Julie Otsuka on Writing Her Most Personal Story
In Conversation with Mitchell Kaplan on The Literary Life Podcast
On today’s episode of The Literary Life, Mitchell Kaplan talks with Julie Otsuka about her new novel, The Swimmers, out next month from Knopf.
From the episode:
Julie Otsuka: I think it’s probably the most personal book that I’ve written to date. And it came out of years of watching my own mother’s very slow decline from Pick’s Disease, which is a form of dementia. I also was a recreational swimmer for years, and I was always fascinated by that world. Nobody had really written about it fictionally, and I had sketched out just a few scenes many, many years ago. I think probably somewhere in the middle of writing The Buddha in the Attic.
This is a long time ago and when I finished writing The Buddha in the Attic, I went back to those scenes and I picked them up and I looked at them again, and I just knew that I wanted to write more about that world. I also wanted to do something very different from my first two novels, something that was set in the present. That was something that was also just a little closer to me and my own experience as a daughter.
So the book, I guess, for me, came from a very, very personal personal place, and I did do some research after the fact, but the seed of the novel was really just my own life.
Mitchell Kaplan: Well, it was so beautiful the way you segue from the swimming part of it into where you introduce your mother, the character of your mother, as being one of the swimmers. And then the way you segue it into a story about a mother and a daughter and a sense of loss. Talk about that first part of it that’s the crack.
Julie Otsuka: That was actually a very, very fun chapter to write. The crack is, I mean, it’s literally a crack that appears at the bottom of the pool. And it could be a metaphor really for whatever the reader wants it to be. But, you know, I like to see it also as somehow hinting at a crack analysis on my mind. But it’s just the introduction of something foreign and unexpected in the swimmers’ lives, and I think the uncertainty of not knowing what it is and and what will ultimately happen makes the swimmers slightly neurotic and crazy. So I didn’t know when I began where it would go or if I would ever find the ultimate scientific reason for its existence. And in a way, it doesn’t really matter if I do or not. It’s a rupture. It’s a disruption.
Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. She is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, won the 2003 Asian American Literary Award and the 2003 American Library Association’s Alex Award. Her second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2011 and won the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the 2011 Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction. The Buddha in the Attic was an international best seller and the winner of the prestigious Prix Femina Étranger in 2012, and the Albatros Literaturpreis in 2013. She lives in New York City.