What themes did you plan to explore before you started writing, and which ones cropped up naturally?
The themes in the collection curate themselves. A story collection is difficult to put together in the same way as a you would novel, because you want everything to feel connected while still being distinctive stories. When I started the collection, I didn’t know it was a collection, so I wasn’t purposefully trying to explore any specific themes, as you would with a book. I was just writing a ton of stories at the time, trying to see if I could succeed at it. I noticed that a lot of the stories took place in Japan, so I started putting my writing energy into that setting, where I lived and worked for three years. Something about my distance from Japan, for about four years at that point, allowed me see my experience there as an expat, or a foreigner living in a new place. Culturally, it was super interesting to learn about the food and mythology, but it was overwhelming to process while I was there, so the distance helped me refine it.
A few people I knew died during the period while I worked, so themes of loss and grief naturally appeared in the collection. I also wrote stories during the period that had nothing to do with Japan, that the editors found not to fit. Curation is more of an editorial process. Publishers will take your pile of stories and order them, or take pieces out that don’t seem to flow with the others.
What do you think are the most important aspects of Japan in your writing?
The experience of being an outsider is very interesting to me. I grew up in a very homogeneous place. Everyone in my high school was white like me, and I never had too much experience with diversity. My years living in Japan really allowed me to experience the opposite of that.
But Japan itself is still a very homogeneous place. They have a saying: the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. In America, we really pride ourselves for standing, but in Japan, it’s the opposite. There, you just fit in, otherwise, you’re out. A lot of Japanese friends I met talked about the pressure of fitting in, and I thought that was a really interesting aspect of character. It was a fertile place for me to imagine the different battles a character would come up against in Japan.
How has your degree in cognitive science influenced your writing?
There are topics in the field that led to major topics in my writing, because I learned a lot about how memory functions. It’s not that different from writing fiction because both fields ask questions about humanity. Fiction is about creating, while cognitive science is an experiment in creation, which is a part of how emotion functions in the brain. They both come at human truth from opposite ways, but it’s the stuff in the middle draws me to both. The things like the amorameter, that measures love, are super fun to write about. That device seems crazy but people are researching it for real.
I’m actually crappy at science. I ran this experiment about music emotions and memory, and I fudged my data and changed it to tell a better story. Maybe that’s a better way of approaching fiction.
When did you start writing? What was your first professional opportunity as a writer?
Since I was a kid, I wrote stories. I loved reading, so I wanted to create something just as powerful. For my 11th birthday I wanted a typewriter, and since then, I’ve written a number of books.
I had written for fun in my twenties and decided to send some stories to magazines for publication. I thought I would get rejected, but 5 months later, one got published in the Gettysburg Review, a story called “Ash,” which is in the new collection.
What advice would you give to young writers?
Read a shit ton! Read widely, and read stuff that you might not like: non fiction, or about cognitive science, or music, or history. The wider your net, the more material you have to draw from when you go to write your own.
Always carry a notebook and train yourself to write every day, even if it’s just a few lines.
Practice noticing what people say and the sounds you hear: usually great lines can relate to some great story. Become a trained observer of life.
Don’t worry about publishing yet. It shouldn’t be your only goal, because it takes so long.
Now that we have so many websites for publishing young writers, there are a lot more opportunities, but don’t get suckered into paying contest fees!
If you send it anywhere, revise it 10 more times than you think you need to. It always feels great to be done, but what seems done to you, an editor will think is not quite there yet.
That’s the hardest lesson I had to learn; don’t send work out too early. An editor won’t read it ever again.