A conversation about writing with author Suzanne Kamata

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Suzanne Kamata, of the blog Gaijin Mama, has written short stories, essays, articles and book reviews that have appeared in more than 100 publications, including New York Stories, Calyx, Crab Orchard Review, Pleiades, Kyoto Journal, The Utne Reader, The Japan Times, Brain, Child, Skirt!, Ladybug, and Cicada. Her work also appears in the anthologies Yaponesia, The Beacon Best of 1999, It’s a Boy!, It’s a Girl!, Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, Not What I Expected, and in a forthcoming anthology on alternative family configurations, edited by Rebecca Walker and published by Riverhead.

She is the editor of the anthology The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan (Stone Bridge Press, 1997) and a forthcoming literary anthology Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising Children with Special Needs to be published in June, 2008 by Beacon Press. Formerly fiction editor of Being A Broad, a magazine for expatriate women in Japan, she now serves as fiction editor for the popular e-zine Literary Mama, and edits and publishes the literary magazine Yomimono. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a special mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest.

She currently teaches at Naruto Educational University and lives in Japan with her husband and two children.

Her first novel, Losing Kei, will be published by Leapfrog Press January 1, 2008. She’s taken the time to answer a few questions about writing, editing, and life in Japan.

You’ve written short stories, creative nonficition, and fiction. What’s your favorite form, and why?
SK: I think of myself as a fiction writer. Although many of my stories are inspired by real life events and could possibly be written as nonficttion, I like writing fiction because it allows me to find meaning in events. In stories, the characters may come to some sort of understanding, whereas in the real life event, I may have had no epiphanies whatsoever – at least not at the time. I also enjoy the craft of fiction. In stories inspired by my own experiences, I often exaggerate, compress time or change the sequence of events, or attribute quotes to different people in order to give shape to a story. If I tried to write a memoir, I think at some point I’d pull a James Frey.

You’ve also edited a literary magazine, an e-zine and two anthologies. What are the particular challenges of editing, and which hat do you like wearing best: writer or editor?
SK: I’m a writer. I love writing, and that’s what I like to do best, but I’m also passionate about reading. I think the greatest challenge in editing is in gently guiding a writer in revision. Many of us – especially those of us just starting out – have fragile egos and the slightest criticism can be crushing. I try to be gentle and to stay true to the author’s vision.

What’s your writing process?
SK: I write haphazard first drafts – whatever comes to me first, or whatever I feel like writing about. I might write the middle of a story or essay, and then the beginning and then the end, or a variation of that. I would rather not know the ending until last. In fact, I think that’s better. I often have one ending in mind, as with Losing Kei, and then find out that that doesn’t work at all.

What’s the most helpful advice you’ve gotten about writing?
SK: Hmm. I guess show, don’t tell. And also write until you get to the end.

What’s the least helpful?
SK: In writing books and articles, some writers advocate starting with an outline. I think that’s harmful to the process.

Who are your favorite writers?
SK: There are so many! A few: Margurite Duras, Julio Cortazar, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Simone de Beauvoir, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julia Alvarez, Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, Pam Houston, Jayne Anne Phillips, Sheila Kohler.

What’s it like, being a woman writer in Japan?
SK: That’s a hard question. I feel very isolated because I live in Shikoku, which is far away from the bright lights of Tokyo or even Osaka. I am surrounded by people who don’t read or write English, and who have in fact developed a dislike of reading English after six years of studying it. But this is freeing, in a way. Knowing that the people around me won’t be reading what I write, I can write about just about anything. And there is no sense of competition, as there might be had I stayed in South Carolina, which is teeming with wonderful writers.

How did you begin, as a writer?
SK: I wrote as a child, and I kept writing. My first publication was an article in The Grand Rapids Press when I was sixteen. In high school I had the idea that I would be a journalist to support my novel-writing.

What would you tell other beginning writers?
SK: Persist, persist, persist. I have a couple of aspiring writer friends who are devastated by their first rejections of a story. I have sent stories out as many as 25 times before finding a publisher. It’s also good to find a couple of people you can trust to read your work and give you feedback. Join a writing group. I shared Losing Kei with my online writing group when I started it. I was a bit wary about sharing something raw and unfinished, but the other members’ interest in the novel kept me going.

Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?
SK: I want to remind readers that fiction is not frivolous. A lot of people don’t want to read something unless it is true. Well, in writing essays I (and others, I’m sure) always put a certain spin on events. We might leave out key events, for example. The same goes for writers of history. Everything is open to interpretation. Fiction has its own way of telling the truth.

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3 thoughts on “A conversation about writing with author Suzanne Kamata

  1. Thanks for sharing this with us, Jennifer. As one of those new or aspiring writers, I am always encouraged and comforted by the wisdom of those who have succeeded. The reminder that everyone has to start somewhere, along with practical pointerson how to actually GET there.

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