In conclusion to “Seriously, I Will Read Your Book“
Historical Fiction and Memoirist Rahna Reiko Rizzuto Author Interview
Why She Left Us was Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s first historical fiction novel which she won the American Book Award for in 2000. Reiko is a faculty member at Goddard College in the MFA Creative Writing Program.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I have always written. I grew up in a small town in Hawaii where there was no TV and not much to do except read. So I read everything, and I wrote because my parents were both writers. However, I didn’t actually start thinking of myself as a writer until my early thirties, when I finally found the material for a book I wanted to write (Why She Left Us, my first novel published in 1999). Before that, I knew I could write, but I didn’t because I didn’t think I had anything worthwhile to say!
- Parts of Hiroshima in the Morning are very personal. Did you experience any trepidation about revealing your thoughts and feelings about your life and family?
Yes, you have to! You never want to embarrass and upset other people, and my rule of thumb is, you have to be able to do two things before you reveal something about someone else. First, you have to make sure it is absolutely essential to telling the truth about your story, it can’t be a tangent or a tidbit. Second, you have to be even more revealing about yourself.
That’s the advice I give my students (I teach at Goddard College). But now, I have a new way to test what you put in your book: You have to be so comfortable with everything you write down that you are not nervous when you go on national TV and have to face penetrating questions from Barbara Walters. If you think, “Oh, no! Now my mother is going to find out what I said in the book!” don’t put it in.
- Was your original intent to write a memoir or did this come about after you returned from Japan?
My original plan was to collect research for a novel, but life got in the way, and this memoir came out first. I have just finished the novel, Shadow Child, which I hope will be published soon.
- Several years went by from the research phase of your novel to print. Explain the process, ups and downs, you experienced while writing this book?
I went through three distinct drafts. First, I just wrote everything that happened to me, which was dreadfully boring. I took out half of that book and I added a fictional character, a mother who had died from cancer. So the book was both fiction and nonfiction, and I did that because I realized I had to write about my mother, but I wasn’t able to do so because she was still alive and suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and my father was worried that it would depress her. But that didn’t work either, so I went back to memoir and wrote about my mother, and by then, her disease had advanced so far that nothing in the book would hurt her.
- There is a lot of focus on the motherhood aspect of the book in the media, but the book itself deals with many subjects, such as; loss, war, love, memory, change, motherhood, your own mother, marriage, self-revelation and resolution. Why do you think there is so much emphasis on the motherhood aspect of the book?
We all have mothers, so that is the angle that affects people most directly, I think. Also, many women are secretly worried that they can’t do it all or aren’t doing it right, which is why the Tiger Mom book became such a sensation, too. We are a sound bite society. People respond immediately to a title or headline without finding out what the real story is. So some people got it into their heads that I had abandoned my children and was bragging about it – which was not the case at all.
- How have your experiences in Japan given you a deeper connection and understanding of the Japanese side of your heritage?
I grew up in Hawaii, as I said, which is already heavily Japanese. My mother’s side of the family was only vaguely Japanese, and spoke English at home, but in Hawaii, you take off your shoes before you go into the house, you often eat with chopsticks, and you hear a lot of Japanese, so I was not as lost as I might have been when I arrived in Japan. (Though I was still pretty lost!) But when I was there, I saw where many of our customs come from – like gift giving every time you are going to visit someone – and that many of our behaviors were actually common in Japanese society, not just individual choices.
- Throughout the book there is a continual theme of self-realization and self discovery. How did the Hiroshima ’s victim’s stories help/prod you understand yourself better?
I saw how the Hiroshima survivors presented themselves and shaped their stories, which changed over time. And their stories changed again, and became heartbreaking, after the September 11th attacks, which made it very clear to me that we are all “self-made men” in a way, because we decide why things happened, and why we acted that way and we create a character for ourselves. So of course I started looking at myself and my own character, and saw for the first time that I wasn’t who I had set out to be, and also that I had the ability to change that.
- While in Japan doing research on Hiroshima the Twin Towers were attacked and the Hiroshima victims began to really open up to you. How do you think visual media (TV and internet) had a significant impact in triggering lost or pushed aside memories?
Interesting question! Visual media, and especially the sound that comes with it, is absolutely in-your-face. You can’t put up a nice, safe emotional wall between you and what you are seeing. With words, you can. You can put down the book, but you can also engage your brain to accept the story in a more distant way. And of course, the writer is also making decisions about how to tell the story, so the raw material is already being shaped. But image, and sound, go directly into your brain and your emotions before your mind can protect you. I remember, I think it was a Michael Moore documentary, a black screen where you couldn’t see but could only hear the sound of the 9/11 attacks. That was really powerful.
- In 2011 northern Japan was hit by devastating a high magnitude earthquake and Tsunami. Have you considered returning and documenting the stories of this traumatic event?
I don’t think I could right now. My Japanese isn’t good enough. But I am in contact with many friends there, so I am following the story through their reports and their worry, and this event, much like 9/11 is bringing all the old trauma back. It is also bringing the danger home though: all the radiation sickness and uncertainty and discrimination the atomic bomb survivors suffered is coming back. There is a very powerful and poignant story there, but, after just one month, the situation is still very volatile and dangerous.
- What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?
Make it yours; make it new. There are a lot of books and writers out there. Even if you are telling your version of a story that has been told before, people will want to read it if you are excited by it. But it has to be urgent to you, and it has to be told in the way that only you can tell it. The best sign that you are doing it right is when you suddenly find yourself surprised and excited by something you wrote!
- What advice would you give writers who plan or need to do research for their novel?
Historical fiction needs to be just as accurate as memoir. If you present something as a fact, it has to be correct. Details – sights, scent, sound, textures – are what convince your reader to enter the book with you. So gather feelings and experiences and anecdotes as much as you can, and look for pictures. Sometimes a person’s expression in a picture will literally give you a thousand words. Expect to take some time to gather much more than you need, and then let your imagination take over. Not every piece of research can or should find its way into the book, but the important pieces will be waiting for you when you sit down to write.
- In 2011 social media has become a large part of author platforms. Have you changed your habits as a writer to participate in this style of communication?
I am definitely more present on the Internet these days, though I don’t tweet much, and I am not consciously trying to exploit all the social media platforms. Mostly, I just realized that, as a writer who works from home, most of my contact with the world is through the Internet – I don’t get a newspaper, for example. So if I want people to find me, I need to have a website, a blog, etc. because no one is going to send me a handwritten note through the mail!
- Rahna Reiko Rizzuto: The Moment I Knew (huffingtonpost.com)
- Rahna Reiko Rizzuto: The Gender Gap in Motherhood (huffingtonpost.com)
- Rahna Reiko Rizzuto Talks ‘Hiroshima In The Morning’ On The ‘Today Show’ (VIDEO) (huffingtonpost.com)
- ‘Hiroshima in the Morning’: A mother’s struggle for identity (today.msnbc.msn.com)