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!