A Conversation with J.R. Thronton ’14 about his first novel, Beautiful Country

This event was hosted by Harvard Alumni for Education and WorldTeach.

Born in London, J.R. Thornton graduated from Harvard in 2014 where he studied History, English and Chinese. As a 14-year-old, he spent a year living in Beijing studying the Chinese language and training with the Beijing junior tennis team. An internationally ranked tennis player as a junior, he later competed for the Harvard men’s team and on the professional circuit. 

In May 2013, his first novel, Beautiful Country, loosely inspired by his experiences in China, was published in China where it was a best-seller and received critical acclaim from Mo Yan, the 2012 Nobel Laureate for Literature. Following its success in China, Beautiful Country was published in the United States by Harper Collins in April, 2016.

Thornton has been the recipient of the Le Baron Russell Briggs Fiction Prize, Harvard’s Artist Development Fellowship, the Mo Yan Fellowship at Beijing Normal University, and most recently was named in the inaugural class of Schwarzman Scholars. The Harvard Alumni for Education SIG with WorldTeach sponsored a conversation with JR about his new book, being and author, and education in an international context.

Below you can find JR's responses to some of the questions discussed during the presentation.

What inspires you to write?

I love the idea of being able to create something entirely new that brings enjoyment to other people. As someone who grew up obsessed with the fictional worlds of my favorite books, there is something that is very appealing and rewarding to me in being able to create new fictional worlds and characters that others can come to love. 

Do you think the novel, Beautiful Country, will help to promote Global Citizenship, if so how?

I certainly hope so. I believe that literature has a somewhat unique power to promote empathy and understanding, both of which I see as being key components of Global Citizenship. I remember Mo Yan saying to me that he believes literature carries with it a nation’s spirit, history and character. I totally agree with that statement. The reality is that most Americans will never have the chance to visit China because of the expense and distance, but I hope that books like mine might humanize or add nuance to their view of the country. 

How have your experiences in various education systems caused you to view the world differently?

Absolutely. There is no doubting that the educational systems we are brought up in shape the way we think and the way we see the world. Having grown up in three different countries over the course of my childhood, I have seen three radically different approaches to education. I think each system has its strengths and weaknesses, but at the very least my experiences have taught me to think for myself and not to simply accept the conventional wisdom. 

Do you think that experiences abroad should be the ‘norm’ for students, if so why? For individuals that don’t have the opportunity to go abroad, what is one way that you think they can share in this type of experience?

I think the reality is that it is still very much a luxury to be able to study abroad, so I’m not sure that it can ever be the ‘norm.’ However I think one can get a lot of the same benefits of study abroad without actually leaving the United States. Our own country is so diverse that the differences between life in rural Louisiana and the Upper East Side (for example) are just as big as those between Los Angeles and London, or Madrid. For me the greatest benefit to studying abroad is getting out of the bubble that you grew up in - seeing a different side of life and realizing that your understanding of the world is incomplete at best. I don’t think you necessarily have to cross a border to have that experience. 

What was the most challenging thing about writing Beautiful Country?

I found it very challenging to deal with the uncertainty of whether or not all the work I put into writing the book was ever going to pay off. Every time I got a rejection letter I had this horrible feeling that I might have just wasted several years working on something that no one would ever read. I think experiencing frequent disappointment throughout my tennis career helped me deal with that. If you lose first round in a tournament, you can either sulk about it and lose first round again the next week. Or you can channel that disappointment into motivation, work twice as hard and start winning. After I stopped playing tennis competitively, I took that same approach to writing.  

What was it like the first time you saw your book in a store or being sold online?

It was obviously very cool, and also very surreal. I walked into a Barnes and Noble the other day with a friend and my book was right there on the new fiction table alongside all these authors I grew up reading. That was really weird for me because I still don’t think of myself as being a proper author yet. 

What would you say to students who are interested in writing but don’t think they have anything to say?

I believe that everyone has something to say, and even if you think you don’t have anything to say, you won’t know for sure unless you try. 

J.R. Thornton (Author of Beautiful Country) and Karen Doyle Grossman (Executive Director of WorldTeach).

J.R. Thornton (Author of Beautiful Country) and Karen Doyle Grossman (Executive Director of WorldTeach).