Karin Tanabe is the author of the new novel The Diplomat's Daughter, which focuses on the daughter of a Japanese diplomat during World War II. Tanabe's other novels include The Gilded Years and The Price of Inheritance, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and the Miami Herald. She lives in Washington, D.C.
Q: Your new novel features three main characters, two of whom are men. What was it like to write from a male perspective this time?
A: I knew I wanted Emi to be the object of two men’s affections when I started to write, but I wasn’t sold on also writing the male perspective, especially twice!
But in the end, I decided I wanted to take the book around the world, and the only good way to do that was to also show Christian and Leo’s stories up close and personal. Christian and Leo both experience the violence of war very differently than Emi, and I liked being able to reveal what each gender went through.
In the end, I really enjoyed writing from the male perspective, and would definitely be open to doing it again!
Q: The novel includes scenes set during the World War II era in Europe, Asia, and the United States, which must have involved a great deal of research. Can you say something about how you researched the novel, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?
A: The research was certainly daunting at times, but also one of the most enjoyable parts of the process. My research really started with the internment camps here in the U.S., but spun out from there when I discovered personal connections to what I was writing about.
I was given an unpublished book written by a woman who was on a repatriation ship from Japan back to the U.S., and also got to chat with a family friend who lived in the mountain town of Karuizawa, Japan during the war. So a lot of my research really felt like I was capturing these little known stories and I think that helped make the book unique.
What surprised me the most was the town I just mentioned, Karuizawa. During the war both Nazis and Jews lived there in peace. Certainly a very uncommon place that World War II buffs should know about.
Q: The novel alternates between the perspectives of the three characters. Did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear, or did you focus on one at a time as you wrote?
A: For the most part, I wrote one character at a time and then broke up the narratives, but I would switch between them every couple chapters so that the flow wasn’t off too much.
I definitely felt like I had different writing voices for each character, so it was important to stay with one for a while. Alternating chapters certainly is intimidating, but I learned that it’s also a fun challenge for a writer.
Q: Did you know how this novel would end before you started writing, or did you change things around?
A: I changed things around quite a bit. With a war novel, there is definitely going to be death, but I killed off too many people in my first couple drafts! The fun thing about being a writer is that I was able to bring them right back to life.
And while I did outline, at first the book was only going to take place in America, and in the end I moved it all over the world because the more I researched, the more places I wanted to include in the story.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m only in the research phase of my next books right now, but I think I want to stick to historical fiction for book five. French Indochina during the ‘20s and ‘30s really interests me.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: In the afterword of The Diplomat’s Daughter, I list many of the books—most of them memoirs—that helped me with my research. If unknown World War II stories interest you, I highly recommend you take a look!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Karin Tanabe, please click here.