The ups and downs of writing are enough to make any writer want to quit at least once a day. It’s imperative to have dear, kind friends along this path that understand the radically strange landscape of publishing…someone to share the highs and lows, the questions and puzzles, the powerful emotions that come along with the journey. Friends who can help you be honest along the way, but who can do that in a loving, empowering way that doesn’t shatter you.
Writer’s jealousy is a real thing amongst writers. If you have been trying to publish a novel for many years and a fellow writer in your writing group signs with an agent and sells her book, it’s hard to separate your excitement for your friend from your sadness for yourself. It’s not something writers like to talk about, but I see it pop up over and over again in many incarnations.
Lois is one of those dear friends who transcend those lower frequency emotions for me and I think she’d say the same. We are friends first, fellow writers second. Our relationship is made special by the sheer crossovers in our lives. We met at an SCBWI workshop where Lin Oliver, co-founder of SCBWI, was teaching. We were both just starting out in the process of writing for children. We saw each other again at an SCBWI roundtable in Manhattan Beach where I taught second grade. Turns out, Lois is a teacher, too, and taught at the private school my son attended in Palos Verdes, but we didn’t know each other at that time.
Our relationship has spanned nearly 12 years in time, my move to another part of the state and hers across the country, 2 kids each as they go through many changes, and many, many conversations about projects we’re working on, stages we’re going through in the publication process, and most importantly, the world in general and our places in it.
With all that backstory, you can imagine my excitement as Lois signed with an agent and shortly after sold her first book Paper Wishes to Farrar, Straus & Giroux. A huge debut success, her book has received numerous recognitions and prestigious reviews.
School Library Journal: “A superior story of survival and love set during this dark time in American history.”
Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban | SLJ Review
PAPER WISHES by Lois Sepahban | Kirkus Reviews
During World War II, Manami and her parents and grandfather are forced to relocate from Bainbridge Island in Was…
No writer’s jealousy here. Pure excitement! I felt part of this process. I wanted to hear every detail, every rewrite, every step along the way as she went through this very mysterious process we call publishing.
Meet Lois Sepahban, author of Paper Wishes released January 2016.
Paper Wishes is the title of your debut middle grade novel. What are paper wishes?
Paper wishes are drawings and messages that Manami releases into the wind. She hopes they will find their way to her beloved Yujiin and that they will show him the way to her.
As a child, did you have a dog that you lost?
When I was young, my parents had a dream of living off the land in the Tehachapi Mountains that form the southeastern boundary of California’s Central Valley. (It was the 70s.) They experimented with different animals—ducks, chickens, and so on. The constant for us was our dog Strider. He was an Australian shepherd—one of the smartest dog breeds out there. Because we lived in such a remote area, he was free to roam. My brother and I did a bit of roaming, too. Biking, hiking, exploring—we discovered old cemeteries, hanging trees, and possible locations for buried treasures. Strider went everywhere with us. He even walked us to our bus stop in the morning and was waiting for us every afternoon when the bus dropped us off. When I was around 8, my parents separated and eventually divorced. We moved back to the city, and my parents decided to find a new home for Strider. They thought that being cooped in the backyard was making him miserable. They were probably right, but WOW did I miss him. And then, a few years later, my grandpa mentioned that he had been up by our old house. He told us that he saw Strider there—roaming around. Who really knows if the dog my grandpa saw was Strider. But if it was, he had travelled far to find us–to return to us. And the thought that we weren’t there haunts me.
Your story contains so much history about the internment camps. Where did you collect all your research?
I love this question because I love to talk about research and history. My earliest teacher about the internment camps was the mother of one of my classmates. Her parents had been internees. In researching Paper Wishes, I watched video interviews on the Densho archives. Densho.org collects print and video interviews, photographs, and other artifacts about the internment camps. The Manzanar National Historic Site, built on what was left of the Manzanar internment camp, has a wonderful collection of artifacts. It also has a virtual museum with interviews and supply lists and maps. I also used information I found at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community website (bijac.org). I watched hundreds of interviews available at all of these sites. Many of them, I watched over and over. In addition, I read books, particularly Heather Lindquist’s Children of Manzanar. Looking at photos, including those of Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, was helpful. I wanted to see real people in this real place. It helped me to understand how my characters might move around in the same setting.
What made you write this story?
I have always been interested in Manzanar—perhaps because of what I learned from my friend’s mom when I was young. Perhaps because I grew up not very far from it. Whatever the root, Paper Wishes was a story that I had to write.
I had a lot of research to do in order to tell this story correctly. My research focused primarily on history, but it included researching culture, too. Paper Wishes is an intensely personal story of voicelessness and powerlessness told from a child’s perspective. But I didn’t want to leave the child alone in her suffering. So she has a wonderfully supportive and loving family.
Where did you come up with your character’s names?
Manami is named after a Japanese exchange student from my high school days. I thought then, and still think now, that it was one of the loveliest names I had ever heard.
Yujiin was suggested to me by one of my young gamer friends.
Ron is named after one of my favorite students. When I tried to think of a name for this noble-hearted Japanese American boy in my novel, Ron was a perfect match for him.
Who was the character in your book that you most identify with and why?
Manami for her voicelessness because I was a voiceless child, too. Not mute as Manami becomes, but unable to speak my heart.
Manami’s mother for her worry because I am a mother who worries, too. I know that worry is counterproductive, so when I feel it rising, I do breathing exercises and self-talk to help myself break free from it. But my impulse is always to worry first.
Your protagonist loses her voice when she loses her dog. What made you think of this idea? (I want to get deeper into this because I love that.)
I didn’t think of this. It just happened. The writing of that particular scene was heartrending for me. I wept as I wrote. And as I moved on from that scene to the next, I realized that Manami had lost her voice. So, it was the unintentional result of my being fully present in my character’s experience. I let my muse guide me.
You use the metaphor of the garden in the two settings. Are you a gardener?
I am, though I would characterize myself as a lucky gardener rather than a skilled one.
What do you grow in your garden?
The usual suspects: cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, beans, squash, pumpkins, lettuce, carrots, radishes, herbs, peas, eggplant. Who am I forgetting? Definitely someone. And also weeds. I live in central Kentucky—a perfect place for gardens. The soil is rich and there is plenty of rain and sunshine to grow giant tomatoes and even more giant weeds. Because I don’t use herbicides or pesticides on my garden, I spend a lot of time out there picking bugs off of my plants and pulling weeds. It’s meditative work, at least.
Did families actually plant gardens in the camps?
Yes, they did. They grew beautiful gardens that provided the entire camp with fresh vegetables. There were individual gardens, like Manami’s mother’s garden. And there were large-scale gardens that were worked on by several farmers. Many of the internees were farmers before they were forcibly relocated to the camps, so it was a natural role for them to fill.
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
I didn’t have an epiphany where I realized that I wanted to be a writer. I just was one. The moment I understood that I wanted to be a PAID writer came when my oldest child was nearly one. I had left teaching to be a stay at home mom when she was born. As much as I wanted to be at home with her, I also wanted to be something in addition to “mom.” I wanted something that was for me alone—just mine. That’s when I started sending out my writing for publication. That’s when I joined a critique group—which, by the way, is going strong after 10 years. That’s when I took craft classes to become a better writer. And, hey! It was around then that I met you! ❤
Great Day! What are the hardest parts about being a writer?
Intense self-doubt. Meditation and therapy help me. But it’s still there.
What are the most exciting parts about being a writer?
Meeting readers—especially children. They love to tell me their stories, the time their dog died, the time their cat ran away, the time their parents divorced. I am deeply moved when readers trust me with their own stories. I love to hear them and to know that they’ve connected to Manami through her suffering and eventual triumph.
Do you write other types of books other than historical middle grade fiction?
Yes, I do. My first love is picture books—both reading and writing them, though none have been published. I do have several nonfiction books published on a range of topics, like history, science, biography, and current events.
What drew you towards that genre?
I’m honestly not sure. This is where my voice is. MG is the most natural place for me.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers about writing in general?
Getting published is like winning the lottery. It doesn’t happen for everyone. Plenty of great books go unpublished, and plenty of crappy books get published. If you want to pursue a writer’s life, then you must be okay with never having your books published. There were times when I thought about quitting writing. I love to crochet, too, and crocheting always results in something beautiful that I can hold and display. It never results in feelings of self-doubt or the rejection that writers frequently experience. So choosing to be a writer who pursues publication is brave and foolish at the same time. Ultimately, the desire to write stories—knowing that they may never be published—is what pulled me back into writing every time I quit. That is where you must live in order to be a writer. The place where you write because you must, because you love it, because you want to tell this story for its own sake regardless of whether or not it ever finds an audience.
What advice would you give to writers about dancing the publishing hustle?
I don’t even know. I don’t think I do it well—I suffer and cry and hope and dream. Truly, though, I recommend meditation and therapy, finding other creative outlets so that all of your eggs are not in this one basket, and living a life of service to others so that you can forget about yourself and your own problems.
Any final words?
Thank you, Jamie, for inviting me to your blog. I’ve enjoyed our conversation.
Welcome. Me, too!
For more on this extraordinary writer and friend named Lois, see: www.loissepahban.com
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