"As a young girl I hated playing
'house' and never played with dolls. The game that I really liked to play was 'jail.' And I always wanted to be the prisoner."
When the Emperor Was Divine
"There are times when all my neurons are firing and I definitely feel 'in the zone,' as they say. But those times are rare - mostly I'm wondering am I crazy...isn't there something easier I could have chosen to do with my life?"
When the Emperor Was Divine
"My approach to writing is very ritualistic and controlled. I need everything to be the same every day, perhaps because the writing itself usually feels so out-of-control and unpredictable."
When the Emperor Was Divine
The new book Otsuka is working on is "about a group of young Japanese picture brides sailing to America to meet their future husbands in 1919. I guess you could say it’s sort of a prequel to my first book."
When the Emperor Was Divine
The unknown Otsuka... kept her agent waiting three years for the balance of [Emperor]. Alfred A. Knopf moved faster. The publisher saw the pages on a Friday and made an offer for the book the following Monday.
Passion between outcasts in pre-war Indochina.
The Things They Carried
Moving stories from the National Book Award winner.
Interview: Julie Otsuka
years in the making, the 140-page achingly spare When the Emperor
Was Divine was one of the critical literary successes of
It's an intimate
account of a Japanese family’s internment during World War II, a
tale of lives scarred by racism.
Otsuka, raised in California, trained for years as a painter and sculptor before finding a home in writing. A series of humorous sketches she wrote to make a boyfriend laugh turned into a portfolio that got her accepted into Columbia University’s M.F.A. program. She wrote the opening chapters of what ultimately would be When the Emperor Was Divine during her time there and, based on their strength, a well-known literary agent agreed to represent her.
The then unknown Otsuka, a perfectionist who reworks each sentence until it sings, kept her agent waiting three years for the balance of the manuscript. Alfred A. Knopf moved faster. The publisher saw the pages on a Friday and made an offer for the book the following Monday.
VerbSap: Julie, When the Emperor Was Divine was drawn, in part, from your family’s own experience, something you’ve said in the past that they hesitated to discuss over the years. Has the subject always haunted you or did the first chapter take you by surprise when it appeared under your pen?
Otsuka: As a child I was only vaguely aware of what had happened to my mother and her family during the war. My mother would occasionally mention people she knew from ‘camp,’ but I didn’t really give the word much thought. I didn’t give it any thought at all, to tell you the truth. So no, I wasn’t haunted by the subject—consciously, that is. I do remember, however, that as a young girl I hated playing ‘house’ and never played with dolls. The game that I really liked to play was ‘jail.’ And I always wanted to be the prisoner.
When I first started writing, I wrote only comic stories for the longest time. I never thought of myself as being a ‘serious’ writer, or someone who had an obvious story to tell. But at a certain point images of the war began to surface in my mind, and in my writing, so clearly the war was something I needed to write about.
VerbSap: In Bird By Bird Author Anne Lamott likened writing to pulling teeth and said the only way she could get herself to do it was “to write really, really shitty first drafts” and pray she didn’t get creamed by a car until she’d had time to rework them. Is writing a painful experience for you, a joy or something in between?
Otsuka: It’s all those things. I experience a lot of doubt when I’m writing, so that makes it terrifying at times. But I also really love the process of putting down words on the page and shaping them. There are times when all my neurons are firing and I definitely feel “in the zone,” as they say. But those times are rare—mostly I’m wondering am I crazy, is this story even worth telling, isn’t there something easier I could have chosen to do with my life? And nothing ever comes out right the first time. I write and rewrite and need to live with a story or chapter over time in order for it to find its ‘ideal’ shape.
VerbSap: You wrote a wonderful essay called In the Café for Powell’s Books about the coffee shop in which you’ve written every day for more than eight years. You called your spot there “your favorite corner in the world.” What is it that draws you to this particular place? Can you write when you’re alone or do you need to be part of a community of what you call “quiet people with pens?”
Otsuka: I’m a pretty solitary person by nature, and I do write when I’m alone in my apartment, but I seem to do my best writing when I’m in the café. I like working in a public space--you’re alone but you’re not alone. And I’m very fond of the community of regulars who’ve been going to this particular café for years. It’s comforting to have them around—other writers, composers, grad students, professors, neighborhood people. And there are certain people next to whom I seem to work very well. It’s like there’s some sort of hidden exchange of creative energy going on. Also, the coffee refills are free, and you can sit for as long as you like. Oh, and no music! Also, no outlets, which makes it a very old-fashioned place.
VerbSap: I admit it. I'm fascinated that you do all your writing with a Waterman fountain pen. What is it that makes this instrument special to you? And why do you think people are so interested in the mechanics of how writers actually produce text? Is it part of our obsessive search for the source of inspiration?
Otsuka: Personally, I think that reading is the best source of inspiration. That’s what usually does it for me. But then there are all these other things that I need to provide the ‘perfect’ writing environment. I need to be in the café, I need coffee to jump start my brain, I need a croissant just because they taste so good, I need to be sitting next to other people who are also working, and I need…that pen. What is it about the Waterman? It’s cool and smooth, feels good in the hand. Seems to be perfectly weighted. It’s got heft, so I know it’s a serious implement, but it’s not so heavy that it makes me tired or slows me down. The ink flows evenly and smoothly. And aesthetically, it’s just a very beautiful object. I guess my approach to writing is very ritualistic and controlled. I need everything to be the same every day, perhaps because the writing itself usually feels so out-of-control and unpredictable.
VerbSap: When The Emperor Was Divine earned you a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship and an Asian America Literary Award, among other accolades.It’s been translated into six languages. Do you feel under pressure to live up to the high standard you set with your first book? Is the second proving harder to write or has the positive response to When The Emperor Was Divine boosted your self-confidence and made writing easier?
Otsuka: The second book was harder to start. The year after Emperor came out I was on the road a lot, doing interviews, etc., so I got very little writing done. And although I do feel pressure, the second book, now that I’ve actually started writing it (I spent about two years thinking about it, and doing research and taking notes and sketching scenes out), seems to be coming to me more quickly. Which is odd, because I think of myself as being an extremely slow writer.
VerbSap: Is there anything you can share with us about the second novel you’re working on? We don’t what to jinx it, but we’re curious as all get out.
Otsuka: The first chapter of my second novel will be read in March as part of ‘Selected Shorts’ at Symphony Space in NYC (NPR radio broadcast will be later), so I guess I can talk about it. It’s about a group of young Japanese picture brides sailing to America to meet their future husbands in 1919. I guess you could say it’s sort of a prequel to my first book.
VerbSap: What are you reading now and can you tell us some of your favorite books?
Otsuka: I’m reading a book by the French writer, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, called ‘Making Love’— about the dissolution of a French couple’s affair while away on vacation in Tokyo. Some of my favorite books: Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Camus’ The Plague, Joan Didion’s essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, anything by Alice Munro, Richard Ford, Lydia Davis, Annie Ernaux.
When The Emperor Was Divine Reading Group Guide from publisher Alfred. A. Knopf.
Photo of Ms Otsuka Copyright © 2004 Daryl N Long