Thursday, November 3, 2016

Q&A with Lois Sepahban

Lois Sepahban is the author of the children's novel Paper Wishes, which focuses on a Japanese-American girl during World War II. Her nonfiction books for kids include Animal Testing and The Science of an Earthquake. She lives in Kentucky.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Paper Wishes and for your main character, Manami?

A: I grew up near Manzanar in central California. In spite of living so close to one of the 10 internment camps, we didn't learn much about them when I was in school.

I was, however, fortunate to have a classmate whose maternal grandparents were internees, and his mother told me about her parents' experiences during the war.

Many years later, I was at the library with my children and I discovered Heather Lindquist's beautiful book The Children of Manzanar--filled with photographs and stories of children who had lived there. I had glimmers of the idea that became Paper Wishes right away.

Q: How did you research the Japanese-American internment camps, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: I started with internet research--looking for old newspaper articles and newsreels. I re-visited Manzanar which is now a national historic site. For those who cannot visit Manzanar in person, it offers a wonderful virtual museum that is worth checking out.

Using their resources, I researched supply lists, maps, letters, calendars, and so on. These provided details about the setting and the timeline of events in the story.

The most useful resources in terms of the actual story itself came from oral history interviews. The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community's website has several interviews, as well as photographs and film clips.

Through their website, I discovered Densho, an organization committed to telling the story of Japanese Americans during WWII. Their archives include over 800 film oral histories and thousands of artifacts, including photographs, journals, letters, and so on.

I knew that children lived at Manzanar, but I was shocked to learn that half of those imprisoned were children. Who imprisons children? I wondered. Who remains silent while it happens?

Q: The relationship between Manami and her dog, Yujiin, is one of the key elements of the novel. Why did you choose this as an important theme in the book?

A: When I speak to children about my novel, they invariably want to know more about Yujiin. Manami is easy to love, and I've learned from children that it is her relationship with Yujiin, and, later, her loss of Yujiin, that makes her relatable.

Like Manami, they have lost pets. I knew as I was writing that Yujiin was a symbol for all that had been taken from Manami.

I wanted to tell a story that very young children could read, and so I wrote Paper Wishes with a third grade audience in mind. Most schools and students I hear from are in third, fourth, and fifth grade. And the questions they always ask are "What happened to Yujiin?" and "Will Manami ever get to go home?" 

Q: This is your first novel. Did you find you have a different writing process with fiction than nonfiction?

A: Yes, absolutely different. Writing nonfiction is easier for me because it's highly structured. The system that seems to work for me when I write fiction is to free-write for 20 or 30 pages or so. At that point, I have to do some basic outlining so that I know where the story is going.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: More historical fiction! I love the research.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The paperback of Paper Wishes is coming out in May 2017. I can't wait to see how the cover has been updated.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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