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In our interview, Otsuka revealed some interesting facts about herself:
"I wrote a good part of Emperor in my neighborhood café. I have a favorite seat, way in back in the corner, and I've been sitting there for years. Writing is an extremely lonely pursuit, and there's something comforting about being out in a public place, surrounded by people you know and see every day -- the waitresses, the other regulars who are also working on books or screenplays or musical scores of their own. Everyone's in there just making stuff up. And eating pastry, too, of course."
"I had no idea when I started writing ‘Evacuation Order No. 19' -- the first chapter of my novel -- that it would turn into something larger. I'd never written anything serious before, only comic fiction, and had never intended to take on the subject of the war. But the character of the woman in the story simply took up residence, one day, in my head: I saw her standing alone on a street, reading the evacuation notice for the first time, and then I followed her home to see who she was, and what she might do after that."
"I came to New York to be a painter, and failed. My background in the visual arts, however, has definitely influenced the way I work -- the process of painting is not all that different from that of writing. You wake up, go to your studio or your desk, you sketch out a scene, it's all wrong, you make it a little warmer, a little cooler, it's still wrong.... Because I'd failed as a painter, I felt that I had nothing to lose when I began writing, which made it easier, somehow."
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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Julie Otsuka had to say:
Salt Water by Charles Simmons -- A wonderful read from the very first line, "In the summer of 1963 I fell in love and my father drowned."
The Woman Who Walked on Water by Lily Tuck -- Deftly told, with a light touch; a novel about a woman who follows her guru to India in search of higher meaning.
The Inland Sea by Donald Richie -- My favorite Japan travel memoir.
A Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux -- A spare, beautifully told story of a woman's affair with a married man.
Was This Man a Genius?: Talks with Andy Kaufman by Julie Hecht -- A quirky take on the comedian Andy Kaufman by one of my favorite writers.
Gray's Anatomy by Spalding Gray -- A hilarious, obsessive account of Spalding Gray's attempt to cure himself of his eye problem (a macular pucker).
Visiting Mrs. Nabokov by Martin Amis -- Wickedly funny essays.
An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks -- Fascinating neurological case studies.
In the winter of 2003, Julie Otsuka answered some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
When I first started writing I read all of Hemingway's short stories, beginning with the Nick Adams stories in In Our Time. I remember thinking, 'oh, so that's how you do it.' Now I'm much less convinced, however, that there's a right way to do it. Still, he was the writer I first imprinted myself on, and I go back to his stories often, if only for the pleasure of listening to the sound of his sentences, his cadences.
What are your favorite books -- and why?
Oh, difficult, but a few favorites include:
- The Plague, by Albert Camus -- for its humanity, and for the narrator's deep affection for his characters
- The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin -- for his fierce passion, and his gorgeous lyrical voice
- Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion -- because she's really looking, and because she makes thinking so sexy
- The Lover, by Marguerite Duras -- for showing me another way it could be done
- Badenheim, 1939, by Aharon Appelfeld -- for so perfectly (and quietly) describing the "moment before"
Also, some short story collections I could not do without:
- Rock Springs, by Richard Ford -- for the way he writes about love, and for showing me what a story could be
- Dusk, by James Salter -- for the utter perfection of his sentences
- The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien -- for making it realer than real
- The Collected Stories, by Franz Kafka -- for imagining it all before it happened
Favorite films?Afterlife, by the Japanese filmmaker, Kore-eda
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Woman in the Dunes
Hiroshima, Mon Amour
Jules and Jim
The Wizard of Oz
Bach Mass in B Minor
What are your favorite books to give as gifts?
My favorite book to give is Julie Hecht's Do The Windows Open? If I could be reincarnated as a comic writer, I'd come back as her.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
I am a huge fan of Jamaica Kincaid's -- her prose is utterly hypnotic and rhythmically perfect, her sentences sing. And beneath the language, such outrage, such heartbreak. I also always look forward to the latest story by Alice Munro or Richard Ford, two of the short story masters, in my opinion. And anything by Joy Williams. Rick Bass. Steven Millhauser. Lydia Davis. Also, Haruki Murakami. And the plays of Wallace Shawn.
What are you working on now?
Another novel picking up on some of the themes I left unfinished in Emperor.
What else do you want your readers to know?
I love to swim. I enjoy the whole pool scene -- the other pool regulars, my lady friends in the locker room, even the smell of chlorine. My favorite time to write is right after I've swum -- maybe it's an endorphin thing, but after swimming my brain feels extremely steady and calm and my concentration is good.
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