Hi Annie! Firstly, I just wanted to let you know I enjoyed Somewhere Among immensely!
Thank you! And thank you for these questions.
I saw on your blog that when you first set out to write your middle
grade novel, it was entirely different. You never intended it to be about September 11th, but I am curious about the conception of the novel and how Somewhere Among came to be. So, my first question is, how did your original middle grade novel set in Texas transform to Somewhere Among, set in Japan during the tragic time of 9/11?
The two are different novels, different stories. The Texas novel remains on file for future revisions. I started writing Somewhere Among while we were experiencing aftershocks from the earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
We experienced a fraction of the initial quake, but it was frightening. We didn’t have any damage at our Tokyo house. In my area, there were scheduled electricity blackouts and only shortages of bread and toilet paper, but the earth rumbled under our feet for months reminding us that Tokyo is expected to have a big earthquake someday. The discomfort from the aftershocks, concern about a possible big quake, and the grief from the aftermath of the tsunami made me turn to writing.
But I couldn’t work on the Texas novel. I started writing poems, memories, images and funny experiences from our life in Tokyo. But it didn’t take long for memories of 9-11 to come back.
I started thinking about how we coped with that tragedy. And the tragedies that Japan and the US share. I also thought of myself as a child in elementary school in the 1960s. It was a difficult time, too. But there were voices of peace all around. I remember the comfort of the words of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and the songs of the time.
All those bits and pieces came to together as a way of coping with the aftershocks. On my mind was how people keep going, keep strong. The cornerstone of this story became the peace doll a woman gave me on the train when I was pregnant with my first child. The message “May Peace Prevail on Earth” was taped on it.
How much research did you have to do for Somewhere Among? Were any of the characters in the novel based off anyone you know in real life?
The story actually came fast. Both my children went through the Japanese public system so I had many details from those days. I also had vivid memories of 2001; details, images, observations and emotions of the Ehime Maru, 9-11, Martha Stewart being grounded here, the music, the meteor shower, rocket launches, and the typhoons we experienced that year.
I take note of things in daily life and I have had a very good memory (so far).
The story fell together and then I began researching, making sure of the timeline and layering more details of events, the weather, foliage, moon phases and NASA. The story has an extensive bibliography. An abridged copy can be found on my website, www.anniedonwerth-chikamatsu.com
Sticking to the timeline made revisions tricky. It was a mind-blowing experience.
The historical events are documented by newspaper articles, TV reports, and my photographs. The neighborhood is based on my neighborhood. The clump of trees down the street. The timing of cicadas and swallows. Foliage changes (this is different in different regions). The house is the house we used to live in before we built a new house. (We lived in one room and my in-laws’ section did not and still does not have a chair.) We have always been watchers of the sky.
The characters are fictional, but of course I drew on my experiences with people here. The grandmother is not my children’s grandmother. She’s the sum of all the cultural “mishaps” I learned here from different people. For example, it was suggested to me after my babies were born that visitors should not come to the room where we sit, eat and sleep. The grandfather is the sum of the affection and unconditional love my children’s American and Japanese grandparents’ had for them.
I would never have attempted this story if I hadn’t had the experience of living with my in-laws and my children going through the Japanese public school system.
I personally haven’t read a book written entirely in poem, in a very, very long time. I thought it was a nice change from my usual reading. Why did you choose to write in the style of poetry?
This story came in this form. Poetry is important to the mom in the story. She made it a part of her child’s life. My love of poetry started at a young age. I have always read more poetry (and short stories) than novels. I have written children’s and adult poetry along with short stories, flash fiction and a blog for many years. Writing poetry feels natural. Writing short feels natural.
Somewhere Among releases tomorrow, do you have any celebration plans?
I should have planned something! Our house is too messy for teatime visitors. Maybe later I will do some spring cleaning. But I am planning to go the Heiwa no Daito (translated as The Great Pagoda of Peace even though it is not a pagoda) . There is a peace festival each May. I am planning to go to the States in September. I have heard Kinokuniya in New York would like me to come sign books! Befriend me on my Facebook page Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu (with a hyphen) for updates.
What is one thing that you hope readers will take away after reading Somewhere Among?
That even though we don’t have any control over the events in the world or control over how others talk or act, we do have control of our own reactions and actions and words. We can work on our own hearts. There is a chance we may be able to influence others to do the same.
And lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Read. But be a creative and an analytical reader at some point after the enjoyment of reading a story. Take note of the choices the author made. Keep a reading journal (that would be fun for young readers to watch their growth as a reader even if they don’t want to be a writer.)
Observe, take note of life. Make connections.
Write for yourself. Don’t think about publishing. If you do decide to pursue publication, don’t send something out too soon.
Find readers for your work. Listen. If they don’t understand what you are trying to say, don’t write them off. Go back, reread, rewrite.
Go to writing workshops and conferences. Enter contests for critiques. Take every opportunity.
I took Somewhere Among fully formed (I thought) to a verse novel workshop at the Highlights Foundation in 2012. I learned the basics and had critiques from the instructors, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Sonya Sones, and Linda Oatman High. I met other writers there who read and critiqued it. One attendee read the whole novel!
SCBWI-JAPAN offered a critique by an editor. Afterwards, I made some revisions. I entered the 2013 Writers League of Texas competition in order to have it critiqued. I won the contest and made some revisions. I signed up for a critique at SCBWI-LA in 2013 and Somewhere Among was critiqued by the Adams Literary Agency. I then felt ready to submit it to literary agent Holly McGhee. She asked many questions that led to revisions. Then the editor had some more questions that led to revisions.
You have to observe and listen in order to write. And to publish.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few of my questions Annie! I can’t wait till other readers get the chance to read Somewhere Among when it releases Tuesday!
Thank you for your review, your enthusiasm, and this interview.
Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu lives in Tokyo, Japan. Her work has been published in Hunger Mountain, Highlights, Highlights High Five, Y.A.R.N., and other magazines. She received a grant from the Highlights Foundation to attend Chautauqua in 2009. Somewhere Among won the 2013 Writers’ League of Texas award in the middle grade category and is her debut novel. - See more at: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Somewhere-Among/Annie-Donwerth-Chikamatsu/9781481437868#sthash.S8y8EDFV.dpuf