Interview: Mariko Tatsumoto

Mariko TatsumotoThis month I had the great privilege to interview author Mariko Tatsumoto, author of thelovely and wonderfully heartwarming middle-grade novel Ayumi's Violin.

What made you aspire to be a published writer?

I accidentally took a children’s writing class. I thought I was signing up for a creative writing class. Our “final” was to write a picture book. The instructor praised my work and encouraged me to get it published. I later took a creative writing class from the same instructor.

How long have you been a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers?

About ten years. I learned so much at the Gold Conferences. I always attended a session every hour, I never skipped. I also bought CDs of sessions I couldn’t attend. I relished in listening to stories speakers told. By attending conferences, I made writing friends whom have become vital in my writing life. I joined online critique groups set up by RMFW. The writers in those groups have taught me so much and have given me so much support, I could never thank them enough.

Who are some of your own favorite writers? What are some of your favorite books?

Michael Connelly, Tony Hillerman, J.K. Rowling. I used to own hundreds of books, many of them first editions or signed, but I decided to pare down only to those I really care about. Now I own about a hundred print books. I only have about a dozen ebooks. Some that I could never give away are: Tom Sawyer, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Snow Falling on Cedar, October Sky, The Wave, and all the James Bond books by Ian Fleming because they were my father’s.

What are you currently reading?

Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown

Ayumi's ViolinWhy was it important to you to tell Ayumi’s story?

I think the hardships we endure in our lives never leave us, and we want others to understand what we’ve gone through. Immigrating to a foreign country is a difficult transition. Many people don’t understand how tough it is to make a new life in a new country where you don’t speak the language and you don’t understand the culture.

In some ways Ayumi’s father is subjected to the same mistrust and racism as Ayumi, and yet his experience with these things differs from Ayumi’s in fundamental ways.

Especially in 1959, being white allowed many privileges, such as traveling unrestricted and not being judged by his looks by strangers. As the book progresses, he learns to stand up for Ayumi more, but he doesn’t carry racism and resentment from his childhood like Ayumi. Father can get another job and speak up for racism.

While to Ayumi the violin represents her connection to her mother, from her death bed mother said, “I will always be in the music.” Not in the violin itself. Why is this distinction important to what happens later?

To Ayumi, when Mother tells her to take care of her violin, the violin embodies her mother. But Ayumi’s mother knew that music is what is important to Ayumi. The violin is only how Ayumi expresses her music. Even when she can't play her violin, wherever there is music, her mother is there.

While Brenda resents sharing her parents with Ayumi, it isn't the same as the racism of those who hate Ayumi but do not know her.

Brenda is jealous of a new sister in the house, not because Ayumi is biracial. Brenda is pretty much color blind, which children are if they are not taught to be racist. Jealously of other siblings is normal and natural, racism is learned.

Diego’s presence in the story is critical to show how his experiences with intolerance differs from Ayumi’s.

People stereotype depending on the race: Muslims are terrorists, Mexicans are lazy, Blacks are thieves, Asians are smart. Of course in 1959, Asians were not attributed with any positive stereotyping, but I threw that in to show that not all stereotyping is bad, such as Blacks have rhythm, Blacks are great athletes. Because different races are thought of differently, Diego, being Mexican, is thought of as being dishonest, prone to stealing. Thus, he’s fingered whenever there might be a burglary. Ayumi, on the other hand, isn’t regarded automatically as a thief.

If there is one message you wish families to take away from the story of Ayumi and her violin, what would it be?

Never let go of your passion, it will carry you through your darkest times.

What are some of your own personal writing habits?

I think about my book, such as plot, dialogue, scenery or whatever away from my computer. I think about those things while I’m hiking, driving, or lying in bed. When I’m at my computer, I’m putting words on the screen. I don’t allow myself writer’s block. I don’t have that kind of time to spare. If the next scene isn’t coming or I can’t figure out how C gets to D, I work on something else. Maybe I work on a scene or a dialogue that’s way beyond where I’m currently working on. Maybe I rewrite a previous scene. I keep going, not always chronologically, but that doesn’t matter.

The ages old question for writers: to outline or not to outline?

A flexible outline. If I don’t know where the story is going or don’t know what the theme is, I don’t know what scenes to write, what words to put into characters’ mouths. But if a character says something unexpectedly or a scene twists a different way than planned, I go with it. In those times, the story often takes an unusual curve that turns out to change the book for the better.

What can you tell us about any upcoming writing projects you have in the works?

I have two manuscripts that are ready to publish, which I plan to release in the next 6 -7 months: Accidental Samurai Spy and Kenji's Power. I’m currently working on a book with a working title of The Messanger about twelve-year-old Lilly in an internment camp during World War II.

Thank you so much, Mariko, for taking the time to answer my questions. I'm sure all of our members are grateful to you for sharing your insights into writing with us, as well as some details about Ayumi's Violin. Good luck! Or as they say in Japan, work hard and persevere!

Pushing Through The Middle: Tips for the NaNoWriMo Crowd and Other First Drafters

by Lori DeBoer

DeBoerIf you are hitting your daily word count (about 1,666) for National Novel Writing Month, by the time this post is published you’ll be nearly about halfway through your 50,000-word goal and sailing into the middle stretch of your novel.

This is where the story gets complicated. The middle passage is the longest section of your novel. The plot should thicken, the stakes should increase and your protagonist(s) should be thwarted at every turn.  Your narrative arc should be more mountainous than curvy, and climbing steeply.

This is also the point where your story is most likely to stall. If you’ve been "pansting,” the honeymoon with your big idea and great beginning may be over.  Even plotters can lose their confidence and momentum in the middle passages.

If you find yourself bogged down or stalled altogether, here’s a few tricks to get you going:

Look How Far You’ve Come
Instead of contemplating how far you have to go, look at how much you’ve already written. Print out your manuscript to give it some heft.

Don’t Start Revising
There’s nothing more tempting than revising when the path ahead is murky.  After all, rewriting is an important part of writing, right?  Yes, but not when you are drafting.  You’ll have plenty of time to revisit those first few chapters after you plot a course through your first draft.

Create Some Go-Getters
One of the biggest story stalls is characters who are merely responding to events in the story.  If your characters don’t have desires, they don’t have goals and a plan of action is out of the question. The easiest way to figure out what happens next is by giving your character some volition. The hero’s journey only begins by answering the call to action, not by hitting the snooze button.

Raise the Stakes
Now that your characters have a plan, ask yourself what happens if they fail.  If there are no stakes—personal and public—then there’s no reason for your character to keep going.  Until your characters have a real reason to pursue their goals, your writing is going to feel like rolling a boulder up a mountain.

Set Incremental Goals
The end game may be clear to you, but how is your character going to get there? Consider the smaller steps that need to be taken before the story’s climax can occur.  Frodo and Sam don’t just go waltzing to Mount Doom with the Ring; first they need to escape from Orcs, traitors, spiders and other dark creatures and trek through some terrible terrain with a sketchy guide.

Arm the Opposition
If your characters are not thwarted at every turn, if their incremental goals are attained without much effort and everybody in your story world is getting along swimmingly, then you don’t have a novel, you have a really long, typed daydream.  Examine your scenes to see if they are conflict-free or conflict-riddled.  Is your main character only fighting internal demons, or is there some external opposition, a worthwhile antagonist?  Once your characters have someone messing with them, the story will pick up steam. In the Sookie Stackhouse world created by Charlaine Harris, even lovers aren’t a girl’s best friend and bosom buddies can be out for blood.

Get Your Characters Out of the House
If your character is the literary equivalent of a shut-in, get him or her out and about in the world. Or, bring the world busting into the house.  The Harry Potter series would have fell flat had our young wizard sequestered himself in his closet under the stairs.

Give Your Characters a Project
If your conflict is all about the internal world, give your characters a project to externalize the problem. If you are writing in certain genres, you might call this project a quest. Either way, giving your characters something larger to do, something to obsess over, makes the writing less episodic. In The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Pankhurst, the main character is a linguist who spends the book trying to teach his dog--the only witness to his wife’s death--to talk.

Stop While You Still Have Steam
Your writing sessions should end while you still have some steam, not when you are stalled out. That way, getting back to work will seem like less of a chore. As Ernest Hemingway said:  “I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

What other strategies do those seasoned authors among use to push through the middle passages of their novel?


Lori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times and Arizona Highways. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.