Allen Mendenhall Interviews Julie E. Justicz, Author of “Degrees of Difficulty”

AM:  Julie, thanks for doing this interview about your debut novel, Degrees of Difficulty.  Congratulations, by the way. This book is the heart-wrenching story of a family drawn together and torn apart by a series of struggles, most of which involve Ben, the disabled son and brother of the other characters: Perry (father), Caroline (mother), Ivy (sister), and Hugo (brother).  When did you first start thinking up this narrative?

JJ:  Thanks for your gracious offer to interview me about my first novel, Degrees of Difficulty. I really appreciate the opportunity to connect with you and talk about fiction. This is an exciting and scary time for me; perhaps made more so because this novel has been a long time in the making. In one sense, the story started many years ago — 1977 to be exact — when my father told me (aged 13 at the time) and my five siblings that our youngest brother Robert had been born with a rare chromosomal anomaly — Partial Monosomy 21.

Julie E. Justicz

Our family began a long journey that at different times tested each of us in different ways. But it wasn’t until I was in my thirties, just finished with an MFA program, that I decided to write a novel loosely based on my family’s experience. I’d read an article in the New York Times about the typically developing siblings of kids with disabilities. What are the emotional and social implications, if any, for those siblings in childhood and beyond?

I thought about some of my own feelings over the years . . . a profound sense of family loyalty, an incredibly deep and abiding love for my disabled brother, and, to be honest, a good deal of anger and resentment, too. When I began to write in in the point of view of the sister, Ivy, I definitely tapped into resentment. Later, I decided that I needed to add the voices of the other family members to give the story more breathing room. From there, the challenge became structural . . . how to explore each perspective and balance the four points of view through the arc of the novel.

AM:  I recognize from my own life geographical points of reference in the novel:  Georgia State University, for instance, or Lake Norman.  (I grew up in Atlanta and went to school not far south of Lake Norman.) But then I look at your background and realize that you’ve been all over.  You grew up in England and spent a childhood in the Bahamas.  You live in Chicago, where you went to law school.  I wouldn’t think this geography was familiar territory for you, yet it seems to be from the way you write about it.

JJ:  I come from a family of wanderers! I once counted the number of homes that we lived in during my childhood and adolescence; I stopped when I reached twenty. My family didn’t just move between different countries, states, and cities; we also moved houses on the same street several times.

My bio doesn’t mention the ten or more houses that my family occupied in the Atlanta area when I was in high school and college. As a teenager, driving a 1972 Olds Cutlass convertible, I became very familiar with Atlanta’s rather confusing geography (nothing like the simple grid of Chicago). And I spent a good deal of time speeding around the lakes and in the mountainous regions of North Georgia during my summers in the South. In my novel, Atlanta and Chicago are markers of Ivy’s childhood and adult life, much as these two wonderfully different cities separated my own youth and adult life.

AM:  What drew you to the law, and at what point during your legal career did you think, “I’ve got a novel in me”? 

JJ:  I’ve always been amazed at the audacity, courage, and/or foolhardiness of people who commit to a creative life in their twenties or thirties. While I have always written poetry, and had the opportunity to study with a wonderfully kind and encouraging professor at Emory University (Dr. Frank Manley), I was afraid to dive headfirst into writing. How would I pay my bills? I am a cautious person.

My other passion has always been social justice, so when I finished my undergrad degree (in English), I applied to law school. My first job during and after law school was with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, where I worked in a community-based office, representing low-income clients in evictions, domestic violence, and public benefits issues. I enjoyed many of my clients, but not the adversarial court system. My organization was facing some lean years and gave its attorneys the opportunity for an unpaid leave. This time, I took the more cautious leap: deciding to enroll in an MFA Program in Creative Writing. For the first time, I committed to a steady writing practice. And I loved my experience at Vermont College. After I finished my first short stories for my master’s project, I knew that one of them wanted to become a novel.  From there, it was a matter of learning how to write a novel and putting in the hours for revisions and rejections and revisions and rejections. Lord, knows, it took me a long time!

AM:  So happy that time has come!  What advice would you give aspiring novelists? 

JJ:  Thanks, Allen. It is a heady time, indeed. I just got my Kirkus Review yesterday, and I’m thrilled to have earned the coveted star!

What advice would I give to aspiring novelists? Since I have only finished one novel, and it took me close to a decade to get it published, I am probably not the best source for advice. What I can share is a couple of principles that have served me well and are keeping me going as I try to wrap up my second book:

1. Show up. This means that you keep sacred time each week when you will be sitting at your desk or in your favorite writing spot. No excuses.

2. Put in the hours. Think of writing a novel like training for a marathon. You have to put in the metaphoric miles. You need time to brainstorm, write, rewrite, revise, edit, and do it all again, in order to get a compelling and polished work. Some people try to tackle a marathon without training and it’s painful to watch them stagger across the finish line. You can finish the analogy.

3. Find good readers. Share your work with fellow writers/readers and be open to feedback. You don’t have to agree with everything they say or make the changes they suggest, but listen and keep an open mind. And if several readers identify the same concern with your novel—let’s say . . . the ending doesn’t work—you probably will need to change it. Even though it hurts!

AM: This is my favorite passage from the book:

Hugo sits at the end of the diving board, a still life on this cloud-shrouded night: The Diver. His feet disappear in a milky mist above the water and his shoulders round forward and down, in fatigue or grief. Impossible to discern, in the deepening dusk and from this distance. On the back deck of the house, Ivy watches, not wanting to invade or, more accurately, afraid of what comes between them—the distance and the years—eight years since they lived together in this family home. Their time apart will come to equal their time spent together—which weighs more? How is it possible to have shared parents—a conjoined childhood—to have nature, nurture, a multitude of genes and a thousand experiences in common, and yet to feel only this: a desire to flee the moment she arrives?

 There’s so much going on here. Little touches—the rhyming of cloud with shroud, the alliteration of milky mist and deepening dusk, the rhetorical questions—give these lines their distinct literary quality. How did you balance the desire (which is what I presume it was) to achieve aesthetic effect with the need to move the narrative forward (through, say, dialogue)?

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 JJ:  I am so glad you chose that passage, also one of my favorites. I wrote it late in the process, perhaps in the third or fourth draft of the novel; I remember that it came quickly, as if I were in Ivy’s (the POV character’s) head and heart, walking down the steps, feeling the mossy wood underfoot, watching the mist curl over the pool, and dreading the reunion with her brother. Creative flow (which doesn’t happen that often) makes writing feel magical. I didn’t consciously try to write lyrically here; the language was conjured by the demands of this moment.

You ask about balancing aesthetic effect and narrative momentum. I do like beautiful and lyrical writing but I can get lost in it. The poetic language should not come at the expense of plot. So I have to pinpoint tension, determine what character interactions would make compelling scenes, and write taut dialogue to carry the narrative, too. It is a balancing act for most writers; some can write an entire chapter in dialogue and they will need to go back in and work on things like setting and character description, while others, like me, can lose themselves in the poetry of a particular passage. In revising, I need to chop the more lyrical sections that become digressive and interrupt the forward drive, then focus on adding crisp scenes. My writer friend, Lynn, is also a great editor and ruthless with the cuts; I trust her judgment and usually try to prune if not crop the sections that she’s highlighted.

AM: Some of the book is set in 1991 and 1992, some in 2000 and 2001, and the rest in 2007 and 2008.  How did you decide on these periods given that the inspiration for the story has its roots in 1977 and you didn’t start putting the story on paper until you were well into your career as a lawyer?

JJ:  The time periods gave me trouble at first and my thinking about structure will probably sound a little convoluted. But here goes: I knew I wanted to use 1977 and 2000 as a markers, because those are the years when my brother Robert was born and when he passed away. (Although a work of fiction, this book is written in memory of him). I also knew that I wanted to begin the novel when the siblings were teens—their closeness inevitable, competition apparent, and tensions palpable.

One teacher told me that every story must start with a slightly unstable situation; I doubled down on that!  In 1991, the parents would also be tired and stressed beyond belief. So I had 1991 as the start, making the kids 14, 15, and 16. Then a major crisis would develop in 2000. Finally, I knew that I wanted enough of a gap, another eight years after the crisis, to bring the siblings to young adulthood, when they are beginning to know themselves as individuals, apart from their family, and perhaps ready to explore and understand the weight and the wonder of their combined experiences.

AM: Fascinating how you pieced that together!  One last question, and I hope it’s not a silly one: is there a writer who above anyone else you would like your writing to be associated with? 

JJ:  Not a silly question at all. There are so many writers I admire: Alice Munro, William Trevor, Jamaica Kincaid, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Shirley Hazard, Colum McCann; these are a few names that come to my mind because their works have, well, blown my mind, shown me something new about the power and possibility of fiction.

But the writer I would most like to be associated with—and I assume you mean compared to—is Jesmyn Ward. Her point of view characters, like Esch in Salvage the Bones, are complex, smart, and good young people, who might lack formal education but fight for their lives with a makeshift intelligence against impossible odds. Ward’s narrative is propulsive and frightening, building like the impending hurricanes in her novels. I love most her ability to find poetry within the sometimes brutal conditions of her characters’ lives, and to marry her lyricism with the driving power of the story. She has called herself “a failed poet.” But in her fiction, the language serves the story; the story demands the language. Definitely something I will continue to strive for.

Thanks so much for the thought-provoking questions and a great conversation!

AM:  Thank you, Julie, for the interview.

About Allen Mendenhall

Allen Mendenhall is associate dean at Thomas Goode Jones School of Law and executive director of the Blackstone & Burke Center. His books include Literature and Liberty (2014), Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, and the Jurisprudence of Agon (2017), The Southern Philosopher: Collected Essays of John William Corrington (2017) (editor), and Lines from a Southern Lawyer (2017). Visit his website at AllenMendenhall.com.

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