October 07, 2013

Julie Berry

Giving voice to a silent character
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Julie Berry has entranced middle grade readers with her romantic fantasies, The Amaranth Enchantment and Secondhand Charm, and thrilled them with the hilarious adventures in her Slurch Academy for Disruptive Boys series. So it should be no surprise that her new novel for teen readers, All the Truth That’s in Me, surpasses the highest expectations.

The story of Judith, a teen girl tormented by memories of a murder and a silence she cannot break, is difficult to read at times. Berry creates a nearly primitive village, ruled by religious fervor and violence, yet Judith’s voice is lovely as she reveals her story, addressing the boy she has loved her entire life. The bleak setting only emphasizes the purity of Judith’s love. It’s a story that will stay with readers long past the final page.

Julie Berry answered some questions for BookPage about the origins of Judith’s character and how Berry herself became a writer.

There are so many remarkable qualities that make All the Truth That’s in Me unique, and the force that pulls it altogether is Judith’s voice, raw and uncensored. She tells her story in second person, which is hard to do convincingly. Where did her voice come from, and why did you decide to structure the narration this way?

All the Truth That’s in Me began as a writing exercise. I never had the idea to write about a character like Judith, or one with her problems. I simply asked myself, one day, if I could write a second-person novel, or even part of one. I flipped open my laptop, had a bit of a think and began to write. “You didn’t come,” the first line, is all I had to go on when I started typing. Judith appeared and took over, conjuring a scene that revealed to me her longing, her isolation, her pattern of skirting notice and flouting her mother’s rules to snatch glimpses of the thing she desperately wanted, but couldn’t have: Lucas. I couldn’t believe the treasure I’d stumbled upon when she visited my impromptu writing exercise. Judith, to me, is self-existent, and her voice is distinctly her own. It’s certainly not mine. Her story is told in second person because that’s how she wanted to tell it; the fact that her narration, like everything else about her, points insistently to Lucas when we first meet her, is something beyond her control.

The setting in the story is not specified beyond the name of the settlement: Roswell Station. Why not? Did you have a real place in mind as you wrote the story? (Any relation to Roswell, New Mexico?)

I’m embarrassed to admit that Roswell, New Mexico, never once crossed my mind. I get a giggle out of the association every time I see someone raise the question online. Roswell is a solid old Anglo name, and that’s what I went for. The world Judith inhabits, and her particular community within that world, are very loosely inspired by the dynamics that led to the formation of the British colonies in North America. I wanted a world readers would recognize as resembling our Puritan heritage, and I needed a small community perched on the unstable border between two worlds—civilization (the motherland) and emptiness, wilderness and sea. I shaped the kind of world Judith’s story needed, but I was determined to paint it only loosely, impressionistically, because I did not want real places or real chronologies (in other words, capital-H History) to overshadow the story that very much belonged to one girl.

"Much of literature explores this question of whether it is possible to find ourselves happily ever after, alone together."

The narrative is non-linear, almost mystical in its wandering nature through Judith’s past and present. How did the story evolve into this shape? Why do you think this unconventional structure works for this story?

The order of details in the book wasn’t the result of any kind of architecture or planning. It’s how I wrote the piece, or as I think of it, how Judith revealed her life to me. I made almost no changes to the order of sections. It works in the way it does because it’s organic, I think, to her consciousness. I’ve come to see that despite the meandering timeline, there is a logical flow to the order of chapters. Details from the present and from several layers in Judith’s past weave together in the stream of her consciousness, following the associative leaps Judith makes as she goes through her day. If it’s working, I believe it’s because Judith’s experiences have fractured her life, so it follows that her experience of the world would likewise be fractured, leaping from past to present to try to make sense of senselessness.

Why did you decide to silence Judith? And why in such a violent way?

Judith showed up silenced. In fact, “silenced” and “obsessed” were all I knew about her after I wrote the first page. I didn’t yet know why. As for the violent way Judith’s speech was stolen, it was clear from the start that when she said she was “forbidden from telling,” nothing short of an absolute, permanent and physical silencing had taken place, an act which had to come from savagery. Her silence was not built solely on fear or trauma, though those elements were also present. For most of us, these muzzles can be more than enough.

Of the many emotionally charged scenes in the book, perhaps the most intense is when Judith returns home, mutilated, and is rejected by her mother. Your portrayal of the mother’s cycle through joy, horror and revulsion is particularly vivid. Was this difficult to write?

Not difficult creatively, but painful emotionally, without question. I could see it, smell it, feel it, so rendering it in prose wasn’t unusually hard, but feeling for Judith—and for her mother—was heartbreaking.

Judith is isolated through her muteness, and the town of Roswell Station is isolated as well. In Roswell Station, this isolation contributes to the inhabitants’ ability to practice their own interpretation of the Bible. Why is isolationism such an important part of this story?

As I wrote the story, I felt rather than understood the kind of world Judith needed to inhabit. Since writing it, though, I’ve come to see Roswell Station as a mirror into Judith’s psyche. Like her, Roswell Station is young, newly formed, struggling to cohere and uneasy in its place in the world. It has only barely weathered catastrophes that ought to have crushed it, yet it proves its resilience surprisingly. It is, as you say, singularly alone, cut off and at war with its motherland, with only the most tenuous links to neighboring villages that might offer support. Tweak this description slightly, and we can apply it to Judith herself.

Aloneness is a recurring theme in young adult literature. Sometimes, like the Puritans, we want to be alone, whether to escape society for its impositions, or flee Babylon for its excesses, so we can live life on our terms. Sometimes we are alone in crowds when we very much wish to be otherwise. Young people, and the not-so-young, navigate between their solitary and communal natures, and much of literature explores this question of whether it is possible to find ourselves happily ever after, alone together.

YA fiction right now is full of hyper-violence and teens thrown into the worst situations imaginable. Why do you think that is? How do you see your book contributing to the genre?

Well, peril and violence make for good drama, which makes for good reading, so that’s probably where it starts. Also, as film technology advances, high-concept action-film narratives become more popular and convincing, and this shapes the tastes of young readers. These stories are much more in the zeitgeist today than they were when I was a teen.

More to the point, fiction dramatizes, outwardly, conflicts that are more internal, more subtle and less visible, and the young adult years are replete with turbulence on every front: social, parental, emotional, romantic, biochemical. Violence serves to simplify and polarize a conflict—now we no longer wonder whom the enemy is, nor what the appropriate way is to engage in battle with them. So I’m especially interested in the young adult literature that subverts that sense of certainty, and complicates the polarity of good and evil, even amid violent struggles.

That said, I never thought of myself as writing a violent story when I wrote All the Truth That’s in Me. It’s all there, I know—war, assault, captivity, mutilation—so it’s probably laughable that I didn’t see it that way, but I really felt myself to be writing a very intimate, private, interior type of novel. The violent elements I listed are there, but they’re not, in the end, what Judith’s story is really all about.

You grew up in a family of book lovers. Do you think that influenced your desire to write? What’s one book you read as a child that has stayed with you?

Growing up in a houseful of book lovers made me desperate to read. I couldn’t bear to be left out of something so important to my sibs. Writing was a natural byproduct, I think, just as people who seriously love food inevitably figure out how to cook. I was the youngest of a brood much older than me, so they discussed Anna Karenina as I struggled through The Secret Garden (long before I was ready for it, in typical over-reaching youngest-kid fashion).

Our family owned a small but well-curated library of children’s classics, and I re-read them obsessively. They all shaped me, but I do remember one book I read for the first time at 12, one which left me both swooning and vowing that I would someday, somehow write a book that made others feel the way I felt. That book was Beauty by Robin McKinley.

What would your teenage self think of the books you’re writing now?

My teenage self would be flabbergasted that I actually managed to write and finish a book, any book, since her writing attempts all floundered on very short, very bad stories. I think she might be distracted from the novel itself by her desperate curiosity to know who this Berry guy might turn out to be (and oh, what a treat lay in store!). We’d have to withhold from her the truth that I am she so as not to warp the space-time continuum. I do hope she’d love my books, and I think she would, since she’s the girl I try to write for, and I write from both her memories and the books she loved.

What’s the best thing about being a YA author?

The writing itself is my favorite thing about being an author. Making a new story is the happiest part of my job. The challenge is to make sure that I don’t let other parts of the job (travel, promotion, teaching, business management, correspondence) eclipse writing in my nutty schedule.

The freedom to write is a gift. I’m grateful every day that I was raised and educated in such a way that writing became an option for me. I’m lucky to have a family that encourages my writing, and I’m lucky to live in a place and time where education, libraries, affordable computers and ubiquitous Internet access remove any real barriers I might face. Regardless of what the market may do, no one can take writing away from me. That feels like freedom to live the life I want to live, and I’m grateful.

What’s next for you?

I have a couple of projects for several age levels at various stages of exploration and play, and I’m working on a new YA novel for Viking that I’m very excited about. Details will be announced very soon.

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