The Good, The Bad, and The Ordinary Habits: In Conversation with Forsyth Harmon, Author of Justine
By Rachel Schwartzmann
Ordinary Story is a monthly series by Rachel Schwartzmann that features musings and conversations on one of our favorite ordinary habits: reading. In the second installment, Rachel speaks with author-illustrator Forsyth Harmon about her debut illustrated novel, Justine, and the ordinary habits that impacted her creative process—and life.
Forsyth Harmon’s debut illustrated-novel, Justine, artfully explores the ambiguity of girlhood. The novel opens in the summer of 1999 on Long Island, New York. There, we meet the book’s narrator, Ali, an isolated teenager whose world is upended due to a chance encounter with Justine—an alluring Stop & Shop cashier, who quickly takes center stage in Ali’s life.
Youth, desire, identity—these experiences are far from black and white. But the combination of Harmon’s smooth prose and sharply rendered black and white line drawings provide a sense of clarity about Ali’s experiences, even if only for a moment. Everything and nothing happens in Justine. Yet as the book progresses, we as readers learn to look closely at what Ali doesn’t—or can’t yet—see about the girl she wants to be (and perhaps be with).
The true devastation is underscored by Ali and Justine’s respective ordinary habits—good, bad, or otherwise—that inform the decisions which will ultimately alter each of their lives. In this way, Harmon’s unembellished storytelling makes for a coming-of-age narrative that transcends the summer of 1999. The heat remains in the air long after you leave the words on the page. The girls’ divergent fates send a shiver down your spine. The story remains embedded in your heart.
I spoke with Harmon about the origins of Justine and the ordinary habits that have impacted her creative process—and life. Below are excerpts from our conversation. — Rachel Schwartzmann
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Can you share an ordinary habit that’s important to you or one that’s getting you through life right now?
My ordinary habit is reading. Every night I have a ritual: I put on my pajamas, I brush and floss my teeth, I wash my face, and I get into bed. I love physical books, but I often read from a device because I like to turn out the lights and minimize all other stimuli and create this really small radius so I can escape into the world of the book.
Is there a book on your nightstand that you can pick up if you’re having a bad day or need a boost of energy?
I have a pocket Shambhala version of the Dhammapada, which are the sayings of the Buddha, and I’ve had it forever. It’s really beat up and water stained from dropping it in the bathtub. But I do find solace in picking it up and flipping to a page and taking its advice.
Anything particularly resonant lately?
Yeah. You know, the first line in the Shambhala translation is “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” I think during a time of so much uncertainty; I find that helpful in encouraging me to focus on the things that I can have an impact on and the things that I can change, and the small ways in which my attitude can shift me to being helpful as opposed to self- pitying or in despair.
It’s definitely something to keep close. I think that’s a nice setup to talk about the frame of mind you were in when you started writing Justine. Do you want to share a bit of your background as a writer, reader, artist, and what was important to you when you started this story?
I spent a lot of time writing and drawing growing up. I was an only child, and it’s how I amused myself—especially as my mother worked a lot.
I went on to study visual art and writing as an undergraduate student. But when I graduated with debt and not a lot of confidence in my practice as a writer or an artist, I let those practices fall away from me, and I used those skills in the service of advertising and marketing, where I also learned quite a lot actually—about economy of messaging and persuasive image and text combination. But after a decade of doing that, I had this feeling kind of like, “What happened?”
I think I approached Justine seeking to understand. It felt a little bit like the time from my adolescence through my twenties was just this blur—you know, not just about having gotten away from my creative practice, but also like what had happened and what had it meant. So I felt a kind of calling, I guess, to go back to my coming of age, in an attempt to have a second shot at processing it and understanding it, and maybe reclaiming my early life as a way of moving into adult life with more clarity. Writing this book felt like a way to do that.
What habits did you have to shed to get back into that mindset?
I have struggled and sort of continue to struggle with the addiction of busyness. In that decade where I’d left the writing and drawing habit behind, I really embraced overwork as a way of feeling like I was moving forward in my life, and in some ways—like financially—I did. But in order to create, it really became necessary to open up space. Not just for sort of the physical habits of writing and drawing—although that’s certainly a large part of it—but also for contemplation. At that time, I was accepted into an MFA program, and I think one of the most helpful parts about that program was creating this space in order to re-engage with those creative habits.
What was a growing pain, creatively?
I really struggled returning to writing. I didn’t have a lot of confidence, and in some ways, although, as I mentioned, I’ve learned a lot about brevity and persuasion in writing for advertising and marketing, I didn’t learn a lot about introspection and interiority... Coming back to fiction writing from writing copy or writing emails or writing contracts was definitely a transition.
What stood out to me about Justine is that it really is a collection of ordinary habits and moments that made the tension and their lives seem so relatable—it was very easy to picture and insert yourself in the middle of their world. As you developed each of the characters, what was your process like in assigning habits—whether good or bad—that would ultimately define their individual trajectories?
I mean, to be so transparent, Justine is largely auto fictive. Not all, but many of the habits you know, good and bad, that appear in the book are my own, distributed across several characters. I, like Ali and like Justine, suffered from an eating disorder. I, like Ali, also feel the greatest tenderness toward cats. Like [Ali’s] Grandma, I furiously clean the house whenever I’m struggling with difficult feelings.
I think we’ve probably all heard it said that characters in a novel might just be fragmented pieces of the author trying to integrate, and maybe that’s true.
You did such a wonderful job of showing their humanity and depth, even from a distance— you could feel that emotional tension from Ali as she was navigating this pivotal part of her life. I think the art played a role in emphasizing some of those observations and details. How did you decide what visual moments needed more space on the page?
I'm happy because I think your reading is aligned with my intention. I mean, Ali, she really struggles to communicate, right? She's reserved. Early readers did give me pushback for the lack of interiority. At the same time, whenever I tried to sort of like "add" some, the results felt false to me. I mean, Ali's grandmother is not a great communicator either. Not so much, I think, because English is her second language, but because she seems to lack the emotional tools. I think her inability to discuss her daughter's—or Ali's mother's—death really sets the tone and creates a kind of silence in the home and in Ali herself.
So what I did try to do was use the illustrations to do some of the emotional work that Ali wasn't able to do. I felt that that was an honest way for me to explore Ali's interior. For instance, the images are black and white, and so that might reflect Ali's sort of black and white way of thinking, and they're all mostly a very close range. You know, she doesn't have a ton of perspective at this stage in her life.
And then, the image sequences, in particular—those pages that sort of show an object in progress. I really wanted these sort of cult objects of nineties adolescence to emote for Ali. So, as she warms to Justine, a makeup compact opens up, or as she has a confusing, intimate experience with [another character] Ryan, there's a cassette tape that unravels. At a certain point, she's unable to cry—when really she should have been able to have a proper cry—and a piece of loose-leaf crumbles. I looked to these drawings to produce some of that mood and help reflect Ali's interiority.
Do you hope that Justine acts as a sort of time capsule, or a portrait, of a very distinct period of life?
I really did aim to take a kind of slice of life from the summer of 1999. I did research beyond just my own personal experience of coming of age at that time—the music, the fashion—which was interesting. I had subscribed to Vogue as a teenager, but I bought copies of summer 1999 Vogues on eBay in order to really get it right. And also use the illustrations—like the Tamagotchi, for instance, or a cassette tape—in order to really place us in a particular year.
When the reader finishes Justine, what do you want them to feel?
In terms of what I hope the reader would feel, I hope maybe understood or seen, or less lonely—which I think is also what I hope to feel, as the writer.
You mentioned that Justine is part of a trilogy, and I saw that you made an Instagram account called @threewaymirrornovels. I was flipping through the book again before we hopped on this call, and this was an accident, but I actually opened to the section when Ali and Justine were in the dressing room, and Ali is watching Justine in a three-way mirror. I thought it was interesting, and I'm curious what you're hoping to do with that detail?
My aim for Justine is to be the first in three novels, which I am titling, for now, "The Three-way Mirror" novels. Each book is a slice of life that finds Ali ten years following the previous. So in the second book, which I'm just finishing the draft of, we see Ali in her mid to late twenties. In the third book, we'll look at her again, ten years later. My hope is to look at, of course, the same character but with a bit more wisdom [and] with also a bit more accumulation of damage, but with sort of a slightly different voice in a slightly different situation. In some ways, I am looking at them as variations on a theme because they are an exploration of how I think the firsts in our adolescence set up dynamics of repetition, especially in relationships to others and to the self.
What I'm interested in is, first, if we don't look at or process our trauma, in what ways do we wind up reliving it? Then second, if we do come to face and accept it, how much are we really capable of change? The jury's out; I'm not sure. But that's a question I'm interested in exploring through the three books. So the three-way mirror becomes a kind of metaphor—I think, particularly for an auto fictive trilogy—of looking at both Ali's and my own experiences from three different places in time and, correspondingly, consciousness.
I'm really interested to see how it develops. It's also interesting to talk about habits when you're exploring how we can change and evolve. What role do you think habits can play in that growth?
I think it can give structure and grounding, like a kind of scaffolding of support as we look to explore shakier ground in, hopefully, expanding consciousness.
I relied very much on habits and rituals, especially as I'm doing a lot of writing, which for me is a kind of exertion into the unknown and can be uncomfortable and scary. So I often find that the habits that I've really taken time—over the course of my life and getting to know myself—to construct, keep me safe as I pursue growth.
Is there something unexpected that happened to your writing or art while working on Justine?
I will say that there was an unexpected habit that supported me and continues to support me, which is jogging. I am like literally the slowest jogger in world history, I think, and had always hated it. But somehow, I started to find it soothing as I wrote Justine and continue to work on the sequel.
I think I gained confidence simply through moving forward in space, and there's always something about the repetitive motion. It kind of shakes off my thoughts and loosens my perspective, and I find it a really good way to get unstuck. I get ideas when I jog, and I text them to myself for future reference. So a lot of the times when I was writing Justine, or now as I struggle maybe with a question, rather than remaining at my laptop, trying to answer it in Microsoft Word, I step away, and the answer finds me, as I'm moving.
I'm excited for people to read Justine, and I'm also eager to share your tips for building a better reading habit. First, is there a reading habit that you're trying to break or build?
Yeah. There is one I'm trying to build: I'm really trying to get a better understanding of American history through reading. I host a book club, and we read one work of fiction and one work of nonfiction by a Black writer every month.
In nonfiction, we've been working through Du Bois' Black Reconstruction. We read a section every month, and it has fundamentally changed my understanding—or really lack of understanding—of American history and has given me a really valuable context for why things look how they do in the United States. And because I do have a strong reading habit, I would like to use that in order to gain a better perspective for how we got where we are in this country.
That's definitely an important habit and probably one for life.
Yes. It's our obligation. I think it's work that we need to do in order to be able to then be more effective in taking other actions moving forward.
Do you have any advice for building a reading habit that's in service of some of those obligations?
I do think that doing it in book club form with others has been really helpful to me. I'm so appreciative of what I'm learning in reading history, but it's difficult. I find it difficult, especially when it's painful. So, having a due date and an obligation to others who I respect is helpful, as well as having the opportunity to reflect and process with others after we've all read. I have been so grateful to my reading group for both holding me accountable and helping to broaden my perspective.
For those who are intimidated by building reading habits, how do you overcome that fear of tackling a harder piece of literature or something that might not be in your usual wheelhouse? How do you learn to deal with that?
Well, I will say that there's a reason that bestsellers become bestsellers. There is much greater diversity, right now at this particular moment in time, thankfully, in the books that are sort of topping the charts. So I would say, why not start with books that are resonating with so many others at this particular place in time? There's something approachable, generally, in them.
I will talk a little bit more about other advice around building consistent reading habits—one other thing that I really like to do is find an author that I really love and read through their work chronologically. I've done this recently with Kazuo Ishiguro, Megan Abbott, Yōko Ogawa, and also Raymond Chandler—all of whom have influenced Justine in one way or another.
I do find it really gratifying to see how an author explores and develops some of the same concerns across several books. Right now, in our reading group, we're reading through all of Toni Morrison, and there's nothing more inspiring or humbling than spending time with her! So that's another way that I recommend getting deeper into a reading habit.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.