Debut Author Snapshot: J.R. Thornton

Posted by Goodreads on April 5, 2016

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Becoming an elite athlete demands a staggering amount of dedication. Yet becoming an elite athlete in China requires a level of sacrifice that can shock even seasoned Westerners. Debut novelist J.R. Thornton witnessed the cutthroat climate firsthand: As an internationally ranked junior tennis player, at age 14 he spent a year in Beijing and had the opportunity to train with some of China's top players. He now channels his teenage experiences in his first novel, Beautiful Country, a coming-of-age tale about a privileged American player, Chase, who moves in with a Chinese host family and trains alongside the Beijing junior national tennis team. Chase's perspective on sport begins to shift as he befriends Bowen, a talented and charismatic Chinese player whose only path out of poverty is tennis.

Beautiful Country was originally published in Mandarin by a Chinese publishing house. Thornton, who graduated from Harvard in 2014, became the first foreign writer in residence at Beijing Normal University. He shares some of the inspiration for his first novel, an outsider's view of China.

"At the United States Tennis Association (USTA) winter nationals, age 13—just before my year in Beijing."
Goodreads: How does the discipline of training to be a top-ranked tennis player translate to the discipline necessary to write a novel?

J.R. Thornton: Tennis and writing are both individual pursuits in which success and failure come down in large part to how hard you're willing to work. You have to put in the effort every day or you won't get anywhere. Some days are harder than others—the inspiration is just not there—but it's precisely on those days that you don't change the program. I learned that discipline from my tennis coach when I was growing up. For him it was about adopting the mind-set of a professional at all times, on and off the court. He believed that without discipline, talent was worthless. And I think the same is true when it comes to writing fiction.

I don't think it's a coincidence that many successful writers have been in the military or were former athletes. Jack Kerouac and John Hersey played football in college, David Foster Wallace was a very good junior tennis player, and several Nobel Laureates—from Ernest Hemingway to William Golding to Mo Yan—spent time in the military. Discipline doesn't come overnight. It's about breaking down bad habits and building the right ones. Or in the words of my former coach, "doing what you're supposed to do day after day until it becomes second nature." Like anything, it gets easier with practice, and thanks to my tennis career, I've had a lot of practice over the years.

"Beijing's infamous smog—an unavoidable presence in my novel. I took a picture of the same view on a relatively clear day, and then again on a day when the smog was particularly bad. Notice how the buildings in the center of the picture disappear behind the smog in the second image."
GR: What was your jumping-off point for this novel? How did you begin?

JRT: Beautiful Country started with a daily journal I kept while living in Beijing as a 14-year-old. I used a lot of that material in the first draft, which felt more like a travelogue than a novel. As I rewrote the book over nearly a hundred drafts, the plot and the character of the narrator came to take on their own shape. Bret Anthony Johnston, one of my professors at Harvard, taught me to use personal experiences as metaphorical scaffolding for the story you construct, something you use initially and then tear down as the story becomes complete.

"A national sports complex and stadium in Beijing similar to the training center in Beautiful Country. The statue is emblematic of Mao-era imagery with the two figures representing the communist ideal of athletic, virile young Chinese men and women. Recently several nightclubs have sprung up around the stadium grounds (you can see one of them, VICS, on the left of the photo)—a sign of the changing times."
GR: Tell us about your inspiration for the character of Bowen.

JRT: Like the majority of my characters, Bowen was built from a composite of imagination as well as aspects of several real people I've known. For instance, the arc of his story represents the experiences of a lot of players I knew growing up. Bowen lies about his age in order to gain a competitive advantage. That is a reality of the tennis world: The stakes are so high that people will often do whatever it takes to win— some players lie about their age, others turn to doping, and oftentimes it's the parents who are the ones pushing their kids to cheat. I once read about the father of a highly ranked French player who was sent to prison because officials discovered he had been putting sleeping pills in the drinks of his son's opponents—one of whom fell asleep at the wheel driving home after the match and died in a crash.

That's obviously a very extreme example, but in general the pressure that many young tennis players have to deal with is simply immense. I knew several players whose parents would hit them when they played poorly and lost matches. Others would get screamed at on the court by angry parents and coaches. Every tournament you saw kids break down in tears on the court because of the pressure on them. There's a dark and tragic side to the tennis tour, and I wanted to explore a character facing that sort of pressure—one who has to prioritize his own survival and doesn't have the luxury of thinking in terms of right and wrong.

"I returned to Beijing in 2014 to spend six months at Beijing Normal University's International Writing Center as a writer in residence. Here I am receiving my fellowship plaque from Mo Yan, an incredible writer and a wonderfully kind person."
GR: You write, "The year I was in China was the year that the world seemed to wake up to its importance. There were plenty of Westerners running around looking for opportunities that were, almost without exception, vague and ill-defined." Any advice for someone seeking to learn more about China and understand its culture?

JRT: China is an extremely complex country, yet it tends to be represented in the media as one-dimensional. People interested in China need to set aside their preconceptions and learn about it from many different sources—one of which should be literature, especially novels by the many talented Chinese writers. Literature is a vitally important way to bridge cultures because all novelists write about what is most important to them at the deepest emotional level.

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GR: Who are your favorite Chinese writers?

JRT: My three favorite are Yu Hua, Su Tong, and Mo Yan. Yu Hua's To Live is a heartbreaking and beautiful novel. Su Tong's My Life as Emperor masterfully captures the narrative voice of a young emperor who is naive, spoiled, and cruel to the point of sociopathic—a literary feat. Of Mo Yan's work, I would say The Republic of Wine is my favorite. Brothers [by Yu Hua] is fantastic, too.

GR: What's next for you as a writer?

JRT: I'm currently working on a new novel that is set at Harvard and revolves around a charismatic serial imposter/charlatan and an art forger, loosely inspired by Elmyr de Hory and Han van Meegeren.

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Laura (new)

Laura McNeal I've been wishing someone would write a novel about junior tennis. Can't wait to read this!

message 2: by Teresa (new)

Teresa Clarke Thornton's insights are essentially important as the US grapples to maintain its global leadership position. It is important for Americans to understand what we are up against in terms of China's hunger to win, and the discipline its people demonstrate in order to achieve their goals. It takes a young person like Thornton to bring this truth to light.

message 3: by J.R. (new)

J.R. Thornton Laura wrote: "I've been wishing someone would write a novel about junior tennis. Can't wait to read this!"
Thanks Laura! Hope you enjoy it!

message 4: by Supratik Bose (new)

Supratik Bose I am looking forward to reading about the idea of discipline in the contexts of the U.S. and China as well as playing tennis and writing novels.

message 5: by Pam (new)

Pam Errico Getting this book for my boys who are both tennis players. My oldest will be in Beijing this summer. I'm certainly going to read it as well as I just started back to tennis and need a lesson on discipline. :)

message 6: by J.R. (new)

J.R. Thornton Pam wrote: "Getting this book for my boys who are both tennis players. My oldest will be in Beijing this summer. I'm certainly going to read it as well as I just started back to tennis and need a lesson on dis..."

Glad to hear it! Hope you all enjoy the book, and that your son has a great experience over in Beijing. It's a fascinating place

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