Tag Archives: Above the East China Sea

An Interview with Sarah Bird

8 May
Sarah Bird's eighth novel, Above the East China Sea, has been called her most powerful book yet.

Sarah Bird’s ninth novel, Above the East China Sea, has been called her most powerful book yet.

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.

Michael Noll

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? 

Sarah Bird

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Sarah Bird

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.

Michael Noll

Sarah Bird is the best-selling author of The Yokota Officers Club and, now, the much anticipated Above the East China Sea.

Sarah Bird is the best-selling author of The Yokota Officers Club and, now, the much anticipated Above the East China Sea. Signed, personalized copies of the novel can be pre-ordered from BookPeople, the Austin independent bookstore.

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? 

Sarah Bird

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Sarah Bird

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.

May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Take Your Characters for a Drive

6 May
Sarah Bird is the best-selling author of The Yokota Officers Club and, now, the much anticipated Above the East China Sea.

Sarah Bird is the best-selling author of The Yokota Officers Club and, now, the much anticipated Above the East China Sea.

At some point in almost every story, characters will move from one place to another. This change in scene ought to be simple, but it can be one of the most aggravating problems writers face. Too often, we try to mimic the actual experience of driving or walking, the way our minds wander across subject and time. Not infrequently, we use a car ride as an opportunity to insert backstory. Maybe this works—and if it does, that’s great. But if it doesn’t—if the reader begins to skim—then perhaps a more succinct strategy is required.

Sarah Bird’s new novel Above the East China Sea demonstrates perfectly how to quickly and effectively move a character through space. You can read an excerpt (and an interview with another great writer, Mary Helen Specht) at Necessary Fiction. You can also find a free sample at iBooks and Amazon.

How the Story Works

Moving from one place to another in fiction is an opportunity for something to happen, for something to change. If a character drives or walks somewhere, and the place she ends up is identical to the place she left and if the things that happen there are the same as the things that happened in the last place, then the move was not important. Unimportant moves should probably be cut from the story. Or, they should be made more impactful.

In this scene from Bird’s novel, notice how much changes along over the course of the drive. You don’t even need to know the plot to understand that something is about to happen:

He flips the photo back onto my lap and pulls into traffic. “I know exactly where and what that is.”

The rain has stopped by the time we leave the broad boulevards lined with royal palms and shops spilling out their glittering merchandise and turn onto narrower and narrower streets until we’re creeping along a nearly deserted back street. On either side are abandoned businesses with boarded-up windows and weeds growing through the concrete steps sporting signs so faded by the sun that I can barely make out the names: Club Kentucky. High Time Bar. The Manhattan. Girls Girls Girls. GI Welcome.

Suddenly, amidst all the gray buildings, we encounter one painted a vivid crimson. The shocking color frames a painting two stories high that depicts a beautiful woman in a red-and-lilac kimono sniffing a flower. A few blocks later there is another painted a shocking pink. A two-story poster depicts a pair of animé girls in French maid costumes, breasts overflowing laced bodices. An invisible fishing line hoists up the backs of ruffled skirts to reveal the clefts of their butts. With a weirdly sarcastic tone, Jake translates the caption beneath the girls: “‘Welcome home, Mr. Married Man. Your wife is out shopping for the day. Is there anything we can do for you before she gets back?’”

Two important things happen in this passage:

  1. The change in place corresponds to a change in something else. Obviously, the characters have driven to a different part of town. The streets look different, and this difference is an indicator that the people who live and work on those streets are different as well. They have less money and less opportunity. In short, this is the economic hinterland of the city. The things that happen here are not the same things that happen on the “broad boulevards lined with royal palms and shops spilling out their glittering merchandise.”
  2. The characters discover something unexpected. Yes, one of them is driving and knows what they’re going to find, but, for the narrator, the brightly painted buildings are new. At a very basic level, this discovery sets up suspense: What are these buildings? What happens inside them? Why has this person brought me here? This suspense is important because it forces the readers to recalibrate their expectations. We were led methodically down gradually narrowing streets, to a poorer, forgotten part of town, and then suddenly things have changed. The expectations we had for “abandoned businesses with boarded-up windows” are no longer useful.

In almost every kind of fiction, a trip usually indicates that something is about to happen. If you find yourself writing scenes that change locations aimlessly, it can be a sign that something deeper is wrong with the story. Those kind of “smart bombs” as one of my former teachers once called them can be immensely helpful; recognizing them helps you begin revising sooner.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s change locations in a story, using the passage from Sarah Bird’s novel Above the East China Sea as a model:

  1. Choose the point of origin. What kind of place is it? Is it a neighborhood, a business, a park? Is it private or public? What kind of area is it? Rural, urban, or suburban? Wealthy, poor, working class, or white collar? Are its fortunes rising or falling? Once you’ve got the place set in your mind, write a few descriptions of it that convey this information to the reader. Keep in mind Bird’s description of her point of origin: “broad boulevards lined with royal palms and shops spilling out their glittering merchandise.”
  2. Choose the new location. The same questions as before still apply. What kind of place is it? Once you’ve got it set in your mind, pick some descriptors that tell the readers what they need to know.
  3. Transition between locations. The easiest way to do this is to find a description from the point of origin that can be continued into the new location. Bird uses streets: their width and appearance and the buildings along them. This trailing description allows the reader to do what we all do in real life. As we drive somewhere, we mentally chart what is happening around us and make educated guesses about what those changes mean. So, look back at the descriptions you’ve written so far. Are any of them parallels? Can you easily connect a description from the point of origin to a description of the new location?
  4. Introduce something unexpected. The discovery can be totally unexpected (“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”), or it can fit within the world you’ve brought your character into. Bird introduces brothels after taking us to an economically disadvantaged side of town. It’s not shocking that they’re there. Instead, the surprise is that any number of things are likely on that side of town, and this is the thing we’ve found. In other words, treat your new location like the backdrop on a stage. The scenery gives the audience a clue about what will come, but the actual scene must still surprise us. You’re creating expectations with the transition, and now you must both fulfill and scramble those expectations. One way to do this is with an abrupt shift in landscape. Interrupt the smooth transition with a quick change. Regardless of what you introduce with the change, the fact that things have shifted so quickly gets the reader’s attention.

You’ll notice that I haven’t talked about plot or story at all. Of course, you’ll need a story to go along with your change of location. But sometimes a change in location can inspire or prompt a story. Play around with different locations and see what happens.

Good luck!

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