Blogs by L.T. Suzuki
Wendy Nelson Tokunaga Interview
6/1/2010 11:44:27 AM
Author of 'Midori by Moonlight' & 'Lost in Translation' talks about her novels and the business of writing.
LTS: For today’s guest blog, I’d like to introduce you to multi-talented author, Wendy Nelson Tokunaga. Wendy and I became acquainted through Twitter and I’ve been following her adventures in writing via this social networking site.
Wendy’s debut novel ‘Midori by Moonlight’ was published in 2007 by St. Martin’s Press and has received great reviews while her latest novel, ‘Love in Translation’ continues to grow in popularity. Today, Wendy is going to talk about her novels as well as the life experiences that influence her works.
I’d like to begin by having you share a little information about yourself with our readers. Where do you call home and when you are not writing, what do you do?
WNT: I live in Half Moon Bay, California, which is about 30 miles south of San Francisco. When I’m not writing you’ll find me teaching classes on writing and doing manuscript and agent query letter consultations for fiction writers and memoirists. I also occasionally perform with Star Jazzmin, a duo with my husband on electronic keyboards and me on vocals. We play cool pop, bossa nova and jazz standards along with some Japanese music thrown into the mix.
LTS: See readers! Didn’t I tell you Wendy is multi-talented? As for writing, has it always been a part of your life and becoming a published author a life long dream?
WNT: I’ve always been creative, but music was my first love: I wanted to be a rock star. I didn’t start writing fiction until much later, although I did a lot of songwriting when I was spending time singing lead and playing bass guitar in my various bands. And my first trip to Japan was as a finalist in a songwriting contest sponsored by a Japanese record company.
LTS: As authors, we’ve all heard the old adage ‘write what you know’. How much has your stay in Japan and your marriage to your husband, Manabu Tokunaga, a native of Japan influenced your writing?
WNT: In the early 1990s while working as a technical writer in Silicon Valley I was intrigued to discover that many of my colleagues wrote fiction on the side. So I decided to take a night course in creative writing at a local community college. We had to write three short stories in a semester and all the stories I wrote were about Japan and Japanese culture. I didn’t plan it this way, it was simply what happened. But it wasn’t surprising since I had immersed myself in Japanese culture since college where I studied the language long before I met my husband. Of course the time I spent living in Japan and later when I married Manabu and became part of a Japanese family have also been big influences on my writing.
LTS: My parents were both born in Canada over 80 years ago, and I, like my parents grew up dealing with racism. Now, in a 15-year interracial marriage with my English husband and living in an area of Canada with the highest number of interracial marriages, our daughter and I still face racism from time to time. Do you feel this is less of an issue in the U.S.? And did people’s reaction to your marriage in Japan differ from reaction in America when you first announced your engagement to Manabu?
WNT: I think there is much racism in the U.S. and Asian-Americans continue to be vastly under-represented in virtually all aspects of American life, including politics, business and entertainment. However, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area (and was born in San Francisco), which is a very open-minded and liberal part of the U.S. where most people don’t think twice about interracial marriage. As for the reaction in Japan, Manabu had already been living in the United States for about 14 years when we got married. We met in San Francisco—not Japan—so it wasn’t too surprising to his family that he would marry an American.
What I find interesting is that as a couple made up of a Caucasian American woman and a Japanese man born and raised in Japan, we are much more unusual than the opposite pairing of Japanese women with Western men. This is relatively rare in both the U.S. and Japan. I’ve interviewed a number of such couples for Chirashi, my Japan culture blog, which has generated a lot of interest. Folks can read the interviews at:
LTS: Because my father spent part of his life in a concentration camp in Ontario during WW II, he raised my sisters and me trying to erase what Japaneseness from us that he could, in hopes we’d be better accepted. Now, the only Japanese tradition I cling to is in my traditional martial arts training of Budo Taijutsu. For this reason, I’m thoroughly intrigued by you. Where many Japanese Canadians of my generation have been made to forsake their heritage to garner some sense of tolerance and acceptance in this country, you are more Japanese than I am! Why this fascination for the Japanese culture?
WNT: When I was in college I took every Japanese-related class I could. This included a number of Asian-American Studies courses, one of which focused on the internment of Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans during WWII. So I’m quite familiar with what you describe, of Issei and Nisei downplaying their Japaneseness to subsequent generations, discouraging cultural practices, and striving to be as “American” as possible. I think this is one of the great tragedies of the internment experience. And throughout my adult life I’ve met Japanese-Americans who would seem to lose face a bit when they saw me gorging myself on Japanese culture and seemingly trying to be as Japanese as possible. And, not to mention, being able to speak Japanese and sing in the language as well.
So why the fascination? In hindsight I think it was because I grew up pretty “white bread” in the very multicultural city of San Francisco and felt kind of left out. The perceived “orderliness” of the Japanese way of life, and how common courtesy is built into the language also attracted me. My first exposure to Japanese culture was when I took a psychology class in college called “Japanese American Personality” that filled a general studies requirement. I admit that part of the appeal was the Japanese-American teacher, who was dynamic, handsome and sexy. But he had us read D.T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, a life-changing experience for me. I was hooked from then on.
LTS: I understand your first novel ‘No Kidding’ was the winner of the 2002 Writers’ Digest Self-Published Books Contest. What a great accomplishment, Wendy! Can you tell our readers about this novel and if it’s still available for purchase?
WNT: ‘No Kidding’ did not win the grand prize, but won the category of Mainstream/Literary Fiction. Here’s the description from the back of the book: What happens when everyone around you is blissfully popping babies like so many rabbits, your mother wants a grandchild more than anything else in the world, but you’re just not interested? Meet Audrey Mills, a 35-year-old Silicon Valley techie who has a loving live-in boyfriend, a decent job, and a passion for old movies, but who suffers from a sort of divine discontent. Something’s missing in Audrey’s life—one she has spent trying to please her former Hollywood actress mother, her competitive sister and everyone else but herself—and she’s determined to find out what it is now. Enter Tyrone Power lookalike, Aldo. He’s not only handsome, he’s smart, fun, and most of all, devastatingly sexy. Should Audrey risk giving up the security and love she already has for this charmer who seems too good to be true? Audrey starts to realize that life isn’t a dress rehearsal and you sure can’t call “cut” the way you do in the movies. Will she be able to write her own happy ending?
Yes, the book is available on Amazon or directly through me on my website for anyone who’d like a signed copy.
LTS: This ‘divine discontent’ is something many people can relate to. What prompted your decision to self-publish ‘No Kidding’ rather than to search out a traditional publisher?
WNT: ‘No Kidding’ was the second novel I’d written and I tried hard to get it traditionally published. My first novel, which was Japan-related, garnered many rejections from agents, as did No Kidding. At the time (2000), POD publishing was just coming into vogue and I’d heard stories of authors who had self-published their books and then had them picked up by a traditional publisher. So I used iUniverse to self-publish ‘No Kidding’ with this in mind. Even though the book won its category in the contest I still couldn’t get any interest from agents. Self-publishing taught me a lot about self-promotion and online marketing, skills which have proved extremely helpful, but I would not recommend that writers self-publish their novels if they are taking their writing seriously. Non-fiction titles, however, are a different beast and can many times benefit quite well from self-publishing.
LTS: Let’s talk about your latest novel, ‘Love in Translation’. What was the inspiration behind this story and can you tell us a little bit about your protagonist, Celeste Duncan?
WNT: ‘Love in Translation’ is my valentine to Japan, a place that has been a major force in my life and a place that I have both loved and loathed. Celeste Duncan is a young woman who has grown up in foster homes and has never had much of a sense of family since her mother died when she was a child and she never knew the identity of her father. When she finds out that a long lost relative may have information about her father, she is off to Japan to search for her. Ultimately the book is about finding love and family in an unexpected place, but it also explores what it’s like to be a gaijin (foreigner) in Japan.
LTS: Without giving away too much, can you reveal what’s in store for the reader when they crack open ‘Love in Translation’?
WNT: Although this is not an autobiographical story, I have incorporated many experiences I had while living in and visiting Japan, though highly fictionalized. Love in Translation has been called “a coming of age story for adults” and I think that sums it up nicely. But it is also about the power of music (Celeste learns to sing a Japanese song that is pivotal to the story) and how love can transcend culture.
LTS: Was it difficult for you to land an agent? Do you have any advice you’d like to share with the author struggling to find representation?
WNT: My “debut” novel, ‘Midori by Moonlight’, was actually the fifth novel I’d written. I received hundreds of rejections on my manuscripts and it was very difficult for me to secure representation from an agent. As for advice, first I would tell people not to give up because if you concentrate on honing your craft and learning about the workings of the publishing business, I think you’ll have a good chance of eventually getting published. But you have to be open to constructive criticism and willing to improve, and not expect that your very first manuscript will be the one that will get published. I would also suggest that people read agent blogs, which are so prevalent now and often give excellent advice. And if you find that your manuscript is getting nothing but rejections, consider having it evaluated by a manuscript consultant (like me!). So often the problem can be that the story begins in the wrong place or falls apart in the middle or has weak characters or all of the above. With two published novels, an MFA in Creative Writing and all my years of experience in trying to get published, I feel that I bring a fresh perspective to a writer’s manuscript and can get him or her on the right track.
LTS: Becoming a published author is truly a difficult road to travel, so we’re always pleased when a fellow writer is plucked from relative obscurity to land a book deal. Can you share that moment when your agent told you he/she landed a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press?
WNT: I was very pleased when my agent called to tell me that there were a couple of offers on Midori by Moonlight. I actually got the message on my answering machine as my husband and I were returning from a short vacation. It was very exciting to be able to tell him the good news because he’d certainly been through many ups and downs with me on my literary career and had been, and continues to be, very supportive of my work.
LTS: I’m curious about your writing style. Are you one of those disciplined writers who must dedicate a certain time each day to producing so many words, or are you more relaxed and tend to write when it strikes your fancy?
WNT: I do not necessarily write everyday or produce a certain number of words, but I’m extremely disciplined when it comes to meeting deadlines and finishing projects. If I’m not writing, I’m almost always working on something that directly impacts my writing such as marketing and promotion, researching a topic related to the novel I’m working on, preparing for a writing class I’m teaching, etc.
LTS: Still on the subject of writing styles, are you a plotter or pantser? The readers would like to know if you tend to plot out your story line in great detail or if your writing is more organic with the characters and events unfolding as you write.
WNT: I usually write an outline when I’m starting a book, but it is barebones and definitely subject to change. So at the same time I’m also doing this organic thing where characters and events unfold as I write. And I love the revision process and will often revise chapters before I’ve completed a draft, but make sure to be disciplined enough to still go on to the finish.
LTS: Some authors meditate, others need to fuel up on coffee or listen to music. Do you have any rituals, ones that can be shared with the readers, that you must do before you hunker down for a writing session?
WNT: I don’t do anything that I would call a ritual. Most days I usually spend time on promotion and marketing before I write so I’m busy dealing with social media and answering email. Once that’s out of the way I can get down to writing.
LTS: At one time or another, many writers hit the wall and their work stalls because of the dreaded writer’s block. What do you do to get around or over this mental wall to resume writing?
WNT: I rarely get writers block because if I feel that I’m stuck I’ll just go and revise something I’ve already written. This most always gets the juices flowing and allows me to gain perspective on any new material I must write. I also might switch gears and do research, which will also usually spark new ideas. But when inspiration is lagging it’s sometimes good to just take a break and do something completely unrelated. I sometimes get my best ideas when I’m out taking a walk, going grocery shopping, visiting a museum or even talking to my cat.
LTS: Who is your favourite author and how has he/she inspired you to write or influenced your writing style or choice of genre?
WNT: It’s hard to pinpoint one author because I’ve had many favorites during different times in my writing life. Amy Tan was a big influence because her books popularized Asian themes for a mass audience. I also greatly admire the Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki. Current authors I especially enjoy are Michelle Richmond, Curtis Sittenfeld, Nick Hornby, Haruki Murakami and Lolly Winston.
LTS: What is the most profound discovery you’ve made in terms of your writing and how it has touched the lives of others?
WNT: If you write from the heart you’ll find readers who’ll respond positively to your writing.
LTS: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned on the road to publication?
WNT: Perseverance pays off.
LTS: What are you reading now, and how did this particular book make it onto your to-read list?
WNT: I’m reading ‘The Ghost’ by Robert Harris, which has recently been made into the movie ‘The Ghostwriter’. I use the beginning of this book as one of the examples I teach in my class ‘Close Readings, Strong Beginnings’. Other titles on my way-too-big TBR pile include ‘Dead Love’ by Linda Watanabe McFerrin and ‘If You Follow Me’ by Malena Watrous.
LTS: What do you foresee in your future over the next five years and do you intend to branch out into more non-fiction? Can your fans expect a sequel to ‘Midori by Moonlight’ or ‘Love in Translation’ in the near future?
WNT: I’m working hard on my third novel, which has nothing to do with Japan. It’s about how a congressman’s political sex scandal from 20 years ago has affected his wife and now grown daughters. There has been some interest in a book based on my blog interviews on cross-cultural marriage, which I may tackle in the future. I don’t think any sequels are on the horizon for ‘Midori by Moonlight’ or ‘Love in Translation’, but I am one to never say never.
LTS: Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview and allowing us to share in your works, wisdom and experiences, Wendy! And for those of you seeking more information about Wendy Nelson Tokunaga and her novels, check out:
Follow on Twitter: .Wendy_Tokunaga
Facebook Fan Page: http://ow.ly/1q5PF
Love in Translation Book Trailer: http://ow.ly/1p50k
Love in Translation Music Video: http://ow.ly/1p4ZZ - See Wendy sing the Love in Translation theme song, Nozomi no Hoshi (The Wishing Star)
Midori by Moonlight Book Trailer: http://ow.ly/1p4Yq
Where to buy her books: You can order from your favorite bookstore or purchase online at the usual suspects: Amazon, IndieBound, Indigo, Barnes & Noble, etc.
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