Author Interview: Wendy Nelson Tokunaga

love in translationI’m so pleased to present an interview with author and editor/writing instructor, Wendy Nelson Tokunaga (at left is the cover of one of my favorite of her books). As well as being a great teacher and editor, she is the author of a number of novels and other works with an emphasis on cross-cultural romance. When I asked her a little about her approach to writing, teaching and the publishing industry, here’s what she had to say …

KC: You have written several cross-cultural (U.S./Japan) novels. What are the greatest challenges of writing a cross-cultural story, particularly if it involves romantic relationships, as yours do?

WNT: All novels are challenging to write, but I guess with cross-cultural themed books, the challenge is to not succumb to stereotypical behavior. In Midori by Moonlight I write from the third-person point-of-view of Midori Saito, a woman born in Japan who feels she doesn’t fit in there and becomes obsessed with moving to the United States. What I did was take a bit of my Japanese husband’s story and give it a sex change. So it was a bit easier to see things from his vantage point and put that in the book. In Love in Translation I write about an American woman who finds herself in Japan and ends up falling in love with a Japanese man. While this isn’t my story, I certainly have been in romantic relationships with Japanese men. Often there’s a nice combination of my interest in Japanese culture dovetailing with their interest in American culture. Each person kind of wants what the other has. For me, personally, it was seeking more order and consistency in life, and with them it was looking for more individual freedom to live the life they wanted to live.

KC: You have set your novels in both the United States and Japan. Which setting is more fun to write? Why? And have you ever been to a love hotel?

WNT: I’d say it’s more fun to write about the U.S., actually. I generally write about the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was born and raised. Since I still live in the area I find it natural to write about where I have such a familiarity and this is a place that still attracts a vast number of people. Unfortunately I’ve spent less time in Japan than I used to and the reasons for more recent visits have had to do with illness and funerals. When and if I do return to Japan for more of a pleasurable visit, I might get the spark to write about it again.

Yes, I’ve been to a love hotel but not for the reason most people go (for some privacy!). My husband and I needed a place to stay at the last minute and chose one. They’re not really comfortable places to stay overnight—the constant Elvis music piped in throughout the hallways didn’t make for a restful sleep.

KC: As well as being a writer, you are also a developmental editor and writing instructor. What advice do you most often give to aspiring writers? What is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you first started writing?

WNT: I’m not trying to sound self-serving here, but I do advise people to have their work professionally edited, especially for big-picture issues such as plot, characterization, pacing and structure. For me, I was long told by my peer writers how good my writing was, but I couldn’t seem to get any interest from an agent and couldn’t figure out why. Once I found professional writing instructors and editors who knew what they were doing and could point out my weaknesses and show me how to improve, then I was able to move forward in my writing career. Still, there’s a lot of hard work and plain luck involved in this business and it’s getting more difficult all the time. It’s not for the faint of heart. That being said, there’s so much more very useful material on the Internet on how to write novels and what to do than there was when I was starting out writing in the 1990s. Of course there’s a lot of bad advice out there too and the sheer overabundance of data can be overwhelming.

KC:  Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? What inspired you to start writing?

WNT: I always knew that I wanted to be creative and I started out doing music, performing in my own bands as a singer and bass player and writing songs. I was inspired to write fiction when I got a job as a technical writer in Silicon Valley and was surrounded by frustrated fiction writers at my job. They’d meet at lunch and critique each other’s stories. Eventually I took some creative writing courses and got some short stories published in small journals and went on from there.

KC:  What are you reading now?

WNT: There are two novels I’ve enjoyed recently. One is Dietland by Sarai Walker, which is referred to as Fight Club for women. It really turns the whole “chick lit” genre on its head and is both funny and chilling. Another novel I liked is Tinderbox by Lisa Gornick, which could be called a literary page-turner, with deep characterizations about family dysfunction and a mysterious nanny/housekeeper.

KC:  What are you working on now?

WNT: I’m currently working on a mystery/suspense novel about a film scholar who finds himself in a real-life mystery situation that rivals any movie.

Thanks so much for your time and thoughts, Wendy!