Books, poetry, Somewhere Among, verse

Writing Somewhere Among

I didn’t set out to write about 9-11.

At the time of the earthquake and tsunami March 11, 2011, I was working on a middle grade prose novel set in Texas, my home state. The earth rocked our Tokyo house for months afterwards. The damaged nuclear plant threatened Japan’s air, food, and water.

Leaving Japan was not an option. We were rooted here. We had lived with my Japanese in-laws for over twenty years, one child was in university, and the other was about to start Japanese high school. Who could leave and come back?

Health issues, an ageing mother-in-law, and pets made it impossible to go to the area to volunteer. I tried working on the Texas novel and sent out a lifeline by paying for a critique for it. Survival mode took its toll and I eventually had to put it aside.

I needed to ground myself in Japan.

Gardening and photographing nature and our neighborhood farmer had always been grounding. Writing, too.

I wasn’t able to write about the aftershocks, the fleeing foreign residents, and the radiation crisis of the nuclear plants. I couldn’t bear reading, hearing or seeing anything more about it. I had to disengage to lighten my heart.

In troubled times, we turn to family and relationships and, sometimes, to the past for comfort. I started writing tidbits, the observations and connections I had made over the years here, things that rooted me here, things about living here within a Japanese family for over twenty years:

the old wooden house Great-grandfather built after World War II that leaned in typhoons, jerked in earthquakes, but stood its ground;

the one-room lifestyle we had upstairs in the old house before we built a new house in its place;

the palm tree that soared above its rooftop but now watches over us from outside the new dining room window;

the loving relationships my children had with all their family, and

the memories of my children’s Japanese public school experience.

A dozen or more short pieces, poems and memories quickly evolved into a story from a child’s point of view. The first draft came fast.

I was still dealing with the grief of the earthquake and tsunami. It was still hard to trust the earth beneath our feet. Hard to trust the roof over our heads. Hard to trust the air we breathed.  The story did not turn out to be about any of that. But it didn’t turn out lighthearted.

It had become Somewhere Among, a middle grade novel set in another difficult time, 2001. I shielded our children, then 9 and 5, from the TV coverage of the attacks, but the TV was always on downstairs at their grandparents. The nine-year-old actually created a tower made of yogurt bottles and bandages for the school’s November 2001 art exhibition.

Somewhere Among highlights the history, anniversaries, and tragedies my two families’ countries have shared. It is about reconciliation. About going on. About finding peace within.

It is built from research of events, weather, and NASA before and in 2001. The story includes some true light-hearted and funny instances from our school and family life. The Japanese grandmother (I was asked to say) is not my children’s grandmother. And my children never fell behind in their studies.

But we do appreciate sky watching. We’ve met more friends than bullies, and once, while exiting a train, a Japanese woman, seeing I was having a bad day, placed a peace doll in my hand.

It still brightens our hearts.

posted on THE PIPPIN INSIDER, Pippin Properties, INC. blog

Part 2

Why verse?

A reason for poetry is never needed! But this story came in poems.

I have written poetry and short stories throughout my life. Writing short feels natural. Perhaps this story initially came fast in the form I am used to, love, and prefer. If poetry is a part of your life, perhaps stories will come that way to you. I never questioned it.

The story fell together and then I began researching, making sure of the timeline and layering more details of events, the weather, foliage, moon phases and NASA. The story has an extensive bibliography. An abridged copy can be found here on this website.

Weaving relationship details and sticking to the timeline made revisions tricky. It was a mind-blowing experience. Thank you agent Holly McGhee and Courtney Stevens and the copy editor and the editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy at Atheneum!

The historical events are documented by newspaper articles, TV reports, and my photographs. The neighborhood is based on my neighborhood. The clump of trees down the street. The timing of cicadas and swallows. Foliage changes (this is different in different regions). The house is the house we used to live in before we built a new house. (We lived in one room and my in-laws’ section did not and still does not have a chair. they still have an old rotary telephone with a long extension cord.) We have always been watchers of the sky.

I took Somewhere Among fully formed (I thought) to a verse novel workshop at the Highlights Foundation in 2012. I learned the basics and had critiques from the instructors, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Sonya Sones, and Linda Oatman High. I met other writers there who read and critiqued it. One attendee was the first only one to read the whole novel before I sent to agent Holly McGhee.

SCBWI-JAPAN offered a critique by an editor. I signed up, submitting the first 20 pages and a synopsis. Afterwards, I made some revisions. I entered the 2013 Writers League of Texas competition in order to have it critiqued. I submitted a synopsis and first pages. I won the contest and made some revisions after I received the critique. I signed up for a critique at SCBWI-LA in 2013 and Somewhere Among was critiqued by the Adams Literary Agency. I then felt ready to submit it to literary agent Holly McGhee. She asked many questions that led to revisions. Then the editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy even more questions that led to revisions.

The story remained the same, but it became richer with each reader and critique.

Thank you all!