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Debut Author Interview: Christina Li and Clues to the Universe

Happy Monday Everyone! Today I’m thrilled to have debut author Christina Li here to share about her MG historical Clues to the Universe. It sounds like a heart-pulling story set in 1983 that I can’t wait to read.

Here’s a blurb from Goodreads:

This #ownvoices debut about losing and finding family, forging unlikely friendships, and searching for answers to big questions will resonate with fans of Erin Entrada Kelly and Rebecca Stead.

The only thing Rosalind Ling Geraghty loves more than watching NASA launches with her dad is building rockets with him. When he dies unexpectedly, all Ro has left of him is an unfinished model rocket they had been working on together.

Benjamin Burns doesn’t like science, but he can’t get enough of Spacebound, a popular comic book series. When he finds a sketch that suggests that his dad created the comics, he’s thrilled. Too bad his dad walked out years ago, and Benji has no way to contact him.

Though Ro and Benji were only supposed to be science class partners, the pair become unlikely friends: Benji helps Ro finish her rocket, and Ro figures out a way to reunite Benji and his dad. But Benji hesitates, which infuriates Ro. Doesn’t he realize how much Ro wishes she could be in his place?

As the two face bullying, grief, and their own differences, Benji and Ro must try to piece together clues to some of the biggest questions in the universe.

Hi Christina! Thanks so much for joining us!

1. Tell us about yourself and how you became a writer.

Thank you so much for having me here! I’ve been a longtime fan of Literary Rambles, so I’m so thrilled to get to be here today.

I’m a kidlit author and a college senior. I remember wanting to be an author ever since I was around 10, and I started writing a (very bad) draft of my first novel when I was 11 through National Novel Writing Month. I loved the experience, and then I wrote another book, and another, and eventually I got around to writing CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE the summer after my high school graduation and the rest is history.

2. That’s awesome how dedicated you were to your writing, even as a kid. Where did you get the idea for Clues to the Universe?

I’ve always wanted to write a story about a scientist and an artist -- I remember attending an author event a while ago and hearing her say that science and art were the same in that they both draw patterns out of chaos. That line stuck with me for a long time. I also participated in my middle school science fair, and it was such a formative experience that I eventually realized that I wanted to write about it. And then slowly, I began thinking more and more about my scientist and my artist, and eventually the characters for Ro and Benji came to me, along with their passion for space and their curiosity. I knew that ultimately, I didn’t just simply want to write about art and science -- I wanted to write a story about friendship and family and loss, and Ro and Benji were such kind and gentle narrators for that story.

3. Once you started working on Clues to the Universe, how long did it take you to write your first draft and then revise it. What was harder for you and why?

I wrote my first draft in the year after I graduated high school, with stops and starts in between. I started revising the book somewhere around my sophomore year of college, and then it sold the summer after my sophomore year. So all in all, about a year to draft and a year to revise. I think that for me, I had such a mental block during drafting -- it was my first time writing middle grade, and I was feeling all sorts of imposter syndrome and wasn’t sure if my writing was readable. By the time I started revising it, I could see the story come together and felt slightly more confident in what I was doing.

4. That’s amazing how you wrote it during the craziness of going to college. What research, if any, did you do to get the setting and time period right for your story? What advise do you have for other writers who want to write historical fiction?

I did a lot of research into the 1980’s -- I interviewed people around me who were growing up during that time, I did a lot of research on my own, and most importantly, I got a 1976 edition of The Handbook of Model Rocketry by G. Harry Stine, the edition that Ro probably would have owned back in 1983. I think something that really helped me in writing historical fiction was keeping in consideration the details that might seem minor, but could really influence things in certain ways. For example, something I discovered in my research was that long-distance calls used to cost a ton of money, and so it added to the sense were not as accessible back then as they are now. Historical fiction isn’t just about writing 100 years back -- even things 10, 20, 30 years back are different than they are now.

5. Yes, long distance calls did cost a lot back then. My late husband lived in Texas for a year before he moved to Ann Arbor to live with me, and we could only afford to talk on the phone once a week. We wrote letters to each other to stay in touch the rest of the time. Your story sounds like a really heart-pulling sweet story. How did you draft it in a way that wasn’t preachy about some of the sad issues, like Rosalind’s grief, but that really elicited an emotional response from readers?

I tried to write grief in a way in which I had felt grief before. I didn’t want to have it come off in a way that sounded preachy -- but I really wanted to show the ways in which grief and loss can permeate one’s daily life. How does Ro feel when she sees pictures of her mother and father when they were younger? How does Ro feel when she is incapable of building her rocket because her father isn’t there to guide her? These were scenes that I really tried to put emotion into, and through those scenes, I hoped that readers would be able to grasp grief and loss the way that Ro would.

6. I’ve gone through a lot of grief too and am excited to read your book to see how Ro learned to handle it. You tell your story from both Ro and Benji’s point of view. Which was easier for you write from and why?

Ro came to me first, and I’ve always found it super natural to write in her voice. With Benji, I had to really sort of put myself out there -- I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly funny or humorous person, and Benji really is kind of the goofy, class clown type. But the more I wrote in Benji’s voice, the more naturally it came to me. I was definitely coming up with jokes that I didn’t realize I could come up with!

7. I don’t see myself as funny either and would struggle to write someone who is humorous. Your agent is Jessica Regel. How did she become your agent and what was your road to publication like?

I actually pitched a YA novel to Jess at a Writer’s Digest conference, and that’s what she initially signed me for! I was terribly nervous and was pretty sure I fumbled my way through my pitch, but she was cool and calm and collected and I just thought, it would be so cool if she became my agent. I also totally read her Literary Rambles interview, and again, she sounded like a fantastic advocate for her authors. She signed me when I was 16, and we initially subbed around the YA manuscript, but it didn’t sell. But Jess was patient and encouraging as ever, and we turned to the “next thing” (which is very helpful in publishing!). Eventually I began writing CLUES and, lo and behold, it sold.

8. That’s amazing that you got your agent at 16! Your book released on January 12, 2021. I saw on your website that you did two virtual events to celebrate your release. How did those go and what else have you been doing to promote your book? What advice do you have for authors who will be releasing their debut book?

My launch week was an absolute dream! I was completely blown away in the best way possible by all of the love and support that CLUES received from everyone in the book community, and with family and friends. I was lucky enough to get to converse with Erin Entrada Kelly (author of the Newberry-winning Hello, Universe, among other fantastic books!), one of my absolute book heroes, with my hometown indie bookstore, Mysterious Galaxy Books, and also conduct another amazing event with the indie I frequented while at college, Books Inc. As for promotion, I did a fair amount of publicity and self-promo around my book release to get the word out there. 

As for advice, I’d tell debut authors to focus on what they enjoy (whether it’s making Canva graphics, tweeting a lot, making TikToks, or posting on Instagram), don’t sweat what they don’t enjoy, and connect with the online book community, especially educators and librarians -- everyone is so passionate and kind. 

9. You are also a college student at Stanford University studying economics. How do you balance your studies and writing so that make enough progress on the manuscripts you’re writing? Has it been harder to write on a deadline while in school?

It’s definitely a juggling act! I think carving time out for writing is really important, and I’ve gotten used to sort of writing anywhere, anytime, but also making it a priority to carve out routine when I can. Deadlines can be daunting, especially in school, but thankfully, I’ve been able to do them all and turn them in on time so far.

10. It sounds like you’ve learned to juggle it all well. What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on another middle grade book -- hopefully I can share more about it soon!

Thanks for sharing all your advice, Christina Li. You can find Christina at:




Giveaway Details

Christina has generously offered a hardback of Clues to the Universe for a giveaway. To enter, all you need to do is be a follower of my blog (via the follower gadget, email, or bloglovin’ on the right sidebar) and leave a comment by April 3rd.  If your e-mail is not on your Google Profile, you must leave it in the comments to enter the contest. Please be sure I have your email address. 

If you mention this contest on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog and/or follow me on Twitter, mention this in the comments and I'll give you an extra entry for each. You must be 13 years old or older to enter. The giveaway is U.S.  

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is hosted by Greg Pattridge. You can find the participating blogs on his blog. 

Upcoming Interviews and Giveaways

Wednesday, March 24th I have an interview with publisher Maria Dismondy of Cardinal Rule Press

Monday, March 29th I have an interview with debut author Jessica Olsen and a giveaway of her YA fantasy Sing Me Forgotten

Tuesday, April 6th I’m participating in the April Showers Giveaway Hop

Wednesday, April 7th I have an interview with debut author Alexandra Overy and a giveaway of her YA fantasy These Feathered Flames and my IWSG post

Monday, April 12th I have an interview with debut author Kaela Rivera and a giveaway of her MG fantasy based on Mexican mythology Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls

Wednesday, April 14th I have an agent spotlight interview with Emily Fortney and a query critique giveaway

Friday, April 16th I’m participating in the Rainbow on Roses Giveaway Hop

Hope to see you on Wednesday!





Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

That's amazing dedication from Christina! College is such a busy time, on so many fronts. Congratulations!

nashvillecats2 said...

Wonderful to read and an excellent interview.

Take care.

Computer Tutor said...

I a time when Elon Musk and SpaceX are bringing the wow back to space travel, this sounds enthralling. There are a lot of kids who want to be excited about space but not enough books to feed their hunger. There will be an excellent audience for this.

Joanne R. Fritz said...

I loved this book! It's inspiring and endearing. Ro and Benji stole my heart! Christina, I enjoyed learning more about you and your writing. Natalie, please don't enter me in the giveaway. I already have a hardcover copy of my own.

Danielle H. said...

This book is high on my wish list and now that I know this author's story, I want to read it even more. Thank you for the insightful interview. I follow Natalie on Twitter.

Patricia T. said...

Congratulations to Christina! Unlikely friendship between two characters who have more in common than they realize. I love their interest in space. Perhaps this book will be among the books that inspire others to pursue their careers in space-related fields. Great interview. I love her sharing the quote that inspired her for years " that science and art are the same in that they both draw patterns out of chaos." Thank you for giving me something to ponder. Look forward to reading "Clues to the Universe."

Maria Antonia said...

Ooh! This book looks good. I love historical fiction and I do love books about space. Thanks for sharing.

Liz A. said...

1983 is historical fiction?!? Man, I feel old. (I'd've been about their age then...)

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

I love ethe title, Clues to the Universe. I'm so impressedthat Christina Li has achieved so much at such a young age. Good for her. I wish her much happiness in her chosen career.

Andrea Carroll said...

I love books set in the 80's. :) What an interesting take on a space book. (carrolla@sw1.k12.wy.us)

Even in Australia said...

i would love to win a copy of this book!


Fundy Blue said...

What an inspiring interview, Natalie! And congratulations to Christina for accomplishing so much at a young age! Ro and Benji sound like compelling characters. I don't want to enter the drawing ~ because I ordered the book. I'm looking forward to reading it!

Greg Pattridge said...

No need to put me in the drawing as I have already read and reviewed Christina's book. It's a great one with two very endearing characters. Thanks for the excellent interview and honest answers. A perfect feature for today's MMGM.

Max @ Completely Full Bookshelf said...

I've seen some reviews of this book, but I had no idea that Li got this published while she was literally in college! I certainly would not have had the dedication for that. This story sounds really excellent, and I enjoyed hearing about how Ro and Benji came to life. I'll pass on the giveaway, but thanks so much for the great interview!

Allison said...

Great interview, and what an incredible young author. I can't wait to read Clues. Please put my name in the drawing (allison.prueitt@gmail.com). Thanks!!

Natalie Cohn said...

This was a great interview! Thank you Christina for sharing. I love to read Clues!

Melissa Miles said...

Ro and Benji's story sounds fabulous! I loved the interview, but cringe to think the eighties is already historical, lol! Makes me feel super old. :) Thanks for the chance to win!

jcamp2020 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jcamp2020 said...

The word of mouth about this title has been fantastic. Can't wait to get my hands on a copy, especially after reading this interview. Science in a story is a winner in my book. Perfect book for my daughter's fifth grade class. (They just started back in the classroom yesterday. Was it perfect? No. But it was 100% better than full time zoom! And, my daughter reported, recess is still the favorite!!!) Thanks for an amazing story. Tweeted about this interview. @jcamp2020

tetewa said...

Congrats on your release! I'm always looking for new authors, sounds like a good one!

Jemi Fraser said...

This sounds amazing!!

Rosi said...

This book is already on my TBR list and I hope I can get a copy soon. Maybe I will get lucky here. Thanks for an interesting interview.

Angie Quantrell said...

Wow, your book sounds great! I can't wait to read it. Congratulations!

I tweeted this and follow you on Twitter, Natalie. :) Thanks for sharing great books with us.

Melanie B said...

Would love to read this, thanks for the interview and giveaway! Following your blog and twitter!

Shared: https://twitter.com/craftychicky58/status/1375220318407692288
Email: melanie_brac (at) yahoo (dot) com

Debra Branigan said...

This sounds like a fantastic MG read. Thank you for sharing.
Shared at: (https://twitter.com/BraniganDebra/status/1375538229299064833?s=20)

DMS said...

This book sounds amazing and I love the cover. The interview was so interesting. I remember how much money long distance used to cost. I grew up in the 80s and I had a few large phone bills back in high school! So different now. Thanks for the chance to win a copy. :)