Thoughts from a Great Book Club Discussion
In part because writing is such a solitary endeavor, one of the things I really love is connecting with book groups who have chosen one of my novels and hearing their thoughts on and reactions to it. Last week I had a particularly interesting and thought-provoking chat with one of the groups that entered my quarterly book group drawing (see top right of my website homepage), and won signed editions of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment for each of its twelve members. As I told them, I thought they brought up some excellent questions that really made me think about the choices I’d made as an author. Since I thought they might be of interest to other Gods readers I decided to recap a few of them.
Q: Why did you set the first scene in Buffalo, New York?
A: My family and I have a longstanding love affair with Upstate New York. We try to go to Columbia County at least twice a yea, since it’s one of the most physically beautiful and peaceful places I know. (I actually have a fantasy of retiring there with my husband and breeding Springer Spaniel puppies between future novels.) For the first scene of the novel, I wanted to evoke a sense of quiet and peace before the coming storm of the Pacific War, and it seemed a natural setting for that. I also wanted to have it take place near a major university (in this case, University of Buffalo). And I wanted Cam to come from a farming background, which seemed to work well there as well.
Q: As the mother of a son who is gay, I was interested in your decision to make Billy Reynolds gay rather than straight. Initially I was afraid it was going to be a gratuitous detail and was preparing myself to be offended by it—but I found in the end that it was really touching and quite personal, and he ended up being one of my favorite characters. Can you talk a little about why you depicted his sexuality in this way?
A: I’m so glad you liked him! I always feel like Billy gets a little overlooked in the shadow of all the other more dramatic characters like Hana Kobayashi and, of course, Billy’s Tokyo-architect-turned-Tokyo-firebomber dad Anton Reynolds. The funny thing is that I didn’t start out really thinking about his sexuality very much. For me, he was just a sort of eccentric, bookish kid who felt even more of an outsider than his status as resident gaijin in Japan would merit. I kind of hate it when authors say “Oh, he/she made me do that” about their characters (I mean, we are their creators, after all!). With Billy, though, that aspect of his personality really did kind of form itself as I wrote him. I pretty much just sat down to write one day and realized: “Wow. I think Billy’s gay!”
I also think it had to do with my desire to make his connection to Yoshi Kobayashi, the girl he rescues from the firebombing’s aftermath, more textured and less traditionally “romantic.” I knew I wanted them to fall in love in a way, but I wasn’t interested in creating a knight in shining armor who simply appears and solves all of her problems. Lastly, I was actually really interested in the issue of gays in the military—particularly back in this time period, when there were so many more layers of secrecy and controversy around having a non-traditional sexual identity. There was a fascinating memoir on the subject—My Queer War by James Lord, which really gave some insight on how hard it was to be gay and in the army back then.
Q: My son has red hair, and I was interested in the fact that you decided to give Billy red hair too. Was there any specific reason for it?
A: Once more, in part he simply came to me that way—perhaps because it was a way to make him seem even more of an outsider, particularly in Japan. But I suspect it was also influenced by the fact that I have a redheaded, blue-eyed daughter, which for me has been especially fascinating since I’m dark-haired and dark-eyed, as are my husband and my other daughter. As I write in the book, it really does feel like you belong to a kind of special, secret society—whenever I walk with her and see other moms with redheads there’s a kind of “Ah, you too!” look and smile that passes between us.
Q: Do you consider this an “anti-war” book, per se?
A: I think in the end it is for me. But I wasn’t interested in writing personal polemic. I was rather trying to portray war in all of its facets in as objective and unvarnished a way as was possible, and to let the readers decide for themselves. It was an approach inspired in part by three extraordinary women I had the privilege of interviewing in Tokyo in 2009. All three had lived through the firebombing, and all three had dedicated their lives afterwards to telling and re-telling their traumatizing stories to as many people as they could. Their goal wasn’t to demonize the U.S. for unleashing the bombings on them, but to simply spread the word: “This is what war is. This is the reality. We have to work to not let it happen.”
Q: My experience is that most men who we know who were in WWII simply don’t talk about it. Do you think women would be more forthcoming and open about their experiences and their thoughts on those experiences?
A: Such an interesting question! I think it’s true that many men who have experienced war in all of its horrific realities don’t want to open the wounds again—they are just too traumatizing, and the truth is that anyone who hasn’t actually lived through those experiences isn’t going to be able to relate to them. So there are probably a lot of people of both genders who would have a hard time sharing such things. That said, I did find it interesting that the women I spoke with in Tokyo were so focused on relating their experiences in such detail to anyone who would listen—while the men that I interviewed really didn’t have much to say about their recollections. It could very well be due to a gender difference—it’s certainly been my observation that women tend to need much more intense and in-depth connections with other people than do men. It’s part of why we also tend to be more social—almost all of my girlfriends agree that we get together much more often than our husbands do with their male friends. And we certainly talk a lot more!
Q: For the most part, I found that this book wasn’t overtly political, which I liked. But I did wonder about the section where Billy, in training to go back to Japan as part of the Occupying Forces, has this exchange with a colleague:
“Who else? Bombs-away LeMay. You know this was all part of his lobbying effort to get the government to fund an independent Air Force.”
“What?” Billy gaped. “That’s bullshit. They did it to shorten the war.”
“Like the London Blitz shortened the war for Germany?” Sanger lifted an eyebrow. “Don’t believe it. What I heard is that the Army was getting ready to can the AAF altogether—too costly, too many accidents. And of course, all that money that could be going into the Army proper. This was LeMay’s way of showing Truman that air power is a military force to be reckoned with.”
Why did you include this comment? Do you believe that the sole intent of the firebombings was to “prove” something about the Air Force?
A: I don’t know if you could say it was the “sole” intent, but I do think there is a pretty persuasive argument that LeMay—who almost singlehandedly planned and carried out the firebombing of 68 Japanese cities, with hardly any governmental oversight—was trying to make a case for the viability of air power in coming conflicts. Max Hastings, in his exceptional book Retribution: The Battle for Japan—lays out the reasons he believes this to be the case, and I found them provocative and compelling enough to want to include them. I did, however, frame them as an opinion from a young man with Marxist leanings who will later be kicked out of the Occupation program, precisely because I didn’t want to be lobbying for or against the argument itself. I simply wanted to put it out there.
Q: There is a scene in which Yoshi’s husband Masahiro relates the atrocities he saw and participated in as an Imperial soldier in Northern China. It was so chilling—I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Did you come up with that yourself, and if so, how?
A: No—I doubt I could have come up with those events on my own. They are simply too unthinkable. I did, however, get a lot of background on Japanese atrocities in China from an extraordinary documentary entitled Riben Guizui, or “Japanese Devils.” It was done by independent filmmaker Minoru Matsui, who interviewed 14 ex-servicemen from a broad range of backgrounds (from farmers to doctors) and ranks, who were incredibly open with him about the atrocities they had personally committed during the war in China. It was so amazing to me on so many levels—first, that human beings can actually do these things to other human beings. How do they descend to that level? What so-called “training” system is in place to strip them of their humanity to that degree? (This too is something I try to explore in my depiction of Masahiro). But it was also just astonishing to me that these men had the courage to openly discuss and reflect on their acts—especially given Japan’s general reticence as a nation to publically own up to its wartime past. It’s an amazing film, though obviously not easy to watch.
Q: I was interested in your use of photographs at the beginning of each new section. Was this your idea, and did you actually choose all of the photographs? And if so, why?
A: It was. I tend to rely a lot on visual aids when I write—for my first novel, The Painter from Shanghai—I had covered my wall with copies of Pan Yuliang’s paintings, since they gave me such a strong sense of her as a woman and as a character. With this novel too I found that there were images that really spoke to me about the things I was trying to encapsulate in words—the main example, of course, being that fantastic image of the woman on the roof with which I open the book, and which is also the paperback cover. It’s by Tadahiko Hayashi, a Japanese photographer known for his dramatic photography, and when I saw it I literally had to drop everything and just study it for about half an hour. Somehow, it summed up so many of my themes—the clean innocence of the young woman, her pristine white and very Western-style bikini, contrasted with the gray industrial ruins of the city below her. I also love the title: Dancer on a Rooftop. After finding that one I began to see that I’d found similarly inspiring images to help me through other sections—and it struck me that they might be as helpful and interesting to readers as I’d found them. I had to pay for the rights to use many of them out of pocket, which is pretty standard in the publishing world. But I felt it was a worthwhile investment!
Q: Why did you have a King-sized bed for Cam and Lacey in the Niagra Falls hotel? Those weren’t invented until the mid-fifties.
A: One word: Oops! As I wrote in my post below about writing historical fiction, any ambitious historical novel is bound to have a few errors, no matter how hard the author tries to vet for them. And I do try to vet pretty thoroughly—in my last version I go through with a pencil and put a check over every “fact,” confirming it’s been verified. To be honest, this wasn’t a term it occurred to me to even wonder about. So great catch! We will change it to “double” in future editions.
Many thanks once more to the “Wednesday Book Club that meets on Thursdays” from Honeoye Falls N.Y. for a truly engaging and thoughtful hour of discussion! (And if you’d like your book club to win a free, signed set of books and a chat with me, don’t forget to enter your email on this site! Next drawing is in April!)