Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Q&A with Pamela Rotner Sakamoto

Pamela Rotner Sakamoto is the author of the new book Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese American Family Caught Between Two Worlds. The book looks at the Fukuhara family, who had sons fighting on the American and the Japanese armies in World War II. She is a consultant for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and she teaches at the Punahou School in Honolulu.

Q: At what point did you decide to write the story of the Fukuhara family, and how long did it take to write and research the book?

A: I met Harry [the son who fought on the American side] in Tokyo in 1994. He eventually told me his story, over four years. He was in San Jose and I was in Tokyo; he would go to Tokyo several times a year, and he would call me to have lunch. Slowly, the story would trickle out.

Part of it may be that he was coming to terms with telling a story he hadn’t told. He was a career military intelligence colonel and wanted to be sure he could tell his story to someone he could trust.

I was doing Holocaust Museum work at the time. I was so fascinated—I was an East Coast Jewish girl raised in the Boston area, and I was never exposed to the [Japanese-American] internment at school.

I said, in 1998, Harry, this would be an important story on multiple levels: Japanese-American relations, the Japanese-American story, your generation, your own legacy for your family….I think you should be thinking about a book…

Harry was the patriarch of the surviving family. They were on board immediately, especially [his brother] Frank.

Q: How many years did it take to write the book?

A: I started working on it in late 1998, and I finished the research in Japan. In 2007 I moved to Honolulu. Harry moved from San Jose to about five minutes away from me—his children were in Honolulu. I kept interviewing. I struggled: How am I going to write this?

I decided on a dual narrative…I sold the book as a complete narrative. I put it away for a year and went forward with an agent, and the publisher came quickly. The editor and I started working on it in 2014, and it was published in January 2016.

It was 17 years, but there have been interruptions—moves, children, jobs, procrastinations, publishing obstacles for new writers. I’m still standing!

Q: You provide incredible detail into the family’s life in the 1930s and ‘40s. What did your research consist of, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?

A: It was detailed research. I read generally about the period, and slowly spotlighted, and got more detailed. I did original research in Japanese archives and American ones, even Australian ones.

What surprised me—I had to separate myth and lore from fact. This was not a privately published family story. I wanted it to be history through the lens of one family.

They talked about their dad moving to the U.S., but never knew when he did. I went through records in Tokyo. His father’s family had fallen on hard times, and had loaned their name. I couldn’t find Fukuhara, and one day I found [them under the name] Fukumoto.

It was one of those moments when everything fell into place. The family was telling the truth, and I also have something to give them—it gives them affirmation. There were all kind of little discoveries!...

Masako, the surrogate daughter [of Harry’s mother] was a fabulous source. She mentioned that on that morning [of the Hiroshima bombing] as they were going back home, they encountered women from the neighborhood. Those women didn’t survive the blast. That gave me some sense of what a close call it was.

She told me how many women, but I didn’t know their names. I was reading unpublished books in the Peace Museum archives, and found [records]. Everything matched. I could use it…

Q: How common or unusual was the Fukuhara family’s situation, having brothers fighting in both the U.S. and Japanese armies during World War II?

A: When I began the book, I realized from talking to Harry and Frank that there were other families who had a similar situation. It was not unique. They were even more representative of their generation, but I didn’t know how common it was. The largest number of Japanese immigrants to the U.S. was from Hiroshima Prefecture. Many sent their kids back to study…

Since the book is out, I hear from readers weekly, several a week, who share this story. They’re so glad it’s being told. It is their story.

Q: What have been the reactions overall to the book?

A: I hear daily through my website, people write to me—[there are] some who are just fascinated by the story. Others are Japanese-American and it resonates deeply for them.  I also get calls at school—students take messages at the switchboard.

I got a letter, several pages long—[the writer] read it in two days. He was a retired National Guard sergeant in the first Iraq War. I knew he wasn’t Japanese-American…

He told me his military background and said he was struck by Harry’s experiences interrogating prisoners of war in New Guinea, that Harry regarded them as people.

When he was in Iraq, they would go deep into the desert to gather POWs, and he was taught to believe one thing about them, but when he was face-to-face and saw they were just young men and boys, he felt the futility of war. It was so moving that he reached out.

Q: What do the surviving Fukuhara family members think of the book?

A: The children of Harry and Frank are alive. They’re pleased with it. One of the daughters, Pam, was at the launch. She was supposed to go with me on a [book] trip but could not. She’s thrilled. The older sister, when I was in California, she and her husband traveled two hours to a reading.

They’re gratified it’s out there, and they’re deeply proud of their dad. In December, the 500th Military Intelligence Brigade named ther permanent headquarters Harry Fukuhara Hall. That was a big deal—that facility was strafed by Japanese Zeroes on Pearl Harbor Day.

He was so legendary in the military intelligence service for the success of his missions…His family was there, and I was with them.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I still consult for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. During the school year, writers need to work, too, and I am teaching at President Obama’s high school, Punahou School. I teach 10th grade Asian history and 12th grade European history. I will continue teaching.

I would love to write another book. I have to get something that grabs my attention. This is my first year at Punahou, and I am treading water with the learning curve. I want to promote this book. In a few years down the road, I know I’ll get the itch [to write another book].

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: President Obama is going to Hiroshima. I am thrilled about that, and hoping he knows it wasn’t just Japanese victims of the bomb—I don’t think he needs to apologize--many people died in Hiroshima, and some were Japanese-American.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 24

May 24, 1928: William Trevor born.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Q&A with Charlotte Rogan

Charlotte Rogan is the author of the new novel Now and Again. She also wrote the novel The Lifeboat. She lives in Westport, Connecticut.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Now and Again?

A: The initial impulse came back in 2004, when I read a blog post written by a man who had decided to quit his job at a munitions plant because he didn’t support the war in Iraq. He reasoned that if everybody followed his example, there couldn’t even be a war.

The idea that he was jeopardizing his livelihood for an ideal stayed with me and eventually re-emerged in the character of Maggie Rayburn, who is loosely modeled on that blogger.

When I started writing, I would have said I wanted to write a book about war that didn’t focus on military conflict. I wanted to explore how the war affected ordinary people like Maggie and the residents of the small Oklahoma town where she lives.

As we all know, war wraps its economic and psychological tendrils around any nation that gets involved in it, but it also has to compete with all of the other imperatives of our lives, such as making a living, raising our families, and fighting for other worthy causes.

And when a war drags on for a decade, it becomes a static-y background—we tune in and out, alternately horrified and oblivious. I wanted to somehow get at that.

Despite my initial intention, I did end up with some soldiers in the book. I became interested how, in this war, the world of the soldiers was very separate from the world of most Americans, and portraying those separate worlds in parallel plotlines became an important part of the project.

Q: The story is told from multiple perspectives. How did you choose the characters from whose points of view you tell the story, and were there any you perhaps enjoyed more than the others?

A: Deciding who is going to tell a story is one of the first decisions a novelist has to make.

For me, the characters start out as voices in my head, but then they are fleshed out by a combination of research and what Jonathan Franzen calls “deliberate dreaming,” which is where you throw obstacles in their way or put them in sticky situations and see what they do.

My first novel, which is called The Lifeboat, was told from a single, somewhat claustrophobic, point of view. There, the only thing the reader has access to is what the protagonist, whose name is Grace, thinks or sees or thinks she sees. This introduces a nice element of unreliability, and that is an important feature of the book.

For Now And Again, I started with Maggie, but as I wrote, new characters kept popping into my head, wanting to be heard.

One thing I realized is that a single character is not capable of knowing or expressing the truth. And I don’t just mean that they are unreliable, as Grace was in The Lifeboat, or that they aren’t able to be everywhere at once and so need other characters to fill in missing parts of the story. I mean that truth is not a single, coherent thing.

Mikhail Bakhtin was a Russian philosopher and literary critic who believed that truth requires a symphony of voices, some of which contradict each other. So it seemed that a novel where the characters are on a quest for truth needed to be told from many viewpoints.

While some of the characters have bigger parts than others, I was intensely interested in all of them. You have to be, or you couldn’t spend years caring about them and letting them wake you up at night.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes as you went along?

A: I never know where a novel is heading when I start out—it is only by writing that I discover what the story is.

Not only did the story evolve, but the motivation for writing changed as well. For instance, as I was writing, information was becoming big news. WikiLeaks was going strong, Chelsea Manning was being convicted of espionage for disclosing about ¾ of a million classified and sensitive documents, and Edward Snowden was about to open a Pandora’s box of secrets about the NSA.

These developments led me to think about the many ways information affects our lives, and they clearly affected the course of the book.

One problem the characters encounter is that they are often operating with limited, contradictory, or outright false information—yet they still must make decisions and act.

A contradictory force is also at work—information can be limited, but in this day and age it is also overwhelming. So another motivation for writing was to explore how people live coherent and ethical lives in this age of overwhelming information.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: My working title ended up not being representative of the whole book, but coming up with an alternative was hard. My kids and I had some hilarious brainstorming sessions—but it was my dad who eventually suggested Now And Again. The title refers to the fact that history repeats itself, which is an important theme of the book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The one time I answered this question, the project stalled, and I still haven’t gotten back to it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have been asked why the two plotlines don’t overlap more, with some readers even suggesting that perhaps I couldn’t think of a good way to connect them.

But this parallel, and mostly separate, approach was intentional. The nature of the Iraq war was that the military and civilian worlds were kept very separate, almost as a matter of government policy.

The worlds overlapped for people who had relatives or loved ones in the military, and they also overlapped through the dissemination of information—whether via traditional journalism or the Internet.

In the book, these are the points of contact between the worlds as well—at least until the last chapter, when everything comes together.

Another aspect of the book that a casual reader might not catch has to do with the chorus of voices that start each chapter. These voices belong to peripheral characters who are being interviewed as part of a journalistic inquiry into how some classified information has found its way onto a website started by a group of soldiers. The inquiry reinforces the idea that journalism gives us a vital window into unfamiliar worlds.

As for the people behind the voices: I already had 12 point-of-view characters, but why stop there? Since I saw the novel as an exercise in world-building, it seemed right to suggest that the story extends beyond the covers of the book.

As one of the soldiers puts it, “the truth is all of the personal narratives together, each of them a tiny pixel in the bigger picture of what is what.”
(c) Charlotte Rogan, 2016

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 23

May 23, 1910: Margaret Wise Brown born.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Q&A with David Satter

David Satter is the author of the new book The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia's Road to Terror and Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin. His other books include Darkness at Dawn. He is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and was a reporter in Moscow from 1976-1982.

Q: You begin the book with an examination of the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia. Why did you choose to start with this?

A: The apartment bombings were actually the most important event in Russian history in the last 25 years. They aren’t understood as such because many in the West are not willing to face the implications…

It’s the greatest political provocation since the burning of the Reichstag. [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin would have had no chance at [taking over] were it not for this attack. Putin was able to depict himself as a savior…

Q: Why would you say people in the West are unwilling to face it?

A: It’s a difficult thing for Western people to imagine. We are accustomed to elections with dirty tricks, or where one candidate will show a nasty picture of another’s wife, or where a candidate will call another nasty names.

But it doesn’t enter anyone’s head that one candidate could stage a provocation in which hundreds are killed to improve his or her political standing. It’s hard for Westerners to believe this is possible.

And another factor—there’s no percentage for an American adviser or foreign policy specialist to raise this issue if [this person] is ambitious and wants to make a career in an administration bent on improving relations with Russia.

It’s a message the political leadership does not want to hear. It makes life more complicated. It’s difficult to explain to the American people…The political leadership in the West preferred not to investigate obvious facts.

In Russia, the advent of Putin was accompanied by an unprecedented economic boom that began before Putin came to power but Putin was given credit. Many Russians don’t want to rock the boat.

Q: What have the responses been to your writing about the apartment bombing?

A: There haven’t really been any responses. Occasionally someone will ask an academic or two their opinion of the apartment bombings, and the academic will say, I don’t believe it.

No one has ever argued that it didn’t take place. The last time I raised this was in a book from [more than a decade ago], Darkness at Dawn. People prefer to remain silent and not react at all.

No one ever put forth a serious argument showing there was no FSB [Federal Security Service] involvement in the bombing of the building. In the case of the Ryazan bomb, which did not go off, [security service] agents were arrested on scene. It’s not as if there was no evidence.

What I do hope with the book is that it clarifies things for people, and will make it harder for them to adopt the See No Evil, Hear No Evil [approach].

Q:  How would you compare Russia under Yeltsin with Russia under Putin?

A: It’s different, of course. It was much more chaotic under Yeltsin; that was a transitional period. It’s more organized under Putin. There was uncontrolled criminality under Yeltsin, and there’s controlled criminality under Putin.

The government apparatus is more important under Putin—it was able to fulfill the functions of government, but it did so under the compromised [foundation] laid in the Yeltsin years. Gangsters and businessmen are subordinated to corrupt government officials under Putin. The government established some control but on the basis of corruption.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: Besides the apartment bombings, there’s a lot in the book that people are unaware of: the true story of the 1993 leadership crisis and the dispersal of Parliament, the true character of Yeltsin and his entourage, the true story of the theater siege and the Beslan school massacre.

All of these are poorly understood, including by our government—in every case where there was a sinister and a non-sinister explanation, we chose the non-sinister, when the sinister explanation was the correct one.

That’s a Russian saying, “The less you know, the better you sleep.” There was a desire not to know, and still is.

Q: You write, "Russia faces a darkening future." What do you see looking ahead, say 10 or 20 years?

A: I think it’s in the nature of any authoritarian regime to degenerate. There is a tipping point beyond which people are fed up. We saw that in Ukraine. Russia has crippled itself as an economic power for the reason that it took the easy way. Because of massive corruption, fed by oil revenues and is affordable while they have windfall profits, but none was used to create an infrastructure, to modernize, which Russia needs…

As a result, Russia is less competitive, and areas outside oil and gas have atrophied. Now, because of aggressive actions of the regime, there are sanctions on oil and gas technology, and they will have problems even in that area. There’s also a lot of hatred built up; the corruption [is obvious] to Russians.

I think it’s a matter of time. This is a system that’s not stable in the long run. What do we mean by long run? Who knows. Stability is the ability of the system to withstand internal and external shocks. I don’t think Russia hast hat ability. We don’t know what will start the chain reaction, but that’s difficult to predict in any country.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I want to do a historical work on Russia after the fall of communism. The themes touched on in this book will be developed to a greater extent, with more personal stories, carrying it up to the publication date.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s an attempt by me to interpret the entire post-Soviet period in Russia. As far as I know, there does not exist another… people have written about Putin, about Yeltsin, but what I’ve tried to do is explain what happened, what Russians need to do to take control of their future, what we’re missing.

My hope is that it will have some sort of effect. Only time will tell. People have to be ready to think in a somewhat different way, to open their eyes to a world that’s very unfamiliar to them. People don’t like doing that as a rule.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Q&A with Ilana Manaster

Ilana Manaster is the author of the new young adult novel Doreen, a modern retelling of Oscar Wilde's classic The Picture of Dorian Gray. Her work has appeared in a various publications, including Cosmopolitan and Soon Quarterly, and she lives in Chicago.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of a modern-day retelling of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and why did you decide to focus on several girls at a prep school?

A: What happened [involved] Rebecca Sherman, my agent and a friend since I was 15 years old. I was getting an MFA at Columbia, and she had spent many years in children’s and YA. She came up with the idea of a contemporary version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and said, You’d be perfect!

At first, I thought it would mostly be illustrated, and then I realized I’d be writing the whole book! It was a natural transition from Victorian men to contemporary girls—it was almost like if you’re going to retell it, it’s obviously with girls at boarding school. Their parents aren’t around.

The original is told almost all in conversation. The biggest change was to put more action on the page. The Simon Vale character—Sibyl Vane in the original—Dorian tells that story. I had Doreen tell the story, but Rebecca said you’ll have to experience it [rather than just tell it].

Q: Yes, I was going to ask you how you decided on when to stick to the original Dorian Gray story and when to veer away from it.

A: That happened mostly in rewrites. The first draft was a very close update, almost scene for scene. I thought I was done! Rebecca thought, We need to talk about how this can be a contemporary version, not just in the setting but in how it’s told.

It was always about the picture, and how it changed over time. How do you make it change in the digital media world? If it changes on a computer, it’s not that freaky. A hard [copy] in the world changing is scarier.

It was also about evening out the characters, [for example] focusing on [the character] Heidi and her story…Issues of class in England are different from in America. In the original, they’re all wealthy upper-class guys.

I wanted to bring the issue of privilege up. I wanted Heidi to feel she wasn’t totally part of it. There was a Pygmalion aspect in it from the beginning—I wanted to bring it in more and more.

The original had a lot about influence, [and Wilde wrote that] all influence is evil. Especially for today’s young adult readers, it’s a salient point. You’ve got to face it on a day-to-day basis—being the influencer or being the influenced, drawing the line with parents and contemporaries, [being] empowered to make your own decisions—but this goes too far…

Q: Were you a fan of Wilde’s work before writing this novel?

A: Of course. I wouldn’t say I was a hardcore crazy fan. His life and his one-liners are amazing. The original book [was great but] it had some problems—there was a whole chapter of a list of what he bought. The spirit of the original is wonderful. I taught writing to freshmen at Columbia University, and I [asked them about a meaningful book] and every year someone mentioned Dorian Gray.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A couple of things. A literary fiction book about a female standup comic in New York City—it’s toward the point where I’ll be seeking publication in the next few months. Also, I started a book about two sisters, and one is a prosecutor in Chicago, which is what my sister is. It’s a mystery.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The book stands on its own. I’ve had people read it who read the original so long ago, or never read it. It’s fun to [read this and then] read the original. It can be a companion piece or read on its own. It was a fun book to write.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Friday, May 20, 2016

Q&A with Mehrdokht Amini

Mehrdokht Amini is the illustrator of the children's picture book Chicken in the Kitchen, a winner of the 2016 Children's Africana Book Awards. The other books she has illustrated include Panic in the Jungle, which she also wrote, and Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns. She is based in the U.K.

Q: How did you end up working on Chicken in the Kitchen, and how did you come up with the ideas for the illustrations?

A: I was contacted by Alice Curry, one of the founders of Lantana Publishing, last year. She had seen my works on my website and thought that my style might be appropriate for this book. I did a sketch of the main character for them, which they liked, and after that we signed the contract.

I tried to find as much material as I could on the Internet, and in libraries. I even watched a few Nollywood films to become familiar with the lifestyle of Nigerian people! I enjoyed working on this book immensely mainly because it gave me a chance to study a rich culture that I knew very little about.

Q: Why did you decide to go into the field of children's book illustrations?

A: I went to Secondary School of Creative Arts in Tehran when I was 14 years old and I remember once one of the art teachers asked us to choose a story and make illustrations based on that. I chose The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Anderson and it was the first time I tried to illustrate a book.

I enjoyed the process so much that I decided then that I wanted to continue my career in that direction. What I enjoyed most and continue to take pleasure in was that for a short time it gives me the opportunity to live in an imaginary world much more exciting than the real one and create my own characters and scenes and share them with others.

Q: Can you say more about what kind of research you do before illustrating one of your books?

A: The research phase is the first and one of the most important parts of the work for me. It helps me to have a more accurate picture of the story in my mind.

For example, I had a commission few years ago to do a few pieces based on a short story that was related to Hispanic culture. I had to do a long research through photos, their art, history etc… to familiarize myself with the setting in that story.

Fortunately nowadays doing research has become much easier with the help of the Internet compared to the old days when people had to go to the libraries to see whether they could find the right source or not. These days my first step to any research is almost always Google images…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a picture book called The Owl’s Paint Shop for Yeowon Media, one of the celebrated publishers in Korea.

After that I am going to start a very exciting project with Chronicle Books. It is a poetry picture book called Pointed Minarets and Crescent Moon by Hena Khan.

I am particularly happy with this commission because they have given me sufficient time to do my job and they usually do whatever is necessary to make the books they publish successful in the market.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think being original and creative is crucial in this profession. The competition is fierce and the essential ingredient for an illustrator to survive – apart from talent – is hard work and an absolute love of children’s books.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb