November 20, 2017

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The Debut: Julie Berry Talks About ‘All the Truth That’s in Me’

All the Truth That's In Me coverIn the editor’s note in the ARC of All the Truth That’s in Me, Kendra Levin describes Julie Berry’s debut YA book as a “pinhole” narrative—“you start looking through a tiny hole… and as the story goes on, the pinhole widens and widens until you can see a bigger picture.” This is a perfect description of the reader experience for All the Truth That’s in Me. When we first meet Judith, she is still in the throes of processing being back home in her small village after being held captive for close to two years by a man known to her, but not to the townspeople. Her abductor, seeking her silence, has cut her tongue out, rendering her speechless. Another young girl disappeared around the same time as Judith, and was found murdered. The community suspects that Judith knows something about it, while also casting aspersions on what exactly happened to her while she was being held prisoner. SLJTeen asked Berry to talk with us about her writing, and what drove her to write this story.

All the Truth That’s in Me is set in the village of Roswell Station, in a very non-specific time and place. The only clues are in the descriptions of clothing worn, weapons used, foodstuff and other cultural mores. What was your intention in doing this?

From the beginning, Judith’s world felt like a colony to me, a fledgling settlement scrabbling for survival. It felt small, new, and very much alone in the world, separated from larger humanity by wilderness and ocean, clinging to that liminal place between the two. I knew I needed to create the world that Judith’s story required, rather than tether her story to an actual historical timeline. I love historical fiction, but I didn’t want Judith’s story to take on the weight of the genre’s conventional expectations. I wanted her narrative to enjoy the prerogatives of contemporary fiction, where character can reign supreme, and the backdrop can be Anytown, USA, Now-ish—as non-specific as Roswell Station feels.

Though these impressions were instinctual as I wrote, after I was done I came to see Roswell Station as mirror of Judith’s character.  It’s a young settlement, inexperienced at cohering as a community. It teeters on the brink; it’s small and powerless against formidable threats. It has little in the way of neighbors from which to draw support when attacked. Odds are long against its survival. It still bears the scars of past tragedies, wounds for which no healing seems possible. Inexplicably, though, it survives. With slight adjustments, I could make all of these statements about Judith herself.

When Judith returns to town after being released by her captor, she is treated as a pariah, even by her own mother. After seeing her endure so much pain, it was difficult, as a reader, to experience that emotional withdrawal, especially after discovering that Judith’s father had died while she was gone. Only her oafish brother Darrel tries to maintain a normal relationship with her. Comment?

Heaping pain on Judith wasn’t a willful choice on my part–it was already there surrounding her. Suffering can destroy people, and pain isn’t necessarily sacred. But in Judith, it’s part of what draws me to her. Her experiences and wounds have forged in her an intensity of feeling, an exquisite wisdom and poignancy, and even a deep well of irony and humor. She’s more resilient than she could have imagined herself to be, and more inspiring than she could possibly know.

Her trials have not only given her courage, but they’ve liberated her, to some extent, from the repressions of her society. She grieves for lost intimacy with her mother, but by severing emotional ties with her daughter, the mother has also set Judith free from her influence and control. All this isolation has taught Judith that she can only look to herself to create the life she wants, and her invisibility lets her fly under the radar and do it.

As for Darrel, when Judith returned from her captivity, he was already well-practiced in the art of heaping misery on her. That’s what younger brothers do. There’s something disarmingly honest about Darrel’s mistreatment of Judith. He’s rotten to her as spoiled younger brothers are, not as sanctimonious bigots are. They share the solidarity siblings do, with a common parental enemy, and then Darrel’s injury only increases that solidarity, and shows them how they can help each other.

When Judith agrees to help Darrel get to school each day, she encounters Rupert Gillis the schoolmaster, who is quite a despicable creature. And there are the Robinson sisters, the “mean girls” of Roswell Station. Is it her love for her brother or her own desire to learn that motivates her to keep going?

I think it’s both, and both at a very deep level. Having committed herself to a path of learning to read, nothing will deter her from that. The same is true with the commitment she made to help Darrel gain his education. Both goals are audacious acts of defiance. She will not allow Darrel’s lost foot to destroy his chance at a full life, any more than she will allow her own injuries to destroy hers. I think she needs Darrel to win to reinforce her own hopes for herself. It helps, perhaps, that their mother is furiously opposed to both objectives. It makes trudging Darrel to school a double-whammy in the stick-it-to-mean-old-Mom department.

The relationship between Judith and Maria is quite striking and remarkable. It appears, at first, that they are rivals for Lucas’ affections, but that quickly changes, partly as the result of a territorial skirmish. As you were writing the book, did you foresee the close relationship that eventually develops between these two young women?

Not at all. It took me very much by surprise. This book was a figure-it-out-as-I-go journey, with Judith at the helm. The moment when I had my first inkling that Maria might become more than a bewitching rival was when Judith chucked an egg at Leon. That’s when I realized Maria had enough confidence and self-possession to be kind, if she wanted to. She had no need to bow to the collective will.

Phantom is absolutely my favorite animal character in YA lit this year. She serves as a bridge between Judith and Lucas, as well as Lucas and his father. I am a sucker for horses; I’m a big fan of Dove from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. Is Phantom modeled after a horse you knew as a child, or from a horse story that you loved?

Julie BerryOh, I wish I’d known a horse as a child. I did grow up on a farm, and I knew families with horses, but I’ve never in my life even ridden a horse. Isn’t that tragic? I was an enormous fan of the Black Stallion series as a child–I can see my set of 1970s paperbacks from where I sit writing now, so perhaps that’s where some of my horse-love began. I did grow up surrounded by animals, if not horses, and I’ve noticed that a deep connection to an animal always seems to find its way into my writing again and again. No protagonist is complete, in my world, without her familiar. There’s something so pure and faithful about a pet’s love, so perfectly unjudging and forgiving.

Judith has been in love with Lucas since he was “a lisping, curly-headed boy,” who she and her mother journeyed with across the sea, their families eventually settling just acres apart in Roswell Station. As a teen, she proclaims about Lucas, more to herself than anyone else, that “It was always you.” Her love grows from a girlish crush to a love so deep she is willing to see him be happy with someone else rather than be alone. Comment?

While All the Truth That’s in Me clearly has a lot to say about speech, courage, and injustice, I hope readers will also find it has a lot to say about love. Most of us learn our lessons in love through a long line of infatuations, friendships, and relationships, leading (we may or may not hope) to The One. For Judith, there was only one person, start to finish. I think that idea frightens some people. Ask most adults how life would be for them now if they’d married their first crush, and they shudder (myself included). But I do love the idea of this kind of loyalty and devotion going back to those early moments in life when the heart is soft, and the eyes wide-open. I think it says a lot about Judith that she’s capable of such devotion, and a lot about Lucas that he’s worthy of it. Devotion and loyalty don’t require us to marry our kindergarten sweeties, thank goodness, but they are still hallmarks of real love. I don’t see Lucas’s capacity for love as diminished by his affections having shifted elsewhere for a time. They both had a lot to learn.

Love will force upon us this dilemma: if we truly, deeply care for another, we will put their happiness above our desires for them, and if their real happiness is to be found with someone else, love requires us to say goodbye. It stinks, but there it is.

I think the book took its significant turn in the moment when Judith came to see, painfully, how absurdly she’d given her heart away, how cloying her obsession had become, and how unhealthy. Her choice to walk away was a dramatic moment, and an act of tremendous courage and self-love. This isn’t a story of a girl who wants a boy, finally gets him, and lives happily ever after. It’s a story of a girl who learns to choose what is best for her, rather than letting fear of loneliness choose for her. To me, this is her real triumph.

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Dodie Ownes About Dodie Ownes

Dodie Ownes left the glamorous world of retrospective conversion and disco to jump on the library vendor train. Since then, she has been learning at the feet of the masters about all things library. Dodie lives in Golden, Colorado, where even the sign which arches the main street says "Howdy."

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