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Interviewed by Meghna Hulsure
Justine Avery is an award-winning author of stories large and small for all. Born in the American Midwest and raised all over the world, she has either lived in, or explored all 50, states of the union, more than 36 countries, and all but one continent. Inherently an explorer and an avid reader of all genres, she weaves her own stories among them all—with a predilection for writing story twists and surprises she can’t even predict herself. She currently lives near Los Angeles; she writes from wherever her curiosity takes her.
San Francisco Book Review’s Meghna Hulsure talks with Avery about her latest book, The One Apart.
Meghna Hulsure: Tell us a little about yourself.
Justine Avery: I’m one of those that loves to read—anything, really—and always wanted to write, but went along with the adults that believed writing isn’t actually a career or something that makes money to live off of but that is more of an ambitious dream that’s nice to just think about…. like, maybe it’ll happen for some folks once they’ve long retired from their “real career” and can sit around doodling with words on paper. But my urge to write stories, to tap into that other realm where stories come from, kept compelling me decade after decade through different jobs, world travel, different creative ventures. I’d focus on “being a writer” in spurts, but never get to the point of getting my writing actually out there for others to judge or read or consider publishing. Finally, one day, the urge to be the writer I was meant to be was so strong, that I just started doing it. I wrote and wrote, published, gained an audience, and voila! I’m really a writer. It took me a lifetime, it seems, to realize others with the best of intentions are the ones that hold dreamers—all artists?—back, and we just have to realize that we’re the ones that make writing—or any other art—a “real” career. All we have to do is sit and do it. And thankfully, all those years that could’ve detracted from my writing, actually added so many crazy experiences that really add to the realism of my writing, the wealth of imaginative story ideas, and my unique “voice” now. And, as it turns out, I was actually writing all that time: the inner me was finding ways to write, write, write in any job or venture I was involved in… even down to super-long “story” emails to friends.
MH: How did you conceive this idea – remembering from previous lives?
JA: For The One Apart, I woke up one morning with just one interesting sentence in mind as an idea for a brand-new story: “he remembered everything.” It felt really impactful, like the fact that this person remembered “everything” was a big deal, that it wasn’t supposed to happen, something went wrong, or maybe, someone would be really upset to discover this person did remember everything. That was it. And that’s my favorite part of writing. I love having no idea what the story is and just writing to uncover it.
MH: What research did you have to do to write this story?
JA: The research into human infancy was intense. I needed to know all of the biological and physiological limitations my main character would have to face, despite his vast intellect. I learned a great deal about babies!
MH: What were your challenges in crafting the character of Aaron?
JA: They were many! His very existence is an anomaly in our world, and I also had to imagine what his own thoughts and perspective would be from birth, onward. His every waking moment is a challenge for him: to fit into this world, keep his secret, and guard his loved ones and his own existence. Every scene he appears in required careful consideration of how it would be viewed and approached by him, someone who is so vastly different from everyone around him.
MH: Do you think the book could have been shorter than it currently is?
JA: Yes, of course it could have been shorter. It could’ve been written with different characters having the same experiences or written by a different author. In any case, it would then be a completely different story. As the story stands is exactly the story I wanted to tell, exactly how it came to me, exactly the carefully designed reader experience I wanted to offer. Written at any other time in my life, it would’ve been a very different tale.
MH: What is your schedule like when you are writing?
JA: When I’m writing—and not editing or knee-deep in the publishing process—I write each and every morning, for at least an hour, hopefully two, and three or more if I’m really into the story and have lost all concept of time. I’ve found mornings work best for me, when I’m most alert, refreshed, full of creative energy fresh from dreaming, and the world’s distractions haven’t been allowed in yet.
MH: You seem to have traveled extensively. How do you try to incorporate your experiences from travels in your stories?
JA: Traveling is living, so every experience naturally gets embedded in who you are, your very personality and view of the world. All of that—all of me—is interwoven into every story I write. It’s not something you can extract out, and if you attempted to incorporate it purposely in your writing, it would be obvious to the reader. They’d think of the author rather than the characters and their story.
MH: What inspired you to turn to writing?
JA: A love for reading inspired me to write. I think it’s natural for all of us who love to read to be drawn to the idea of creating our own stories, developing our own ideas, and giving readers that sense of surprise or happiness that we enjoy when we read a great story. When I was eleven or so, I started my first book and then abandoned it. I believed the folks that say that writing is more of a dream and not really a career, so I only wrote sporadically when I was really moved to live my biggest dream, only for life and that “real career” to get in the way. There were so many detours—for decades—but now I realize they’re all really valuable experiences for the life of a writer. Finally, the urge to write, the feeling that I’m supposed to write, took over, and I finally gave my writing “dream” the priority it deserves.
MH: Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
JA: I don’t have a list of favorite authors I focus on or return to more than others. I love to read widely and with great variety: every genre, fiction and non. Every book offers something new, something to discover. So does every author. I imagine every bit of text I’ve ever read has influenced my writing in some way or another, added to my perspective of life and possibilities, expanded my imagination.
MH: Would you want to experiment in any other genre? What genre would it be?
JA: I have written stories in many different genres and blended genres as well. There are only a few specific niches I haven’t tapped into, such as magical realism, and of course, I’m going to delve into it and all the others, again and again. I love reading in all genres, appreciate them all greatly, and I love writing for them all.
MH: Do you have any future projects on mind?
JA: I have a spreadsheet full of ideas waiting to come to life. I only need enough years to tell their stories! I do have a few short stories that belong in a collection full of tales of those moments in life when everything changes, when a new path is chosen, when we’re jerked right out of our old ways—all with twists and surprises, of course! In the meantime, I’ve chosen one of my saved ideas to develop, and it seems I’ve started the next novel!