"When it’s not the pandemic, I make monthly visits to Long Island," says Northport native Forsyth Harmon.
Since there is still a pandemic, the Long Island native will instead make a virtual trip to the Book Revue in Huntington on March 17 to discuss her first novel, "Justine."
Relocated by the coronavirus from Brooklyn to upstate New York, Harmon talked by phone about her innovative debut, which combines pictures and text to paint an evocative portrait of an intense teenage friendship blossoming and then blowing up over a few weeks in the summer of 1999.
How autobiographical is this novel?
There’s definitely a lot of autobiography. I grew up between Northport, Centerport and Huntington Station, where my mother, grandmother and father, respectively, lived. The novel was inspired by a friendship there in my youth and the landmarks of the area, like the Walt Whitman Mall and the Kings Park Psychiatric Center. Also, the grandmother in "Justine" is absolutely my grandmother; I didn’t change a thing.
There’s a real class divide in the book between your protagonist Ali, who is being raised by an immigrant grandmother, and more privileged kids like Justine. Were you aware of those distinctions as a kid?
I grew up with a single mother, working class, and I understood that there was a difference between myself and students in other schools or private schools, but I think like Ali I didn’t necessarily have the words for it at the time. The only language I had for that was where someone lived, or what their house looked like, or those brand names that come up throughout the book: the Chanel nail polish, the country club key fob. Class wasn’t something we talked about.
Justine is what parents often call a "bad friend." She’s clearly troubled and involves Ali in some reckless behavior. What’s the appeal?
On the one hand, Justine is exciting, she’s adventurous, she exhibits these qualities that Ali can’t finds in herself. On the other hand, she’s obviously sad and angry and afraid, and I think Ali feels that as well, whether or not she has the words for it. This novel interrogates a relationship pattern that I think is popular in adolescence but for me extended beyond adolescence in terms of finding oneself in another person.
Autofictive [autobiographical fiction] projects like my own are often projects of reclamation. I felt compelled to go back to a time that perhaps I did not process as it was happening and have a second experience, whether it was to relive it, which I think I did in many ways over the course of the novel, or whether it was to set it right for myself. I don’t think we can move forward with our lives without looking at, processing, and accepting trauma.
You have illustrated several nonfiction books by other people. Did you always plan to have illustrations in your own novel?
Yes. I like working with images and text together, thinking through how they can illuminate one another. Initially, the images were full color watercolors, so "Justine" looked like quite a different book. Then I tried a draft without the images, just focused on the writing, which became more minimal and economical — my husband jokes it’s like teenage Hemingway. So when I finished the draft and decided to return to my original intention and include images, I redrew them all as these very precise black-and-white drawings as a way of aligning their aesthetic to the writing.
Do you have a new project in mind?
I’m working on a sequel to "Justine," and I envision a trilogy that follows Ali. Each book takes place 10 years after the previous one, so in this second book we see her in her mid- to late 20s. I’ve talked about the struggle to reflect on and process trauma; I think in this project she will relive the experiences of her teenage life but also begin to reflect on them.
As someone who’s the age Ali will be in the third book, I’m interested in the question: how much can we really change? When we’re really willing to look at where we’ve been and who we’ve been, how much can really be altered? Maybe we’ll find out.
WHAT Forsyth Harmon talks with writer Nina Renata Aron in a Crowdcast virtual event hosted by Book Revue in Huntington
WHEN 7 p.m. March 17
INFO Free; register at bookrevue.com