An Interview with Michelle Bailat-Jones (Part 2)

Here is the second part of my interview with Michelle, who has a book out on the first days of November: Fog Island Moutains. I’m so glad she agreed to this!

After explaining how she came to write a book set in a small village of Southern Japan, a place close to her heart, I asked her about her writing process.

Q. How did you manage to write a whole novel on top of your job and your family life? That’s a pretty generic question, but really I admire that you could “do it all”.

This is going to sound very cliché, and so I secretly hate myself for answering in this way, but I have never been able not to write, no matter how busy the rest of my life has become. So I don’t feel like I have much of a choice, even if I only manage 500 words a day. (The great thing about 500 words a day is that in 6 months you actually have something resembling a novel).

However, since my daughter’s birth in 2009, it has been a real struggle to keep a balance on things and I considered giving up fiction more than a few times – especially when it seemed that no one was interested in any of my novels. It began to be very hard to justify the time I was taking to write. Switzerland – although a lovely place – doesn’t have a very strong structure in place for working moms, and this hasn’t helped. But to juggle everything, I’ve gotten rather adept (as most writers, I suspect) at writing whenever I get a chance – during the 45 minutes of my daughter’s dance class, while commuting to my teaching job, I’ve even used a dictaphone clipped to my jacket while walking my dog in the forest. I feel silly, yes, but I can get a lot done.

One thing I’ve always done – and this predates having a family – is wake up early in the mornings to get an hour or two of work done before the day begins. I’m a morning person, and I love this quiet time. It also means that I can go into a day of commercial translation work knowing that my fiction writing is already done. (This does mean however, that by nine o’clock in the evening I’m pretty useless). I’ve also had to prioritize in ways that make me frustrated sometimes. I write more poetry and flash fiction now than short stories – mostly because these are things I can actually finish and feel good about in a shorter time span. And for the last two years, I’ve had to scale back much of the non-fiction writing that I also really love (you’ll see that my once-busy reading blog Pieces has fallen to the side, and I write far fewer book reviews than I’d like) to focus on fiction and literary translation. But I should also mention that my “day job” as a translator gives me a lot of flexibility. I can fit paid work into those randomly created moments as well. I don’t have to worry about commuting or going into an office, and so I manage in ways that other writers with “fixed hour” day jobs cannot.

Q. To keep yourself on track and motivated, did you set yourself a daily target of x words? Did you find a (local or virtual) writing community to support you? On the techie side, you mentioned a dictaphone and writing during commute, did you use some app or any other trick of the trade?

I used to have a daily target, but that has just gone haywire for the last few years. I try to make sure that I write or revise my fiction at least every day. This helps me feel like I am moving forward. Unfortunately, I do not have any technology tricks only notebook preferences. I write more quickly with a computer, but I try to write longhand as often as I can. It makes me approach things differently, and I think there’s a benefit in that for my work. I outline a lot. A ton. When I’m working on a novel, I am constantly outlining and re-organizing how the larger story will work. I’m maybe even too focused on structure, and re-arranging bits and pieces, but for now this has been my process.

Q. I’m really impressed by your strong will and dedication, and it pays! I have gone through many times of doubts about my own writing, especially as I juggle between French and English: I sometimes feel that my “voice” in English is different from my French one to the point of not knowing which one is more authentic. How did you find the right voice to write a novel in English about people thinking and talking Japanese? (I remember your Japanese is quite fluent).

I really admire your bilingualism – it’s so flawless. I’ve often wanted to write in French, especially since it is now my “linguistic home” but I haven’t managed yet. So yes, for Fog Island Mountains, this was a huge question for me. There is something incredibly false about a book being narrated by an elderly Japanese woman in English. I couldn’t get around this and it was a concern for me. I wanted something fluid, but also with echoes of the Japanese language. I have had someone tell me that the book reads a little bit like it was a translation from Japanese. I’m not sure whether this was meant as a compliment, but it made me deliriously happy. I think that readers will have varied reactions to Azami’s voice and how it works to tell the story, but I think, for me, she gave me the filter that I needed to work through all that was happening to Alec and Kanae and the town. I needed an outsider who was also an insider. And I just hope she makes it meaningful for readers as well.

An Interview with Michelle Bailat-Jones (Part 1)

I was in Croatia close to the beach in another lifetime in August when a message from Michelle reached me. She had a book published! (No, she’s being modest: she not only published a book, but it also won a prize!) I was glad that she thought of me for a review copy and I took my time during September to read it.

It’s not a very light book by any account, but it is not a harrowing read. In fact it’s lighter than I’d thought it would be, because it is set in Japan, where emotions and expressions are always so delicately rendered, and Michelle’s writing is also quite subtle. Her main narrator is an old Japanese woman who tells tales in her community, and her voice in the book reflects the music of a traditional narration, a bit like a chant. I would compare it slightly to the unique writing of Julie Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic (only I am quite late in my blog posts so I should have told you about that other book ages ago), although it is not as systematic. Michelle switches her point of view often, moving from the husband to the wife to the outsider, and I must tell that it helps when dealing with a heavy subject like cancer, terminal illness and impending grief.

Besides being taken by the book and feeling so moved by the story, I wondered: how difficult is it to write a novel about this subject? Why set it in Japan (of all places?) And because I have met Michelle in real life, I wished she could tell me how she managed to write a novel while working, raising a daughter and blogging. I took the opportunity to ask her all my questions and here are her answers:

Q. What inspired you to write this particular story in small town Japan and why?

A. I feel a particular connection with Japan because I was born in the city of Kagoshima, right on the coast of the island of Kyushu. I’ve often wondered what version of my life I could have lived if my family had stayed longer and I’d actually grown up in this place. If I’m allowed this feeling – as a Scottish/German-American who now lives in Switzerland – I consider Japan a part of me in ways that are similar to my feelings for the US and Switzerland, the places which I have a legal right to call my home. This question of where a person belongs (culturally, linguistically, emotionally) has always fascinated me and was definitely part of the inspiration for some of the novel’s themes.

Later, I returned to Japan and worked in a small town in the mountains of Miyazaki Prefecture for several years when I was just out of college. When I returned back to America, I finally began writing stories about the region – I just couldn’t get the landscape out of my head. And I’ve always been interested in Japanese folktales and history. (And its literature.) Kyushu has a very particular and significant place in Japanese mythology, and I was lucky to spend time in this place at the center of so many of Japan’s originating myths.

At the same time, because of events in my private life, when I started working on Fog Island Mountains I was also circling around a lot of questions about grief and its effects on relationships and family. I would never have wanted to write so directly about those questions, but it felt very natural to combine these two ideas and see what came up.

Q. I had assumed that being so far from Japan and Japan being so faraway from our Western culture, you had chosen this setting to keep a distance with a difficult subject: preparing oneself to a death, grieving for one’s significant other. Obviously my assumption was all wrong. I found your book very sensitive in presenting the reaction of the sick person and his wife, as well as children, friends and acquaintances. Was it particularly difficult to write about this particular subject set in a place you call home? Was it necessary for you to take a distance with your subject? If so, how did you manage that?

A. It was very necessary for me to keep a distance from the personal experiences that helped inspire Fog Island Mountains, out of respect for a number of people, but also because this is almost always how I write. I don’t feel comfortable putting myself and my life directly into a piece of fiction. I’m sure I’m there, I don’t think I’m naive about this. But I really do write with a purely fictional landscape in mind, and characters who are wholly invented.

However, no, it wasn’t difficult to write about these subjects through a place I consider a little bit home. I even think the Japanese setting helped. I couldn’t really write about Japan while I was living there, nor about France when I lived in Paris. Something I’m working on right now has a small part set in Switzerland but it’s only a framework, the story is occurring in the US. I started working on Fog Island Mountains in 2007 when I’d been away from Japan for nearly six years. I suspect that a lot of my writing is (and may always be) about nostalgia and longing for place, and so it felt very natural to turn to Japan as a context for the questions of the story. My own form of comfort-writing, perhaps, even if it might be a little selfish to approach a “place” in this way.

**

This post is getting very long, so I’ll post the second part of this interview in a separate post. Stay tuned!

Summer Pierre, The Artist in the Office (2010)

Uh-oh, it seems that I’ve had this draft for 2 months or more and didn’t quite publish it! It’s high time I put it out in the open because it’s a lovely book. Update: it didn’t quite solve my procrastination problem. Sigh…

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I heard of this book from the lovely Finding Time to Write blog, and I bought the book almost immediately (second-hand from Amazon marketplace), so intrigued I was about its promises: “how to creatively survive and thrive seven days a week”.

Although I am not comfortable with the name artist, and I don’t quite believe in the feel-good notion that everything we create is art, I am all ears when someone offers strategies and inspiration to make work and any creative outlet coexist peacefully, rather than pushing the art to the margins of our lives (work taking so much time and energy) or proposing to quit your job altogether. Here’s what she says about drastic measures:

“It took me years to realize that I could do all kinds of drastic acts like quitting jobs, relationships, towns (or all of the above), but what showed up at the next job, relationship, & town was still ME.”

This book seems primarily aimed at youngish and unattached people who take jobs in restaurants or offices while hoping or waiting for a big creative success that will allow them to practice full-time. But often this arrangement becomes permanent and people are frustrated with their humdrum, stifling day jobs.

Summer Pierre offers a kind voice and good ideas to find this balance, and although her ideas are often not really applicable to my own circumstances, I liked the optimism and attitude.

French people are professional grumblers, and it’s all too easy to complain about our day job. I do it a lot (less than my colleagues, but still pretty much every day). But she helped me realize that, yes, there are (also) good points about working this job (and I’m not talking money only).

Some pieces of advice felt very US-centered and hipster-ish. Jobs are very hard to come by in France, so people here can’t just chuck a job and find another.  French office environments – or at least mine – don’t seem like the places Summer Pierre talks about — if I try a dance move near the copy machine they’re going to call the doctor straight away.

But other parts of the book were quite precious to me, forcing me to realize that procrastination is not creation, and it’s not downtime either. Putting things off for later and waiting for circumstances to be ideal isn’t a good solution. You might think “duh” and move on, but it was actually fun.

It’s a pretty easy read, quite inspirational. I didn’t fall in love with Summer Pierre’s designs but I enjoyed her kind words. It was probably a bad timing for me to read it before the holidays, but I’ll try a re-read in September along with my good resolutions for the fall!(*)

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(*) Note from 2014/10/09: uh-oh… Although the book is lingering close to my computer in my little writing nook, I didn’t quite find the time to re-read it in September, as you can imagine.

Michael Connelly, The Fifth Witness (2011)

This is my third Haller book and now I have to pause and consider what’s gone awry.

First book? Terrific, couldn’t put it down. Second one? ditto. Third one? Wham, I just couldn’t put myself in the mood. It took me more than 2 months from start to finish, with lots of other books in between that all took the precedence.

Maybe it’s the language. The first two were translated to French, this one in the original language. Normally I always prefer original language, but I also take what’s available to me at the library or bookshop. And so, the voice of Mickey Haller inside my head was simply not the same anymore. More jaded, more fatigued (that also has to do with the story, but shh… I don’t want a spoiler… just yet.)

Maybe it’s the media. The first two were audiobooks, this one in print. I realize that I am much more enthusiastic with audiobooks than with printed books because the talent of the actor / writer, his/her voice and rhythm, all this kind of hypnotize me, puts me under a charm, and my critical eyes are just off duty while my ears are doing all the work. Weird, isn’t it? I wonder if I’m the only one.

Maybe it’s the story itself. I didn’t find it as addictive as the others. Mickey Haller, a criminal defense attorney has fallen on tough times and has to take foreclosure cases because the economy’s bad. But soon enough crime comes back to the foreground, when a client of his, a woman who was going to lose her home, is accused of having murdered the bank manager in charge of the loan.

The Haller series is a tricky one for Connelly, trickier than the Bosch series where the good ones are the cops, and all is well once the bad guys are behind bars. To have a criminal defense attorney as a hero is difficult to pull it off because his clients aren’t always nice and innocent. Maybe they are, but there’s about as much chance that they’re the bad guys, and so how can the hero succeed both in the courtroom and in moral terms? Haller is typically cynical but with a nagging moral conscience, that’s why we love him. In previous episodes the twists of the plot made sure to reconcile the contradiction (Haller wins yet the bad ones are back to jail, somehow), but with every new case the difficulty increases.

So, major spoiler here, I felt it was such a huge let-down when at the end of this book Haller said that he didn’t want to defend bad guys anymore and that he was running for D.A.. Whaaat? Mickey? How can you just crossing onto the other side? No, don’t do this to us…

With that kind of ending, Michael Connelly has me standing in line for his next book, just to know what happens next. It might not be his best book ever but this man knows how to do cliffhangers.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Mermaid Chair (2005)

Who hasn’t heard the praises of Sue Monk Kidd for The Secret Life of Bees? The book wasn’t available at the library or on Bookmooch, so I figured her Mermaid Chair, her second book, would be the next best thing.

The next it is, but best? I sure hope not. I have been trying hard, but the book didn’t really manage to sustain my interest.

Sure, I don’t read many love books, or books about middle-aged crisis. But I am not allergic to the subject either. (ok I can’t think of any title I recently read about this right now, but that’s just my sleep deprived mommy brain. I don’t know where I last put my glasses either).

Or perhaps it’s because I haven’t been to South Carolina and I have no clue how it feels like. I know some islands, but the writer didn’t really manage to transport me virtually to this place she seems to love so much.

I didn’t really relate to the main character either, whom I found too whiny and passive in her marriage and life in general. But when her shiny new love interest appeared, the man who was able to break a 20 years long marriage, and that it was a monk with a robe, a hood and a rosary, I nearly laughed at the cheesiness of this plot device. What is it with this cliché image of catholics and monks? I didn’t find it one bit realistic (ok, I have no clue how American monks are).

Somehow it made me think of the Catholic monks in Victorian novels as described by The Little Professor (who blogs so delightfully that I take her word for it), especially how Victorian England novels used evil monks as fodder for barely hidden sexual fantasies. They were exotic temptators to virtuous women, who were supposed to return to the safety of Protestantism at the end of the book. Once this thought crossed my mind for The Mermaid Chair, I barely could think of anything else, even though it was clearly a digression.

Getting back firmly to the 21st century, the emotional treatment of the plot seemed to me quite heavy-handed, especially the mermaid theme. Oh, a woman with long hair and magical powers who find herself maimed and powerless when going ashore to be united with the man she loves. The narrator painted it many times over in case we didn’t notice the first time. And if you don’t see the big F of Feminist and the huge G of girl’s empowerment, I can highlight it for you in dayglo.

I know that second books after bestsellers are quite a challenge. Do the same, and people will criticize you. Do different, and people will miss what they’d enjoyed in the first. But starting with the second book, as I have discovered, is a risky strategy for the reader. I am not even sure I’ll try The secret life of bees now. Except if you recommend it very very much.

Andrea Buchanan (Ed.), It’s A Boy! (2005)

This is not my usual Wednesday writing session, but a belated, catch-up, trying-hard-not-to-slump-in-front-of-tv Thursday post. The trouble is, I don’t know where to start with this book.

I don’t remember where I heard about it first, but I have had it on my wishlist for quite a long time, after taking a long stroll through the web in search of (other) literary mothers, rather on the liberal side. Too often I end up reading blogs from mothers who are living lives utterly foreign to me (American stay-at-home, religious, homeschooling mothers, but not exclusively), but really I wanted to find some literary companionship in the adventure of raising a little man from mothers of a wider horizon.

I didn’t read this essay collection when I got my first son, nor when I was pregnant with the second one, but little by little since his birth. Overall I liked it, although it was not love at first sight. Like many collections it was a bit unequal, but I’ll probably keep it for further references.

When I got my first child his gender was not a question, and although we did find out in advance, it was our baby. I remember being annoyed at the exaggerated focus on gender, like getting asked all the time if it would be a boy or girl, and being pushed to buy pink or blue everything. My rebellious spirit showed up, and I tried to buy neutral clothes and toys and decoration. Lots of white and yellow. Now that I have two boys the question of gender comes differently. I am a little surprised at how energetic my boy is, and how much super-heroes’ fights are important to him. I want to raise a boy who respects girls, but I’m a bit lost when he expresses interest in glittery stuff and in Disney’s Frozen princessed (“princes are so un-interesting mama, look at Elsa instead, she has powers!”)

I guess I chose this book while trying to come to terms that I will not know what it means to have a girl, or if it is really that different. So perhaps I should have bought the other collection, the pink one, It’s A Girl!, but at the same time I hoped to have a vision of what to expect down the road, as my little boy is getting older (elementary school in September!) and showing more of his own personality.

Some stories were very touching. Others were a bit repetitive, around the preconception of women who’d thought they would bear girls and would “ended up” with boys, so at first they’d be disappointed and surprised, and later on they would end up so happy about their little boys. I am poking fun at those but they aren’t really so formulaic. I just didn’t really enjoy these because I could not relate to these feelings, having had no preconception at all (pregnancy made my brain quite mushy).

But if you have a boy, I’m sure you will relate one way or another with these stories. It is a comfort read for mothers (new ones and experienced ones), and that’s not to be dismissed so lightly .

Judith Viorst, How Did I Get to Be 40 and Other Atrocities (1976)

I have been disappointed by the latest book by Gretchen Rubin, and I may have written harsh criticism, but I don’t want to be ungrateful: Ms. Rubin is very creative (even if her ideas aren’t applicable to everyone) and she can source information from very interesting people. She obviously loves research, and aphorisms.

Something caught my eyes in a blog post of hers: a short stance by Judith Viorst, a woman I’d never heard about before:

How do I know if the time has come to accept my limitations

Or whether I still ought to try to fulfill my promise?

I made me pause, and as I was still thinking about it the second day, I had to find the book it came from. I got a used book through Amazon, and the book is about as old as I am! So you see, I’m not really forty yet, and I don’t feel atrocious in the least, and yet…

The book made me smile, and even laugh out loud. Yes, the pages are yellowing and rather musty, but it is charming. A lot of these witty poems about married life in the 40s are about situations that might feel dated (70s and all) but I still recognize them. I could empathize with these women’s feelings and experiences.

Now I have to buy the book about the 30s as well!

Tsh Oxenreider, Notes from a blue bike (2014)

How come I always profess caution with books derived from blogs, but that I still buy (some of) them and keep trying despite disappointments?

I guess it’s due to the strange nature of blogs. We bloggers always start by writing something very personal, with a distinctive voice, so that readers think we are speaking to them and establishing some kind of personal relationship. In small blogs like mine, I hope this is reality. I write because I love it and because of the conversations with the faithful people who come to visit this place. I got to meet some people who are reading and commenting in real life and I do consider them as friends, I hope to meet others (you?) some time in the future (as long as our travelling budget allows it).

For big blogs where their creator has achieved some level of fame and reputation, like Tsh Oxenreider’s Art of Simple blog (formerly Simple Mom), I have little illusion about the degree of real relationship, because the blog has become a brand, the main way to support a business with a whole team involved, and it’s no longer a personal and casual platform.

But I still enjoy visiting her blog because her unique voice and message has been carefully preserved, so that when I learn that a book is under way, I’m ready to pay to have something tangible on my bookshelves written by this person I have the fake impression to know.

Isn’t this weird?

After this analysis, you might think that I didn’t enjoy the book. On the contrary, I quite liked it!

The content and form are actually close to the blog, because chapters are short and numerous and the text is a sweet mix between a memoir, a declaration of intention for her family and a practical guide for people who want to live more simply.

What I enjoyed is that Tsh’ voice is never dogmatic and encouraging, so that I don’t feel excluded, although I don’t share many of her beliefs and don’t fit the profile of her natural readership (American, Christian, white stay-at-home mother, or so I gather). She’s quite pragmatic in the solutions she offers, so that even in my circumstances I have something to take out of her ideas. I especially found some food for thought in the way she takes guilt out of choosing life strategies that are definitely not mainstream.

Tsh’ memoir of living overseas (Turkey mainly) also resonates with me because I have lived overseas (although without kids) and had experienced firsthand the shock of going back home, and the hazy dream of doing it all over again. But I understand this might alienate some readers who haven’t experienced this firsthand.

Some chapters are purely aspirational reading for me. I have made peace with the idea that I will never make a living out of my writing, that I am not an entrepreneur by character, and certainly not very good with staying home full-time with the kids. I aspire to live more simply and I do declutter (out of necessity) on a regular basis, but I’ll never have a nice white house like in the magazines. Homeschooling is not an option (especially in strongly government regulated France), and I’ll probably never take a year off to travel with my family, although French people are blessed with long summer holidays when we intentionally decide as a family to go overseas and explore new places. I am a city girl, so life in Bend as she tells it seems pretty exotic to me!

But overall, it is a successful example of moving from a blog to a book.

Gretchen Rubin, Happier at Home (2012)

Uh-oh, the problem of the second book after a major bestseller.

On one hand, I had fun with the first one, so I’d be happy to read some more about it. On the other hand, my expectations being high, it’s easier to be disappointed, because if there’s too much repeat from the first book, or on the contrary, if it strays too much away from the first topic, I’ll think: “why haven’t just re-read the first book”?

Why indeed. “Happier at home” is nice enough if you haven’t read the first book first, in my opinion. Otherwise, the Happiness Project will make you… happier (ok, that was one easy joke).

Gretchen Rubin comes out as a very type-A person: very organized with a lot of self-control, very energetic, very extreme in her quirkiness (and she acknowledges as much). I don’t mind it, but it was sometimes exhausting reading it as a young mother with short nights (that would be me). I don’t think we would “click” in real life (and I confess being sometimes competitive too).

I have the feeling (but it might be wrong) that she speaks more of the details of her privileged life in this second volume, while the first one remained vague about them, making it easier to relate to. After a few chapters of reading about her large flat in NYC, I wasn’t sure if I was reading to get ideas for my own life or out of sheer envy. You know, the kind of aspirational reading that is fun while it lasts, but that won’t really make an impact. But then, envy is not really so fun as a reading motivation.

Of course, she writes about her own projects for her own life, so I can’t blame her for not talking about people who might have a little less money than she has, who have to face challenges of any serious sort. But the more she gives away about herself, the less likeable she comes across (to me, just me). I think this second project would have been better as a blog format, because the information would have been shared bit by bit over a longer period of time. Read as a book from cover to cover, it’s more than I can take.

Still, the book has good tips, good reminders and some information I’d like to follow up on (Csikszentmihaly among them). I applied her method to make a photo book out of holidays pictures “even if it’s not perfect”. The one idea that stuck with me was about overcoming one’s fear and doing something not fun, in order to be happier in the long-term.

The strangest thing about this book is the bittersweet feeling you get at the end. Her last chapter or so feels so much like FOMO (fear of missing out) that I briefly had a picture of a completely different Gretchen Rubin from the one she aggressively markets: someone a lot more anxious and unsecure, and overall, a lot more human and relatable.

Anna Katharine Green, The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange (1915)

I started this cozy mysteries collection with 2 things in mind:

- explore the Gutenberg.org catalogue of free books via my new Kindle

- explore little-known oldies in line with the Vintage Mystery Bingo that Danielle pointed out a few months ago (I’m not sure I’ll get anywhere with this challenge but it is enticing enough).

Violet Strange is an American debutante who moonlights as a private detective, for mysterious reasons that get explained in the last short story. She is very cute by that period’s standards (Green insists on dimples many times) and has a “natural talent” for detection although many of clients doubt her at the beginning because of her youth, social origin and sex. Since this work of hers has to remain a secret, her mysterious employer introduces her to the cases and, literary speaking, provides a third-person point of view to justify and underline her actions.

I’ll say it quickly: I wasn’t quite convinced by this collection. The language has aged and is pompous at times. There’s not much detecting itself in the resolution of the stories, and Violet often tricks the guilty person to uncover him/herself. There are a few disturbing lines implying that women detectives are good because of female intuition, while men are good because of their reasoning, that sounded more Victorian than early century American (Anna Katharine Green’s dates are 1846-1935, which means that she’s two generations before Agatha Christie, born in 1890). Some stories are more Gothic than mysteries, and a lot are quite melodramatic, bordering on implausible. The apt comparison in my mind would still be Wilkie Collins or Conan Doyle (on the lighter side), which makes me think that Green had not completely stepped into the 20th century at that stage (but I’m sure specialists would discuss that point).

For historic reasons, it might be worth a try, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a hardcore Christie fan, because it would be a disappointment.