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Simmering Perfection

GS: How was the MFA program at Columbia?
JO: For me it was very good. It was while I was at Columbia that I started writing what became the begining of the novel. I wrote the first two chapters and half of the middle chapter. That became part of my thesis at Columbia. The other half was just these comic stories. The first chapter of the novel started as a story that I wrote at Columbia. It literally seemed to come out of nowhere. I had never written about the war before. I'd never written a serious voice before. It was very uncharacteristic of me to write in that way and about that subject.
Julie Otsuka

GS: To write the book, you had to have had a bit of contact with your family to go over your family history.
JO: I think at that time I did start getting closer to them.

GS: So you were speaking with your mother?
JO: I would ask her questions. I got a lot less from my mother than I had expected to. I asked her minor things about what she remembered about being in camp but she does not have vivid memories of that time. The characters of the novel are similar in age to my mother, her brother and my grandparents. But especially the middle chapter that take place in the camp -- the boy's and the girl's story -- that's pretty much based on a lot of research and my imagining what would have happened, not really based on the events of my own family's history.

GS: How did the book get published?
JO: Columbia had submitted the first two chapters to be included in an anthology that came out in March of 1998. I think I did a group reading at Barnes & Noble. Someone at my agent's office read the chapter and contacted me. I remember going to meet [agent Nicole Aragi] in her office. I was working in midtown and her office was eight blocks away and it was hot. It must have been summer.

GS: She had only read two chapters at the time she signed you?
JO: Right. We never signed a contract or anything. When she agreed to take me on verbally, she had only had the first two. Then there was a long wait for three. I think it probably took me two more years for the third. Actually I submitted a good part of the third chapter with my thesis in 1999. I think it might have taken me until '99.

GS: You graduated in June of 99?
JO: Right. I think my thesis was half of the third chapter. So I think she waited at least a couple of years for [the third chapter].

GS: Then she waited another year for the fourth chapter?
JO: Yeah. Then maybe a couple of weeks for the very last chapter.

GS: Had she been subtly bugging you to get the last chapter to her?
JO: No, 'cause she knows that I'm so slow. And I remember I said to her, “I'll get the last chapter to you shortly.” But I think she was sort of thinking, “Mmm hmm, right, right.”

GS: How did you find out that you had been accepted by the distinguished firm of Alfred Knopf?
JO: I think I emailed her that last chapter earlier, maybe a week or two earlier. She submitted the entire manuscript to the publisher on a Friday. They read the manuscript over the weekend and made us an offer on Monday.

GS: What happened on Monday? Were you waiting nervously by the phone?
JO: No, I don't think I was waiting nervously because I didn't know how long these things took and she wouldn't tell me. I definitely didn't expect a phone call on Monday.

GS: So what happened on Monday?
JO: I was at the pastry shop.

GS: What were you doing there now that you didn't have anything to write?
JO: [laughs] I don't remember. I remember I came home and there must have been a message. Then I called her back. She said that Jordan, who's now my editor at Knopf, wanted to buy it. And she said, “I want an answer.”

GS: Did she tell you how much they wanted to pay?
JO: Yes.

GS: Can you tell us what that was?
JO: I'd rather not. I'm sorry.

GS: Was it an amount that impressed you or disappointed you?
JO: It was a good amount. A friend of mine also had the same editor, Jordan Pavlin, and the same agent. [Nicole] said, “Why don't you talk to him?” I just talked to him briefly and he raved about the editor.

GS: Why did you decide on Knopf?
JO: Knopf is a very well respected literary publishing house. I thought I would like to be published by them. It just seemed so unreal, like a dream. So I called her back and said, “Yes.” I didn't sleep for a day. I freaked out after that. You'd think I'd be happy when something like that happens. I was filled with dread.

GS: What were you dreading?
JO: I don't know. I'm not used to something good happening. Karmically I think I'm gonna have to pay. I was filled with dread. I didn't sleep very well. It just took me a long time to be able to feel happy.

GS: What was the next step in your interaction with the book?
JO: I worked with an editor. The changes were very very minimal. I was glad about that because I was pretty happy with the book the way it was.


GS: Would you have fought a lot of changes?
JO: I don't know what I would have done if the editor had had a lot of changes, but I am sort of a control freak. Every word is exactly where I want it to be. The suggestions she did make were right on. I didn't disagree with a single thing that she said.

GS: Were they on the level of words or on the level of rearranging scenes?
JO: The only structural comment was maybe, “Give us a little bit more of the father before he became so embittered.” So I added a few flashback scenes to sort of give a warmer sense of who that father might have been from the boy's point of view. Make him seem a little realer. That was the main structural comment. It was a matter of adding in just a couple of scenes to warm that chapter up. And then the rest of them there might have been a word here or there, either struck out or changed. It was pretty minor.

GS: Did your life change once the book was accepted?
JO: Day to day wise? No, I continued to go to the pastry shop every day.

GS: Doing what?
JO: I had to edit. Then you meticulously comb over the manuscript, you know. It was probably a few months. That's sort of easy. It's sort of fun in a way.

GS: Your prestige probably went up considerably at the pastry shop.
JO: When the review of the book came out -- I think it was Michiko Kakutani's review in the New York Times Review of Books -- September 12 maybe, they pasted the review behind the glass on the sandwich counter. It made me happy. It was really sweet. And behind these glass frames they have book covers of writers who have written their books there, longtime customers. Probably no one you've ever heard of. A few weeks later I looked up and the owner's wife was hammering up another frame and my book cover was in there. She was so sweet. She said, “We're so proud of you.”

GS: Was Michiko Kakutani's review mostly glowing?
JO: Mostly, but she had problems with the last chapter. She found it a little didactic and sort of spoiled the tone of the book for her. I forget the words she used.

GS: Did you agree with her?
JO: My editor at Knopf at first wasn't so sure. People had hot and cold readings of the last chapter. They either liked it or they didn't. My agent said, “You have to know that this is the ending that you want because if there is going to be any criticism of the novel, it will be about that last chapter.” She was right. It's the way I want it to be. If somebody has problems with it, that's okay. I was just glad to get basically a pretty positive review from her.

GS: Did you see the ending as a resoluton of the suspense building in the book about what happened to the father?
JO: No, it was almost an accidental ending. It just sort of came out while I was writing the second to the last chapter. I literally heard that voice in my head and I just sort of wrote it down. I set it aside and I continued to finish the second to the last chapter. When I was done, I typed up what I had written down and I tweaked it a little but I just knew that it was right. I knew that the last chapter would have to deal with the father but I didn't know how it was going to happen. I just feel like the ending was a gift almost.

GS: Is that chapter the closest the book comes to your own feeling about the internment?
JO: I don't know. I was surprised that that anger was in me. I feel like the reason I could write the book was because I'm two generations removed from it. I don't consciously feel that much rage. I was surprised that that came from me. I almost thought that was a channeled voice that came from somebody else.

GS: Do you feel any indirect effect of Japanese Americans having been interned?
JO: I know that somehow something has been passed on. It's so hard to say what it is. What would have been if my mother hadn't been interned? It's hard to know how much you unconsciously inherit from your parents. Definitely that generation was affected.

GS: How about consciously? What effect do you perceive in other Japanese Americans?
JO: I can't speak for the whole generation but I think my mother somehow was damaged by what happened. How much, I don't know. My gandmother, she was the one for whom life was good one day and the next day the world was turned upside down. I can see that life was very hard for my grandmother's generation. Her husband couldn't work any more. He had a few strokes and was very ill and she went to work as a housecleaner for the next thirty years. I know that life was good one minute and the next suddenly it was not. And for my mother having lived through that as a child, I don't know how much faith she feels in the world. As for me or her children, what we inherited, it's really hard to know.

GS: Do you feel a deep suspicion toward authority?
JO: I do think I'm a sort of suspicious person. Yeah, I think so. In general I'm just wary, very wary I think. I think I get that from my mother. I don't trust that things are going well. Even if things are going well, I'm not sure. I don't take anything for granted.

GS: Is the humor that was in your comic writing a way of expressing or venting anger?
JO: I think comedy very much comes out of anger, or sadness. Good comedy I think especially has a vein of sadness in it too, but humor is sort of an expression of anger.

GS: Does the humor you were drawing on when you started writing have any connection to the anger of the father in the final chapter?
JO: No, it was a lot quieter. It wasn't loud and it wasn't as dark or as noisy. It was more subtle. That's not at all subtle. PAGE 4

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“What would have been if my mother hadn't been interned? It's hard to know how much you unconsciously inherit from your parents.”