Tag Archives: Japanese internment

Interview with Kristina McMorris

Interview with Kristina McMorris, Author of Bridge of Scarlet Leaves

Kristina McMorris


Jaime Boler: Bridge of Scarlet Leaves is your second novel.  What was your first book and what was the premise behind it?

Kristina McMorris: My debut novel, Letters from Home, was inspired by my maternal grandparents’ wartime courtship letters. Here is a brief summary: In the midst of World War II, a Midwestern infantryman falls deeply in love through a yearlong letter exchange, unaware that the girl he’s writing to is not the one replying. Woven around this tenuous thread are three female friends whose journeys toward independence take unexpected turns as a result of romance, tragedy, and deception, their repercussions heightened by an era of the unknown. It’s a story of hope and connection, of sacrifices made in love and war, and the chance encounters that change us forever.

Her debut novel, "Letters from Home"

JB: You and I share a mutual fascination with the 1980s miniseries North and South.  How did that story inspire you to write Bridge of Scarlet Leaves?

KM: Years ago, an old family friend shared with me that he had fought for America while his brother served for Japan. I was captivated by the idea. But it wasn’t until a decade later, when I’d found my calling as a writer, that I remembered his story and realized what an amazing premise it would make for a novel. Combined, as you mentioned, with my undying love for the U.S. miniseries North and the South, wherein loved ones were labeled enemies overnight, I set out to write my book. But in the midst of research, I happened across an obscure mention of roughly two hundred non-Japanese spouses who had chosen to live in the U.S. war relocation camps voluntarily. I phoned my agent that very day and said, “This is it. I have my story!”

JB: I know you did lots of in-depth research for this book.  Did anything that you found surprise you?

KM: Aside from non-Japanese spouses living in the camps, other discoveries that shocked me were the cases of Japanese American men who became stuck in Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, then, on account of their ancestry, were conscripted into the Imperial Army or Navy. I was also surprised to learn that you only had to be 1/16 Japanese to qualify for internment, and that even adopted Japanese American children were torn from their Caucasian families and placed in an orphanage in the camp.

I’m proud that I was able to weave these findings into my story, as I believe people should know these things happened.

JB: I read where you actually rode in a B-17, just as TJ does.  What was that like?

Kristina McMorris

KM: It was anything but a hard day at work! There was a maximum of only ten passengers allowed, and after takeoff, we were encouraged to roam the B-17 for the entire flight. It was incredible. I spent the majority of the flight in the nose-gunner’s seat, with nothing but Plexiglas beneath my feet. Flying over lush green farmland, I could imagine for a brief moment what it must have felt like to soar over English farmland during the ’40s. That is, until I reminded myself that there was a huge difference: nobody was trying to shoot down my aircraft—thankfully.

JB: In writing for the character of Maddie, you show such knowledge of music.  Do you play any instruments?

KM: As with most of my research, I relied on generous “experts” that made me look much wiser than I am! Although I used to play piano, I was clueless when it came to the violin. Fortunately, an old friend from high school is a violinist who attended a conservatory and continues to perform in a symphony. She and my husband, who used to play violin as a kid, were immensely helpful. I also learned a great deal from watching performances of the specific pieces on YouTube.

JB: Please describe what a typical day of writing is like for you.

KM: You mean a usual day of being pampered by my personal chef, maid, chauffeur, personal assistant, and… oh, wait, you’re referring to the actual not-soglamorous life of an author, ha. Well, my alarm goes off at 6:30am, in order to get the kidlings ready for school. After doing dishes and tossing in a load of laundry, I’ll clear out my emails then take a quick shower. Next, I get into my comfy clothes and ugly fuzzy socks, and I park on the couch with my half-caff coffee and laptop to tackle writing, publicity and/or marketing. It’s a cyber sprint until the kids come home, at which point I give myself an extra hour to wrap things up before handling all the usual mom activities until the munchkins are in bed. I often work on my laptop while my hubby and I catch a little TV. Since I’m a night owl, I stay up until at least midnight, then hit the hay and wait for that dreaded alarm to go off at 6:30am. (The cycle reminds me a bit of the movie Groundhog Day actually.)

JB: My favorite character was Lane.  Do you have any favorites?

KM: Which of my children is my favorite? LOL. Bea, Jo, Eddie, TJ… I honestly enjoy every one of them, since I understand who they are and why. I suppose if I had to choose, however, I would say Kumiko. It takes time and effort to peel away her layers and gain her trust. She reminds me of that tough teacher we all had at one point in our lives who didn’t believe in giving A’s, so the day you actually earned an A from her—or in this case, her full approval—you appreciated it more than any others.

JB: Are any characters autobiographical?  If so, who?  I know many are based on actual people, particularly those you came across in your research.  Are any of your characters based on people you know?

KM: I’ve pondered the question a good amount when asked this in the past, and I think it’s the most accurate to say that my own personality is sprinkled throughout each of my characters, even the guys; in fact, mostly the guys!

As for basing characters on other real people, there’s only one person in the story that portrays an actual figure: Justin “Sam” Barry, the legendary USC coach. In order to feel comfortable depicting him, I researched as much as I could, but found very little about him. Luckily, the Sports Information Office Director at USC was kind enough to connect me with Coach Barry’s godson and namesake, who offered some helpful insight about the man’s demeanor.

JB: Were any of your ancestors victims of the Japanese internment?  If so, what happened to them?

KM: My father, an immigrant from Kyoto, was actually born after WWII, so our family didn’t have to face these challenges directly. Now, that’s not to say my parents didn’t encounter resistance from both sides of the family when they wanted to marry. My maternal grandfather had, after all, served as a U.S. Navy signalman on a Destroyer escort in the Pacific during WWII. On a side note, I will add that ironically my father’s birthday is December 7th, which of course is Pearl Harbor Day. In that way, I suppose I should have always known I was destined to write about this pivotal moment in history.

JB: What was the most difficult part about writing Bridge of Scarlet Leaves?

KM: Quite simply, the blank page. That blinking, taunting cursor is typically not my friend. I do, however, love to edit, which is what keeps me trekking away.

As for research that I found most challenging, it was definitely the Japanese POW camps. Reading about the senseless horrors humans are capable of inflicting upon each other—and even finding enjoyment in those acts—often left me in tears. Fortunately, surprising tales of wartime compassion would help alleviate those dark moments.

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of researching and writing this novel?

 KM: I think the greatest thing I gained was a newfound admiration for the Japanese American veterans who often risked their lives in the name of democracy, despite their families being unjustly incarcerated by their own country. Also, the humbleness of those families and lack of resentment they held after being released continues to both astound and, though it might sound odd, inspire me. Their resiliency and determination to move on, regardless of hardships, is truly remarkable.

 JB: Do you think something so awful as relocating a people based on their race and keeping them corralled could ever happen again in our country?

KM: Sadly, it continues to happen to this day in other parts of the world. Do I think it could happen again in America? Given our current means of instant and mass communication, and thus widespread awareness, I think it’s unlikely on such a large scale; just imagine the protests that would occur if even a single neighborhood was forced out of an area due to race. That said, nothing is impossible. Lack of knowledge breeds ignorance, which largely fueled the hysteria that led to the Japanese American internment. And no doubt, cases of similar discrimination could be made following 9-11, affirming that learning about the past is vital for many reasons.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Bridge of Scarlet Leaves?

KM: In addition to being transported into another world, I hope readers gain a deep appreciation for real-life heroes they otherwise didn’t know existed, as well as knowledge about history too often brushed over. On a more personal note, if the story causes them to reexamine their own values and perspectives on other cultures, I really couldn’t ask for anything more.

JB: Are there any plans on making this book into a movie?

KM: Ooh, a red carpet stroll sure sounds nice. The truth is, my film rights agent at CAA is very enthusiastic and recently started shopping the book to producers. Realistically, even if it’s optioned, the chances of a book making it to the silver screen are slim—but hey, you never know! It’s definitely a fun thought, anyhow. And in the end, I’ve been fortunate enough to see my story published into an actual book that is reaching readers’ hands; that alone is an accomplishment I’m extremely grateful for.

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

KM: Up next, my novella, The Christmas Collector, will be released in October in a holiday anthology titled A Winter Wonderland, headlined by Fern Michaels. In this contemporary story, Jenna Matthews, the daughter of a former hoarder, seeks catharsis through her career as an estate liquidator. However, while preparing for a sale just before Christmas—a season of overpriced “junk” exchanges she despises—she stumbles upon a shoebox of wartime memorabilia that reveals the secret past of an elderly woman (her young version is a minor character in Letters from Home), and soon leads Jenna on a hunt to understand the true value of keepsakes, holidays, and memories.

Other than that, I have two more novels on contract with my publisher. The first one is tentatively titled Through Memory’s Gate, which I’ll be diving into as soon as the whirlwind of my current book tour settles.

JB: And your readers look forward to them all!  Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview.  I wish you much success.

The Subject of Our Interview--"Bridge of Scarlet Leaves"



Filed under author interviews, books, fiction, history

Book Review: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (Knopf; 144 pages; $22).

            I am glad I was not one of the judges who chose the winner of this year’s National Book Award!  There were three novels that I really loved in the field:  Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and, the subject of today’s review, Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic.  Other books nominated were Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn and Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision.

Ultimately, Ward’s Salvage the Bones took home the literary prize.  The Buddha in the Attic, though, was just as worthy and just as affecting. Otsuka writes this intimate novella with elegance and subtlety.

Although you need not read them together, The Buddha in the Attic is a kind of prequel to Otsuka’s 2001 novel When the Emperor was Divine, published just prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Otsuka uses the increasingly popular first-person plural (“we”) to tell her story.  Of all the novels I have read whose authors used this method of storytelling, I have to say that Otsuka does it the best of all.  Does she create the sense of place that Carsten Jensen does in We, the Drowned?  No.  Does she create the incredible feel for her characters that Justin Torres gives us in We the Animals?  Again, no.  So what is so wonderful about The Buddha in the Attic?  Many, many things.

The Buddha in the Attic begins with a hopeful group of Japanese picture brides who are on their way to America in the early 1900s.  Otsuka chose real history about which to write.  Many Japanese brides came to America at this time looking for better opportunities and for husbands.

Otsuka writes as if one of them were your sister or your best girlfriend.  You, the reader, sits down with her for tea and she recounts to you what it was like.  Sometimes she whispers and you must lean closer.  Sometimes she laughs, as do you.  Sometimes she gets a wistful look in her eye  when she remembers her family she left behind back in Japan.  Sometimes, when she recalls something especially painful, she cries.  And you do, too.

“On the boat we were mostly virgins,” Otuska begins.  “Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years.”

The first thing the girls did on the boat was compare photos of their husbands.  They were giddy to see them.  The husbands “were handsome young men with dark eyes and full heads of hair and skin that was smooth and unblemished.”  They wore Western-style suits and posed by their American cars and American houses.

But when they reached port in San Francisco, the girls did not recognize the men waiting for them on shore.  Who were these men?  If you guessed that the men were older, darker, and poorer, you are correct.  The photos they sent were pictures of their cousins or of pictures decades old.  The girls were shattered.

When The Buddha in the Attic begins, the girls share a collective experience.  They are all on the same ship, all going to the same place, all picture brides.  When they reach San Francisco, though, their experience ceases being a collective one; it becomes individual.  No one girl will lead the same life.

Otsuka never concentrates on just one of these women; she wants to tell us about them all.  This may frustrate some readers who seek to feel deeper attachments to the characters they read about.

Again, picture the tea you are having with your sister or girlfriend.  She tells you a little about her own life, but there are so many other lives to tell you about.  She cannot focus only on herself.  The story is bigger than just one person, and that is what Otsuka wants her readers to realize.  I feel that is why she chose to use the first-person plural.

What happens to these women after their dreams were shattered?  The brides cannot return to Japan.  They have no money for the passage home.  They have nowhere else to go.  Some leave their husbands to become prostitutes.  Some leave their husbands for other men.  Others stick with their husbands and work with them in the fields.  They to make their lives work.  They have children and the years pass, as they are wont to do.  The women grow older, and their needs and lifestyles change.

Otsuka takes this story all the way to World War II and the Japanese internment.  You will cry here.  My one criticism is that Otsuka deviates too much at the end in the section entitled “A Disappearance.”  Otsuka writes this in third-person from the point of view of the women’s Caucasian neighbors who wonder what has become of the Japanese.

Otsuka, it is important to point out, was born in Los Angeles long after the time period in which she sets her novella; she writes, though, as if she lived it.  The Buddha in the Attic is an emotional, detailed, heartbreaking story.  Its 144 pages packs a powerful punch.  Japanese culture comes to life under Otsuka’s guiding hand.  Her prose is stylish and elegant.  This is one of those novels that will stay with you for your entire life.


Filed under book review, books, fiction