Writing from Yaizu, Japan — Fiction Writer Thersa Matsuura

Thersa Matsuura

Born in Laredo, Texas, THERSA MATSUURA grew up in Alaska, Florida, South Carolina and Nebraska before settling down in Japan. A resident of Japan for over twenty-three years, she now lives with her Japanese husband and their seventeen-year-old son in Yaizu, a small fishing town near Shizuoka.

Thersa Matsuura started writing short stories in the late 1990s. Her debut collection of short stories, A Robe of Feathers, was published by Counterpoint in 2009. Currently, she is working on her first novel.

In 2011, you wrote an essay about Japan after the recent nuclear catastrophe. Can you tell us about your immediate experience and how the Japanese communities gravitate toward one another to listen, and to open up to one another in terms of social questions? In face of such substantive episodes, what role can fiction play?

One thing I admire about the Japanese character is that people aren’t overly dramatic. They don’t exaggerate failures or successes. If something bad happens you won’t find them moaning or complaining about their fate. They quietly get down to business to make things better. By the same token, they don’t get overly excited about their successes either. People are humble.

By thinking that way I naturally blend past and present, reality and myth, horror and humor. Because it is all that mixed together that creates a unique culture.

When the earthquake, tsunami, and the explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant happened, everyone was understandably shocked and saddened and afraid. However, it felt like there was no wasted emotion on dramatics. There were rolling blackouts, shortages of all kinds, plenty of things to get upset about and complain about. But all effort was directed to helping those up in the Tohoku region. It was very impressive, very admirable.

I was also very impressed with the expatriate community. They came together to help in any way they could. I actually participated in three different anthologies. All three of them donated one hundred percent of their proceeds to help the victims of the disaster.

At the most basic level, these publications as well as others have helped to raise money and awareness for those affected by the devastation. But I think there is something else. I was asked by the editor of the Tomo Anthology to write a message for the children and teenagers stricken by the disaster. I encouraged them to do something creative, to express their emotions — their sadness and confusion — through art. I suggested something as simple as keeping a diary or writing poetry or short stories. Because I think in this way fiction can not only help us understand what people are going through, it can also help heal those who are suffering.

You tackle cultural divides and stereotypes (Japanese versus American or European / East versus West / tradition versus modernity) with much humor and surprise in your short stories by blending mythologies, fables and history with contemporary tragedies, joys, and realities. What is the driving force behind such creative process?

Thersa Matsuura

I’ve been living in Japan for a long time — half my life now. At the very beginning after the honeymoon stage wore off, I went through that depressed kind of hostile phase where you’re terribly homesick and everything about the new culture you’re living in rubs you the wrong way. I came up with a little mantra that helped me out of this rut: It’s not right; it’s not wrong; it’s just different.

I still keep that in mind to this day. It changed the way I look at everything. I stopped taking sides. Instead of “in America we do it this way,” I began asking myself why something was done a certain way, what the underlying reason or thinking behind different actions could be. This opened me up to considering all kinds of possibilities.

By thinking that way I naturally blend past and present, reality and myth, horror and humor. Because it is all that mixed together that creates a unique culture. Everything influences everything else. It’s all still extremely fascinating to me.

Why do you think we should still believe in stories? Do you think about their empowering qualities?

I think with all the advances in science and how much we now know about the world around us life has gotten somewhat hard and serious, all straight lines and corners. It feels like with a quick search on the Internet all our questions can be answered. And because of this I think there is a loss of mystery and wonder, imagination even.

I believe that folktales and fairy stories, superstitions and legends add a roundness, color, and magic back to life. I also think those stories have the ability to empower by not only encouraging the imagination but also by showing us new ways to look at a situation or even the world around us. When all the answers are known — or when we think they’re known — living becomes quite dull. Stories teach us to remain open and playful and creative.

What is your writing process like?

For all of my short stories I started with a single image, usually something I saw that piqued my interest. And from there I’d imagine the story behind the scene.

Thersa Matsuura

For example, on my train ride into the city I used to pass this huge apartment building. One day I saw an old man struggling to hang up this net. It took him over a week, but in the end he completely sealed off his balcony. I was so intrigued: Why would he do that? What did he want to keep in? Or out? That was the impetus for “Eden on the 18th Floor.”

A homeless man living under a bridge that I also observed from the train inspired “The Bean Washer.” He seemed like such a cheerful man, had little cookouts and had visitors over at his makeshift table. I remember the day he acquired a dirty white dog. And I’d watch as he’d sit there and have these animated conversations with it. Here I am on a train with a bunch of dour-faced, angry-looking businessmen and I began to think about what makes a person happy.

The title story, “A Robe of Feathers,” was inspired by a real man I saw with a deco chari (decoration bicycle). He was so proud, but at the same time quite shy. I got to thinking about his story.

Any literary or artistic influences, past and present?

I adore Nathan Englander. I can read that man’s work and cry and cry. And I love Jeffrey Eugindes’ Middlesex. I also love southern writers: William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, and Carson McCullers to name a few. I enjoy and admire authors who can blend tragedy and humor well, someone like Kurt Vonnegut who can make you laugh and cry in the same paragraph. To me that is high art.

How much of Yaizu — where you currently reside, and which you described as “a smallish fishing town near Shizuoka” — finds its way into shaping your narratives and/or literary imagination?

I don’t think you can separate the town from the stories. All the ideas were born here, the settings or the people. The first house we lived in (the one from “Sand Walls, Paper Doors,” that story is quite autobiographical) was right by the fishing docks, all these old fishermen and their wives. And they did come over and try to help me learn the proper way of doing things. And I really did get scolded because I embarrassed them by hanging out my jeans with the holes in the knees to dry.

Yaizu has a flavor about it that I love. Lafcadio Hearn used to live here as well. As a matter of fact, his old house was a block from our first home. It must be something about Yaizu.

Do you have any favorite characters from A Robe of Feathers? (Who are they, and could you tell us why?)

A Robe of Feathers
BY Thersa Matsuura
(Counterpoint, 2009)

Oh, I love the near shut-in boy who builds the fancy bicycle and goes to profess his love to the girl and the boy with the bad leg who carries his grandmother up the mountain. Also, the blind man and woman who’s afraid people can read her thoughts in “Tip of the Nose.”

I think I’m drawn to people who have a bum rap in life — either born into a bad situation or they suffer some downturn in luck — and despite that they keep going on, trying to make the best of it.

How is it working on your first novel after your collection of short stories? Would you mind sharing with us a little about your new novel-to-be?

After the publication of A Robe of Feathers, the first question my agent asked me was “What are your plans for your second book?” We discussed it and it was decided my next project should be a novel. While I had a lot of ideas scribbled down, going from a 5,000-word short story to a 90,000-word novel was a bit overwhelming.

I actually took the middle path and wrote a 40,000-word middle grade book just to get the feel for writing a longer story.

After a few false starts I tackled my novel. Right now I’m almost finished with agent revisions. I hope to be done by the end of the year. So hopefully 2013 will bring some good news. The book is called Seven Secrets. And here is the “back-of-book” blurb or elevator pitch:

Kay wakes up one day and realizes her luck has vanished. No matter what she does, horrible things keep happening to her. And then it gets worse.

When her ex-lover, Danny, reappears wanting to pick up where they left off, Kay can’t remember what she had promised the man. As a matter of fact, there are more than a few memories from her past that she can’t bring herself to revisit.

Danny’s threats escalate, causing Kay to flee her home, her job, and her family to the valley town of Mukoumachi — a throwback to old Japan. Here, staying at a bed and breakfast run by her aunt and uncle, Kay believes she’ll be safe. But she is very, very wrong.

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