Monday, December 26, 2011

Interview with TOMO Contributor Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (author of the Tomo story “Paper Lanterns”) is a graduate of Columbia University’s MFA writing program. She often visited Japan as a child and has lived in Tokyo for ten years with her husband and two children. Her poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Greensboro Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Southeast Review is the author of the story “Paper Lanterns.” 

Can you tell us a bit about your background and your relationship with Japan?
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
My mother was born in Sendai, and we lived with her parents in the U.S. My brother and I took trips to Tokyo to see relatives pretty much every summer, so Japan was a part of our childhood, but not really a home for us. It became a home for me as an adult, though, when my husband and I moved to Tokyo a little over a decade ago. We had our two children there, and they’ve had a sort of mirror image of my childhood--living in Japan and being raised by Americans.

Mina’s friend Michelle continues to talk to Mina, even though she has died. What inspired the banter between the two girls in this story? 
Some friendships at that age are so intense--the girls are constantly together, constantly talking, finishing each other’s sentences. I remember that us-against-the-world feeling. The back and forth was a way to revel in that closeness and show off for one another. And it seems crazy that it could just end one day. It seemed natural to me that Michelle would become the voice in Mina’s head, and that Mina would find comfort in that.

The story features kakigori—shaved ice. Are you a fan of kakigori? What’s your favorite flavor? 
I have a world-class sweet tooth, so of course I love it. Melon is king, but there truly are no bad flavors. It's the only way to deal with summer heat and humidity in Japan. 

The story takes place during the Obon holiday. Have you celebrated Obon with Japanese relatives? What were your experiences? Why did you choose to set this story during Obon? 
I chose Obon because my family didn’t celebrate it. We didn’t have any kind of ritual. We didn't even do funerals, which is probably why I find traditions like Obon and the Day of the Dead so fascinating and moving. They give you a way to grieve, to let go little by little, and to remember the dead with some joy—to still care for them. Feeding the dead, washing their graves, they’re rituals that give us an outlet for the feelings we still have, the feelings that don’t end because someone is dead.

You often write poetry. What leads you to develop a story in prose rather than, say, a narrative poem? 
A lot of my poems are very narrative, but mostly they are narratives in the service of one moment or one feeling. But characters, whole characters, seem to need more room to stretch out, and especially to speak. When I start to think about what they say, either aloud or to themselves, then it’s a job for prose.

You recently moved from Japan to the U.S. What do you miss about Japan? 
Just about everything. Not that I don’t appreciate the States, but we just had such happy times there. I will miss the everyday kindness of the people, the beauty of the place, especially at the turn of the seasons. Of course we miss our friends, and I miss seeing my son trotting off to school in his little yellow hat. There is just too much.

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
I don't know how how human beings go on, or how we ever laugh again after tragedy, I only know that we do. We survive seconds, minutes, and hours at a time, until somehow joy comes back to us.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Interview with TOMO Contributor Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Debbie Ridpath Ohi (author/illustrator of the Tomo graphic story “Kodama”) is a Japanese-Canadian writer and artist. She is the illustrator for I’m Bored and is also the artist-in-residence at, a Toronto-based fund-raising collective. Debbie writes and illustrates books for young people. 
Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Visit her website: 

Can you tell us a bit of background about your family and when/how they migrated to Canada?

When I was little, I remembering asking my mom where she first met my dad and being a bit confused when she replied that she met him at the airport. Years later, I discovered that a missionary in Japan introduced my parents as pen pals, and that my mom flew to Canada to meet my father. I'm floored that she'd leave her family and friends behind in Japan to get married to a man she had never met. It must have taken a lot of courage; I don't think I'd do it.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi's mother as a child in Japan

My father’s parents came over from Japan before the war but then moved from Vancouver to Toronto and avoided the concentration camps. Apparently my grandparents owned a chain of hotels out in Vancouver but had one day's notice to sell them if they wanted to leave the city.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi at right in the arms of her mother, in Toronto
The story “Kodama” is told in a very effective sketchbook format. Was this a first for you? And what inspired you to try this format for “Kodama”?

Yes, this was the first time I had ever tried telling a YA story in sketchbook format. I used to post some "handwritten journal" entries in my blog and really enjoyed the process. When I saw your call for submissions, I decided to try this new format for a fiction story and wasn't sure how you and Stonebridge were going to react to the unusual format. I was so delighted when you said you were going to include it!

One of Ohi's hand-written journal posts
Do you plan to use this format in other stories?

Yes, and I have you and Stonebridge Press to thank. Your response has inspired me to try this again sometime in the future. Eventually I'd like to try a full-length YA using this sketchbook format. I've already been scribbling down some ideas. 

Can you tell us about your illustration background—training, comics, picture books, etc.?

Debbie Ridpath Ohi at right, age 6
I have no formal training, but have been drawing for fun since I was a small child. My first comic strip was for a weekly family publication. Family as in MY family; my brother, sister and I created it by hand and then we taped it up in the family bathroom since that's the place we figured everyone would see it. Anyway, the strip about a baby called Boppy. Um, don't ask. 

My webcomics include: 

Waiting For Frodo: Avid fans waiting in line for the Lord of the Rings movies. I had fans at Weta Digital! This was my very first webcomic and the art is terrible, but I still like the characters. 

Will Write For Chocolate: About the freelance writing life. 

Waiting For Bilbo: Avid fans waiting in line for The Hobbit movie. My co-writer: Shane McEwan, formerly of Weta Digital. 

My Life in a Nutshell: My semi-autobiographical comic. I'm still in the process of moving these strips over from another server. 

I also do board gaming comics and comics for writers. I’m working on book compilations of both right now. 

I just finished illustrating I'm Bored, a new picture book from Michael Ian Black, coming out from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers in Sept/2012. Up to last year, my main focus has been solely on getting my writing published. Now, I'm exploring both illustration and writing opportunities in the children’s/YA book industry. 

Do you have favorite graphic YA works to recommend?

So hard to choose! Here's one I just finished rereading and still love: Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge (Amulet Books). You can find out more about the author/artist at The ALA has some great lists of graphic novels for teens. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?

I can't imagine what it must have been like for you when the earthquake and tsunami hit. I've been following some of the reports of the recovery (like Holly Thompson's Tohoku tweets) and have been inspired by the accounts of survival, volunteer efforts and positive outlook. Please know many people around the world are thinking of you.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Interview with TOMO Contributor Catherine Rose Torres

Catherine Rose Torres (author of the Tomo story “Song for Benzaiten”) is a Filipino diplomat and writer based in Singapore. She is a Palanca awardee for fiction, and her works have appeared in Ceriph, TAYO Literary Magazine and The Philippines Graphic. She takes part in Write Forward, an online writing course by Birbeck College Writing Programme and British Council Singapore. She stayed in Japan during a cultural exchange sponsored by JAL in 1999 and was an exchange student at the University of Tokyo from 2000 to 2001. 

You are from the Philippines, currently working as a diplomat in Singapore and you have spent time in Japan. Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Catherine Rose Torres writes during breaks in diplomatic talks
I used to describe myself as a diplomat and writer. Then I read this essay by Joyce Carol Oates where she says something to the effect that she feels pretentious when she calls herself a writer—Oates, who has written and published hundreds of works. It was a chastening moment. So now I say I’m a diplomat who writes.

Another word I love applying to myself is ‘nomad.’ It’s true that there are lots of people out there who are better travelled than I am, but it’s a title I’d like to keep anyway. Because I think that being a nomad isn’t about how much frequent flier miles you’ve racked up. I think it’s more about how comfortable you are moving around and immersing yourself in other places and cultures, which I dare say I am. 

You first came to Japan as a teenager. How did this experience influence you?
I was 19 when I first visited Japan on a summer cultural exchange program sponsored by Japan Airlines. I think, apart from my age—that limbo between youth and adulthood, it was the circumstances of that trip that allowed it to leave such a deep impression on me. I was with 35 other young people from different parts of Asia and Oceania then, one of whom, a Korean, eventually became my husband. I’m still in touch and good friends with most of the rest. So Japan definitely means something special to me. After that summer, I came back to spend another year in Tokyo as an exchange student, which merely reinforced that feeling. 

The character Rain/Aya in the story is a musician. Did you study music? Do you play the violin or hegalong? 
That thing about Rain/Aya being musically gifted is probably a form of vicarious wish-fulfillment on my part. I’ve always loved music though I can’t play a single instrument. I actually bought a hegalong from Lake Sebu in the southern part of the Philippines, but it’s just been hanging up on the wall of my bedroom back home, like a talisman of sorts. 

The character was also partly inspired by a colleague of mine at work who used to play the violin. She wanted to join an orchestra but she had to give up that dream to join the foreign service because it’s supposed to be a more stable, more ‘real’ career.
What inspired this story? Can you give some background? 
Girl at Inokashira Koen
When I lived in Tokyo from 2000 to 2001, I fell in love with Inokashira Koen. I would always go there on weekends just to soak in the young, bohemian vibe. Once, I saw this pretty girl perched on a stile by the lake, playing a strange-looking instrument. I don’t remember how well she played, but the image has stayed with me since. I actually took a snapshot of her that I unearthed recently after “Song for Benzaiten” was accepted for Tomo. 

How does fiction writing fit into your life as a full-time diplomat? Are you working on a novel? 
There were many well-known writers who served their countries as diplomats, Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda being two of the best known among them. More recently, there is Vikas Swarup, who wrote Q & A, the novel that inspired the film Slumdog Millionaire, who is now, incidentally, posted in Osaka-Kobe as the General Consul of India. 

I think that being a diplomat goes well with writing because of the kind of experiences we are exposed to (it’s not all parties and receptions, contrary to what some people think), the moving from place to place, plus the fact that diplomats have always been expected to possess a certain fluency in and delicacy of language. 

Of course, the challenge is finding enough time to write. Diplomats nowadays have grueling schedules because our portfolio of responsibilities is so much broader. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku? 
I wish I could come up with something profound and moving to say, something beautiful and concise as a haiku, worthy of the Japanese, who are the most refined people I know when it comes to speech and manners. But what happened in Tohoku truly defies expression. So let me just say to the teens of Tohoku, and the Japanese people in general: Thank you for showing the world that the greatest hardships can be borne with grace. That, and ganbatte, kudasai! We are all here behind you.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Interview with TOMO Contributor Kelly Luce

Kelly Luce (author of the Tomo story “Yamada-san’s Toaster”) participated in the JET Program in Kawasaki and spent two years in Tokushima City. Her collection of Japan-set stories received the San Francisco Foundation’s 2008 Jackson Award and was a finalist for the 2010 Bakeless Prize. Her work has recently appeared in The Southern Review, American Short Fiction, and The Kenyon Review. Visit her website:

Tell us a bit about your connection to Japan.
Kelly Luce on Naoshima Island
I first moved to Japan in 2002, to Kawasaki, as part of the JET Program. After six months there, I spent six days in jail under a false accusation of shoplifting. I then moved to Tokushima, where I lived for the next two years. While there, I ran an English language immersion program for very young children, joined a professional Awa Odori ren, sang hundreds of hours of karaoke, and met my current boyfriend/partner. Tokushima was also where I began to write seriously. Needless to say, my time in Japan was life-changing. 

What was the story seed for "Yamada-san's Toaster"?
This story grew from a couple seeds. The first was a student of mine in Tokushima, upon whom Yamada-san is loosely based. She was a Jehova's Witness and came to me to practice the English version of her spiel, should she encounter a foreigner as she went door-to-door. The second was a writing prompt I came across years later in California that asked writers to compose a story about an appliance with a superpower. I loved the possibilities! Time-traveling vacuums, flying fridges, can openers with X-ray vision..! One day when I was thinking about psychic toasters, I remembered my old student from Tokushima, and I began writing.

Kelly Luce pounding mochi
Do you own a magic toaster? Do you visit fortune tellers?
My current toaster is quite boring, with no super powers (that I know of.) I did once receive a box in the mail from a woman in Washington state who had read this story when it was first published. The package contained her old silver-sided toaster, manufactured in 1954, along with a three-page history of the toaster's travels within her family. The toaster had a red-checked fabric cord and was full of crumbs. Only one of the slots still worked. It's one of the coolest presents I've ever gotten. I keep it in my writing lair.

“Yamada-san’s Toaster” previously appeared as “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster.” Can you tell us a bit about your short story collection?
This story first appeared in Tampa Review as "Ms. Yamada's Toaster," and won that magazine's 2008 Fiction Prize. It was later reprinted in the short story app for iPhone Storyville, and was even translated into Bulgarian.
The book itself (titled Ms. Yamada's Toaster) is a collection of stories set in Japan that aims to merge the fantastical with the literary in the same way that Japan's modernity is indelibly linked to its traditional past. In one story, an unmarried woman, struggling to find her place in society, wakes up on her thirtieth birthday to find she has grown a tail; in another, a man reflects on the connection between a karaoke machine and the disappearance of his first love. The collection's been a finalist in a number of book prize competitions, so I'm hoping it will find a publisher soon! 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
You've lived through a terrible, once-in-a-lifetime tragedy. You now know things about suffering and loss that most people don't--even much older people. Do your best to use this knowledge to improve the world. Be proud of who you are and what you have survived.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Interview with TOMO Contributor Deborah Davidson

Deborah Davidson (translator/illustrator of the Tomo story “Where the Silver Droplets Fall”) was born and raised in Japan, going on to earn a BA in Asian Studies and an MA in Advanced Japanese Studies from US and UK universities. Since retiring from a 30-year career in Japanese-to-English translating, she has settled into a second career in the world of Japanese folk art. She resides in Sapporo, Japan. Her published translations include the works of novelist Miura Ayako and Ainu folklore. Visit her blog: 

Can you tell us a bit about how you came to settle in Hokkaido?
Deborah Davidson
I was born in Tokyo but moved with my parents to Hokkaido when I was just a few months old. My family moved around every few years within Hokkaido, and I grew to love every corner of this beautiful prefecture. The people and the land have their own character that is quite different from the rest of Japan, though I didn't realize it until after I was grown and had lived in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya for a good chunk of time. I left Japan in 1973 to go to college in the US, and even though I moved back to Japan in 1980, I returned to Hokkaido only for infrequent visits until 1995, the year my husband, children, and I returned to Hokkaido for good. 

What has been your interaction with Ainu culture?
The influence of Ainu culture (food culture and language in particular) pervades all of Hokkaido life, though it's not often recognized. But, in addition to the subtle influences either noticed or ignored by all who live here, I had the rare opportunity to observe and interact with Ainu people and culture as a child living in Asahikawa, one of the areas where they are still relatively concentrated. This was possible because my father had been asked by Kawamura Kaneto (1893-1977), the revered chief elder of the Chikabumi Ainu, to help educate the children in his village. By the time I was eleven or twelve years-old, we lived within reasonable bike-riding distance from Chikabumi and I hung out there quite a bit. Having myself grown up as an outsider within mainstream Japanese society, I guess I felt comfortable being among the Ainu who (ironically) were also treated as outsiders in Japan.
Map of Hokkaido and Ainu-related locations © Deborah Davidson
I didn't give Ainu culture a whole lot of thought, nor did I start thinking of Ainu language or oral literature as something to study, until I re-settled in Hokkaido in 1995. Soon after moving back here, I made contact with an old school friend who was teaching English at a prestigious private high school in Hakodate. He had been greatly bothered by the fact that the typical Japanese student, even one raised in Hokkaido, is not taught anything about the Ainu. in fact, many of them believe the Ainu no longer exist in modern times. To make up for this lack in their education, my friend had begun using his own translations of Ainu folktales as a teaching aid in his EFL classroom.

In 1997, the Japanese government created the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture (FRPAC) which gave out grants to those who were working to research and spread information about Ainu history and culture. My friend and I gathered a few like-minded colleagues together to form Project Uepeker. We began submitting proposals to FRPAC to get funding to publish our English translations of Ainu folklore.

We decided to concentrate on translating Ainu tales that had already been published as picture books in Japan. The cost of publishing English versions of such books could almost be covered by the limited FRPAC grant, and the books could be targeted to both Japanese EFL students and native English speakers. So far we've managed to get two of our proposals accepted, resulting in the publication of The Ainu and the Fox by Kayano Shigeru (RIC Publications, 2006) and The Ainu and the Bear by Ryo Michico (RIC Publications, 2010). The books come with CD recordings of the text and online teaching notes to assist language teachers. 

Can you share some background about Yukie Chiri? When did you first encounter her transcription work?
Yukie Chiri in July, 1922
It's funny, I can't remember when I first encountered her work. Chiri Yukie (1903-1922) had been raised among the Chikabumi Ainu and was still remembered there when I was a child. The story I submitted to TOMO is her most famous work, and for a brief period it was included in the middle school reading textbooks used in Hokkaido public schools. But I do know that it wasn't until Project Uepeker was formed that I took my first serious look at Chiri Yukie.

I was working on an MA in Advanced Japanese Studies in the early 2000s, doing research on three historical women with close ties to Hokkaido, who had each made a lasting impact on Japanese society. The three women I had chosen to study were Chiri Yukie, Ogino Ginko (first licensed woman doctor), and Miura Ayako (popular postwar author). It was during my research that I fell in love (so to speak) with Yukie, who struggled to value herself and her cultural heritage at a time when the Japanese government was determined to absorb the Ainu people into mainstream society and demolish Ainu culture. Though my own struggles of growing up in Japan were nothing compared to hers, I felt a sort of kinship with Yukie. 

Can you tell us a bit more about the owl in the story?
Blakiston's Fish Owl (shimafukuro) Photo by Yoshihito Miki
The owl in the story is the Blakiston's Fish Owl, known as the Shimafukuro (striped owl) in Japanese and Kotan Kor Kamuy (god of the village) in Ainu. It is probably the largest owl existing today, with a wing span of up to six feet, and is now classified as a threatened species, though they were once plentiful in Hokkaido. The Blakiston's Fish Owl has traditionally been revered as the guardian of the Ainu village and is believed to act as a go-between for the human village and the land of the kamuy gods. It is high up in the pantheon of Ainu gods, competing with the brown bear (Kimun Kamuy, or ”god of the mountain") as the god of highest status, depending upon the tribal group and region of Hokkaido. 

You did the illustrations that accompany the story, as well as the above map. Can you tell us about your illustration work?
I painted those images in the etegami style, using sumi ink on thick washi postcards with a high "bleed" factor. If I hadn't painted it for publication in Tomo, I would have added color to the image and accompanied the image with words, without which no etegami is complete. Etegami is one of my abiding passions.You can learn more about this Japanese folk art by visiting my Etegami blog. The two images I submitted to Tomo illustrate a Blakiston's Fish Owl in flight, and inau, the whittled sticks used in communicating with the kamuy gods. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
I think this question takes me back to what I said about Chiri Yukie's struggle to accept--and even take pride in--who she was, in spite of adversities and discrimination that are hard for us to imagine nowadays. If anyone knows what some of those adversities might have felt like, it would be the teens in Tohoku, as they deal with disrupted lives and the social stigma associated with the nuclear reactor accident.

Chiri Yukie first met the famous Japanese linguist Kinda'ichi Kyousuke (1982-1971) when she was in her mid-teens. It stunned her to meet a Japanese man who considered the Ainu language worth enough to study and preserve. Kinda'ichi had immediately recognized the potential in this linguistically gifted teenager and encouraged her to record the yukar (epics) and uepeker (stories) that she had learned from her grandmother, one of the rapidly dwindling keepers of the oral tradition. This was asking a lot of a girl who had learned to keep a low profile to avoid being bullied in school on account of being Ainu. I plan to write more about Chiri Yukie's struggle and accomplishments in a later blog post, but I believe her life itself is a message for the teens in Tohoku.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Interview with TOMO Contributor Tak Toyoshima

Tak Toyoshima (author/illustrator of the Tomo graphic story “Kazoku”) is the creator/illustrator of the comic strip Secret Asian Man. Since 1999, Secret Asian Man has been tackling issues of race with raw honesty with the goal of bringing people together to work out these issues. Tak speaks at universities about his experiences and the importance of keeping tuned in to mainstream depictions and stereotypes of Asians in America. Raised in New York City, he now lives in Massachusetts. Visit his website:

“Kazoku” follows the story of a Sam, an east coast Japanese-American middle school student the day after the earthquake. Sam is initially oblivious to what has happened. What was your inspiration for this tale?
Tak Toyoshima (right) at age 16 in Japan with father, brother and younger cousin
This story is rooted in my own experience about feeling disconnected with my family in Japan. I've been to Japan several times but have had very little contact beyond those short visits. After the earthquake and tsunami, I felt a deep yearning to reach out to my family in Japan and reconnect with them. My son recently had a class project where we had to send items to family/friends in other countries. It was nice to be able to reach out to cousins I hadn't talked to in over a decade and catch up. 

Do you have relatives in Japan and have you visited recently?

Tak Toyoshima (at left) in Asakusa at age 16
The last time I went to Japan was when I was in high school. Let's just say that was a looong time ago. All of my relatives besides my immediate family (parents and brother) live in Japan. I can't wait to visit with my wife and kids. 

You write the comic strip Secret Asian Man. Can you tell us a bit about the development of that strip and your aims with that? 
SAM started as an outlet for me to get out personal stories from my childhood/young adulthood. Stories about going to Japanese camp every summer, going to shuji (calligraphy) classes every Saturday, taking kendo (sword-fighting martial art), being mistaken for a Chinese kid since I lived in Chinatown in New York City, etc. I didn't really think much about the success of the strip or where I wanted to take it. I just wrote and drew and published whenever I could.

Since it began 12 years ago I've taken the strip from a monthly in an arts magazine to a weekly in alt-weeklies to daily syndication through United Features. I'm always looking for new ways to explore the character as well as new topics. Animation has certainly come up and so has different comic forms like traditional comic book/graphic novel style. Also playing around with a kid's book that explores race from a 8/9 year old POV.

The goal is to serve as a bridging text between groups that don't always understand one another. Dialog is the key to coming to a better understanding of each other. I try to use SAM as a way to open conversation and invite honest debate. 

What is your process when creating a story told through comics? Do you doodle the story first? Do you hear a piece of dialogue and work around that? Do you write out the story and dialogue first then draw? 
I usually start with a specific topic in mind like affirmative action, a pop cultural reference, timely news story or a personal experience. It can vary widely. Sometimes it starts from a single phrase or thought. Drawing always comes last. The point of the strip has to come first, then fleshing it out with context and making the dialogue believable. 

Do you like to read Japanese manga? Do you have favorite manga-ka?
I don't read much actively now but I grew up on Japanese manga so a lot of my favorite artists/creators come from an earlier era. Guys like Akira Toriyama, Tezuka Osamu, Katsuhiro Otomo and, more recently, Hayao Miyazaki. 

Do you have any plans to create a graphic novel?
Absolutely. I have a few different ideas for other SAM books and stories. I definitely want to go back to traditional comic book format and tell a long form story. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
The world is inspired by your bravery and tenacity. Always remember you have people who support you and always make time to take care of yourselves.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Interview with TOMO Contributor Ann Tashi Slater

Ann Tashi Slater (author of the Tomo story “Aftershocks”) earned an MFA in creative writing at the University of Michigan and a BA in comparative literature at Princeton. Her stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Gulf Coast, Painted Bride Quarterly, and American Dragons (HarperCollins). Her translation of a Cuban novella was published in Old Rosa: A Novel in Two Stories (Grove). A longtime resident of Japan, she teaches American Literature at Japan Women’s University.

You have a border-crossing background. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Ann Tashi Slater
My mother is Tibetan, from Darjeeling, India, and my father is American, from New Jersey. They met in medical school in New York and I was born in Spain, where my father was stationed at a naval base. After two years there, we spent a year in Darjeeling and Kathmandu, then moved to the States, where I grew up in New Jersey and California.

How did you come to settle in Japan? 
When I graduated from college, I knew that I wanted to be a writer and wanted to travel. I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to do this but for starters, went to Darjeeling to live with my grandmother for a while and work on a family history. In India, I met some travelers who’d come from Japan; they said it was a really interesting and beautiful place. Intrigued, I decided to go to Tokyo for a few months to work and write. I fell in love with Japan and have now been here over 20 years!

The story “Aftershocks” focuses on the strain felt by a family after 3/11. Can you discuss your inspiration for this story? Have you noticed families around you struggling after 3/11? 
Any kind of event like the 3/11 earthquake and its aftermath creates tremendous stress for everyone affected. I did notice families in our community struggling: couples in disagreement about whether to stay or go, kids on edge because of the continuing aftershocks and the conflict between their parents. Also, I’ve always been interested in natural disaster as metaphor, for example how the earth slipping along deeply-buried fault lines can be a metaphor for long-repressed tensions suddenly exploding in a marriage. In the case of my story, the aftershocks following the 3/11 earthquake got me thinking about how we deal with the unpredictable emotions that occur after an event of this magnitude.

Have you been involved in volunteer work related to Tohoku? 
My family is participating in a project to clean photos salvaged from Tohoku and put them up on a website so that they can, hopefully, be identified and returned to their owners.

You write for both young adults and adults, fiction and nonfiction. Can you tell us a bit about some of your projects and what you are working on now? Any plans for a YA novel? 
I’ve written a multi-generational novel set in Darjeeling and based on my family history on the Tibetan side. I’m finishing a travel memoir that takes place in Delhi, Dharamsala, Calcutta, and Darjeeling, and am working on short stories as well as creative non-fiction. No plans at the moment for a YA novel, but you never know!

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?  
We admire your strength and courage; you are an inspiration. Hang in there and know that people around the world are rooting for you.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Interview with TOMO Contributor Alan Gratz

Alan Gratz (author of the Tomo story “The Ghost Who Came to Breakfast”) is the author of a number of books for young readers, including Samurai Shortstop. His short fiction has appeared in Knoxville’s Metropulse magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and the middle grade anthology Half-Minute Horrors. He spent two months in Tokyo in 2010 teaching historical fiction writing at the American School in Japan. Visit his website:

Can tell us a bit about how you first ended up writing about Japan and what experiences you’ve had in Japan?
My interest in Japan began with books. My wife encouraged me to read Shogun by James Clavell and Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, two books for adults about Japan, and I loved them. From then on I wanted to read everything about Japan I could get my hands on, including more fiction, books about Japanese history, essays by people who had traveled there, and travel guides to Japan in the hopes I would one day get to go. It was in one of those travel guides that I saw a picture of a man throwing out the first pitch at a 1915 national high school baseball tournament in Japan. I already knew the Japanese were mad for baseball--baseball was one of my other interests--but 1915? That seemed far too early. I had always assumed the Japanese learned baseball from American GIs during the Allied occupation after World War II. I ran to the library, checked out a book about Japanese baseball, and learned they not only had baseball in 1915, they'd been playing baseball since the 1860s, when they'd gone through the tumultuous Meiji Restoration that radically changed the face of Japan after centuries of Shogun rule. I was immediately hooked, and began putting together the story that would become Samurai Shortstop, my first published novel!

Alan Gratz at Inokashira Koen 
After the success of Samurai Shortstop, I was invited to visit the American School in Japan in Tokyo as their first Artist in Residence, teaching middle schoolers how to write historical fiction for six incredible weeks. It was my first trip to Japan. I felt like I had truly come full circle--I got the idea for Samurai Shortstop while flipping through a travel guide to Japan, dreaming of the day when I might finally be able to travel there, and it was writing Samurai Shortstop that finally took me there! WHO says you can't make your own dreams come true? :-)

Did you meet any ghost girls when you were in Japan? How did this story idea come to you?

Ha. No. I didn't meet any ghost girls while I was in Japan. But I've been intrigued by Japanese ghost stories since I began reading about Japan. One of the greatest Western writers to document Japan is Lafcadio Hearn, whose early books helped Western audiences see behind the seemingly inscrutable Japanese exterior. But later in his life, he wrote a series of books about Japanese fairy tales and ghost stories, including the highly influential Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. That's where I first read Japanese ghost stories, and I was fascinated to find how different they are from Western ghost stories. From then on, I've collected books about Japanese myths, ghosts, and monsters. In one of those books I read about the legend of the zashiki warashi, and I had been trying to figure out how to use it in a story ever since. I thought it would be a perfect fit in the Tomo anthology, because it's all about a new friend who comes to stay! Sort of... 

You have written all sort of fiction—mystery, historical, sports—what are your favorite categories to read or write?
That's tough. I love so many different genres. My favorites to read? Well, I do love historical. And fantasy. And science fiction. And mystery. And sports. I suppose you could say I'm something of a fiction omnivore! I suppose it was only natural that I would try to write all those things too. Next year I have a young adult Star Trek novel coming out, and the year after that I have a novel about the Holocaust due out. Meanwhile, I have an alternate history fantasy novel with my agent, and I have a new idea for a ghost story set in the aftermath of Hiroshima. I'm all over the map! 

What gets you hooked on a new idea?
I have so many things I'm interested in, it's easy to find new ideas. But they don't become proper story ideas--that is, I don't move forward with them as novels--until I can begin to see a plot, characters, a world. For me, I suppose, it really starts with story. Is there conflict? Does something interesting happen? I don't want to tell a story if there's nothing exciting happening. So what happens? That's the first question I ask myself any time I have an idea. If I can't think of anything right away, I write the idea down in my notebooks and sit on it until something comes to me. Sometimes I figure out a story for an idea; many times I don't. But I write them all down, so that one day, if something sparks that idea and it starts a fire, I can go back and easily remember all my early work on it. 

Do you have any plans to return to Japan?
Alan Gratz at a Yakult Swallows game, Jingu Stadium, Tokyo
No specific plans, no, but I definitely want to return! While I was in Japan, I visited a number of baseball stadiums and saw lots of games, as you might expect, but most of the stadiums I visited were in the Tokyo area, as that's where I was headquartered. I would love to return and go on a sort of baseball pilgrimage around Japan--including getting to see the big Koshien High School Baseball tournament in the summer! I also never got to visit northern Japan, and I would very much like to go there if I return. WHEN I return. :-) 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
Often times, when a disaster of this magnitude strikes, its survivors feel isolated, and alone. Like they are suffering while the rest of the world carries on, oblivious to their struggles. I just want the teens of Tohoku to know that we in the United States are not blind to your plight. When the earthquake and tsunami struck, there was a great outpouring of sympathy and support here, and we continue to keep you in our thoughts. The world is a much smaller place than it used to be. One hundred years ago, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami would have been nothing more than a newspaper headline here in the States. Today, we are with you in body, mind, and spirit, and stand ready to help in any way that we can. You have friends around the world!