FROM ONE-LEGGED DUCKS TO THE NEWBERY:
AUTHOR CYNTHIA KADOHATA TALKS ABOUT HER ROOTS & HER NEW BOOK
By Angela Miyuki Mackintosh
TRAVELED ACROSS THE COUNTRY WITH CYNTHIA FOR OVER A DECADE-from the great plains of Iowa to the sandy beaches of Southern California, stopping for one novel-length of time in a repressive twenty-first century Los Angeles-all before I even met her.
That's what it's like to read a Cynthia Kadohata novel. You find yourself immersed in the journey, wrapped up in her world, without a notion of the present. No wonder The New York Times called her "a luminous new voice in fiction" with the publication of her first novel, The Floating World.
Now, five books later and a number of literary awards under her belt, including the Newbery, Cynthia is coming out with a new novel, Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam, to be released by Simon & Schuster in February 2007. I can't wait to pack my bags and travel with Cynthia to Vietnam. She already feels like an old friend.
When I first met Cynthia at the "Festival of Women Authors," she was dead tired, yet gracious. Her book-signing line was the longest out of all authors present, and Beryl and I were dead last. I'm sure she had carpal tunnel by the time we reached her, but unlike Stephen King, she didn't have an ice bag strapped to her shoulder. No, Cynthia was a real trooper, and even though she'd just given a long speech during the "Breakout Sessions," minutes before, she made time for our conversation.
I explained to her the importance of WOW! interviewing her, not only for you readers, but for myself as well. I said, "Being raised in a Japanese-American household, your books touched on a part of my life that has been long lost, but not forgotten." Then I explained to her the tragedy of my mother's death when I was twelve-years old; the same age as her young readers. Cynthia's book Kira-Kira put me in touch with those feelings again, of living under the roof of a Japanese mother. I wonder what my life would've been like if my middle-school reading had been that multicultural.
These days, children have more options in their reading curriculum, and Cynthia Kadohata is raising a new generation of young girls. In this interview, she explains how one of her previous mentors is now teaching Kira-Kira in his classroom, without even realizing that she was a former student.
This is the joy of interviewing a woman like Cynthia Kadohata. She is full of honesty and inspiration, along with a sense of humor that'll pull the rug out from under you at any given moment. Just when you think she's serious, she gets funnier. In Japanese "Kira-Kira" means "glittering," and Cynthia is just that.
"... I felt I absolutely had to
sell a story to The New Yorker
or The Atlantic or I would die."
WOW: We met you at the Literary Guild of Orange County's "Festival of Women Authors," and were lucky enough to hear you speak! You mentioned to us that it was one of your favorite events. (It was a blast for us too!) Do you do a lot of events/appearances? And why did you have so much fun at this one?
CK: I loved the people I sat at the table with for the Literary Guild luncheon. One woman told a spell-binding story of how her family escaped from Hungary at risk of their lives. Everybody I talked with was kind and unique. And the talk at the table wasn't trivial small talk. It was real, meaningful conversation. I also loved the book signing and getting a chance to talk and connect with people who exuded a love of books. I did a lot of traveling and appearances last spring. I got pretty worn out toward the end.
WOW: How do you decide what to read for a book promotion?
CK: It depends on whether the event is for children or grown-ups or both. Often I don't read at all. I talk about becoming a writer, what my childhood was like, how I decide what to write about, etc. When I do read, I like to read something self contained or that comes to some kind of closure.
WOW: Why did you start writing? Was there a specific event, or a mentor who encouraged your writing?
CK: I did have some encouragement in college. I had three teachers I thought were both encouraging and inspiring. There's one journalism teacher I've gotten together with a few times over the years, another who just e-mailed me the other day out of the blue, and another I wrote a letter to because he influenced my writing so much and I wanted to say thank you. He e-mailed me back to say he was teaching Kira-Kira in a class but didn't realize it was written by one of his former students. At that point-in college-I wasn't even slightly focused on publishing but rather on developing a voice.
WOW: You are a brilliant and gifted writer, but we know it hasn't always been easy for you. You mentioned that your first rejection letter came from submitting One-Legged Ducks to The Atlantic . Would you recommend that new writers aim for the top first, or do you feel there is a better approach?
CK: Oh, yes, The One-Legged Ducks ! I think I started at the BOTTOM with that story-it would probably make the Ten Worst Submissions list of The Atlantic for that year. But seriously, I started at the top because that's what I aspired to. I don't think I would recommend that to anyone because there are so many other great places to send your stories. I just didn't realize the possibilities and got into a kind of obsessive-compulsive thing where I felt I absolutely had to sell a story to The New Yorker or The Atlantic or I would die.
WOW: You submitted about forty different stories over four years and sent them to magazines before selling one to The New Yorker. Do you think your perseverance during that time ultimately contributed to the writer you are today?
CK: Yes, and I guess that's the upside of aiming for the top. It makes you dig inside yourself in the most gut-wrenching way you can to find yourself as a writer.
WOW: How long did it take you to write your first novel?
CK: I wrote it in bits and pieces over a few years, and then an agent wrote me after my third story was published in The New Yorker . He suggested that since I was using the same characters in my stories, I should write a novel with those characters. At that point, I sat down and typed away for a year or a year-and-a-half.
WOW: How long does it take you to turn out a novel today?
CK: One or two years. Weedflower may have taken longer than two years, while Kira-Kira took about a year. My upcoming novel, Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam, took not quite two years. There's overlap, though. If I have a manuscript being edited, I usually start working on something else during that time.
"...and when she heard me imitate
myself screaming, she said, "You
screamed much louder than that.""
WOW: You've written both Adult fiction and Children's fiction. Do you use a detailed outline when planning your book, or do you just see where it takes you?
CK: By 2010, I'll have six or seven books published with Simon & Schuster. All but one was sold with detailed proposals. Cracker! is the exception. I think with that, my editor and I just felt it was a perfect meeting of writer with subject matter. S&S bought that on the basis of a brief e-mail that outlined the story in a few sentences. I was really surprised, actually, when my editor called me up and said she wanted to buy that project. Two of my adult books were sold with partial manuscripts and one with a full manuscript.
WOW: How are you able to keep the child's viewpoint, remain cognizant of the mental and emotional limitations of a child at the various ages, match the vocabulary of the age and never miss a beat in the telling of the story?
CK: Hmm, I guess I've never fully grown up, so that helps! And my editor pulls me back if I go too far into an adult sensibility.
WOW: How much time does a writer have to deliver a finished product to the publisher?
CK: I'm trying to get a book out every year, but I missed 2005. Cracker! isn't quite ready, but it's almost there. It got a little tense for a while because I was so late with the manuscript. My editor kept pushing me to make it stronger. I should put in a word here for my copyeditors Jeannie Ng and Cynthia Nixon. They went above and beyond the call of duty with Cracker! So did my editor. In fact, the book is dedicated to her and to the dog handlers and dogs who served in Vietnam. Sometimes I can't believe my good fortune in being able to work with such a fine editor and art director and such fine copyeditors. Atheneum has wonderful people at every step in the process. Jennifer Zatorski was a great publicist, though she moved to Hyperion.
WOW: At the "Festival of Women Authors" event, you had said, somewhat jokingly, that your mother wanted to sue you after she read your first book! What's the key to fictionalizing your life and how much of your books are fiction?
CK: Ha! My mother actually did sue me once, but about something else, and she never went through with the lawsuit. She has a law degree, by the way, and spends a lot of time reading about the law. I think the key in fictionalizing your life is ruthlessly not using that part of your life that doesn't work in the story, and ruthlessly using what does work.
WOW: Do you have family or friends that serve as readers for you?
CK: Since I've been writing children's books, my niece has become indispensable. But she's growing up. A friend's kids also read Kira-Kira. And I rely heavily on my editor, who also happens to be a good friend - we were roommates in grad school and later in each other's weddings.
WOW: Do you consider yourself an Asian American writer? If so, what does this mean to you and how do you incorporate your heritage into your work?
CK: Absolutely, I do consider myself an Asian American writer. But I also consider myself a writer just like any other-that is, I write what I'm compelled to write about. But even in Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam, I felt compelled to throw in a Japanese American doctor toward the end of the book. But it was realistic - I interviewed a Japanese American doctor who served in Vietnam, and he said his brother served as well.
WOW: It's an extreme honor to win the Newberry Medal. Can you tell our readers what is was like when you found out that you'd won?
CK: I always say it was just pure, uncomplicated joy. I went from being fast asleep to screaming and screeching with joy while I jumped up and down and flapped my free hand in the air. I was telling someone about it once, and the chair from the committee was listening, and when she heard me imitate myself screaming, she said, "You screamed much louder than that." I can't adequately express how darn happy I felt.
WOW: Do you have an agent? If so, at what point did you decide that you needed an agent?
CK: After I won the Newbery I thought I needed an agent. I had four unagented books with Simon & Schuster, and I thought it might be a good time to try to find some security for a few years anyway. I got a wonderful agent named Gail Hochman. It was kind of traumatic because I am good friends with my editor, and I wanted to keep working with her, but at the same time I have bills to pay like anyone, and this business is so uncertain.
WOW: You have beautiful book covers. I remember you saying that your father had mistaken the photo on the cover of Kira-Kira to be you and your sister! Do you have any say in the design of your book covers/jackets?
CK: Russell Gordon is one of the great art directors in the business. I'm very fortunate that he has worked on all three of my books with Atheneum/Simon & Schuster. I love all of the covers he has done. He's very versatile and always creates something unique and gorgeous. For Kira-Kira and Cracker! there wasn't much for me to say. I simply loved the covers as soon as I saw them. I did ask with Kira-Kira whether they'd tried putting both girls on the cover, but ultimately I agreed that the finished cover was beautiful and haunting and unlike any other cover I'd seen. The paperback cover will be almost the same; it will have both girls on the front. I loved the Weedflower cover, too, and am happy to say that Atheneum was amenable to making a couple of changes. The cacti and mountains weren't geographically correct, so I asked whether they would change those, and they did. I can't say enough good things about Russell.
"...the adoption process was the
hardest thing we'd ever done.
Then I added that we only said
that because we hadn't become
WOW: Did you get an author to write a blurb for your first book? How important is it to do so? And how would an unpublished writer go about getting a blurb written?
CK: My first grown-up book had blurbs, but my first children's book had none. To my knowledge, no effort was made to obtain them. I didn't really think about it, and I don't think my editor did either. I suppose the right blurb by an author with a similar sensibility would probably help a writer. But a lot of blurbs fall flat, at least to myself as a book buyer. I would think the best way to get blurbs is by asking your editor who he or she knows. You could also ask writers you've met online. But I really believe the blurber-to coin a word-should have a similar sensibility. Otherwise the blurb doesn't mean much.
WOW: What authors have inspired you?
CK: All of them!
WOW: You claim traveling absorbing the beautiful landscape, even the American highways, as your hobby. You said, "Just thinking about the American landscape and focusing on it puts me in touch with what I think of as the real, essential me. I have to be in touch with this real, essential me whenever I sit down to write."
What exactly do you mean by "the real essential me," and how important do you think it is for a writer to be in touch with her essential self?
CK: That's right, I did say that. It's funny, because the other day I was wondering who I was and what the meaning of life was, and all of that. I'm in a Yahoo group with the rest of my eighth grade graduating class. We're all turning fifty this year, and right now we're discussing some spiritual issues. The real essential me makes an appearance whenever I feel I'm exactly where I should be when I should be. It's kind of a feeling of happiness. It's odd. I remember once being on a Greyhound bus trip, and the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. I got out to stretch my legs and felt like I was exactly where I should be when I should be. It's almost a feeling of peace or of being in the zone. I have to be in the zone when I write and used to try things like smelling an old bottle of perfume that I wore a long time ago to help push myself into the zone.
WOW: At the event you told us the trying story of what you went through to adopt your baby boy Sammy. Could you share this inspirational story with our WOW! readers?
CK: The process of adopting from Kazakhstan is fraught with obstacles and regular changes in the adoption laws. In my Newbery acceptance speech, I said that another single mother and I who were both in Kazakhstan at the same time adopting our kids told each other that the adoption process was the hardest thing we'd ever done. Then I added that we only said that because we hadn't become mothers yet! But it was a really difficult process, and I had to stay in Kazakhstan for more than seven weeks. The agency's so-called facilitator was stealing money that was supposed to go to translators, so the families who were adopting didn't have translators most of the time. I never knew what was going on. People at the orphanage would start yelling at me, and who knows what they wanted? I had a horrible little apartment; the woman who took over the apartment after me said it was too depressing to stay in and moved out after a couple of days. In retrospect, that's what I should have done, but I didn't know where else to go except a hotel, which I couldn't afford. But the two good things that came from the experience were that I brought my little boy home and that while I was there feeling displaced and bored, I realized that the experience was helping me understand my main character from Weedflower better. I was rewriting the book by hand. It was sort of the turning point in the writing of the book.
WOW: How do you make time to write while taking care of your two little babies? (Sammy and Shika Kojika-your purebred Doberman)
CK: Shika is with me while I write and sleep. Sammy has childcare while I work. Then when Sammy is with me, I've had to learn not to let my mind wander back to whatever I'm writing but rather to be right there with him. That was an adjustment for me because I'm used to letting my mind go wherever I want. The three of us take hectic walks during which I just barely have the situation under control.
WOW: We're excited to hear you have a new book coming out: Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam. Could you tell us what it's about?
CK: There's an old aborigine saying: "Dogs make us human." That's what the book is about. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military used highly trained dogs to sniff out booby traps for the soldiers. One dog and one handler worked closely together, so closely that for the extraordinary handlers lucky enough to have extraordinary dogs, the dog became like an extension of the man. According to one old article I read, some of the dog handlers became "fanatically attached" to their dogs. Some soldiers actually volunteered for a second tour of duty so they could stay with their dogs. It was dangerous business - dog teams walked in front of everybody else, so if there was a booby trap the dog would be the first to die if he or she didn't smell the trap in time.
WOW: Any plans for special appearances/book signings/readings etc. we should know about? If someone wanted to contact you for a special appearance what should they do?
CK: On September 23 I'm doing an event with my friend and fellow author, Naomi Hirahara, at the Torrance Public Library. On October 21, I'll be at the Southern California Booksellers Association dinner, and in November I'm going to be in Phoenix for the Arizona Library Association annual conference and will also do school visits and a book signing in Arizona. December 6 I have a school visit. I think that's it for this year. Well, I'm also doing a videoconference with Seoul if any of your readers happens to be in Korea! Anyone interested in contacting me can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jodie Cohen of Simon & Schuster at email@example.com
WOW: Finally, there is a quote that I mention in the "Event Recap" article that inspired me so much that I had to write it down. You said, "The more specific, the more universal." Which to me, meant that a writer shouldn't be afraid to say what they really need to say, because in some way we're all connected, and certain parts will touch us in some way.
What advice can you give to new writers who want to be where you are today?
CK: My mother used to say that when I was very young. She would say a lot of things that only held meaning for me later. I would tell new writers that it's all worth it: the rejection, the crummy apartments, all of it. To paraphrase a character from my second novel, "Remember every sad and happy thing. Because it's who you are." I feel passionately that any suffering you have to go through to get where you want to get actually increases the chances that you will lie on your deathbed someday and feel satisfaction that you did what you should have done with the precious little time we all have.
Be sure to check out Cynthia's website: www.kira-kira.us where you will find excerpts from her books and an array of fabulous pictures. Also, make sure to preorder your copy of Cynthia Kadohata's new book Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam!
WOW! would like to thank Cynthia for giving us such a wonderful interview. She is an amazing woman and an inspiration to us all, as well as a new friend.