Hi Christina! Thank you so much for joining me on Fast Forward Friday. I was so happy to have a chance to read an eARC of your upcoming debut novel, CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE. Your story has such rich characters; I can’t wait for everyone to meet Ro and Benji. Can you tell our readers about it, please?
Hi Kathie! Thank you so much for having me here! So the book is set in Sacramento, California in 1983, and the main characters are Ro Geraghty, an ambitious scientist grieving the unexpected death of her space-loving father and determined to finish the model rocket they started building together. Benji Burns is a shy, introverted artist who loves reading comic books, and whose favorite comic book series is none other than Spacebound, the comic book series his dad wrote after walking out on his family years ago. When the two characters meet after a folder mix-up in seventh grade science class, Benji helps Ro finish her rocket for the science fair, and Ro helps Benji search through the comic books and across the country for his long-absent father.
Ro and Benji, in a sense, are two characters who are really different but come to find heartfelt connections between them. Ro is someone who has a plan for everything, and always tries to follow logical steps to solve any problem. However, she’s dealing with what seems to be insurmountable grief from losing her father the previous year, and after moving to a new school to start her seventh grade year, as a biracial Chinese-American kid, she’s also having a hard time adjusting and fitting in, and she is at a loss for how to navigate these issues. Benji, on the other hand, is painfully shy, and likes to keep to himself and his comics, something that gives him a sense of escapism from his school bully, living in the shadow of his baseball star brother, and a mother who worries far too much. Though Ro and Benji are vastly different characters, they are both coping with the loss and absence of their fathers, and through forming their unlikely friendship, Ro and Benji learn from each other, challenge each other, support each other through their tumultuous seventh grade year and help each other cope with their loss, and eventually, become each others’ found family.
One of the things I most enjoyed is how the story is told in Ro and Benji’s alternating voices. Did you write this story in that format from the beginning, or did it develop in the course of edits?
CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE was dual-POV from the start! It was a wonderful surprise to me, too, as I’d only ever written in one first-person POV for my main characters, and now there were two of them. Coming up with both of their voices was one of the most challenging and fun things to explore throughout the course of writing my manuscript, and I loved putting in both Ro and Benji’s different personalities, characteristics, and quirks–Ro with her straightforward, grounded, and logical voice, and Benji with his flair for exaggeration and his love of the fantastical.
My favorite character is Ro because I could relate to her tenacity, her unwillingness to give up when something isn’t working, and her need for things to work the way they’re supposed to. Did you have a character you most enjoyed writing, or who is most like you?
I’m so very glad you relate to Ro! Ro was actually the first voice that came to my mind, and she is so very dear to me. The way Ro interacts with her mother, her family’s Chinese culture, and her sense of not belonging were things that were very much a part of my experience growing up, and it was so incredibly validating and vivid to include those details in the book–everything from the way Ro’s mother calls her baobao (an affectionate Chinese word for children that stems from the word baobei, which means “treasure”) to the pastries that are included in one of the scenes. However, I would say the core of my personality leans more toward Benji. All his jokes aside, he’s just someone who is shy and trying to find his voice and scared of standing up for himself and going after what he really wants, and as a painfully shy kid growing up, a lot of my fears were the same as Benji’s.
Your story touches on so many different topics, including grief, loss, family, friendship, STEAM, culture, art…it feels like I need to read it again to soak it all in. Could you share three things you hope a reader will take away from it?
Of course! I once heard a quote at an author event that “science and art are the same in that they both draw patterns out of chaos”, and that quote has very much stuck with me since then. CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE does touch on so many things, but ultimately, I hope the book evokes the wonder of those unexpected and profound connections between different people. Ro and Benji meet as characters who want nothing to do with each other, but at the end of the book, they discover parallels between rocket science and space comics, between their families, and in the loss and grief they face. I hope that readers come away from the book with warm hearts, thinking about the unexpected connections between things in the world, and thinking about the families they discover, born and found.
Is there anything about your publishing journey that has surprised you?
I’ve been so pleasantly surprised and blown away by just how supportive and loving the book community is! From debut authors cheering each other on to librarians taking time out of their busy days to shout out books on Twitter, everyone I’ve met (or virtually met!) has just so much love for books and it truly makes me so happy to get to be a part of this community.
Can you tell us where to find out more about you and your writing, please?
Thanks again for talking with me today, and I look forward to seeing your book in the hands of readers in January.
Christina Li is a student at Stanford University studying Economics. In her spare time, when she is not stressing over her latest stats problem set, she is dreaming up characters and stories for children and young adults. Her debut, Clues to the Universe, is coming out from Quill Tree Books on January 12, 2021.