Author Otsuka Visits Emerson
Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 23:02
With light streaming in from the windows with a view of the nearby Boston Common, author Julie Otsuka politely shook hands with those that approached her in Emerson College’s Charles Beard Room before lending herself to a question and answer segment as part of the Ploughshares Reading Series on Feb. 7.
Steve Yarbrough, a professor in the department of writing, literature, and publishing at Emerson, led the discussion of Otsuka’s career, which includes her acclaimed first novel When the Emperor Was Divine (2002) and her most recent novel The Buddha in the Attic (2011).
The Buddha in the Attic earned Otsuka the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award, for which Yarbrough was a judge. Both of her major novels follow Japanese Americans, emphasizing the effects of World War II and Japanese internment.
Otsuka’s original training was as a visual artist. “That’s how I learned to look and see,” she said of sculpting, an art form that she later left behind in favor of painting during her 20s.
Though she eventually chose the art of words over the visual arts, Otsuka said that the skills she learned as a painter stayed with her in her writing career. “My first novel came to me very much in pictures,” she said.
Nine years passed between her first novel and her second, which she considers to be more “sound-driven.”
Explaining the large gap between her major works, Otsuka said that she spent a year “kind of floundering” after her first novel before the “conception came together” for her second, adding that her second book required more extensive research than her first.
“I do all of my best work in the Hungarian Pastry Shop. It’s always the first place I go when I come home,” said Otsuka, a resident of New York City. Because the Hungarian Pastry Shop has no internet or music, Otsuka considers it an ideal spot to work on her writing. At the cafe, she knows many of the other regulars, who will gladly give up their seats so that that she might enjoy her favorite spot in a corner of the cafe.
Otsuka’s relationship with New York began when she was a graduate student at Columbia University, when she would often spend time at the Strand Bookstore. Ironically for a writer of dramatic and intense literature, Otsuka said that she entered Columbia as a writer of comedic stories before a professor of hers guided her toward the early inspirations for When the Emperor Was Divine, which follows a family’s experience in a Japanese internment camp.
Though Otsuka knew that her Japanese mother had been interned at Topaz, Utah, she chose not to visit the camp until after she had completed her novel, so that the depiction of the internment camp could develop organically from her own mind, and found that the characters she wrote about were more important than their immediate environments.
“I really thought of it as being my mother’s story,” Otsuka said. “You sensed as a child growing up that, you know, something had happened to mom, but it was never really talked about too much.”
Of her writing process, Otsuka said that she often has an idea for where a story will end up, but prepares herself for the idea of “false endings,” where she might arrive at a “much more interesting ending.”
“I feel like each book has its own organic structure,” Otsuka said, describing how she wrote a middle chapter of The Buddha in the Attic, titled “The Children,” after the rest of the novel, allowing her research to guide her literary choices.
After the research, however, and after all of the distractions, Otsuka said, “You let things settle, and you forget, and you just start to write.”