Sarah Bird is the author of eight novels that have been honored by the New York Public Library’s 25 Books to Remember list, Elle Magazine Reader’s Prize, People Magazine’s Page Turners, and Library Journal’s Best Novels. Her latest novel, Above the East China Sea, tells the entwined stories of two teenaged girls, an American and an Okinawan, whose lives are connected across seventy years by the shared experience of profound loss, the enduring strength of an ancient culture, and the redeeming power of family love. Bird has written screenplays for many studios and independent producers and has contributed articles to The New York Times, Salon, O Magazine, and Texas Monthly. As a kid, she moved all over the world with her air force family, and now she lives in Austin, Texas.
In this interview, Bird discusses composting research into story, writing in bed, and why some surprises aren’t good for readers.
To read excerpts of Above the East China Sea and an exercise on moving characters around in fiction, click here.
You’re an American writing about a place—Okinawa—that has a long, difficult relationship with Americans and the United States. You spent part of your childhood in Okinawa, and so you’re familiar with the island from the American perspective. In this excellent interview with Mary Helen Specht, you said that you tried to imagine yourself “outside of the fence and ask questions like, How would an American would feel if, say, the entire eastern seaboard, were occupied by foreigners?” That seems like a necessary but difficult imaginative leap. How did you approach the problem of crossing that fence, so to speak, and trying to see things from the Okinawan view with as little of the inherently residual American view clouding your perspective?
The major question I wanted to look at in this novel is how the price of imperial ambition is always borne most heavily by the young. That was true when Japanese industrialists seized control of the government around the turn of the century and began militarizing that country. And it’s been tragically true for our country.
History is a kaleidoscope that can be twisted in an infinite number of directions. Settling on the correct lens through which to view both the contemporary and historical stories in this novel required years of education. Like most writers, I was a born observer, outsider, and almost burdened by a high degree of imaginative empathy. So shifting perspective wasn’t hard, but getting the factual context right did require lots of research.
At one point in the novel, the characters visit a strip of Sōpus, or bath houses. The passage approaches these places a couple of ways. There’s direct description (“The two-story building is covered in bathroom tile and features giant posters of young Japanese girls in sexy nurse uniforms and pink scrubs.”) and also historical summary (“Whorehouse? Technically, no, since prostitution has been illegal in Japan since the mid-fifties.”). The latter seems easier than the former to write: in theory, you’re relaying your research to the reader. But in the direct description, you’re bringing that research to life. How did you approach these kinds of scenes and descriptions? Or, in other words, how did you convert the facts of research into the breath of story?
Michael, I love the entire process of converting research into fiction and think of it as composting. I try to toss rich, nutritious items onto the pile, horse manure, food scraps, along with grass clippings and dead leaves. I let it steep for months in a spot that receives ample sunshine. And I trust that a dark, buried world of microbial beings will convert the whole mass into a medium capable of sustaining a character, a story.
For this novel in particular, I spent many happy months researching in libraries, online, and doing personal interviews. Most useful, probably, of all these avenues in creating a character are diaries, personal narratives, and fiction set in the time and place of interest. Then, when it comes time, after this mulch pile has stewed in my brain long enough, I put all my books and notes aside and channel the character. If I’d absorbed enough of the right ingredients, something good usually sprouts.
The novel takes place in two different time periods (1945 and present day). An inherent risk in this structure is that every time you switch between time periods and stories, you break, at least momentarily, the narrative momentum. Did you find that this was something you had to think about in structuring the chapters and novel as a whole?
Without intending to, I seem to gravitate toward telling stories from two points of view. It was essential for this novel since I wanted to show how we are all formed by our national narratives. This was a right-brain, left-brain process so distinct that worked in two entirely different spots. When I was in full fiction mode, the dreaming, empathy, channeling part, I wrote in bed, in longhand on a yellow pad. That was where the characters spoke to me and I took dictation. For the shaping part I sat at my desk edited the material and made the two girls’ stories cohere.
In the end, I was astonished at how well the two narratives braided together. How, guided by their deepest yearnings, they told stories that wove together and amplified each other.
The promotional copy for Above the East China Sea describes the novel as a “stunning departure.” I’m curious what this phrase means to you. It’s not like you’ve been writing zombie erotica. At a recent panel sponsored by The Writer’s League of Texas, you described your books as midlist literary fiction. What makes this novel different?
Okay, the “stunning departure” thing is a way to signal to readers that this one is not funny. I’ve written both intensely serious books and others that are regarded as comic novels. And, whoa doggies, judging by reviews on Amazon, if a reader comes to you expecting larfs aplenty and they get, oh say, the invasion of Okinawa when more people died than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, well, that is not a happy reader. And that reader departs. Stunned.
Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.