I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to correspond with Sara Backer, author of American Fuji, about her experiences writing this novel as well as her experiences living and working in Japan. Sara will be visiting Motherlogue over the next few days to respond to reader questions. Please post your comments or questions and Sara will respond as time allows. Thank you, Sara!
Once you knew you were going to Japan, how did you prepare? I read another interview in which the interviewer said your book was included in a care package she received when she was a teacher in Japan. How does it feel to have something you’ve written selected as a travel guide of sorts?
Sara: I didn’t have time to prepare. I was scrambling to get a passport, visa, “green card” etc. right down to the last minute. Shipping boxes and storing the rest of my stuff was a big project, not to mention finishing my graduate studies and working as a temp to save money for the trip. I learned my kana on the plane to Tokyo. If I were doing it over again, I’d study Japanese while in the U. S. (much easier to learn here than in Japan). I’d also stock up on underwear.
I didn’t set out to write “a travel guide” but I did include cultural insights I wished I’d known before I moved to Japan. For example, if I’d only known all the “we Japanese” phrases were merely a result of a popular English textbook, I wouldn’t have regarded them as arrogant. Had I known Japan was a mind-reading culture, I wouldn’t have felt so slighted by silence. And I would never have tried to make jokes when introducing myself (which is impolite to Japanese). I was quite the social clod, which I deeply regret.
What it was like to be one of three women instructors on a college campus. How did you handle that? How many professors were there on the campus total?
Sara: There were about 125 professors in the humanities dept., and probably as many in the other 6 departments. It was a large campus. I was often mistaken for an (older) exchange student or a secretary. One time, a Japanese man “corrected” my Japanese when I said I was a university professor telling me I meant my husband was a university professor. I attracted way too much attention and the endless babysitting (translating documents, etc) that all foreigners require in Japan seemed worse coming from a woman than a foreign man. However, my students readily accepted me. I’ve experienced more bias against women professors from American students than Japanese ones. Things have improved at Shizuoka University since then; I hear than 20% of the humanities faculty is now women.
You were in Japan in the early 1990s and the first edition of American Fuji was published in 2001. Did you know you were going to write this story when you left Japan? Or, did you go to Japan with the plan to write a book once you returned to the United States? I’m interested in learning how the story evolved for you.
Sara: Usually, people who go to live in Japan have prior experience or interest in Japan. I was rare in that I went for the job and the adventure without being a Japanophile–I could as easily have gone to Brazil or Poland had a teaching opportunity emerged there. I knew little about the culture and none of the language. My first year was tough, but I think starting from ground zero ultimately helped my novel because, without a pre-determined agenda, I noticed what Japanophiles tend to overlook, such as the constant barrage of loudspeakers in traffic or the social importance of the neighborhood system of trash collection. My experience as a woman in a prestigious position (professors have prestige in Japan) and in a provincial city was nothing like what I’d read in other fiction about contemporary Japan and knew I would have to write a novel about it. I wasn’t sure how I would do it, though, until I read an article in The Japan Times (13 Sep 1991) about an ambitious young businessman who had started a fantasy funeral company to compete with the expensive traditional Buddhist ceremony. I knew at once I had to put that in my novel and that’s when the overall structure clicked.
I loved the cast of characters in your novel, in many ways they reminded me of the eccentric people I met while I was in Japan. When you first began writing, were all of the characters present and accounted for in your mind, or did they “arrive” as you continued writing?
Sara: I lived with the characters in my head a long time before I started writing the book. Walking through tea fields, I’d be fantasizing conversations between Gaby and Alex. For me, the process is like gathering spokes of a wheel. The spokes never make sense until you hold enough together to fit into a rim. That moment, when the wheel holds together, is when I begin to put a story on paper.
You were able to skillfully weave the yakuza (gangster) culture into the novel. What kind of research was required for you to convey such a realistic picture of the yakuza lifestyle and experience?
Sara: Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but the truth is that my “research” was my personal observations and conversations with my Japanese friends. Yakuza have been dramatized in film as dangerous, twisted, finger-hacking mobsters. I never met any like that. I wanted to show the “daily grind” variety of yakuza I came across in Shizuoka City–the ones in construction work, Pachinko parlors, race tracks, and various small businesses.
It sounds like you met yakuza during your time in Japan…how did you meet them? Do you think yakuza are more accepting of foreigners than other Japanese? Have you read Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein? I just heard an interview with him this past weekend about his experiences as a crime reporter in Saitama for 12 years.
Sara: I haven’t read Tokyo Vice but I read an interview with Jake Adelstein and the book sounds terrific. As a crime reporter in Tokyo, he was talking to much higher level yakuza than I was as a professor in Shizuoka. I met lower working class yakuza: construction workers, pachinko parlor workers, a lovely young man who installed an air conditioner in my apartment, and so forth. Like Adelstein, I do believe yakuza can talk to foreigners more easily because they are also outsiders in a sense.
From a tactical approach, did you know the story’s ending before you began? How did you go about writing your first draft? I recently attended a conference and one of the instructors was emphatic that an author must know the ending before beginning the story – since the workshop I’ve been busy asking published authors about the validity of this “you must know the ending” theory!
Sara: I never outline a novel. The rewarding part for me is exploring my material. If I know exactly where I’m going, it’s no pleasure to get there. That said, I did have a theme (the arc of alienation and forgiveness) and some scenes in mind from the beginning. I knew I wanted to end at the top of Mt. Fuji, but I didn’t know which character(s) would be in the final scene until I’d written most of it. My first love was theater, so I begin with characters, draft in scenes, and sort out the plot later.
Did you also have a “day job” while you were writing American Fuji? If so, what techniques or processes did you use to write a novel and still maintain another job (e.g., did you write every morning or after work or on your commute)?
Sara: Oh, man, I wish I knew the answer to this one. I always have a day job–still do–and I have yet to find a way to keep writing while I’m teaching. Teaching is a mind-consuming job as well as a time-consuming one. Basically, I only write in the summer, which is why it takes me so long to finish writing each novel. In those precious two months of the year I get to write, I write every morning, go for a walk, and then either write more or handle all the other stuff of life that must get done.
American Fuji has been translated into Spanish and Italian – congratulations! Are there any plans to translate it into Japanese? Have you had any reactions about your book from Japanese readers?
Sara: Thank you. In addition to the Italian and new Spanish edition, American Fuji also came out in French, Dutch, and Polish. Japanese rights have not been sold, although my Japanese readers are among my most ardent fans and I have had many personal offers to translate American Fuji into Japanese. One Japanese woman wrote that she was “impressed, more like scared” by my “keen observation” of Japanese culture. For example, I said that Japanese enter with apology and exit with gratitude. She was unaware that, but after reading American Fuji, she recognized she and her family do indeed do that. Japanese readers also tend to recognize and appreciate the character of Marubatsu much better than American readers, who find him over-the-top. Several readers have said Marubatsu reminded them of their supervisors.
What are you currently writing?
Sara: I just started a new novel last summer and can’t wait to go back to it. I can’t tell you details because I’m superstitious. I’m convinced talking about a novel before it’s written is a sure-fire way to never finish writing it.
What advice do you have for aspiring novelists?
Sara: Hmm. Well, enjoy what you do or don’t do it. If by “aspiring” you mean seeking publication, that’s both easier and harder than ever. Easier, because you can self-publish POD or simply start a blog and share your writing with anyone. Harder, because fewer people read fiction much less buy it and the publishing industry, from booksellers to publishers, is in tough shape. This makes the competition that much more daunting for writers. If it’s money you want, writing fiction is a silly way to try to get it; you have better odds buying lottery tickets. Which brings me back to “enjoy what you do.” I can’t say writing is “fun” (like, say, a beach party) but, to me, it’s the most rewarding struggle, and I love the process for its own sake.
What do you miss most about Japan?
Sara: I miss so many things–the deep bathtubs, fresh green tea, trains that run on time, safe streets to walk at night, cheap dry cleaning, riding my red bicycle to the ocean, hiking Sengen Jinja (an entire hill that is a Shinto shrine), or just looking out my balcony to see if I could see Mt. Fuji. But most, I miss the way people communicate in metaphor. For example, someone might say “my mind is like a firefly” in ordinary conversation without being thought of as strange. Please visit my blog (http://americanfuji.blogspot.com) to see photos I took and glimpses of my frustrating and magical life in Japan.
Once again, many thanks to Sara for taking the time to share her insights and experiences about writing, Japan and life as a gaijin in her novel and with us at Motherlogue.