Sequoia Nagamatsu’s Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone (Black Lawrence Press, 2016) is a collection of short stories that feature fantastical and supernatural characters drawn from Japanese folk and pop cultures. The opening story “The Return to Monsterland,” for example, concerns Godzilla and other Kaiju as specimens of study for a scientist whose tragic death at the hands of a rampaging Godzilla belie her faith in the fact that these monsters are still just animals at heart—creatures that are not necessarily good nor evil but simply trying to survive in a world that shuns them. The stories in this book pull creatures from folklore and fiction, inserting them into the lives of contemporary Japanese people, and in the process revealing as much about the desires and fears of the humans as the motivations of the monsters and ghosts. These stories are science fiction and urban fantasy, and they embody the best examples of writing in any genre in their close attention to the rhythms and beauty of language and in the startling revelations they provide about humanity and the social worlds people create.
Kartika Review: The title story from your collection, “Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone,” is one of the most intriguing and ambiguous (in a good way) stories I've read in a long time. The story features a marathon dance party with humans and androids that takes place in a public square. The questions of why they are dancing and how they are dancing so long are at the heart of the story. How did you come up with the idea for this story?
Sequoia Nagamatsu: I was researching an incident of dancing mania that took place in Strasbourg in 1518 for a potential story project, and I was ultimately led to somewhat similar events in Meiji Era (late 1800s) Japan. Here was a transitional period of political, economic, and social upheaval when Japan was quickly westernizing, and one of the ways frustrations manifested was a series of carnivalesque exhibitions. I really liked the physicality of this kind of protest, a celebration of the human spirit in the face of change and oppression, so I decided to create a dance party of my own. The added layer of the dancers resetting and losing their memories contributed to the idea of what could potentially be lost should we stop to dance (should we allow ourselves to be lost).
KR: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you usually like to think about a story idea for a long time before you start writing. Can you talk a bit more about this process of turning over ideas in your head? Are there times when you think about these ideas best or activities that you engage in to help you think about the ideas?
SN: The seeds of my stories form from many places: a speculative concept, a monster, an element of magic, a landscape, a character sketch, a personal experience. Whatever the source may be, most of my projects begin with a very rough few sentence synopsis of what I imagine the story to be. Once I have this written, I consider the narrative arc over weeks and months in my head, and in doing so get to know the texture of the primary characters as well. The process is very cinematic in nature, like I’m dreaming up a movie. I always tell my writing students to practice writing movie log lines for their story ideas or even completed drafts to help boil down some of the architecture of their stories. If you had to describe the plot to someone in one line, what would you say? That’s your skeleton. Depth of character, thematic elements, rhythm of language, and everything else is the flesh. As far as other activities I engage in as I’m working through ideas? I do any research very early on and try to internalize the information, so the process of writing with that knowledge is much more organic.
KR: I find the anthropological/folkloric vibe of your stories to be fascinating, especially when they resonate with at the level of science fiction or urban fantasy. And I think I read somewhere that you have a background in those fields. Do you have any anthropologists or folklorists you find most thoughtful, or perhaps theories and approaches in those fields that most inform the way you approach your fiction?
SN: I wouldn’t say that any specific school of anthropology informs my work. If really pushed I might say Victor Turner whose championing of the concept of liminality (a state of being betwixt and between) can certainly speak to the modern spaces we inhabit in times of chaos and technological dilemmas. But overall I just think that I tend to conceive of stories through an anthropological lens in that I want my work to consider human relationships in concert with place, history, and life milestones.
KR: Your stories have very carefully constructed narrative structures, and it is clear that you are very deliberate in the way your frame the stories. Where in your writing process does the structure of a story typically emerge?
SN: Sometimes the nature of my initial story idea lends itself to structure (i.e., I knew I wanted to have an index of the kaiju. I knew I wanted to write the Inn of the Dead as a report or an orientation document), but more often than not, I experiment with several structures and POVs in early drafts before coming to a decision of what works best.
KR: You’ve mentioned studying film as something that has helped you think about writing scenes. Are there films in particular that you have found to be most helpful in this thinking or that seem most writerly to you?
SN: Pan’s Labyrinth was really helpful for me in considering parallel and converging storylines. And studying certain adaptions that followed their source material both closely and taken departures (i.e., Never Let Me Go, Blade Runner, Big Fish) has helped me think about the larger questions of dramatic acts and the proportion and pacing of scenes between those major movements. Self-contained television shows like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits has also been influential in terms of helping me think about what a reader should know at the outset of the story and how a character proceeds through complications.
KR: What kinds of writing do you find most satisfying to teach?
SN: I imagine that a lot of people would assume that I would only enjoy teaching speculative fiction or fabulism, but I like teaching all kinds of writing b/c it forces me to take the medicine I try to give my students: read widely and never stop experimenting with the tools from other writers and genres.
KR: With your experience as managing editor of Psychopomp Magazine, what have you learned most about publishing as someone on the editorial side of things? What advice would you give writers who are submitting work?
SN: I think the biggest reminder is that rejection isn’t personal, especially these days with electronic submission portals. It’s very easy to reject somebody (literally with a push of a button). And while many rejections come as a result of simply not being the right fit (or not following directions), there are many submissions that I admire that I have to reject for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality or promise of a work (i.e., we just accepted something similar, we need to be mindful of demographics, the work is brilliant but would be too unwieldy with our publishing platform etc.). Biggest advice I can give? Actually spend time reading a sample issue of the journal you want to be a part of. Don’t waste your time submitting to journals that will never publish you (no matter how prestigious they may be) b/c of aesthetic reasons.
KR: You’ve drawn heavily from Japanese folklore and popular culture for your published short fiction. What do you consider when you write about Japanese creatures and people for a US audience?
SN: While those who have some knowledge of Japanese folklore and culture can glean added dimensions to my work, I ultimately strive to write stories about the human condition, which can transcend cultural borders.
KR: Have you written stories that draw on the cultural worlds of other places with which you're familiar (like Hawaii, the San Francisco Bay Area, or Minnesota)?
SN: My second story collection, which I’m currently sending out focuses on the alternative funerary practices, so I suppose you could say I’ve been wading in the culture of death. I’ve yet to write a Hawaiian, Bay Area, or Minnesota story, but of those three, I’d probably be most interested in a Hawaii project. That’s not a promise though since I’m neck deep in other projects.
KR: What Asian American authors have you been reading lately?
SN: Matthew Salesses, Ken Liu, E. Lily Yu, Ted Chiang (along with everyone else ha).