Julie Otsuka’s best-selling first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, was based on her family history in Japan. Now, she has another winner with The Buddha in the Attic, a story about the fascinating Japanese tradition of ordering a “picture bride”. Here’s more from Julie:
Jennifer Haupt: What was the kernel of The Buddha in the Attic? How did it first appear to you?
Julie Otsuka: The idea for the novel came to me about ten years ago, when I was touring California for ‘Emperor.’ After my readings, people in the audience would sometimes come up to me and start telling me about their mother, or their grandmother, or their great aunt, who’d come over from Japan as a picture bride. “And when she met her husband for the first time on the dock…,” they’d say to me, and the rest of the sentence would go something like: “she was shocked to find out he was so short,” or “so old,” or “completely bald,” or, as a woman at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena recently told me, “an itinerant carnival worker.”
I heard so many variations of this story, and was fascinated. How could a woman—a girl, really, some of these brides were only 13 or 14—get on a boat and sail away to a new country to marry a total stranger? And if I’d been born 100 years ago in a poor rural village in Japan, what would I have done? Because back then, as a woman, your options were very limited. These were some of the questions I wanted to explore in my novel.
JH: What authors/books inspired this novel?
JO: It was very difficult to find examples of fiction written in the first-person plural. There is a beautiful short story by Mary Swan, however, called ‘1917.’ Also, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. And, of course, Faulkner’s short story, ‘A Rose for Emily.’”
JH: How difficult was it to write your second novel after your first novel was so well-received? Or, was the second novel easier to write because of this success?
JO: The hardest part about writing the second novel was coming up with the idea for it. It took me about a year after I finished writing ‘Emperor’ to figure out the shape of my next book. But once I got the idea for ‘Buddha’ and began working on it, I wasn’t really thinking in terms of success or pressure or ‘How am I doing?’ My concerns on a day-to-day level were much more pragmatic, like: Why isn’t this scene working? Would this character really say something like that? Is this sentence even necessary? Wouldn’t this paragraph work better over here than over there?
Also, I know that I’m a very slow writer and things just take as long as they need to take. Some books come out quickly, and others, like ‘Buddha,’ require a lot of research. I’m very patient, and have a lot of faith in the creative process.
JH: What was the most challenging aspect of developing this story?
JO: Even though I knew the beginning and ending of my novel from the start, it took me a long time to figure out its middle. I knew that the middle chapter would have to be set during the 1920s and 1930s, but I wasn’t sure how to structure it. So I wrote around the missing middle and called it the ‘gap chapter.’ It was a gaping black hole in the middle of the novel.
And while I was writing around it, in the back of my mind I was turning over different ideas for its structure: focus on the hardships of the depression years (too dreary), or on the women’s relationships with their husbands (better to background it), and then one day it came to me: I should write about the children. Because there were so many of them—some women gave birth to 8 or 9 babies out in the fields—and because for so many of the women, their children were their only hope. And so I wrote the chapter now called ‘The Children’ last, and when I was finished I popped it into the middle of the book and crossed my fingers and hoped that it would work.
JH: I find it interesting that you were a painter before you began your fiction career at age 30. Do you still paint, and do the two creative outlets feed each other?
JO: No, I no longer paint. I put down my brushes for good years ago. I do think, however, that there are similarities between writing and painting. If you’re a painter you go to your studio every day, you set out your colors on your pallet, you put down a mark on the canvas, then another, then another, you stand back, you add, you take away. It’s the same thing with writing. You get up every day and you sit down at your desk and you put down a word, or a sentence, or, on a good day (I work very slowly) maybe a half page. You add a word here, you take one away, you sketch out a scene, it’s all wrong, it needs to be a little warmer, a little cooler, you change it, it’s still wrong... It’s not that different from painting, really.
JH: Do you have any rituals that you do every day, before sitting down to write fiction?
JO: I am very much a creature of habit and, except for when I’m traveling, have pretty much kept up the same routine for the last 20 years. Every day I go to my local café, I nod to the other regulars, I order a coffee and a pastry, I sit down at my favorite table in the far back corner (if it’s available), I take out my pen, my pencil, and my eraser and I set up shop. I usually stay for about three hours, reading and writing. I don’t bring my laptop with me.
What I like about the café is that there’s no wireless access. To write, you have to be able to focus for long periods of time without interruption. Also, you need to let your mind wander. You can’t do these things if you’re constantly checking your email.
Another thing about the café: there’s no music and the coffee refills are endless and free. It’s the one place in the world where I’m consistently able to get into that state of flow, which is so necessary to being able to create.
JH: What’s the one true thing you learned from the picture brides in this beautiful novel?
JO: That you have to make the most of the life that’s given to you.
Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. She is the author of the novel When the Emperor Was Divine and a recipient of the Asian American Literary Award, the American Library Association Alex Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in New York City.