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Simmering Perfection

GS: Did you continue to work at the construction marketing company after selling your book?
JO: Sort of by default I am not working there any more. Ever since September 11 the construction industry in New York has been extremely slow.

GS: So you were laid off.
JO: I was a freelancer. Actually I had been laid off years ago. I had been an employee, then they laid me off, then they had to rehire me to replace myself. which was perfect because that's when I was starting grad school. But they always had steady work for me until September 11. After the book sold I continued to work for a few months [until September 11].

GS: Share with us your writing routine and mechanics. Some writers type out a draft, then spend time painstakingly revising it. Some try to write it in finished form as they go along.
JO: That's me. I wish I could draft something out but I don't seem able to do that. I labor over every word and every sentence and I can't really go on until everything up until that point is perfect.

GS: So you write like Hemingway, keep going back and rereading each section before continuing?
JO: I don't know if that's a good way to work or not, but I think that's what I do
Julie Otsuka

GS: Do you work with a pencil.
JO: I write out in longhand, I use a fountain pen. Then I go home and type up my changes. I'll print out a draft, then mark up that draft. But I like writing with a fountain pen and I guess my favorite place to write is in a cafe after I've gone swimming.

GS: How long do you spend at the cafe?
JO: How long I spend at the cafe and how long I spend writing are two different things. [laughing] Usually at the cafe I'm there for maybe three hours. But a good part of that time I'm reading because I like to read first just to get into the right head for writing. As far as actually writing, it could be half an hour, an hour. I can spend an hour just staring at what I had done the day before.

GS: Sounds like you don't really spend that much time writing.
JO: But I also give it a shot in the morning, before I go to the pastry shop. Actually, I think you're right. I think I spend a lot more time reading actually than writing.

GS: You have aristocratic writing habits.
JO: [laughs] I wish I were a lady of leisure for real. Now I don't have my evening job to go to but... Yeah, I'd better speed things up.

GS: We weren't suggesting that...
JO: I think of reading time as sort of like writing time. It seems of a piece. I can be inspired by something I'm reading. I think I do that to get in the right frame of mind for writing, but it does seem extravagant to have a certain time to prep your brain.

GS: Do you do that every day?
JO: Pretty much, actually almost every day. I think I'm a really hard worker. I'll come home and I'll look again at what I've done, or go over it. Also a lot of the time if I'm in research mode, I'm just taking down notes. That counts, right? [laughing]

GS: Yes, of course.
JO: Pretty much of my day is taken up with just writing or reading or doing research.

GS: What do you consider a decent day's output.
JO: Let me say a decent week. It could take a week and I could come up with a page, maybe. And I've spent weeks just going over the same ground. I could have some long slow periods where I just get stuck. I've said in other interviews, but the first paragraph of that middle chapter took nine months to come up with. I think I was working on a different beginning and finally I just scrapped it. It was wrong and the right beginning came to me in, you know, one of those flashes. I spent months just polishhing the beginning paragraph that ended up being thrown out the window.

GS: What effect do you labor over, the imagery or the flow of words?
JO: I like to keep things very concrete.

GS: You seem to be painting pictures, one after the other.
JO: Yeah, I guess it is pretty visual. I hadn't realized it before.

GS: You mentioned that your second novel continues the same themes. Are you continuing the same characers?
JO: At first I thought I would. But I've had some didfferent ideas since then. Now I'm started on something that's completely different which I don't want to talk about yet. It just feels too soon.

GS: When did you start the second novel.
JO: A couple of months ago. I think I had a lot of false starts. I toyed with different ideas and it took me a while to feel my way into a story that's big enough to contain me for the next years, and something I was very engaged with. For a while I did think I would continue writing more about the internment. I was very interested in what it was like for the people left behind after the Japanese had left. There were some unanswered questions. Why didn't people protest more about their being sent away? But I just couldn't look at the war any more. I was ready to move onto something very different.

GS: Did the process of publishing the first novel disrupt your ability to focus on writing your second novel?
JO: Yeah, actually it did. Now I'm about to go out on book tour for the paperback. You're already engaged with your next book but you're out there talking about the first book. It does feel like the past for me already. I'm thrilled to be able to have a book to talk about, but there is a slight lag in the process. You spend a lot of time doing interviews and talking about the book and so it did take me a while to settle down again because my life felt different than it had been. After the book came out, my life is definitely different. I was really private and very much stayed to myself so that whole going on a book tour and giving interviews and reading is very different from me and the life I was used to.


GS: How did contact with readers effect your writing?
JO: I didn't even think for a long time that the book would get published. I never imagined that anyone would want to read a book about World War II. Especially on the West Coast when I was on book tour, a few people would come up to me afterward and ask, “Which camp was your mother in? I was in this camp or I was in that camp.” It's very humbling to be able to talk to those former internees. I was a little nervous about going on tour and having to talk to people. It was actually a good thing for me to meet actual readers. I was very moved that people would even want to read my story or they were even touched by it or that it effects them in a particular way.

GS: Did it inhibit your ability to express yourself? Did it change what you thought you wanted to write about?
JO: I don't think so. I think for me the work is very internal, it's internally generated. It comes from some place deep inside of me, so I'm not necessarily thinking now about a future potential audience. The material has to feel psychologically compelling and urgent. Maybe it's more about what I have to work through and hopefully what I'm thinking about will effect other people.

GS: What percentage of your readers are Asian American?
JO: I'd like to know, but I don't know. I don't even know in which areas of the country the book sold better.

GS: Toward the end of the book, the kids would see things stolen from their home in the houses of neighbors. Did you mean to suggest that there was a larcenious motive behind the internment?
JO: I think there are a lot of different reasons -- political, economic -- for why the internment came about. But maybe not on that small scale like neighbors coveting the neighbors' belongings or furniture... There were farmers coveting the land that had been successfully farmed by Japanese American farmers.
     I don't think I consciously meant to be pointing any fingers. Maybe deep down, probably, but again it's not something that I thought about. But I guess you can extrapolate from a small detail.

GS: Your book being so visual, have you given any thought to a film being made from it?
JO: Actually at the beginning of the Sundance Film Festival, there's a Media That Matters Conference. They wanted me to do an MPR selective shorts, that series on the radio. Once a week they have an hour program where a short story is read by an actor.

GS: We don't listen to the radio much...
JO: I don't have a TV so I only listen to the radio. The idea is that they want to present socially important ideas for stories to filmmakers. They wanted to present story ideas to the group of people who were there. They chose the first chapter of the novel to read there. But there were no followup calls from the filmmakers who were there wanting to present this novel as a film. It's beause it's not very sexy material. It's because everyone's Japanese American. I don't think you can really have a film unless there's someone who's white or a white love interest.

GS: Do you think it's material that lends itself to a film.
JO: No, I think there's very little plot actually. I always think of film as being what I can't present as far as a beginning, middle and end -- which is what I'd love to do but I can't do. A good part of my novel is about time passing and people reacting to a situation but I think it's really weak on narrative.

GS: Most of your book reads as a non-judgemental treatment of internment. Yet when you finish reading it, it feels like one of the darkest, most damning books on the internment. How do you feel about that?
JO: I wanted to tell the story very very quietly because I think it's easily exploitable material. I didn't want the reader to feel that he or she was being hit over the head. We all know it's a terrible thing that happened and there's no need to overplay that. Also I think maybe understatement just comes naturally to me. But I certainly didn't want to shout this story out loud. I also wanted it to be readable and go down easily. I didn't want it to be like an angry screed.

GS: How do you stay in shape while spending so much time writing?
JO: Five times a week, I swim a mile.

GS: Any other interests that you devote time to?
JO: Sit in cafes. Sit around and read. Sometimes I'll talk with friends.

GS: How about travel?
JO: I've really lived on a shoestring for years, so I have not traveled very much. I'm also a real neighborhood girl. When I leave, I get homesick for New York and homesick for that cafe. I've been going there for so long, it sort of feels like my home away from home. I have one really close friend, the one who introduced me to the cafe years ago, but she doesn't live in New York any more. I'll see her when she comes into the city or we'll have dinner together. I guess I don't spend that many hours writing but I spend a lot of time trying to write. [laughs]

GS: Are you planning on getting married and having kids?
JO: At this age, if you're gonna have kids, you sort of have to start planning yesterday, right? If that happens, it happens. As for marriage, it's a possibility.

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“We all know it's a terrible thing that happened and there's no need to overplay that. Also I think maybe understatement just comes naturally to me.”