AOB: I just loved your novel, Orchards. It is one of the best books I read in 2012. How did you come up with the story idea?
Holly: Thank you! Orchards was a story that began to develop as I was doing research at a mikan orange farm in Shizuoka, Japan, for an adult novel. Midway through my 18 months of assisting a mikan farm family and absorbing everything I could about mikan cultivation and Japanese agricultural village life, the farmer’s American-born niece came to visit. Seeing her there, a family member yet out of her element, inspired the character of Kana. The other element of the story, Ruth, was sadly inspired by the suicide death of the thirteen-year-old daughter of a friend. I never truly expected to write about it, but the idea of Kana’s summer in Japan, the mikan and apple orchards, the girls in New York all began to merge into a tale I felt needed to be told. I hope that Orchards raises questions for readers and starts discussions.
AOB: In a few sentences could you give us a description of the plot?
Holly: Here is the jacket description: After a classmate commits suicide, Kana Goldberg—a half-Japanese, half-Jewish American—wonders who is responsible. She and her cliquey friends said some thoughtless things to the girl. Hoping that Kana will reflect on her behavior, her parents pack her off to her mother’s ancestral home in Japan for the summer. There Kana spends hours under the hot sun tending to her family’s mikan orange groves. Kana’s mixed heritage makes it hard to fit in at first, especially under the critical eye of her traditional grandmother, who has never accepted Kana’s father. But as the summer unfolds, Kana gets to know her relatives, Japan, and village culture, and she begins to process the pain and guilt she feels about the tragedy back home. Then news about a friend sends her world spinning out of orbit all over again.
Holly Thompson’s dazzling novel in verse gives voice to the complex emotions of a girl whose anger, confusion, and regret transform into newfound compassion and a sense of purpose.
AOB: Verse novels have always intrigued me. Can you share your writing process with us? What tips would you give writers on how best to approach writing a verse novel? What are your favorite YA verse novels?
Holly: I think each verse novelist approaches a verse novel in a unique way. Many “verse novels” are actually what I would call “novels in poems.” My approach is to write each chapter as a longish poem, with each page a sort of sub-poem. I’m very conscious of page turns. This means that while each page may not contain a true stand-alone poem, within that chapter it should serve as a sort of sub-poem, a unit larger than a stanza but smaller than the chapter. This is the approach I’ve used for Orchards and The Language Inside and another verse novel I just completed.
I look forward to further experimenting with this and other methods. As for other verse novels and novels in poems that I love, to name just a few of many: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas, and works by Ellen Hopkins, Sonya Sones and Helen Frost. My advice for verse novelists is to read poetry, read verse novels, write poetry, go to poetry readings, hear poetry. Then ask yourself if the voice and the content of your story are truly suited to the pared down, condensed nature of verse. Verse novels require blending story with poetry, and not all stories are necessarily suited to the form.
AOB: I’m fascinated with the writing life you have created for yourself in Japan. How did you end up in Japan teaching writing? What courses do you teach and for whom? What kind of advice would you give someone (me!) interested in following a similar path?
Holly: I met my husband-to-be when I was twenty and he was recently back from a year and a half living and studying in Kyoto and keen to return. I was studying biology and just discovering my love for writing short fiction—Japan was so not on my agenda! But we came to an agreement that after graduating I’d teach science for two years and then we’d move to Japan, and that’s exactly what we did. We lived and taught in public high schools in Kanagawa for three years, and while there I became serious about writing. We moved back to the US so I could attend the Creative Writing Program at New York University. It wasn’t until 1998 that we had the chance to move to Japan again—with our two small children; soon after that I began teaching at Yokohama City University. Creative writing is not typically offered at Japanese universities, so I’ve been lucky to be able to teach courses in poetry writing and fiction writing, as well as literature and other courses.
AOB: What does a typical writing day look like for you?
Holly: There is no typical day! Some days are new writing days, some are more for editing, some days I work on long fiction for part of the day then turn to poetry, or vice versa. Sometimes I’ll spend a day immersed in short fiction. A writing day always includes a run or a hike—physical movement. I’m lucky to live in Kamakura where I have some amazing scenery and cultural history to draw me outside my study and generate new ideas. There are lots of Kamakura-related posts and photos on my hatbooks blog so you can get an idea of my writing environment.
AOB: How does living in Japan influence your writing?
Holly: Living in Japan and raising our kids here; travel back and forth to the US; meeting students and writers all around Asia; insider/outsider issues—all of this has fueled my writing. I tend to think that writers and artists can always benefit by going outside our comfort zones, by finding new ways of seeing. Speaking and hearing Japanese daily inevitably influences my English, my sentences, my sense of rhythm and pacing, and where I find the need for breathing space and pause in my verse and prose.
AOB: What kinds of challenges did you have launching Orchards from overseas? How did you overcome them?
Holly: Well, there aren’t many grand launch opportunities here, so you have to create them for yourself. I speak at international schools–perfect settings to celebrate a book launch. SCBWI Tokyo and other Japan writing groups offer opportunities for speakers to read and present and get a book known. I’ll be in Korea for the U.S. launch date of The Language Inside so will celebrate with international school students there, and will follow that with a launch event in Singapore at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content. Whenever I’m in the U.S., I try to fit in as many school visits and readings as I can. And of course there is social media.
The other tough challenge for me personally during the spring 2011 launch of Orchards was the March 11, 2011 earthquake in Japan. Inevitably my attention was drawn away from Orchards to the disaster and its impact on northern Japan. I volunteered for tsunami cleanup work, and soon after began compiling the anthology Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories to benefit teens in the quake-affected areas. Sometimes life throws us truly unexpected events.
AOB: Your next novel, The Language Inside is also written in verse. What is it about? How did the story idea come to you?
Holly: The Language Inside (Delacorte/Random House, May 2013) blends elements of Japan, Cambodia and Massachusetts. Here is the description:
Emma Karas was raised in Japan; it’s the country she calls home. But when her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, Emma’s family moves to a town outside Lowell, Massachusetts to stay with her grandmother while her mom undergoes treatment. Emma feels out of place in the United States, begins to have migraines, and longs to be back in Japan. At her grandmother’s urging, she volunteers in a long-term care center to help Zena, a patient with locked-in syndrome, write down her poems. There, Emma meets Samnang, another volunteer, who assists elderly Cambodian refugees. Weekly visits to the care center, Zena’s poems, dance, and noodle soup bring Emma and Samnang closer, until Emma must make a painful choice: stay in Massachusetts, or return early to Japan. The Language Inside is a verse novel rich in language both spoken and unspoken and poetry that crosses boundaries to create a story layered with love, loss, movement and words.
When I was a student in the NYU Creative Writing Program I was a volunteer in the Goldwater Hospital writing workshops and had the opportunity to assist Julia Tavalaro, a brainstem stroke victim, who looked up to indicate yes—volunteers used a letter board and she looked up to spell words letter by letter and create poems. I was daunted and amazed by her determination and spirit, and years later began thinking about a teen character volunteering in such a situation. I wanted to set it in or near the city of Lowell, Massachusetts, a city of immigrants, and this led me to my Cambodian-American character Samnang.
AOB: Is there anything quirky you’d like to share with our readers about yourself, your life in Japan, or your writing process?
Holly: When my schedule is balanced and I’m running nearly every day, my writing is at its best. When I’m away from the running, my writing suffers. Sometimes ideas come one after another during my runs and as soon as I return home I have to sit down at the computer and write feverishly so I don’t lose the ideas. Other times during my run, my brain turns over all the intrusive daily life stuff so that when I’m back at my desk I’m able to focus better on my writing. I don’t run far or fast, but my runs are a productive, vital part of my writing life.
A list of awards for Orchards:
2012 APALA Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature
A YALSA 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults title
A Bank Street 2012 Best Children’s Books of the Year title
SCBWI 2012 Crystal Kite Winner
A 2011 Librarians’ Choice: Poetry title
Thank you so much for joining us at Quirk and Quill, Holly. I can’t wait to read your other books!!