Where were you born?
I was born in 1956 in Chicago near Wrigley Field, where the baseball team, the Cubs, play. We moved to Georgia before I could talk, then to Springdale, Arkansas. We lived in Springdale for seven years, and I often feel it is where my most essential character was formed. I had an older sister and younger brother. My father worked long hours, and on nights when he was working, my mother would sit with us in the backyard and point out the constellations and discuss the mythology behind them. That’s when I learned how big the world beyond my town was. That is, I didn’t really fully understand that there were big cities or even other countries, but I understood that there was a solar system and a past and a future. I developed a yearning in my soul, but for what I didn’t know. There’s a great short story I read a long time ago called “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” Springdale was where I realized there were dreams, but it would be many years before I truly understood responsibilities. I loved my childhood.
Why do you write?
I want to tell stories to kids about how sometimes the path forward is difficult, but nevertheless you must search out your path forward and find what gives your life meaning. My dad was drafted into military service out of an internment camp in Arizona, where he was incarcerated because of his race. Even when he was in his uniform, if he was off base, he said that restaurants would refuse to serve him because he was of Japanese ancestry. But when I’ve talked to him about when he got out of the army, I get the feeling it was for him like discovering a new and amazing and, yes, difficult world. Yet he saw his path forward. He wanted a job and a family, and he saw a way to get those things. I like to write about children, and sometimes animals, who encounter hardship but manage to find their path forward. Children finding their path forward is my obsession.
How did you start writing?
The story I always tell, which is absolutely true, is that in my twenties I took a Greyhound bus trip up the West Coast, down to Nevada, through the Southwest, to Arkansas to visit my dad, and then back to Southern California. The whole trip took about thirty days. I met people I never would have met otherwise and talked to them for hours on the bus. I stayed alone in cheap hotels that quite frankly I would be scared to stay in today. In Arkansas I stayed several nights at the hatchery where my dad had worked since I was a little girl. And everywhere I saw the stunning American landscape. I think I felt a lot the way I had during those nights sitting in the backyard with my family, gazing at the stars. The world opened up for me. I felt like anything was possible. After my trip, I packed up some boxes and moved to Boston, where my sister then lived. She was working her way through college as a court stenographer. She always needed a typist, so sometimes she gave me work. She was my support system.
I discovered contemporary fiction in Boston. I went to the library or bookstore just about every day. I decided to write a story every month that I sent out to magazines…which rejected all my stories month after month. But something about viewing the constellations night after night gives you the courage later in life to take a leap of faith, to sit at your typewriter day after day even though the world keeps rejecting your writing. I went to grad school and dropped out. Then, after four years of sending out stories, an editor at a magazine called The New Yorker telephoned me and said the magazine would be publishing one of my stories. It was one of the most surreal days of my life. I bought a hat to celebrate, but I never wore the hat. I sometimes wonder where it is today!
Did you have a mentor?
I’m at an age when I look back at my life more and more and just…think. And one of the things I think about is how I encountered good and bad people, as well as animals (all good), and that it seems almost mystical the way the choices I made when I encountered these people and animals tell the story of my life. Here is a true story I read once. A woman had adopted two preschoolers in a foreign country. Since they were very well behaved in the orphanage, she and her husband thought it would be easy to bring them on the long plane flight home. So he traveled home ahead of her to take care of some business. The kids began misbehaving—a lot. Exhausted in an airport, about to miss her flight with her kids, the new mom collapsed to the ground and began sobbing. Then she heard a voice, and a flight attendant was standing in front of her. The flight attendant demanded to know: “What should I do for you!” And the new mother said she was about to miss her flight, said which flight it was, and explained how now she would have to spend the night in the airport. The flight attendant picked up all the baggage and said, “FOLLOW ME!” For some reason, the kids behaved for the flight attendant. And the family made their flight.
Such has happened to me over and over in my life. When you are at your lowest point, there is almost always some person or animal there reaching out for you. Sometimes the person is good, and sometimes not. If you let the good person help you, they can transform your life, even if you don’t deserve it. In repayment, we must work to deserve it!