Novelist Julie Israel describes her writing process in no uncertain terms.
“It’s kind of like a bell graph,” she says, “where the thing being measured is chaos.” Similarly chaotic is her unconventional route to debut author stardom. Though she holds the expected B.A. in creative writing, Israel prides herself on the more atypical entries in her resume - like her experience teaching English in Japan, which she best summarizes as “HOLY CULTURAL EXPOSURE, BATMAN.”
“Most broadening experience of my life to date,” Israel said. “It’s one thing to study Japanese in school and learn about the nation through shows or movies; it’s another thing to live it.”
Through the program, Israel was able to connect with dozens of other English teachers from around the world, including everywhere from South Africa and Singapore to Ireland, the U.K., and Canada.
“My three closest friends there were Irish, so it was kind of a two-for in cultural exposure,” she said. “I came home with a decent accent.”
Israel said that one thing she will never get over is “having to leave recreational karaoke behind.”
“The week of my birthday in Japan, I enjoyed a mini karaoke-thon – five separate trips with friends or fellow school staff five days in a row,” she said.
In addition to “decent Japanese,” the Spanish and Japanese minor speaks varying amounts of French.
“I wish I knew and hope to learn Italian, Latin, Greek, and sign language, among others,” she said, “and I treasure the words that friends have taught me in Hawaiian, Urdu, Navajo, Gaelic, and Tagalog.”
Additionally, Israel is teaching herself to play the guitar.
Her international experiences and quirky hobbies undoubtedly show up in her writing - both in content, and in process.
“I think being a person of eclectic interests, who follows their own fascinations, means that many of those same fascinations end up in my stories,” she said. “We see a lot of poetry in Juniper, for instance - I met and became enamored with poetry at university. The things that captivate and move me are the things that make me burn to write good stories. Great art in any form and great people, even fictional ones.”
Israel begins with something small and specific: a concept, a character, a scene, or even a title that lights a spark.
In her debut novel, Juniper Lemon's Happiness Index, the title was the first vivid detail. From there, Israel developed the narrative by asking pointed questions: “How would I pitch this book in a sentence? In a couple paragraphs? And the litmus test: does the idea still compel me?”
Plotting itself was hairier, and was where things started to “look more like a murder board.”
“How does this event connect to this? What order do these things happen in? Where was character C while X was happening, and how did A get from here to there? It honestly fills me with awe each time I start trying to ‘solve’ a novel that a coherent story can ever emerge from such piecemeal details and so many question marks,” said Israel. “But it does! And that’s the fun of it.”
“It’s a lot of work to flesh out those details and order them, and once I start writing, my draft often deviates from my murder map - er, outline - anyway. But the good news is, first drafting is kind of the ‘peak chaos’ point, and once I have finished one, the amount of work to be done slowly decreases with each revision. There are still plenty of challenges; they just scale gradually, gradually back until all that’s left are line edits and/or somebody says, ‘We’re going to print now.’”
Israel says her writing has improved greatly since finishing her debut novel.
“In the years I spent with Juniper, I picked up on more in writing and had greater storytelling epiphanies than I can probably articulate,” she said. “Those are lessons I’ll take forward to each new book, and that’s one of the things I love most about writing: there’s no roof to improvement. You are growing every step of the way.”
Israel is hard at work on a “hopeful book two,” a story about which she is “fiendishly excited.”
“Still contemporary,” she said, “but it moves in a slightly speculative/fantastic direction!”
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Hiba Tahir is a YA author, a freelance journalist, and an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Arkansas.