Durham’s J.J. Johnson has earned excellent reviews for her young adult novel This Girl is Different (Peachtree, $16.95), and will do a hometown reading and signing at the Regulator Bookshop tonight at 7 p.m. We got Johnson on the phone recently to discuss her book and the challenges of writing for teenagers.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Tell us about the book.
It’s a Young Adult novel called This Girl is Different, and it’s about a girl named Evie, who’s been home-schooled all her life, but she decides to go to high school for her senior year because she wants to see what all the fuss is about. And she gets there and realizes that there are some of what she sees as injustices in the system—that teachers are treated better than students, that they have better bathrooms, that sort of thing. So Evie decides to fight for what she feels is justice, and in the process she learns a lot about starting a revolution and losing friends along the way.
What initially inspired this story?
Obama was campaigning and I was thinking about change and the system, and speaking your mind and free speech. I was thinking, “What if you grew up outside the system? What if you viewed high school through different eyes?”
And I wanted to look at how free speech can cross the line into bullying, because Evie, our heroine, is very much about free speech and all her rights, but that part of her revolution gets out of control, not in her hands, but in other people’s hands. It’s about the responsibility that comes with free speech, both to your community and to yourself.
She and learns a lot about what’s important to her and her values, and she learns a lot about authority—some teachers do turn out to be problematic and need to show more respect to students. And the principal is kind of her staunch ally, and that helps her realize that authority figures can be multi-dimensional.
What kind of research did you have to do for the story?
While I was writing it, I did a lot of research on geodesic domes, actually, because Evie lives in a geodesic dome she built with her mom. And I know a lot of homeschoolers, so I learned a lot about their minds and their enthusiasm for learning in talking to them.
And there was a lot of remembering things about high school, because I still very much think of high school a lot, and what kids are going through these days. I talked with a lot of folks about blogs, and the Internet, and Internet bullying, what school administrations can and can’t do about that.
What’s the hardest part of writing about teenagers when you’re years out of high school?
For me, it’s not particularly hard to write about teenagers, because I think my soul-age is 15, and I’m always thinking about what it was like to be in high school. For me, the challenge is just sitting down and writing the novel and getting it published.
What do you think stays universal about being a teenager as you get older in life?
It’s all about finding your own values and being true to yourself, while also learning to be part of your community. For me, that is what life is about—when you’re a teenager, and when you’re a grownup.
When you’re a teenager, everything is 10 times more intense. Teenage brains are wired to have that response, and that’s what you need to remember when you’re talking to teenagers and when you’re writing about teenagers. The struggles are universal—they happen from the time you’re born to the time you die. It’s the intensity that sets that time apart.
What are some of your favorite works of YA literature, both from when you were a teen and from today?
I read everything I can get my hands on, so I’m always going back to the classics of YA literature—Judy Blume is a huge inspiration. I spent a year and a half in Australia recently, and there’s some amazing Australian YA authors—John Marsden is one of them. I really read both children’s and YA and middle-grade and adult literary fiction.
Why do you feel there’s been such a renaissance of YA fiction in the past decade?
That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure anyone knows per se. The publishing industry is so slippery that it’s hard to understand, but I think part of it is that teenagers have a lot more choices to decide from among books, and a lot more decisions on their hands with the Internet. It’s about looking things up online, seeing what your friends are reading on Goodreads, finding out what other people are reading. The other part of it is that there’s so much more in entertainment than there used to be—not just more books, but more movies, more TV, more magazines, more everything.
How’d you come to work with your publisher on this?
The old-fashioned way—I queried agents and publishers and got an agent named Ginger Knowlton, and she sent the manuscript to multiple publishers. From the time I finished writing this novel to the time it came out, it was a process of about four years. So it’s a long process, and you have to get used to it if you want to be an author.
There’s a number of other YA authors in NC—Sarah Dessen and Carrie Ryan, for example. Are you in contact with any of them?
Yes, through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I haven’t spoken with them directly, but they’re friends of friends, especially Carrie Ryan. I think it’s very important to be part of a community of writers. I have a critique group that includes Stephen Messer and John Bemis, who have both published middle-grade novels.
To me, being part of a group of writers is absolutely essential to taking yourself seriously and not taking yourself too seriously—they help you through rejection and have become great friends. The community of writers in North Carolina is just phenomenal.
Do you have any other books coming out?
I’ve got a second novel coming out in the fall. It’s called Random. It’s not a sequel to This Girl is Different, but it takes place in the same school a year later, and if you look closely, you’ll see some of the characters overlap. And I’m working on my third novel, which is still a YA novel, but it’s got a lot more adventure and action and is a bit more plot-oriented. I’m hoping it’ll appeal to male YA readers along with the girls I love to reach out to.