Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Interview with Jennifer Cody Epstein

Visiting today is author Jennifer Cody Epstein, who wrote The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, a truly lovely novel. You can see my review of her novel here. Hope you enjoy her insights.
Jennifer Cody Epstein
Here's a picture of the author that I stole from her website.
Hope she doesn't mind.
Q. How would you sum up The Gods of Heavenly Punishment for those who haven’t read it yet?
 Tough to do in a few words, as I've been learning! But essentially, it's an exploration of a key (but often overlooked) moment of the Pacific War: the firebombing of Tokyo, which killed 100,000 civilians in a few hours. I approach the subject from both sides of the conflict as well as from both the years leading up to it and those in its wake. It's also a meditation on war in general--what we lose, but also what we gain in the aftermath of enormous tragedy. 

Q. What idea or event inspired you to write your novel? 
 I've always been fascinated by Japan, and by America's evolving relationship with it. I lived there for five years, and while I'd heard much from my grandmother about how hated and feared the Japanese were during the war (like most in her generation she was pretty thoroughly propagandized, I think, and was alternately fascinated and slightly shocked by my decision to study there as a student) I could never comprehend how our two nations had descended to such levels of deep, mutual hatred--and then emerged from the war's wake as such strong allies. Then my husband came across a mention of the firebombing in an interview he was conducting (he's a filmmaker and has been making a documentary about a war crime in Iraq), and he came back and asked me what I knew about it...which, I realized abruptly, was pretty much nothing. So I looked it up online--and was flabbergasted that an event of such enormous human cost and complex ethics seems to have been left out of the story of World War II for most of us. I wanted to fill in that gap for myself--and (hopefully) for readers. 

Q. As an author, how much research is required for a book like this? Do you research from home or does it include travel?
I researched a lot--which for me isn't as onerous as it might sound because I actually find researching much easier than writing (!) Most of it was through books (both fiction and nonfiction) written reports, online documents and images etc--but I also travelled back to Japan in  2009 and interviewed three extraordinary women who had lived through the firebombing and very much wanted their stories about it to be passed along to the next generation. 

Q. Which character do you relate most to in The Gods of Heavenly Punishment? Do you share traits with any of the characters?
 I think I'm a combination between Yoshi and her mother Hana. I share Yoshi's fascination with language and her sort of introverted, meditative view of the world--but also I relate to her mother's fear of rejection and her perpetual sense of not fitting in--as well as her alternating tendencies to both embrace her (perceived) eccentricities and suffer because of them.  

Q. Please share your writing story. How did you begin and what helped you succeed?
 I've always loved to write, and I've always loved books. When I was very small one of my favorite pastimes was to staple together sheaths of paper to make "noves" that I'd then fill with pictures and stories, and as I got older I was almost always deep into a real novel no matter what I was supposed to be doing (I used to hide them on my lap when I was theoretically doing my homework, and prop them on the piano when I was supposed to be practicing!). I think in part it's that passion that helped me finally become a "real" writer--it was pretty much all I ever really wanted to do. That said, I also think that community was essential for my development as a writer. Working on my own, I started dozens of projects but really only ever finished a few short stories between the ages of 18 and 28. It was only when I went to graduate school, and found myself surrounded by fellow writers who would not only motivate me to keep going but would challenge me to do it better that I wrote anything worth finishing--not to mention worth publishing! That experience taught me how crucial feedback and support is to the writing process--and as a result, I've continued to work with writing groups since graduating. 

Q. What authors or books influenced you? 
 So many! But I'd say for this book in particular Sarah Waters' The Night Watch and Ian McEwan's Atonement were particularly important--both for the way they handled war's devastation and the skill with which they intertwine very different perspectives into a single narrative. 

Q. Are you working on a new project now that we can look forward to?
 I have started several and am only now deciding which one to go ahead on--but I think it will be another look at World War II, this time from the European angle. But it will also be an exploration of female friendship--how it shapes us, and also how it can both fail and redeem us. I'll keep you posted! 

Hmm, I wonder if Jennifer has read my novel with its take on a moment in World War II. Maybe, like me, she realizes how quickly people who remember those wars are fading from our lives.

Thanks to Jennifer for your interview and for sharing  your novel. 

1 comment:

Just Me said...

For such a short interview it was absolutely fascinating. The interview and the author have convinced me that I want to know this story.

I'm sorry I didn't see this posting back when you wrote it.

Thank you both.

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