|Julie E. Justicz, photo by Jay Dunn|
Julie E. Justicz is the author of the new novel Degrees of Difficulty. She is an attorney and advocate who focuses on civil rights issues. She lives in Oak Park, Illinois.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Degrees of Difficulty, and for the Novotny family?
A: In one way, Degrees of Difficulty began years ago – in the spring of 1977 -- when my father told me my youngest brother Robert had been born with a rare chromosomal anomaly. I didn’t know what “Partial Monosomy 21” meant at the time, but I could tell Dad was concerned. No one in my family could have known that we were starting a journey that tested our love and our commitment to each other in a thousand ways.
My novel is a fictional exploration of a family caring for a child who has profound needs; it asks what love requires and what love costs each member of the Novotny family. Many works of fiction find their roots in an author’s childhood. Fiction gives a writer freedom to examine underlying truths that trouble and challenge her.
During my MFA program, I wrote a short story about a young boy with disabilities and his relationship with two siblings. I tapped into some of my own feelings as a sibling—namely. a profound sense of family loyalty, an incredibly deep and abiding love for my disabled brother, and, to be honest, a good deal of resentment, too.
When I began to write in in the point of view of the sister, Ivy, I found the resentment. I had a much harder time finding tenderness, concern, vulnerability. I realized that I needed to add the voices of the other family members to give the story more breathing room. The four different perspectives grew into a novel. From there, the challenge became structural . . . how to explore and balance the four points of view through the arc of the novel.
Q: The novel begins in the early 1990s and ends in 2008. How did you decide on the time frame?
A: The reasons for this time frame are a bit convoluted. Here's my thought process: I wanted 1977 and 2000 to be markers in the novel, because those are the years when my brother Robert was born and when he passed away. (Although a work of fiction, this book is written in memory of him.)
In the early 1990s, when the novel opens, the three Novotny siblings are all teenagers—making their proximity to one another constant and unavoidable, their competition apparent, and all the family tensions palpable.
One of my MFA professors said that every story must start with a slightly unstable situation; I doubled down on that! The parents in my novel would also be tired and stressed beyond belief with three teenaged children, one of whom is profoundly disabled. We’d follow this stressed-out family, and then a major crisis would develop in 2000. I don’t want to spoil anything, but this is an event that fractures the family, perhaps beyond repair.
Finally, I knew that I wanted enough of a gap to bring the Novotny siblings to young adulthood—hence, 2008, for the last section of the novel. This is a time when they are beginning to know themselves as individuals, apart from their family, to begin to circle back to their parents, and perhaps ready to explore and understand the weight and the wonder of their combined experiences.
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: Degree of difficulty refers to a rating scale of the complexity of an athlete’s maneuver in diving. Hugo, one of the POV characters in my novel, is a champion diver, who channels his emotions into a strict and rigorous training regimen. So, the title is a direct reference to his sport and his physical achievement.
The title is also a play on words, referring to the various difficulties that every member of the Novotny family encounters in life and in love. Interestingly, a degree of difficulty in athletics is always multiplied by another number . . . a qualitative assessment of performance. So how hard are the various challenges each family member faces—and how do they manage these challenges?
Q: What are some of your favorite books?
A: Many of the writers whom I love are completely different from me in terms of style and form. Works that hold a special place in my heart because of the wonder they sparked when I first discovered them are: Lolita; Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson; Atonement by Ian MacEwan; Beloved by Toni Morrison, and just about everything written by Alice Munro.
The books that I most want to emulate tend to be written from a very close POV, often with a young narrator, and always an emotional intensity. I am thinking about Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones or Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light. I adore all of Elena Ferrante’s work—there’s an immediacy that excites me, that I strive for in my writing.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My second novel, Conch Pearl, is set in Freeport, Grand Bahama Island. It’s the story of a young girl trying to escape a dangerous situation, which is larger, more diffuse than she can understand. It’s the story of island politics, sexual power, and post-colonialism, as seen through a young girl’s eyes.
I’ve got a good draft, but I am reworking the novel’s ending . . . which, if my first novel is any indicator, can take a considerable amount of time.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb