Letters from a Young Writer


Recently I’ve been revisiting some stories that I wrote back in the 80s and 90s. To help myself get in the mood, I’ve been reading letters that I wrote to my friend, Helene, who has saved them all these years. I realize that even then, I was writing for posterity. I believed in my future as a writer, and so did Helene, bless her heart.

I came across this passage in a letter written (in very messy handwriting!) when I was twenty years old:

“I’m working on a short story. I’m trying to inject some Southernness into it. It’s set in a wasteland. No hope, whatsoever. There’s no reason to believe in anything, but idealism persists. I can’t decide if the statement I’m making is that you should hope no matter what, and avoid cynicism or the only way to keep yourself safe and alive is to shield yourself from reality.  I prefer to believe that it’s an optimistic piece. I’ll send it to you later for critique.  It’s based on real things – things that really happened – dead girls, doomed love, a lost dog.

“In other news, I have a cold, and I’ve lost five pounds since I saw you last.”

The story that I wrote about here is actually one of the first that I ever published. It was called “Waiting,” and it appeared in the journal Grasslands Review and also in The Abiko Literary Quarterly Rag here in Japan.

I’ve actually been tinkering with it again over the past couple of years, trying to turn it into a verse novel. We’ll see how that goes. And by the way, it is about hope.





Short Story du Jour #6 – How to be a Writer

No celebration of short fiction would be complete without mention of Lorrie Moore, one of my all time favorite writers. It’s hard to pick one story by her, but “How to Be a Writer”  is one of my top ten favorite Lorrie Moore stories. Moore invented the “mock imperative” form, of which this is one example, and which has been frequently imitated. My story “You’re So Lucky,” which appears in The Beautiful One Has Come is heavily influenced by Moore.

[Trying to be] Big in Rural Japan

For the past several months, most of my writing efforts have been channeled not into this blog (as you can probably tell) but into three full-length projects. I now have drafts in various stages of three novels – two YA novels, and one adult novel, which I’m calling The Baseball Widow, and which, as you may guess, is somewhat autobiographical.

Over the past three years I’ve published my first novel, set here, in Tokushima, a picture book, also set here, and two anthologies. I have tried, on numerous occasions, and in various ways to bring my books to the local media’s attention. Call me crazy and/or conceited, but I believe that there might be a few people around who would be interested to know that someone among them is writing about Tokushima for the rest of the world. The local newspaper has, however, ignored the press release that I sent in Japanese, as well as the sample copies of my books that have arrived in their offices.

“The direct approach doesn’t work in Japan,” my husband told me. “It’s better if they hear about it from someone else.”

Okay, so I tried to go through a friend with connections, but that didn’t work either.

Finally, my husband went on a fishing trip with an old high school classmate who now writes for the newspaper. He finagled an interview for me. A reporter arrived on my doorstep last Thursday.

I had all of my books piled on the coffee table. I knew that they were old news, so I tried to give him something fresh. Losing Kei is being translated into Russian! My anthology Call Me Okaasan recently won an award! But all he wanted to talk about was my work-in-progress, The Baseball Widow. More specifically, he seemed to be angling for some juicy true-life stories that made it into the book. “Like a fight you had with your husband,” he suggested.

“It’s fiction,” I insisted. “Sure, it’s based on truth, in part, but part of the reason I’m writing it as a novel is in order to protect my family’s privacy.”

When I told him I wasn’t sure if my husband would want to be mentioned by name (along with his age and workplace and how we met), he put down his pen and said that if he couldn’t write about my husband, then there was no story.

It was the oddest, most uncomfortable interview I’ve ever endured. Maybe sleazy is the right word.

In the past, I’ve been interviewed by people who had an interest in books – or at least some interest in me.

I guess the lesson here is “be careful what you wish for.”

The basest part of me hopes that at least this interview sells a few books.

Punk Babysitters

In one or two movies I’ve seen recently, there were punk babysitters with pierced noses, multiply-pierced ears, dyed hair, and in at least one case, a surly attitude.  These babysitters appeared for comic effect, and I’ve always believed that no mother would seriously hire someone looking like that to take care of their kids.  I guess that shows my Midwestern, middle-aged conservatism.

This weekend, I went to Tokyo for Writer’s Day, an event put on by the Tokyo Branch of SCBWI.  It was world class.  Three international picture book writers (actually one, Tanya Batt, bills herself as more of a storyteller) gave stellar presenations.  Irene Smalls had us acting out our characters, and Laura Rennert, of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, had us all dreaming of half a million dollar deals (the kind that she puts together), but she also gave us some very practical advice.  (And she told us fun stuff about her husband Barry Eisler.)

I had a great time, and my mind was at ease because I knew that my kids were safe at my sister-in-law’s.  I trust her, and the kids love her.  She had a few errands, so she told me in advance that one of my niece’s friends would be helping with the babysitting.  I’ve never met this girl, but my kids have, and they like her.  And if my sister-in-law says she’d dependable, then I believe her.

Last night, as I was tucking Lilia into bed, I asked if she’d finished her homework.

“Yes,” she signed.  “B. [the friend] helped me.”

“Wonderful!” I said, liking B. very much at that moment.

Then Lilia pointed to her tongue and made the sign for “ouch.”   A stud??

“Does B. have a pierced tongue?” I asked Yoshi.

“Yes,” he said, “and multiple piercings in her ears.”

This morning it occurred to me to ask Jio about her hair color.

“It’s yellow,” Jio said.  (B. is a high school drop-out.)


I’ve totally revised my ideas about pierced and dyed babysitters.   Anyone who can get Lilia to do the weekend’s  homework in one day is all right in my book.  Punk babysitters rule!

Leaving the Interior

This past weekend I flew up to Tokyo for two literary events.  The first was a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators showcase, at which eight of us presented our recent and forthcoming works for children.  Interestingly, one illustrator, Youchan, had just completed a Japanese book about a deaf child at school.  Another, Naomi Kojima, spoke about translating the letters of a legendary children’s book editor, and my friend Holly and her illustrator did a presentation on the making of The Wakame Gatherers.  (For my interview with Holly, click here.)   I was lucky to meet Yuka Hamano, the illustrator for my own forthcoming picture book, Playing for Papa, which will be published by Topka Books in Spain.

The following evening I was on a panel along with Alfred Birnbaum (Haruki Murakami’s first English translator) and Barry Lancet, Executive Editor of Kodansha International, at the Society of Writers, Editors and Translators New Year Party.  I read a few pages of Losing Kei and talked about the book.

 I had a great time.  Unfortunately, while I was gone, my hubsand and mother-in-law had a big blow out which had nothing to do with me.  My mother-in-law said, however, that it happened because I wasn’t here to act as a buffer.  Also, she had some self-esteem issues because Jio didn’t eat all of the bento she prepared for him.  And my son said he didn’t feel well and stayed home from school yesterday, although he had no fever, did not vomit, and had a healthy appetite.

In Japanese the word for wife means “woman of the interior.”  See, I’m supposed to stay in the house all the time.  Look what happens when I go out! 

This weekend I’m going to Kagoshima.

For the Record

Yesterday evening I found my husband inebriated* at the kitchen table.  “You wrote negative things about Japan in your novel,” he said.  “And everyone is going to think that the husband in the novel is me.”

So, for the record, Yusuke, the ex-husband in Losing Kei should not be confused with Yoshi, my actual current husband.  Yoshi is not an art dealer.  In fact, he once fell asleep  in an art gallery on one of our dates.  Yoshi does not have a beard.  Well, at least not usually.  Yoshi does not run a construction company.  He does not come home at 11PM.  He loves our children and has a good relationship with them.  He does not consort with gangsters.  Okay?

*For the record, he was not drinking heavily because of my novel.  He’s tired and jet-lagged and just one beer made him a bit punchy. 

I am Famous

My son has always been blase about my writing and publishing, which I sort of thought was natural because I’ve been publishing since before he was born.  But a few years ago, when asked what I did, he said “nothing.”  I realized then that I should tell him more about my writing and my accomplishments.  I wanted him to have respect for the work that I do, and I wanted him to understand that I have my own passions.  In Japan, mothers are supposed to be totally devoted to their children and have no interests of their own, but I don’t want my kids to think like that.

So anyway, I’ve been talking to my son about my books and what I’ve been doing to promote them.  He hasn’t seemed terribly interested or impressed.  (Lilia, on the other hand, is quite thrilled!)  But last night, he had to write sentences for Japanese.  One of his sentences was “Boku no okaasan wa yumei da,” which means, “My mother is famous.”  It’s not quite true, but I realized that maybe he is just a little bit proud of me and aware of what I’m doing.  At least it’s a step above “My mother does nothing.”