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Simmering Perfection

GS: So until you took that drawing class at Yale you had never really done any serious drawing or painting?
JO: No, I hadn't. It was my freshman year. I got my first A-plus ever in that class. I was shocked. I think the reason the teacher liked my work was because I was very naive, I didn't really at all know what I was doing. My drawings were almost childlike in a way. I didn't know anything about technique so there was a sort of freedom then.
Julie Otsuka

GS: What were you intending to study at Yale?
JO: I was thinking American studies or maybe history.

GS: Were you an intellectual in high school?
JO: I think I was a very nerdy studious girl. I liked to read. I didn't really have an idea of the world of culture until after I got to Yale. Then I felt very intimidated actually. I had never run up against people who come out of elite private schools. They seemed a lot better prepared than I was. And I had never been to New York City before. It was my first encounter with the world of culture.

GS: So your family was not into literature or culture.
JO: My parents were not readers. They might have had Reader's Digest Condensed Books. I didn't know a lot as a teenager which I think might have been fine. I had no idea what I wanted to do.

GS: Did you apply to Indiana straight from Yale?
JO: No, I waitressed in New Haven after graduation. So I took off a couple of years.

GS: Why?
JO: I didn't think I was ready right away to go to school. I rented a little studio space. I wanted to work more on my portfolio. I thought if I took a little more time my work would get a little stronger.

GS: Were you able to get much work done while supporting yourself as a waitress?
JO: Yeah. Back then it wasn't that hard. I just rented a cheap room, and the studio was cheap. But I think I might have gotten a little lost just working on my own. Art graduate school might not have been the right thing for me to do then. But I did actually get into graduate school based on the paintings I had done while working alone which ended up being much more abstract than I had done before.

GS: What put so much pressure on you in Indiana?
JO: It was partly the environment but I think it was mostly me. My experience going to graduate school years later and writing was much different and it was because I was older. My failure in Indiana had more to do with me than the environment. It was slightly pressure-cookerish but that's in the nature of graduate school.

GS: Why did you choose the University of Indiana?
JO: It had a reputation for being a good school and the faculty had close ties to the Yale faculty. There were actually five women from Yale in my year and the year above me. It was just known to be a good art school.

GS: Why did you drop out?
JO: I just choked up. I had a terrible critique. I really lost faith in my ability to paint. At a certain point I couldn't even put down a mark on the canvas without wanting to wipe it away immediately. I think something in me just cracked. I just was frozen and I could not produce.

GS: Was there some input that made you lose your confidence? Did people say you were crummy?
JO: The final critique said I was crummy. My paintings really were crummy. I don't blame them for saying that they were. I really started at square one and my paintings were very like a two-year-old could do them. [laughs]

GS: What did they look like?
JO: I can't even remember what I put up on the wall. I can remember one painting. It was one tiny little landscape, which I actually liked. It was maybe the one strong painting.

GS: What did they say about that landscape?
JO: I think it was pointed out as being a painting that worked. The rest of them didn't.

GS: Were the other paintings mostly abstracts?
JO: No, I think I went back to working from still life, very very basic setup. Because I didn't know how to paint, I had to learn how to paint all over again.

GS: What did you do after leaving Bloomington?
JO: In November I visited my best friend in New York. She's the one who introduced me to the cafe that I've been going to all these years to write. I visited her, then I went back to my parents' for about a month. Then I moved to New York and rented a room and started temping nights. I didn't really know what I was going to do. I learned how to word-process, then I went to a temp agency. They sent me to a firm, a construction marketing company. I stayed with them for years. They bought me out of the temp agency. Later when I started to go to art school, that summer -- that would have been the summer of '88 -- I just had a desire to paint again. I enrolled in a non-degree art school in New York -- New York Studio School. I stayed there for two and a half years. That was an all-day program so the company where I was working let me work at night.

GS: Did you sell any paintings?
JO: No.

GS: Did you do better at the New York Studio School?
JO: Yeah, I did.

GS: Was it because there was less pressure on you?
JO: I don't know. I think I was learning. Also it was not as pressured an environment.


GS: What kinds of things were you painting?
JO: When I first started, I started doing self-portraits. I had never painted figures actually. I started doing paintings of heads, my head.

GS: Was that a reflection of your introspection after your earlier failure?
JO: For me painting wasn't terribly reflective. I was not terribly interested in content. I was really into the act of looking. I had to look in the mirror and I was there; I was an easy model, really convenient. And for some reason I was interested in doing heads. I don't know why.

GS: Did you mend during the two and a half years at this art school?
JO: I think I did. But at the end of that period I again hit that wall. I was overwhelmed with doubts. It happened again. That's when I stopped painting. I was 27 -- that would have been '90. I think I was really depressed. But I still had this job working in the evenings. The way I tried to mend was I took long walks every day. That's when I started going to the cafe very regularly every afternoon. I would just sit there and read for hours before I had to go to work in the evening.

GS: Did you gain any weight during that time?
JO: I don't know. I don't think so. I just had a croissant every day. That's not terrible, is it? [laughs] That's where I started to read.

GS: That's when you started reading the “outdoor guys“?
JO: Actually, I think I started with Henry James.

GS: He's an indoor guy, isn't he?
JO: Yeah. [laughs] He's very internal, very introspective. I didn't know a lot about literature at that point. I don't know why I started with Henry James, but I did. Then somehow I must have moved up to a lot of contemporary writers. I just read. I think I read for about three years.

GS: So when you stopped painting, you spent a lot of time reading at the cafe?
JO: Yeah. At the end of those three years I started dating a guy. I started writing these little vignettes about him. I really liked it. It was fun. I didn't show them to anyone else but they made him laugh. I just did it to amuse myself and to amuse him. When I was thirty we split up. Again, [I felt like] “Oh, my god, I'm thirty! I'm doing nothing with my life!” So I signed up for a writer's workshop. It was very exercise oriented. You didn't have to write more than two or three pages, usually imitating somebody else's narrative style, which was actually good for me. It wasn't about writing an entire story. And so I did that for a couple of years and I really liked it. I continued to word process. I decided to apply to graduate school and started at Columbia in '94.

GS: What were your parents saying during this time?
JO: During those years I was depressed, I was not terribly close to them. I don't know if they were worried about me or not during those years.

GS: Did they ever visit to look in on you?
JO: No, I don't think I ever invited them out here. I really did isolate myself, so I wasn't terribly close to them.

GS: Even from your two brothers?
JO: One of them might have been here for a year. He taught at NYU for a year. I can't remember what year that was. The older of the two. I think I sort of kept to myself and I really don't know what they thought was going on. My brothers were pretty much on track from an early age and I just wasn't. I was working and paying my rent. I wasn't on the street or anything. The less I told them the less they would worry.

GS: What is your relationship with your parents today?
JO: Now it's much closer because they're a lot older and I'm a lot more grown up. Now I talk to them pretty regularly.

GS: How about your brothers?
JO: It's not that we don't get along but we don't speak that often. We're all sort of scattered. The one in San Francisco, the younger, is a lawyer. My other brother teaches philosophy at University College in London.

GS: You started at Columbia when you were 32. Did you apply with the thought of doing creative writing?
JO: I applied to their creative writing program. I had applied there with stories I had written that I thought were funny, comic stories.

GS: About your ex-boyfriend?
JO: About whichever guy I was with. They were he-said-she-said stories, sort of autobiographical. PAGE 3

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“I was really into the act of looking. I had to look in the mirror and I was there; I was an easy model, really convenient.”