On Thursday, September 17, 2015, I met novelist Justina Ireland at lunch with the Story staff and several York College of Pennsylvania students. She was visiting as part of the college’s cultural series of lectures and readings, and she had agreed to do an interview with me after lunch for the Story website. When we arrived at the diner everyone but me ordered, as I’d eaten just before. A few people commented about my lack of sandwich; Justina even made a kind joke about it. I blushed. During lunch, we talked about the publishing market and how it needs to change from what it is today—Justina informing us about widespread lack of diversity and the great work of publishers like Lee & Low. Everyone swapped stories with each other as they ate, and I sat and listened.
This was my first time meeting a published author, so I felt both nervous and excited meeting Justina. I’m majoring in writing, and spend most of my time reading, writing, or watching Japanese anime. An introvert, I’m a shy person that only talks openly to people with whom I’m already close. But chatting with Justina after lunch, my worries disappeared. She was comfortable to be around, funny and down to earth. I got the sense that she was talking to me, like we were having a normal conversation, not just the interview she’d so kindly agreed to.
Justina said before discovering her passion for writing she worked at a less-than-exciting day job that happened to have easy computer access, and she found herself using it more and more often to work on writing. Today Justina is a novelist of YA literature, also writing for a burgeoning YA nonfiction market. She has published two books, Promise of Shadows and Vengeance Bound, the second of which I read before meeting her. Vengeance Bound is a story about a girl named Cory Graff who has two Greek Furies trapped in her mind; by day, Cory tries to maintain a normal high school life, while also delivering justice to the Furies’ targets and searching for the man who ruined her life. I was an instant fan.
Part of the reason she uses strong female protagonists, Justina said, was her reaction to the novel Twilight. She didn’t like how the main heroine was being portrayed to young readers, and romance isn’t absolutely necessary for YA fiction, she believes, because there is more to life than that. As a writer, she wants to create strong, relatable female protagonists, because young women need to read about those kinds of characters, not just more copy-cat Bellas.
Strength seems important to Justina as a novelist and a person. She told me a lot of her inspiration comes from 10 years in the military, where she met a lot of strong men and women. History also inspired her, she said, notably Ida B. Wells, a black journalist and civil rights activist who famously embarked on an anti-lynching campaign throughout America—after which a mob destroyed her newspaper office and threatened to kill her if she ever returned to Memphis.
One of the reasons Justina says she writes in the YA genre is that she believes it has “no limits on an author’s flexibility”—meaning it allows authors to be more open to innovation while creating otherworldly places, without risk of sounding unrealistic. She thinks that this is one of the best genres for writers and readers alike, because it can speak to everyone, and that both teenagers and adults can relate to the subject matter in YA books, even embrace it. Justina describes young adults as “adults without baggage,” who can enjoy their lives without hesitation. Adults, on the other hand, tend to act with caution because of past experiences.
Justina is a mother and she works full time, so she carves out time and “makes writing a priority”—writing most often around 4:30 A.M., working for about one-and-a-half hours before her husband and child get up. (Although there are times, she says, when she has to write in the evening.) She finds this method to be therapeutic and productive, allowing her to be alone with her thoughts without getting distracted by daily life.
Fans of Justina are well aware of her active and popular social media presence, largely on Twitter and Tumblr. But concerning the need for aspiring writers to have an Internet presence, she doesn’t think it’s important. They should focus instead, she says, on finding an agent and getting their writing published; the online presence will come naturally later. She says (refreshingly) that “fiction doesn’t need a platform.” It needs to be able to stand on its own to be successful. No amount of hype, she says, can change how awful a book is.
My last question for Justina is one I ask myself after I finish a book that compels me to spend hours surfing the Internet for what comes next, those novels that seem to beckon a sequel, a future life. So when I asked her if there was a possibility of a sequel to Vengeance Bound, I was shocked she said there wasn’t one, that she likes the concept of open endings for novels, because a character’s life doesn’t end after the last page. Not all YA books need to have closed endings, she says, all the loose ends wrapped up in a long series. Open endings are more relatable to readers, she adds, as there’s always more to a person’s story.
That evening on campus Justina gave a reading from her work, which I enjoyed more than any other I’ve attended as a student, because I felt that we all somehow got to know her on a personal level: she filled the room with her voice and empathy and laughter. She connected with the audience, drew us in with her stories. She read an excerpt from her other novel, Promise of Shadows, and a new essay, “Me, Some Random Guy, and The Army of Darkness,” about her first sexual experience. I bought Promise of Shadows after the lecture, and asked her to sign it. Thanking me for doing the interview earlier, she told me to go eat a sandwich.
Keigan Wersler is a senior at York College of Pennsylvania, majoring in Professional Writing and minoring and Biology and Creative Writing. She is currently an intern for Story and still likes watching Japanese anime.