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Julie Justicz

Born and raised in rural England, Julie Justicz moved to the Bahamas when she was ten, and then to the United Statesas a teenager. She earned a law degree from the University of Chicago and received an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. As an attorney, advocate and writer, Julie currently works on civil rights issues in Chicago. Degrees of Difficulty is her first novel. She lives in Oak Park, Illinois with her spouse, Mary, their two kids, and two dogs.


"Haunting and visceral, Degrees of Difficulty asks how far we will go to care for the difficult child within and without us. Moved and captivated, I couldn't put the book down, as Julie Justicz deftly captures the pain and ultimate redemption of love and responsibility."

– Emily Saliers, singer-songwriter with Indigo Girls

"Written with such tenderness and honesty, Degrees of Difficulty stole nights and weekends, as I found myself yearning to rejoin the journey of Ben's family. What an astonishing debut."

– Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here: A Story of Two Boys Growing Up

"Julie Justicz asks 'Could a child ask too much of his parents? And...what should a parent ask in return?' Degrees of Difficulty is the totally absorbing story of the many kinds of devastation that can wrack a family, no matter its passion to survive intact. Justicz writes with deep feeling and saving wit about her characters who leap, alive and hopeful, off the page."

– Rosellen Brown author of The Lake on Fire and Before and After

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Degrees of Difficulty

Degrees of Difficulty: An Interview with Julie Justicz


Jan English Leary: I met Julie in 2011 in a novel workshop we both attended and since then we have continued to exchange manuscripts. I learned that years earlier we’d just missed overlapping at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where we both received MFAs. Over these past years, I have watched this novel grow and deepen. Julie is a brave writer, who throws out pages I would be proud to claim as mine, someone who digs deep, always challenging herself to find rich insights, compelling situations, and beautiful language. Her work is both dynamically plotted and psychologically complex, her characters appealing yet flawed, utterly believable. I am thrilled that her beautiful novel is at last coming out. It is all the more rich for the long gestation.

Your novel brings to mind the Tolstoy line “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This book is about a family coping with the very specific challenge of a disabled child and also about how all parents struggle to raise children and allow them to grow up and individuate. I know that you originally wanted to focus on the four humors of the blood: air, fire, earth, water as indicators of personality. How did this concept inform your novel?

Julie Justicz: Jan, thanks so much for your kind introduction here. Our friendship, as you note, started in a novel workshop in 2011 and has continued over the past eight years in our own small writing group. Most of our time together has been spent discussing manuscripts and/yet I feel so close to you! In sharing our writing—especially early work that is vulnerable and raw–we serve a part of our soul. Thanks for being a caring and smart editor and a trusted friend. And thanks for doing this interview.

The early version of my novel was, as you remember, structured around the Four Humors—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile—which according to Hippocrates and his heirs governed a person’s temperament—sanguine (upbeat, adventurous), phlegmatic (calm and unassuming), melancholic (quiet, depressive), and choleric (angry), depending on the balance/imbalance of humors. I’d started my novel in the first-person perspective of Ivy, the only daughter and oldest child in the Novotny family. But after writing several chapters in her voice, I found she came off rather angry, a bit brash and dismissive of her family. I wondered about her parents, her brothers . . . how would their experiences differ from Ivy’s? So, I experimented with the humors: that is, I wrote through four point of view characters, each dominated by a particular humor. That helped me complicate and then complete the story. In the end, I kept the four different voices—two parents and two kids—but tossed out the Four Humors as a structuring tool; they’d become unnecessary scaffolding by the time I finished the novel.

Leary: Your novel has four points of view: the two parents, Perry and Caroline, and two of their children, Ivy and Hugo. You did a great job of balancing the points of view, of making the novel focus on a family’s response to having a child with severe developmental issues. Was it hard to find that balance? Was one point of view harder to find and to maintain? Did one character fight to take over?

Justicz: I wrote in Ivy’s first-person perspective in the beginning; I had several chapters in her voice before I tried any other point of view. So, it’s probably understandable that she dominated the narrative through three or four drafts of the novel. I had to push her back, toss out some of her scenes, even a few chapters, and then rewrite her sections in a third-person perspective to get the balance I was seeking. Perry, the father, came quickly; I understood his “game face on and best foot forward” attitude. Caroline, the mother, and Hugo, the middle child, were harder for me to capture and to give full expression. I needed to find a way to show the mother’s melancholia, thwarted career desires, suppressed anger and still make her sympathetic. I felt judgmental about her and I had to go deeper into her character to find empathy and fully humanize her. And Hugo remained a cipher through many rewrites—the quiet middle child, not rocking the boat, perhaps a little too perfect to be true? How then to make him real? That took some time.

Leary: There are four points of view but five major characters. Benjamin, the youngest child, being almost completely non-verbal, appears on the page but doesn’t have a point of view. You do a beautiful job of describing him, giving him humanity and beauty. What were the challenges of creating this character?

Justicz: Benjamin, a boy born with profound disabilities, only makes one sound—“guh,”—which he uses to communicate with his family. I experimented with finding a narrative voice for him but what I wrote seemed too lyrical and didn’t jibe with his lived experience. Nonetheless, wordless Ben is the heart of his family and the needle in the heart of his family. I tried to show his needs, idiosyncrasies, desires; he is someone who literally jumps for joy, screams with delight, and gets frustrated when he cannot share his excitement or express his anger. He also feels happiest when he is with his beloved brother, Hugo. Because he doesn’t speak, I had to use Ben’s family–the four point of view narrators–to reveal his complexity. Ben’s parents and siblings live with him, care for him, and love him. They also have the responsibility of finding their own way in life, fulfilling their wants and needs and dreams, apart from Ben. If they can. What does this cost?

Leary: Having seen earlier drafts of your novel, I know that you wrote and then discarded some really wonderful material. I admire that nerve to shed what is both beautifully written and compelling. Is your process generally one of writing big and cutting back or was that particularly true of this novel?

Justicz: Because this is my first novel, I was learning a great deal as I wrote—through trial and a lot of error. I didn’t know anything about structure—I was putting ink on paper and persevering. I needed a lot of material to make a book and I plugged away. Turns out that many of the pages did not do much to advance the story. But I didn’t know what story I was telling—and what I could chuck out—until I reached the end. I also had the privilege of working with a smart editor, Marc Estrin at Fomite, who told me several times to rework the final section of the novel. I kept offering him minor changes that were not enough. Keep at it, he’d say. When I finally lopped off the last 100 pages and rewrote the ending entirely, I had what I needed.

Leary: I love the title Degrees of Difficulty. Everyone in that family faces a very specific level of difficulty. I also know that you considered other titles. How did you come to choose this one?

Justicz: I decided on Degrees of Difficulty after living with another title for several years. My editor pushed me to find a new title that referenced diving and somehow referenced the family. “Degree of difficulty” refers to a rating scale of the complexity of an athlete’s maneuver. Hugo 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 struggles that every member of the Novotny family encounters. I like the notion that a degree of difficulty in athletics—a quantitative rating—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? With humor? With anger? With grace?

Leary: Not to dwell on the influence of your own life, but I know that there are similarities to your family of origin, that you had a brother with disabilities. What are the challenges of writing fiction that is based, in part, on your family? Did you feel that the desire to tell a good story competed with a need to get the facts straight? How did you free yourself to write about people you know? Is it in the act of embellishing that you find the freedom or are you anchored by the kernel of truth?

Justicz: Wow, there are so many thought-provoking questions you’ve raised here. Yes, the novel had its roots in my family of origin. My fictional Ben has the same disabilities as my youngest brother Robert, who was born with partial monosomy 21. One of the first stories I wrote for my MFA program was 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. The resentment shone brightest in that story. Coming back to it years later as a starting point for my novel, I realized that I would need to add the voices of the other family members to give the story more breathing room.

Apart from Ben—who was based on Robert, the other characters in the novel are amalgamations. I used personal experiences and emotions to feed the fiction, if that makes sense. I had to give myself permission to embellish, exaggerate, make things up—and I had to ask my family to try to understand that my writing is not about recreating our experience or laying blame; it’s about me exploring the emotional truth that I carry, that may be nothing like their truth. What’s that saying? All of it is true; none of it happened.

Leary: How did you decide to have diving be a major activity for Hugo? And when did you land on the idea that Ivy would become an endocrinologist? You do a great job of showing people at work, a builder, an academic, a physician, a lifeguard. What is the importance, for you, of showing work in a character’s life?

Justicz: I knew I wanted Hugo to be an incredibly skilled athlete whose physical appearance would differ dramatically from Ben’s. I’m not sure why I settled on diving except that I swam in high school and I remember being fixated by the incredible feats of our divers. We swimmers were all about endurance, a group of knuckleheads packed into six lanes and churning out lap after lap after lap while staring at the black line. The divers, though, were athletes and artists.

You asked about jobs. I suppose I wanted/needed each of my characters to have a gravitational pull away from homelife. I made Ivy a reproductive endocrinologist because I liked how it would highlight her reluctance to have children of her own even as she spent every minute of her day helping other people conceive. For Caroline and Perry, I found jobs that were, I suppose, inapposite—one deeply cerebral, one much more physical. I analyzed late Shakespearean plays for Caroline and explored new home construction for Perry. That part of writing fiction is fun for me. . .it allows for digression and exploration and yes, procrastination.

Leary: Could you talk about what you’re working on now?

Justicz: A second novel—I’m thinking of calling it the The Time-traveling Crawdad’s Wife.

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