As I sit in my new office working with my advisees at Goddard, revision is on everyone’s mind. My colleague, Elena Georgiou, says revision is what separates the women from the girls, and years into my third and fourth books, I can claim my full womanhood. Revision is writing, and at its best, it should be fun. After all, our pages are not a clay pot or an oil painting. We can revise to our heart’s content, throw out, get messy, and return to the original if we have proven to ourselves that we really did have it right the first time. There is no harm in revision for writers, only the chance for surprise.
Recently, Ruth Ozeki shared with me her story of the revision, and re-envisioning (not to mention the massive throwing out of pieces), of her new novel A Tale for the Time Being. Her words, which follow, are part of a larger interview I did with Ruth that is published on SheWrites. You can find the full “Five Questions” here.
“I can date Nao’s voice back to the fall of 2006. That’s when I first heard her, and that’s when I wrote down those first lines. But I can also trace a lot of what wound up in the book to earlier times. I’d been haunted by the diaries of the Japanese kamikaze pilots ever since I first started reading them in 2001. And, too, my interest in human-computer interface design started back in 2005, when I was the Katzenstein Artist-in-Residence at MIT.
“This novel emerged very slowly. I knew from the first that one of the protagonists was a young girl, Nao, who is writing a diary. I knew that Nao was speaking across time and that she needed a reader. My first impulse was to put myself in the novel, but then I rejected this idea because it felt too self-conscious, metafictional and annoyingly PoMo, so I set about auditioning other readers for Nao. I went through four or five Readers, each one worse than the next. Some were female, most were male, one was some kind of amorphous, ageless, unformed smear of a character, neither male nor female, who lived in a library.
“By end of 2010, I finished a draft I was reasonably happy with, or if not happy, at least I felt I’d gone as far as I could go by myself. I submitted it to my agent and we were getting ready to submit it to my editor when, in March of 2011, the earthquake hit Japan, followed by the tsunami and the meltdown at Fukushima. Day after day I watched this disaster unfold. It was absolutely terrifying and heartbreaking. Over night, everything had changed. Japan had changed. The world was no longer the same, and a byproduct of this seismic upheaval was that the novel I’d written was now utterly irrelevant. So I withdrew it.
“That May, I went back to work. The novel is told as a kind of dialogue, with two interleaved voices, Nao and the Reader. I realized that Nao’s voice was still fine. The problem was the Reader I’d written. So I unzipped the manuscript, threw away that Reader and stepped into the role myself, as the character of Ruth. What had felt gratuitous and self-conscious five years earlier, now felt necessary. Stepping into the role myself and responding to it seemed to be the only way of acknowledging the magnitude of the disaster, and once I did this, the writing came very very quickly. I started in May and finished in November.”
I am delighted to be a part of The Next Big Thing, the “authors and the authors who love them” weblog chain in which I answer questions about what I’m working on and get to introduce you to two gifted friends and writers. Ruth Ozeki tagged me for this, and her long-awaited novel, A Tale for the Time Being, is coming out in March. I got a sneak peak at it in close-to-final form, and I can say that, much as I loved her first two books, this novel of tsunamis and Hello Kitty lunch boxes, mysterious diaries and hundred year old Buddhist nuns is her best and worthy of all the accolades it is getting and will get. Buy it.
And buy the books I am recommending below by Sherri L. Smith and Bhanu Kapil (more on them in a minute). There are alternate universes out there that only someone else could dream of and they are waiting for you!
On to the questions.
What is the working title of your book?
I have two books, actually. Shadow Child is an adult, literary novel, the one Ruth mentions in her blog. It’s also the one Sherri helped me with at Hedgebrook without ever reading a word of, and that Bhanu has heard pieces of at Goddard College, where we teach together in the MFA Program for Creative Writing and where we occasionally tromp through the woods. So I guess I should talk about that one. But just so you know, there is another book out there, a fantasy series called The Matrix of Fear, which may come out first…
Give us a brief synopsis of your book?
Sisters Hana and Kei grow up in a tiny Hawaiian town in the 1950s and 1960s, so close they share the same nickname. Fatherless and mixed-race, they are raised in dreamlike isolation by their loving but unstable mother. But when their cherished threesome is broken, and then further shattered by a violent betrayal that neither young woman can forgive, their bond may be severed forever–until, six years later, Kei arrives on Hana’s New York City doorstep with a secret that will change everything.
Sounds dark. Okay, it is dark. But mysterious and exciting.
How long did it take you to write it?
Somewhere between four and thirteen years, depending on how you count. And still counting. I started Shadow Child in 2000, when it was just the story of the twins, and had about half a draft when I left for Japan in 2001 to research the character of their mother, Miya, who was to have her own book. My life derailed on that trip, and long story short, I spent the next seven years working on a memoir about Japan. The memoir went through many revisions (from terrible diary to memoir, to fiction, to hybrid, and back to memoir…) and, in the background, Shadow Child became a single novel. In 2010, I went back to it, and I am now trying to braid the stories of each twin and their mother together into a cohesive whole.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
“Who” is my great-aunt, Mary Hamaji. I interviewed her about the Japanese American internment camps for my first novel, Why She Left Us, and she told me about her experience working for the American Occupation in Japan after the war and the effects of the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her stories eventually inspired Miya, who survives both the internment and the bombing. And those stories eventually took me to Hiroshima, where I lived for six months.
“What” is Hawaii. I grew up there and, though I have lived in New York now for more years than I admit to, I still find my imagination returning to the Big Island. The town of Hilo offered itself as a setting for the story. Hilo was devastated by two tsunamis, one in 1946 and one in 1960, and is quite close to the active volcano, so the setting is a character in itself. I did a lot of research in Hilo, spent a good deal of time in the Pacific Tsunami Museum, and interviewed a number of people who lived there in the 50’s and 60’s. In the end, though, Shadow Child is set in an unnamed city that isn’t exactly Hilo, mostly because my story is not historical fiction. I didn’t want to inadvertently redefine the very real events that took hundreds of lives in Hilo with my fabrications.
What genre does your book fall under?
Literary fiction. Early on, an editor suggested I make it a thriller or a mystery, and I spent months trying… It didn’t work. The whole point of those genres is that everything is neatly wrapped up and revealed in the end, and that has never been my interest.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
This is always the problem. The book is set in Hawaii, and therefore peopled by a multi-ethnic cast. But Hollywood isn’t filled with Japanese/Caucasian, Japanese, Hawaiian/Polynesian or even many Hapa actors.
For Miya, I would choose Tamlyn Tomita, one of the few Japanese-American female actors in Hollywood. Poor Tamlyn has the honor or dubious distinction of being cast for just about every “Japanese American woman in the WWII internment camp” role in mainstream movies. I can’t help her there, but I would still choose her.
For the twins, Hana and Kei, a young Hapa actress. Maybe Janel Parrish or possibly Kristin Kreuk.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I mentioned my fantasy series, The Matrix of Fear. An entirely different story, different characters, different world, different tone, and yet… Both Matrix and Shadow Child feature a set of twins. In both, a cave functions as a central feature and a place where momentous events happen, and both take place in a tropical island paradise… What’s with all the parallels? I have no idea. But maybe when both books are published, someone will read them and tell me.
And now, for my tags:
Sherri L. Smith. The author of the acclaimed young adult historical novel Flygirl (which made me cry), Lucy the Giant, and others, turns her considerable talents to dystopian fantasy in her new book Orleans, due in March. Kirkus calls it “harrowing and memorable” and promises it will keep readers up long past their bedtimes. I have yet to read the pages, but Sherri and I have talked and talked of this book and its characters…and the sequels! Let there be several. Look for her answers next week here.
Bhanu Kapil. Unicorn, healer, teacher, champion of monsters, experimental writer who travels to the places where her characters die and lies down in the same rectangles of earth, Bhanu’s fifth book, BAN, is out of the incubator and in the hands of a prospective publisher. Light a candle for this book, a novel of race riots in notebook form that has also been inhabited not just in her mind space, but through the body: performed. Look for her answers to these questions here.