J.R. Thornton’s debut novel Beautiful Country was first published in China in 2013. The plot is loosely based on Thornton’s own biography: a young American teenager moves to China with his family, plays tennis, and learns how different life can be around the globe. There are differences here and there, but what Thornton does extremely well is portray the raw honesty of growing up in a foreign land. I spoke with the author just before the American release of his book about starting this novel in high school, his interest in public policy, and life overseas.
Your background is really interesting. Can you give us an insight into what your life was like and how you got into writing?
My mom is a writer. She really encouraged a love of reading and writing in me. When I was little we didn’t really watch too much television other than sports and educational programs, so I was just reading all of the time. I think that’s where the desire to start writing came from initially.
I started working on the first draft of [Beautiful Country] in high school actually. I’d taken all of the creative writing courses that my school offered, but I wanted to keep doing it so I asked to do an independent study. They said if I did a big project, like work on a play or a novel, then I could do it. I went to my English teacher to see if he would work on it with me. We worked out a plan where I would turn in one chapter a month. By the end of the year I had most of the initial first draft done.
Then I worked on it on and off for the next year. I’d send it off to people for some comments, then I submitted it to a few places for publication and got rejected. I decided to put it away for awhile and come back to it once I was a better writer. I took a lot of workshops while I was at Harvard.
I went back to the book and started rewriting it. I thought I could make it better. It seemed very amateurish in the way it was written and I had come a long way since I wrote the first draft. I spent a year rewriting it.
When you were in high school writing it, were you in America or China?
I was in the U.S. I took a year before high school to go to China. That was partially because I was a year younger than I should have been in the U.S. I had grown up in England until I was twelve and then moved [to America] and because of the way the school system starts a year earlier [in England] I was going to start high school very young. My parents wanted me to take a year off to get back to the right age group [as other high school freshman].
I took sort of a gap year then in China, then came back for high school in Connecticut.
That year in China, what was that like for you? I know you grew up in England and America, so you were already pretty worldly. China had to be completely different though?
It was super different. I had been once before for about a week with my dad when I was younger. It was totally different transition. At the time I went over to China, it was about four years or so before the Olympics. Beijing wasn’t as nearly international as it is now. There are only a couple western restaurants outside of the hotels. I didn’t really speak any Chinese yet. It was a totally different experience, but I do think I was better prepared for it than maybe somebody who had only lived in one country before because I at least already had the experience from moving from England to the U.S. I viewed it as a new adventure and at that age I think you’re pretty adaptable than when you’re older.
I moved around a lot; I grew up on the East Coast and now I live on the West Coast. I spent some time in the south and up in Maine. I know that’s not as global as your life, but I find it interesting that some people can live their entire lives in one city and don’t know what life is like in another location.
So you got back from China and started writing the book in America. Did you think of the book’s idea while in China though?
While I was in Beijing I kept a journal every day. I had a bunch of material from that which I knew I could probably use at some point to do something. It was pretty rich material and was some stuff that many people my age never experienced. That was always in the back of my mind for if I was going to work on something longer.
I came away from Beijing being really impacted by the boys I practiced [tennis] with and my teammates there. Their system is so competitive and the stakes are really high for them. They’re 14 or 15 years old, but they were pretty much on their own. They had to approach it like they were professionals. Their work ethic and their professionalism made my American friends who were the same age feel very immature. Those guys had a really big impact on me and that was something I remembered when I came back.
A lot of the work ethic I developed was because of them. I wanted to write a story about one of those kids because their experience wasn’t being represented at all in what I was reading about China over here. I felt like the China that was being talked about in the press or in history articles was a very one dimensional country. It didn’t convey the complexity of what life was like there at all. I had a hard time relating what life was like for my friends, my teammates, and kids my age. I wanted to write a story that was about them. I wanted to come back to the theme of their life pressures and how they have to grow up faster. They had to deal with difficult questions that kids in America don’t have to worry about until they’re quite a bit older. I wanted to have that conflict between friendship and loyalty while finding out what is right and wrong. I think it’s something everyone deals with while growing up.
You mentioned wanted to write about the people you had known and the journal that you kept. How much of this was autobiographical or a biography of those friends you had?
The very first draft that I wrote back in high school was much, much more autobiographical than this finished version is. That was one of the things when I went back to rewrite it that I changed a lot of. I think back then, never have attempted to write anything that long and not having a lot of experience working with plot and structure, that was easy for me write more closely to my own life and what I knew. As I learned more about developing narrative arcs and creating conflict, I realized that real life doesn’t really fit into fiction that neatly.
The characters are all composites of people I knew. There is not one based off of a single individual I knew. Some are more inventive than others. The sequence of events is a contrived plot. It’s more of the landscape and the framework of the novel that came from my experience.
What was the editing process like once you finally went back to the book?
There’s stuff like dialogue. The way I used to write dialogue was amateurish. They way they all talked originally, I think if you took their names away that you wouldn’t be able to differentiate between a lot of the characters. There were technical things like that which just look like rookie errors to me now. I went back and fixed a lot of things like that.
More broadly, I found the pacing and the plot structure didn’t flow the right way. I think you need so many hooks pulling you through a book. That was absent from the initial version of the book. I developed a lot of the characters more so that they became less flat and more rounded characters with complex thoughts. I made the ending relate to several of the characters instead of just between the two of them. I changed the narrator’s biographical details so that the reader would identify with them more.
I’m assuming you’re pretty well read in Eastern literature. In your opinion, what is the biggest difference between literature in the East compared to the Western world?
One of the interesting things is just the history of literature in the past few hundred years in China. It’s very different than our literary tradition. Initially fiction was seen as less prestigious than writing poetry. Most of the great writers wrote poetry. In the 1920s popular fiction became respected and widely read. Old storytellers would go around their village telling their version of their epics like how we have the Illiad and they have Journeys to the West.
Then after the Communists took over, there was a period where the only literature written over there was Communist propaganda. Stories that set the ideals and virtues of Communism high. There was a generation of people who never went to school, never read any fiction, but after that period finished there was this explosion of small literary magazines and people reading short stories. A lot of writers came out of that time period.
So you’re headed back to China. When exactly?
Toward the end of August .
And that’s for the Schwarzman Scholars. What exactly is that?
It’s a new program. It’s a one year master’s program at Tsinghua [University in Beijing]. It’s sort of the roads between the U.S. and China to give us exposure and create exchange between students of the next generation. There are around 110 in the first class. Around 50 to 60 from America; around 30 each from China and the rest of the world.
I’m definitely looking forward to it, it will be a great experience.
I saw a list of the scholars and you’re listed as “public policy.” So this isn’t for writing, it’s more based on your global interests?
I was a history major at Harvard. I see this program as a good bridge in cultural affairs and creating cultural bridges to China which I think is really important. I definitely plan to keep writing, but this is too cool of an opportunity to pass up.
Are you going to be working on your next novel then?
Up until a week ago, I was working on it, but I’ve been quit busy with this book coming out this week. I’ve finished two pretty extensive drafts of the new book and I feel good about it. This one’s writing process has been a little different that Beautiful Country because I have a clear idea of what I was doing from the beginning. I thought about it for about a year before I started writing. When I started, I was pretty sure about what the plot was going to be.
Thematically, is it about globalization?
It’s actually quite different. It’s set at Harvard and doesn’t have anything to do with China. It’s more sort of about the things I experienced in college. I wanted to put them in a story format because it’s a place where a lot of people grow up and figure out who they want to be. It deals with a lot of questions of identity and friendship.
Those usually tend to be my favorite novels. Thanks so much for your time. Good luck in China.