hope that the world would respond very differently to an ordeal like hers, so she wouldn’t have to suffer now as she did then. But I’m not naïve. Disfigurement and speech impediments can still be serious problems to overcome socially. The world might judge less, but it still gawks. Would Judith find a voice through social media? She’s got a lot of things to say, a long history of repressed speech needing to find a voice. But she’s also reticent, with a dignified self-control in her silence – like Hester Prynne, whose silence comes by choice, and is a source of power. I’m inclined to say Twitter rather than Facebook, because Judith favors the short, intense burst. Twitter forces succinct expression, and by its design it’s more about saying your say, and less about seeing how others respond. Judith wouldn’t get too worried about no one liking her posts.
GJ: Well, I would love her posts. When I was an art student back in the day, a teacher said that any portrait an artist drew would have a shadow of the artist within it. In other words, the portrait would look like the artist as well as the subject of the portrait (like this portrait I drew of you when I was in college, which is a bad photocopy, btw — Peekaboo! I see you! Or do I see me?). Where is your shadow in this book?
JB: Your prior questions have already shown me some shadows I wasn’t aware of. Others, I know better. I confess this question makes me squirm a bit, both because it’s awkward to compare myself to a rock star like Judith, and because the parts of me she inherits are such vulnerable, embarrassing qualities. I’ll try to answer this way: I can understand Judith’s longing, and the painful predicament of feeling doomed to love someone forever out of reach. I can understand the spiritual and emotional way Judith connects to nature. And I can understand her feelings of social unworthiness and unwantedness, and particularly, the way she compares and contrasts herself to other girls who seem so confident in their femininity. On another, stranger note, as I wrote All the Truth, I contracted whooping cough. For three months I coughed so much that I developed asthmatic symptoms. My throat would close without warning, and I spent months fearing episodes where I wouldn’t be able to breathe. This made me hyper-alert to every aspect of my mouth, throat, and breath. I think that heightened awareness informed my writing as I tried to understand Judith’s path back to speech.
GJ: Socially unworthy? Julie. Never. But the whooping cough? Scary. When was your first inkling that you wanted to be a writer?
JB: I was a reader girl. I spent my childhood tucked away in corners reading books. I remember building little caves for myself in the corner of our den, built of couch cushions and blankets, where I would curl up and read for hours. I can still picture myself there, finishing a dog-eared novel for the tenth time, and wondering if someday I could ever be smart enough and creative enough to write a book of my own.
GJ: Don’t you wish you could still build a little cave for yourself in the corner of your living room with cushions and blankets and read for hours? I do. Maybe I will. Maybe the gingerbread boys will come home from school tomorrow to find me holed up reading. Maybe I won’t come out. At least, not until I have to make supper. Sigh. It’s tough being an adult. Judith is 18, in many ways already an adult. Tell us what you were doing when you were 18.
JB: The short answer is: flirting, studying, and working.
I was a sophomore in college. I started the year as an English major at SUNY Albany, and I worked part-time as a photocopying gopher at Metropolitan Insurance to pay the bills. I roomed with five college kids whom I loved in a shabby Victorian flat in Troy, NY. My bedroom was unheated. My roommates were students at RPI, where I had started college, then left when I realized chemistry was not the career path for me. Midway through that sophomore year, I made the decision to return to RPI and major in technical communication, which was a happy marriage of writing and science. I was thrilled to return to RPI, and especially to land a job as an RA in the dorms which offset my living costs, though I was sad to leave the apartment (though my dorm room had heat, hurray!). Most of that year was boyfriend-free, with lots of hanging out with groups of friends, though by the end of that year I’d started dating a hockey-playing bass guitarist in a college band. I guess that made me a groupie.
In short, no one will ever write a novel about Julie’s 18th year. We’re better off with Judith’s.
GJ: I had forgotten you went to SUNY Albany for a blip in time. No heat, though? What was your landlord thinking? Brrr. What did you learn from writing ALL THE TRUTH THAT’S IN ME?
JB: I learned that writing is more than we think it is. It’s more than cognitive, more than imaginative. It’s mysterious, it’s magical, it’s holy. We tap into something so much larger than ourselves when we set out to create. For this project, the membrane between me and that greater fountain of truth and beauty was thinner than usual. Even though there are clearly pieces of me in Judith, she is so much more than I could have chosen or desired to create. She appeared; she showed up. She had a voice of her own and a story to tell. It sounds absurd, or self-indulgent, but there it is. I’m a witness. And I pray for more of these kinds of experiences.
Isn’t Julie fantastic? I’ve spent much of my life wishing Julie’s characteristics would somehow rub off on me. I’m so lucky to call her my friend. Julie has generously offered a signed copy of ALL THE TRUTH THAT’S IN ME. Leave a comment to enter the drawing. Tweet or share via Facebook and I’ll enter you again. Winner will be chosen Wednesday October 2nd via random number generator.
And the winner is….scarehaircare! Congratulations!