Interview with Malena Watrous

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Last week I reviewed If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous and really enjoyed it. (My review can be seen here). She is a great writer and I believe she will be an author whose books to look out for! I was fortunate enough to be able to interview her last week. Malena had great answers that were insightful and some that made me laugh out loud. I read her e-mail while I was at the airport so it's possible I got a few funny looks. =) Nevertheless, enjoy the interview and maybe it will help you decide if you want to read the book!

1. What was your inspiration for this book?

I had been back from Japan for about 9 months when I first started the story that eventually grew into a novel. I was living in Iowa City and attending the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I'd never lived in a small town in America before, and was surprised by how many things about it kept reminding me of the small town (Shika) where I'd lived in Japan. Specifically, people in Iowa City seemed to spend a lot of time watching their neighbors. I lived in a house that was split in half, and my landlords lived on the other side, and they'd leave me these passive-aggressive (but increasingly aggressive) notes whenever I went out and left the lights on. The winter was even colder than it had been in Japan, and one time I threw out a bag of trash without cinching it properly, and then it rained and iced solid, and my landlords got upset with me so I brought it into my apartment and put it in the bathtub. That object and image, "the trashsicle," started reminding me of Japan and how hard it had been to learn the garbage rules, and that was the original impetus for the first part of the book. I was feeling claustrophobic and monitored, and those were the initial emotions that I was intrigued to explore.
Pretty soon though, the story about the two women took over. On the one hand, their relationship that isn't working, their characters aren't really compatible, and I'm sure that if they were in the United States, they would have broken up much sooner. But they are stuck in a lease and job contracts that would be hard to get out of, in a foreign country where they depend on each other for everything, and they can't imagine being there alone.

2. How much of this novel, if any, was autobiographical? I noticed the main character's name is similar to your own ;) I also read on your website that you taught English in Japan. What parts were added to enhance the story?

I certainly drew a lot from my experiences living in Shika, and the town itself was too weird and wonderful not to use as a setting, although I took some creative liberties as well, especially as time went by and I remembered less and had to imagine more. The plot is made up, however, and the characters are fictional, although again some were inspired by people I knew or (more often) amalgams of different people. Haruki, for instance, the overweight boy in the secretarial girls' class, was a real kid (name changed), a boy who had (like the character) been a "shut-in" for years and had just emerged from his room to start his freshman year of high school when I started teaching. Unlike in my novel, he didn't do anything creepy to me or stalk me, or live across the street, but he was almost catatonic, totally silent, and he fascinated me. I always wondered why he'd been a shut-in and then why he'd emerged from his room but not really or fully "come to life," as far as I could tell. So I wrote the character to flesh out those questions.

3. Was Marina's experience in Japan similar to your own? What was different about your experience than hers? I did want to add that the dialogue between the characters was amusing to me because it was so real in the ways that the Japanese characters spoke English the way they did because of what they're used to in their language. You did such a great job at portraying the Japanese characters!

I lived in Ishikawa (the prefecture) for two years, but in my second year I transferred two hours south, from Shika to the city of Kanazawa, which I always say is like Providence, Rhode Island--big enough that people know of it but not especially significant. It boasts "the third nicest garden in Japan," if you catch my drift. That said, it was much more cosmopolitan and comparatively international than Shika, so I had two very different experiences in Japan. In terms of the language, I love malapropisms and idiosyncratic speech. When I taught an adult English class at the community center in Shika, I had the students write poems and was amazed by how original and inventive their poetry was. They were literally unable to write cliches in English because they didn't know English well enough. Even when they tried to use a familiar idiom or phrase, they usually got some aspect of it "wrong" in a way that I found moving and funny and wonderful. Right now I have a young child, a two and a half year old, and he's still learning to speak (English and Spanish) and he also delights me by saying things that aren't quite right, but unique and surprising.

4. That is so interesting about their writing! You mentioned you started the initial story 9 months after you returned from Japan. How long did it take you to complete this book? Were there parts that were more difficult to write than others?

Well, I wrote a story in 2000 rather quickly and then I set is aside for a couple of years while I was working on a collection. But a couple of years later, when I looked at the collection as a whole, I wasn't sure that the pieces fit together and I decided that this one, set in Japan, felt unfinished. From that point, I spent about 3 years writing the novel. It was tricky taking something that worked as a complete piece of short fiction and figuring out how to grow it. I wrote a lot of drafts, and tried a lot of different strategies, before figuring out the current structure.

5. Wow, sounds like you really put a lot of work into it. What was your favorite part about the book/about writing the book?

This might sound strange, but when the writing was going well, I sometimes felt like I was back in Japan, able to see things and smell things and taste things that I didn't even realize how much I missed until I was writing. When I finally finished, I felt sad like I was leaving the country again. I enjoyed writing Miyoshi-sensei's letters. He was a fun character to inhabit.

6. I loved his letters too! I also loved the fact that he wrote her those letters instead of just speaking to her, lol! So speaking of Miyoshi-Sensei, I found him very interesting. I felt like there are still some things about him that we don't really know, but then, I also think that this is part of the cultural difference in that the Asian culture is often very private so I wondered if this was on purpose.
Tell me about your inspiration for his character.

I think that's right. I spent so much time thinking about him, and writing in his voice, and I feel like I know him as a character the way that Marina would have known him in the book--she has an increasingly deep sense of him, who he is, even though he's not particularly forthcoming about his life. She has never been to his house, for instance. That's pretty typical in Japan. I was fairly good friends with my first supervisor, and with several other teachers at the school, and I didn't even know where they lived in this very small town. I think that he's the character who interests me the most in the book, maybe because he keeps some parts of himself a mystery.

7. How about Joe and his decision to stay in Japan? I've heard in the past that some American men feel that they have it better in some Asian countries and feel more respected. Was there another purpose in Joe staying there (either in the story or as your decision as the writer to keep him there)? Well, except for the parts that you would have to read the book to know! =)

We used to joke about the "2-to-10 factor," where a foreign guy who was just a 2/10 in the States suddenly got treated like a 10/10 in Japan. Joe doesn't quite fit that profile, since he's supposed to be quite good looking. But I wanted him to be someone who wasn't thriving in his own culture, who got coddled in Japan, for whom life was comparatively easy--at least it seems that way to Marina, who sees his treatment as sexist and unfair. I would say that the foreign women I knew in Japan pretty much universally complained about how much easier the foreign guys had it.

8. Haha, that 2-to-10 factor is too funny! It's a shame though that foreign men and women were treated so differently. Were any of your characters based on people you knew in Japan?

Mostly the minor characters. Haruki, and a very tiny librarian who had an arranged marriage, and the matchmaker. The matchmaker in Shika was actually a junior high English teacher (not a banker) but like the character in the book she was very provocative and nosy, and she did it as a side gig, which I found interesting.

9. This is your first novel, but you have extensive writing experience. How did this affect your ability to write your novel and/or publish? Were there any drawbacks?

It took a lot of years to write the novel, and I was learning how to write a novel as I was writing the novel, so part of the revision process was trying to hide my learning curve. That said, I'm not sure you ever really learn how to write a novel (or a story or a poem). By the end of one, you've learned how to write *that* book, and you've certainly gotten more adept at particular craft points, but I feel like a beginner every time I sit down to start something new, and again whenever I get stuck or have to begin a big revision. But I'm sure this is why writing is more engaging and satisfying than other things that I do. If I thought I'd figured out how to do it, then it wouldn't be as compelling (or maddening).

10. What do you hope the reader gains from reading If You Follow Me? Is there a message you hope to convey?

I am resistant to message-driven fiction, because it sounds moralizing, and I definitely don't think I have greater moral authority than the next person (probably less). But I think in the end that one thing that is important to me about the book is how the main character deals with shame with regard to different parts of her life, from her relationship with another woman to her father's suicide. I feel like part of her growth over the course of the book is learning to be more honest and open and less concerned with other people's opinions, less ashamed of things she can't control. Is that a message? Am I contradicting myself?

11. What an insightful answer... I never thought of it like that! I usually like when I find a message in fiction, but I suppose what I actually like is when *I* am able to glean or interpret a message from what I'm reading. So if you look at it that way then just because that's what you find important doesn't mean you're contradicting yourself. =) (Although I agree that message did get across, and I think it's a good one).

What is your writing schedule like? You mentioned you have a young child at home. How do you balance it all?!! =)

I try to write for at least two hours, every weekday morning, three or four if it's going well or I have a deadline. I drop my child off at preschool, and then I go to a coffee shop (so it feels like a treat and I can get out of the house) and then I do my personal work until lunch. After lunch I work on teaching and freelance writing. I feel fortunate in that I really enjoy the different aspects of my day and "job." I still can't believe that I get to read and write fiction for a living. It was a childhood dream. I'm not always perfectly disciplined though, but I cut myself slack. And there are times when the writing is going well and I use evenings and weekends too, so I feel like it all balances out.

12. Are you working on anything new? How much can you share?

I have been working on two different projects, one contemporary and set in San Francisco, and one historical that's exciting to me but hard because it requires research. I've also been writing stories and essays, and going back and forth between these things. I assume I'll eventually focus on one until I complete it, but it has been fun to play for a while.

Well, I definitely look forward to reading more from you! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview!

Check out Malena's website at


dkm1981 said...

What a fantastic interview and the book sounds really good, I'll have to keep an eye out for it. Love you blog by the way!

Juju at Tales of said...

GREAT questions Jenny.

Michelle (Red Headed Book Child) said...

I just adore that cover of the book.

Emidy said...

I'm glad I came across your blog, because I'm interested in reading that book now! Up until now I've never heard of it before.

from Une Parole

Jeannie @ Pine Cottage Books said...

That was a great interview! Nice work :) I'm looking forward to reading the book too.

Connie said...

This is one of the best interviews I have ever seen and I just bought the book! Can't wait to read it. :)

Zibilee said...

Awesome interview! Malena sounds like a very inspired and interesting person, and I think it would be really neat to share a cup of coffee with her and chat about her time in Japan. You asked some amazingly astute questions in your interview, and her answers were equally fascinating.

Jenny said...

dkm -- Thanks!!

Juju -- Thanks Juju!

Michelle -- me too! I really like the cover.

Emidy -- yay, I'm glad it interested you! I really liked it.

Jeannie -- thanks! I hope you enjoy it!

Connie -- thanks!! And I hope you like the book too!!

Zibilee -- thank you! I think she gave great answers too and think she would be very interesting to talk to in person.

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