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!

1 comment:

  1. Alan - thanks for the wise and encouraging words. I am a long time fan
    of Senor Hearn too ! If you find the inspiration...write more about Nippon ..all the best , jon manjiro