Production Day #3 on Awakening had me at work, bright and early, for the 7:00 a.m. crew call. There, I watched Director Andy Mikita work his magic on an extremely challenging set – with ten actors in play! Between the goings-on on Stage 6 and my office, I also found the time to join my fellow producers in taking in a matinee double-feature: Carl Binder’s producer’s cut of Pathogen (actually, I only caught the last 15 minutes, but I liked what I saw and loved those pick-up scenes, particularly that wandering look…yeah, I’m pushing this particular arc), and Will Waring’s kick-ass director’s cut of Rob Cooper’s equally kick-ass script for Aftermath (in which actor Louis Ferreira delivers his best performance yet in a suspenseful, absorbing, emotionally-draining episode). Oh, and I also found time to eat a piece of key lime. How’s that for multi-tasking?
Today, I turn this blog over to Christopher Barzak, author of The Love We Share Without Knowing, April’s book of the month club pick. If you haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, I highly recommend you do – especially if you have an interest in Japanese culture. A terrific book and the fact that it received a well-deserved Nebula nomination in the Best Novel category should put it on your radar the next time you’re looking to pick up a rewarding read.
Chris has kindly taken the time to field your questions. After you’ve perused his take on writing, influences, inspiration, life in Japan, and what he has in the works, maybe you can answer one of mine: Why hasn’t Ashleigh introduced me to any of her cute, single friends yet? After considerable thought, the only answer I can come up with is that she’s the jealous type and wants to keep me for herself.
Over to Chris…
KellyK writeS: 1) You lived in Japan for a couple of years teaching English. Was there ever a point when you stopped feeling like an outsider and considered it home? Do you think it’s somewhere you could settle down?
CB: By the time I’d lived in Japan for a year, it had started to feel like home to me. Having become capable enough with the language to be independent and communicate with my coworkers and neighbors who didn’t know English helped me ease into the community and show that I had a “When in Rome” way about me. I’ve heard many expats talk about the alienation they feel or have felt when living in Japan. In my own experience, though, I felt as if I’d come home to a place I’d expected to feel very foreign. It was definitely foreign in many ways, but not in ways that made me feel so much like an outsider. I loved it there. And in many ways, if my writing career here in the U.S. hadn’t taken off, I would probably still be there.
“2) Your book touches on the battle between tradition and the modern world (typified by the struggles between parents and their children). Since you lived in both rural and urban Japan, I’m wondering if you noticed a difference in the way this struggle played out in either environment. For instance, would you say youth were more rebellious in the big city as opposed to the countryside?”
CB: There are differences, yes. The city youth largely take on different kinds of alternative identities than the rural youths do. Tokyo youth culture offers young people a chance to inhabit roles like the Gothic Lolitas and Saintly Marys who parade around Harajuku in Baroque period French costumes, for instance. And their is a subculture of young women and men who attempt to take on American hip hop personas, some going so far as to dye their skin darker. There’s a slight Goth scene in urban environments too. In rural areas, you find more youths falling into the role of a “Yankee” which is sort of motorcycle riding, roughneck imitation of Western bikers. I’d say rebellion from youth cultures exists in both places, but they manifest in different forms.
“3) Did you do any research on suicide clubs? They seem to be especially prevalent in Japan. Any idea why that would be?”
CB: I did do research on suicide clubs. I became fascinated by them for a while, actually, because they seemed so different from anything I understood about suicide in Western culture, where we tend to commit suicide alone, individually. There are certainly people who commit suicide alone in Japan, but the group suicide is definitely a phenomenon there. I don’t think they have any particular answers yet either, but largely I do think it reflects the communality of Japanese culture to some extent. How your culture is structured permeates everything a person from that culture does in so many ways. My gut instinct about this tends to take me in the direction of seeing the communal suicides as a trend shaped by a communal culture.
4) While I liked or at least understood most of the characters in the book, the one I didn’t and who rubbed me the wrong way was the American mother who comes to Japan to visit her son. She embodies the worst traits of the ugly American stereotype. Was this character pure fiction or did you encounter people like this while you were there?”
CB: This character is the one who most readers get hung up on. She’s a reflection of some of the worst traits Americans (and other Westerners) display while visiting other countries, for sure. And I think people tend to not like to see characters who display “bad” or “negative” traits in their reading material unless they are clearly labeled as a villain or nemesis in some way. I’m not that kind of reader myself. I enjoy reading Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, for example, where lots of characters are horribly flawed and there’s a sort of dark humor that surrounds them in the stories. A lot of people say Flannery O’Connor is a mean writer because of this. Others think she’s just observing elements of our humanity that people don’t want to look at. While I didn’t surround the American mother with a ton of dark humor, I did want to portray a variety of American characters who all respond to being in a foreign country in different ways. That seems most realistic to me, as people DO respond differently. What I find most interesting when I come across readers who dislike this character is that they feel that perhaps as an author I have treated her unfairly, that I should have represented her as less of the Ugly American. I myself don’t find her to be a terrible person, though, which it seems others do. I simply find her to be the kind of person who has no experience outside of her own circumscribed world. If you look through the book and find the clues about who she is, you can put it together that she is from a very rural area of Western Pennsylvania. She’s a country girl, really, and the only reason she’s come to Japan is on a mission to bring her son home. I think that’s a valiant character trait myself. A mother who comes to her son’s rescue despite being afraid of a foreign place. But some readers focus on her inability to be at ease in the foreign land than they do on her good traits. She loves her son. She wants to understand him, even if he himself is foreign to her with his sexuality. She wants to love him despite that, too, being something foreign to her.
All that said, is she fiction or did I witness Ugly Americans while in Japan? She’s a fiction, but she’s definitely drawn from some examples I’d witnessed. A friend of mine in Japan, for instance, told me a story of her mother coming to visit. They went to an onsen, a Japanese public salt spring bath, where you’re required to bathe in the nude among strangers (of the same sex, of course). Her mother went through the motions of doing this very courageously, but was approached by a group of older Japanese women in the bath who were fascinated by the differences in their bodies and wanted to observe her more closely. This was uncomfortable for her, and she freaked out a bit. I took that story and used it. I witnessed other pieces of this character displayed in other visitors or tourists I came across in Japan as well as when I toured Thailand. So the mother is something of a composite character, made up of bits and pieces of a variety of people I encountered, heard about, or observed. Which, in the end, makes her a fiction. But a fiction made up of real parts. I feel badly that some readers focus on her less attractive traits to the extent that they also don’t sympathize with where she’s coming from and how hard exactly this is for her. In many ways, I think she deals with Japan much better than she deals with her son, but she’s trying hard. I like people like that. She didn’t put me off at all as I wrote her. She just seemed like a real person who is struggling with a lot of new things all at once. She did come to the country after her son disappeared there for a few months, after all. So she’s already dealing with a lot of stressful emotions when she’s in Japan. She didn’t come there as a tourist with intentions of enjoying another culture, is what I mean.
Pen_Gram writes: “1. Your novel contains fantasy elements and has been nominated for a Nebula. Would you categorize it as fantasy? If not, how would you describe it? In other words, if I’m at a bookstore, what section would I find it under? Fantasy? General Fiction?”
CB: I would definitely categorize the book as a fantasy novel. Obviously there are ghosts in it. And mountain spirits that offer a young Japanese pilgrim girl the truth about her life. A man acquires his blindness from another blind person. Another character is cursed to live within his dreams, unable to wake. To me, all of these elements aren’t realistic. Are they? Now, that said, is it what avid readers of the Scifi/Fantasy genre would label as a fantasy? No. But I think that’s a very limited view of what fantasy literature is. There are a wide variety of fantasies in existence, and the kind I write is simply one of those kinds. It’s a sort of magical realism, I suppose. Or a contemporary fantasy, in that it’s fantasy that occurs in a contemporary real world setting. But not everything that occurs within it is reality-based. Here’s another difference: when I write fantasy, it’s subtle, and I like to make the fantasy elements feel as real as the familiar reality of the real world settings I write within. So it’s unconventional fantasy, rather than the conventional fantasy that is largely shelved in the Scifi/Fantasy section of a bookstore, which is why my books are largely shelved in General Fiction. But are they fantasies? Yes. They’re fantasies of the real world. And I always attempt to forge the fantasy elements out of the cultures in which my stories are set. In the case of The Love We Share Without Knowing, many of the fantasy elements are grown out of the folklore and mythology of Japanese culture. For example, the curse that can trap a person in their dreams is a real curse, an Old Wive’s tale of course, but of the Japanese culture itself. I took it and made it literally happen in my book. In my first novel, One for Sorrow, the fantasy elements are largely grown out of a Christ-haunted rural/post-industrial region of Ohio where ghost stories are plentiful, and believers in ghosts are as plentiful. In my writing, I want the fantasy to grow out of the reality and cultural beliefs of a place, to literalize it and observe it as if it could be real, rather than imposing some fantasy element that has nothing to do with the inherent nature of a place and the people who live there. Perhaps this is organic fantasy? 🙂
2. What do you like to read? Do you have the opportunity to read genre fiction? If so, do you have any favorite authors?
CB: I read widely and across all genres, really. I love genre fiction. Some of my favorite authors are Ursula K. Le Guin, Kelly Link, Carol Emshwiller, Jonathan Lethem, David Mitchell, A.S. Byatt (great fairy tales), Jeffrey Ford, Jonathan Carroll, Steven Millhauser, George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Theodora Goss, Alan DeNiro, Graham Joyce. I could go on and on, but those are a few examples. I’m always surprised when a scifi/fantasy reader who has just come across my work wonders if I consider myself a writer of speculative fiction or not. I do. I was “raised” by genre authors like Karen Joy Fowler, Jonathan Lethem, James Patrick Kelly, Mary Rosenblum, and Richard Bowes. Others, too, but these are a few of the genre writers who invested their time and energy into me as mentors at various points. I’m incredibly obliged and loyal to this community as a place of great worth and value. The editor of my first two books is a genre editor, Juliet Ulman, who also edited The Windup Girl. While Paolo Bacigalupi’s book and mine are worlds apart in many ways, our editor’s taste is eclectic and she sees the genre as a wide ranging spectrum of various shades and tones and coloring. Paolo’s books are deeply dyed futuristic scifi. Mine are of a watercolor magical realism variety, I’d say. Where books get shelved in a bookstore are where a publisher or bookseller thinks they’ll sell the most copies most easily. They’re not necessarily indicative of what you’ll find in the books themselves.
3. I’m curious about what inspired you to write the novel? Was it a case of being fascinated by the Japanese culture on your visits there? Did you draw on any real-world experiences in Japan when writing the stories?”
CB: It doesn’t take much to inspire me to write, really. It’s just something I’ve always done. I’m always writing something. And I tend to write stories and books set in places where I’m either living or have visited for some length of time. I’m fascinated by any culture, Japanese and American both, and lots of others. Writing is a way for me to figure out things about the culture where I am.
AvidReader writes: “What was your approach in writing The Loving We Share Without Knowing? Did you start with the idea of making it a collection of short stories and had it evolve into a more cohesive whole or was it always envisioned as a novel?”
CB: I wrote the very first story in the book as a short story for an anthology of young adult fiction called The Coyote Road, which Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling edited. Then I moved on to writing the second story, The Suicide Club, as part of the process of my encountering and trying to understand that particular cultural phenomena, and while I was writing it, suddenly one of the characters turned out to know a character from the first story I’d written. I hadn’t planned that to happen, but my subconscious threw it out there. After I saw this occur, I realized I was also exploring the connections between disparate characters just within the Suicide Club chapter itself, where you can see a microcosm of the entire novel within that chapter: characters who previously didn’t know each other come together for some purpose, or by accident. There’s a “companion” chapter in the book called Outlanders, which traces the same kind of idea through Americans living together in Japan, coming together out of their American ties rather than any other particular reason. I was trying to investigate how people come to be acquainted with others, how they make connections and form bonds, and around what elements or factors people connect. Sometimes it’s to fall in love, other times it’s to enact self-destructive desires. Or for the purposes of desire itself, for some characters. Lots of reasons, really. I wanted to thematically display many of these ways we connect, the why and how of it. The book formed very quickly after that first and second story was written. After those two stories, I couldn’t see any of the other ones as disconnect short stories. They were all written as one piece of a whole after that.
“What has the reception to the novel been like for you? Did you ever imagine a possible Nebula Award being in the cards?”
CB: Well I think that the novel was received very well initially by reviewers. Starred reviews, some great initial discussion of the book occurred. It was an Indiebound Notable Book, and it was also short listed for the James Tiptree Jr. Award (a genre award). But it sort of faded after a while, and I was a bit dispirited because I honestly think it’s a better made book than One for Sorrow, which got a lot of attention the previous year. But since it was nominated for the Nebula, it’s definitely got more attention, and what I noticed immediately (on the internet in particular) was the response by people who had already read the book when it first came out saying how happy they were it was recognized, and that made me really excited to see that, in fact, the book did have readers out there who saw its worth and interest. Did I ever imagine a Nebula Award in the cards? No, I hadn’t imagined that. But it’s really gratifying to be nominated.
“What’s next for you in terms of upcoming books or short stories?”
CB: Well, right now a new story, “Map of Seventeen,” (actually the title of a famous Japanese song, though the story has nothing to do with it or Japan) has been published in a YA anthology called The Beastly Bride, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. It’s a collection of stories that riff off of animal bride and shape changer stories in mythology and folklore. Next summer another short story of mine, “Gap Year,” will be published in an anthology called Teeth, also a Datlow and Windling book, which are all vampire stories. Mine is sort of an ironic vampire story, hopefully funny and entertaining, about the popularity and trending of vampirism in American culture at the moment. After that, I’ll have a story called “We Do Not Come In Peace” in Welcome to Bordertown, edited by Ellen Kushner and Holly Black, which is an anthology of stories that reinhabit the old Bordertown anthology series that Terri Windling produced in the 80s and 90s. Very cool stuff.
And lastly, right now I’m attempting to complete my third novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, which is a historical/domestic fantasy/coming of age novel which traces a hundred years in the life of a northeastern Ohio family, their various involvements with wars, and incorporates a lot of the organic fantasy I’ve mentioned in another response. Curses, ghosts, spirits, visionaries, alternate realities, etc, live in this book. The title comes from a pamphlet written by the Salem Witch Trials minister Cotton Mather, which was a document to educate people about the realities that exist beyond the material world we see, and how to spot a witch, and how to kill one. Crazy, fascinating stuff. I’m hoping to complete the book by the end of this summer.
Ponytail writes: “What was the reaction from your Japanese friends to The Love We Share Without Knowing?”
CB: I have a Japanese adopted mother who said that she loved the book, though she did mention that I certainly picked out some of the difficult flaws in Japanese society. She said, “That’s okay, though. You pick out American flaws too. So all is fair.” 🙂
Some of my other friends from Japan have noted that they feel it’s captured elements of their culture they hadn’t seen before, but can’t help but see now.
“In your opinion, what are the two biggest cultural differences between American and Japanese people?”
CB: I’m not sure if I can tell you the two biggest, but I will tell you one: the difference in the communal versus individualist cultures we live within. Japanese culture is communal and a social harmony is striven for there. American culture is about the individual, being independent, moving away from the group to stand on one’s own is valued here more than communal work. I have to say, I found the communal values of Japan so much more attractive than the individualism of America. I see value in both, but I wish we had a bit more togetherness here than we do. We tend to focus on our differences from one another here in America, rather than our commonalities. But commonalities are what bring people together, and we’re a very divide country at this point in our history.
“Why did you decide to move to and teach English in Japan? What brought you home?”
CB: I had always wanted to live in another culture, to experience being a foreigner, and to learn another language through immersion. A friend of mine from grad school had moved to Japan a few months before I did, and she emailed to say, “Hey, you always said you wanted to live in another country. If you want, I can get you a job here. Want to come over?” I said, “Heck yeah!”
Largely I came home because my first novel had been purchased, and I wanted to be at home to celebrate that and to renew ties with my family and friends here, who had put up with me for many years with my weird dreams of being a writer. They were finally about to come to fruition, those dreams, and I wanted my family and friends to be a part of that when it happened.
“Did any of the stories from The Love We Share Without Knowing grow from personal experiences while in Japan, or from student observations and/or their personal experiences they shared with you?”
CB: Some did, yes, but whenever I take something from personal experience or observed experience, it’s changed radically through the process of writing fiction. What may have been a seed for a story is never recognizable, even to me, after the fictional narrative begins to grow and develop out of it. But yes, the book is informed, at least in part, from personal experience and observation.
“Are any of the book’s characters drawn from your Japanese acquaintances?”
CB: Not entirely, though some characters may say something that a Japanese friend or acquaintance might have said that I found funny or interesting or apt for the story. But no character is drawn whole clothe from an acquaintance.
“Did you go to Japan with the intention of writing a book, or just teaching and becoming a part of their society? If the latter, how did the book come about?”
CB: I didn’t go with the intention of writing the book. The book just happened to be something I wrote while I was there, and was an integral part of my becoming a part of Japanese society. Writing the book helped me see what I was learning there.
TimC. writes: “1) What drew you to Japan? Was it just a desire to travel, get away, live somewhere new?”
CB: It was the desire to live elsewhere, as I’ve mentioned, as well as a desire to get away from a very upsetting political and cultural climate in America at the time. I didn’t feel very at home in my own country at that juncture. I wanted to see what some other country had to offer. What I learned is that all cultures have their various problems. But I also learned that there are other options for how we can live. We can make a different world, and strive for a better one. We have that ability, if we can get past a status quo or fear of change mentality.
“2) What kind of culture shock did you experience? Was the contrast between your life in the U.S. and your new life in Japan more striking when you were living in the city or the countryside?”
CB: The differences were more striking in the rural areas, but I wasn’t truly ever in culture shock, to be honest. The weirdest things were maybe heated toilet seats and no insulation in houses? Some cultural differences in regards to how to present a gift? But I’m a really flexible person, and adapted very easily without too many problems.
3) How much did the feelings of your American characters mirror your own feelings toward your Japanese co-workers? The general sense I got from the book was that the westerners are welcomed and treated politely but never really accepted as
part of the community. Is this true?”
CB: The American characters in the book aren’t necessarily placeholders for my own feelings. Some of these characters exhibit the feelings and thoughts of other Americans I encountered while I was there, and came to know. And their thoughts and feelings were various, as the Americans in the book have varying thoughts and feelings. Some people had difficult transitions into a new and different culture. Others took to it like a fish to water. However, in terms of the work world relationship, at least in the schools, I do think that the foreign teachers are generally treated politely and welcomed very warmly, but that your friendships will be established with a few individuals within the work community while others will remain civil and polite without taking steps to really accept you into their lives. But, really, when I think about the American workplace, it’s kind of the same, whether you’re foreign or not. We make ties with some people but not others. In terms of your “agency” as a foreigner working in another culture, there I definitely felt like I had very little control or power. In that realm, I very much always felt like a guest. This started to change a little bit, though, as I became increasingly more adept at the language. The more I was able to speak for and represent myself to those who couldn’t speak English, the more I was taken in by others.
“4) You present a number of cross-cultural relationships (ie. westerners dating Japanese men and women) but never explore the reaction of the older generation with more traditional ways of thinking. From your experience, is this still an issue with many Japanese (that some say is a pretty xenophobic society) or has the modern world caught up with their social mores as well?”
CB: It’s fairly common for Japanese girls to date Western men in Japan. As one Japanese friend told me, “It’s kind of expected. It’s normal.” It’s less normal to see a Western woman in a relationship with a Japanese man, though on rare occasions I did encounter that type of couple too. I think it’s really not a big deal culturally any longer, though I do know there are people who are very traditional there. But, really, that’s no different than some of their American counterparts who still hold that view that races shouldn’t mix. We have our own xenophobic demographics in America, too, I think.
5) Now that you are back in the U.S., what are some of the things you miss most about Japan? And, given the chance, what Western ideals, ideas, or comforts would you like to transplant back to Japan should you ever go back?”
CB: I miss the food SO MUCH. And the incredible kindness that people exhibited there on an everyday basis. And I miss the feeling of exploring a place that I don’t know well. Placing myself in an unfamiliar world brought a sense of awe and wonder into my life. I miss that. For a while after I got back to America, America was strange and unfamiliar to me in many ways, but I’ve been home three years now and it’s familiar again.
Sf_reader writes: “I’d like to know what kind of research the author did in preparing to write his book. Were the folklore elements culled from reading actual Japanese myths and legends or were they embellishments of information he may have heard from Japanese friends.”
CB: As soon as I knew I was going to Japan, I began reading books of Japanese mythology and folklore, as well as cultural studies of Japan. I read newspaper articles about various Japan related topics. I set a Google search to various terms that would bring me information about the culture. I wanted to know as much as I could before I got there, and then once I was there, I continued to read Japanese literature while I was learning the language, and of course I also learned from my Japanese friends as well. They had various ways to tell the same stories, the way we do for some of our Western myths and legends too. I tried to take what I could from the people I encountered as well as from experts and established authorities whose books I read.
Trancer67 writes: “What does Mr. Barzak have in the works? And does he have a preference between the short story and novel form? Thanks.”
CB: I already mentioned the stories and the novel that I have in the works right now. I’m also working on a series of flash nonfiction and memoir pieces that investigate the sites, experiences, and history of the Mahoning Valley, where I grew up and now live again. It’s a very interesting place once you begin to explore its origins and where it has landed in modern American society. In a country where our founding myth is the American dream, it’s largely a region that has been left out of that dream after a period of deindustrialization that occurred in the late 70s and 80s, leaving the place without a stable economy, way of life, or defining identity. It’s kind of the counter story to the American Dream. The series is tentatively called Map for a Forgotten Valley.
I love the short story and the novel forms fairly equally. There are differences in what I love about them, of course, but I love them both passionately. The short story can be a perfect gem. The novel is a huge tapestry. I like the smallness, the precision and economy of a short story, and the many ways it can trick you as a reader. I like the mess-of-life and largeness of the novel, the way it can wrap its arms around so many things. The short story is a star. The novel is a constellation.