A Life of Books with Forsyth Harmon, author of Justine

You may recognize the name Forsyth Harmon. If you do, you’re lucky enough to have read tremendous books that she has illustrated like the essay collection, Girlhood, by Melissa Febos. 

Now Forsyth has her own illustrated novel out called Justine and it is exquisite. Set in 1999, the story follows Ali as she meets Justine in a life changing series of events. Justine takes Ali under her wings at a local store where the two start as coworkers and blossom into something more. Harmon’s work is intimate. It’s cozy in the way that you want a book to be but allows you to be uncomfortable with the realities of these young lives.

I wanted to know more about what makes Forsyth Harmon tick and asker her to fill out Debutiful’s A Life of Books questionnaire. Read her answers below.

Author photo by Emma McIntyre.

Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?
I just wanted to be Ramona Quimby as a kid. She starred in eight illustrated children’s novels by Beverly Cleary. In one, Ramona cracks a raw egg on her forehead. I remember reenacting this in the little bathroom that connected my mother’s bedroom with my own. When I read that Ramona got a new pair of red shoes, I dragged my mother to Payless. I still wear my hair in a kind of Ramona-inspired bob. There’s a book by Anna Katz called The Art of Ramona Quimby, which looks at the work of five Ramona illustrators over the years. Alan Tiegreen illustrated Ramona in the late 70s and early 80s, and his line clearly influenced mine.

Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?
I like Ramona for kids—she’s a plucky little heroine. My four-year-old son is obsessed with Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. I think we both have it memorized. It’s quite funny! Being a kid (or a parent) can be stressful; humor helps. I like too how Scarry uses illustrations to tell micro-stories inside the macro-story. For instance, a meter maid follows a speeding racecar from one page to the next, and a little gold bug hides somewhere within each spread. 

Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?
I didn’t appreciate the mastery of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I’ve been rereading Morrison’s oeuvre chronologically, and I’ve been both inspired and humbled.

What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?
As a teen, I was much more concerned with magazines than books: Vogue, Rolling Stone. My novel takes place in 1999, and I ordered back issues off eBay for research. I was chilled by how familiar the images were—the degree of detail with which they’d seared themselves in my memory: Britney Spears reclining on hot-pink satin sheets in a black push-up bra and polka-dot boy shorts, holding a stuffed purple Teletubby, telephone receiver to her ear; Kate Moss in nothing but dark denim jeans, fingertips covering her nipples, laughing so hard her eyes were closed, revealing her terrible but somehow endearing teeth. It makes me sad that I can’t say how much I once loved J.D. Salinger because I was too busy memorizing the curve of Kate Moss’s waist.

Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?
Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel Ghost Worldwhich, like Justine, is interested in a tense relationship between two young women—encouraged my interest in beginning the project. As I read, I was influenced by Megan Abbott’s novels—Dare Me and You Will Know Me in particular. I love how Abbott takes a kind of noir lens to young womanhood. I was also reading a lot of Yōko Ogawa at the time: Hotel Iris and Revenge might be my favorites. I’m inspired by her careful, concise style.

What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?
A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro’s haunting debut. It’s the story of Etsuko, a woman whose adult daughter has just committed suicide. She reflects on a long-ago summer in Nagasaki, when she and Sachiko, a new friend, attempted to rebuild their lives in the wake of war. Etsuko recounts Sachiko’s questionable choices as a mother to her young daughter, Mariko, and as the story progresses, we begin to wonder whether Etsuko is projecting her own guilt onto her friend—or whether she’s even invented Sachiko and Mariko as a way of thinking through her part in her own daughter’s choice to end her life. A Pale View of Hills is an apt title for this novel—the narration is distant and ephemeral, and the book left me feeling both awestruck and introspective. In what ways, I wondered, am I projecting or inventing in order to protect myself from truths too painful to contemplate? 

What books helped get you through quarantining and social distancing during 2020?
Quarantine has inspired me to reflect on both my personal and our national history. My book club and I have been working our way through W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction. We read a section every month, and this book has fundamentally changed my understanding—or really lack of understanding—of pre- and post-Civil War history. It’s given me a valuable context for why things look how they do in the United States today. Understanding this history doesn’t reduce the amount of work we have to do, but it does remove the glaze of bafflement that might bar next steps.

And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.
Three-way Mirror

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