An Interview with Nora Okja Keller
Sarah Anne Johnson | March/April 2004
Nora Okja Keller
Nora Okja Keller was born in Seoul, Korea, and grew up in Hawaii, where she attended the University of Hawaii. In 1995 she received the Pushcart Prize for a short story, "Mother Tongue," which later became a part of Comfort Woman, her first novel and winner of a 1998 American Book Award. Fox Girl is her second novel.
Sarah Anne Johnson: How did you get started writing fiction?
Nora Okja Keller: I had always been writing since I was in elementary school, doing little poems or stories that I would illustrate myself! I've been writing for as long as I can remember, but I never thought that I would do it for a career, or that I would become an author and write for a living. That wasn't a part of my family life. No one in my community was writing, no one that I knew personally was doing any sort of writing.
Johnson: How did you come to writing professionally?
Keller: Even though I'd written as a hobby over the years, it was only after I wrote Comfort Woman that I realized writing could be my profession. I started writing Comfort Woman in 1993 after I heard a talk given by a former comfort woman at a human rights symposium. Up until then I'd only written short stories. I told a writer friend of mine that the comfort woman issue was a really important topic that the whole nation, the whole world, should be aware of. I told her that she should write the story. I tried to push it off, but she turned it back on me and said that I was Korean, and this story was part of my history, and that I should write it. I resisted because I didn't think I was up to the task of writing something so big in scope and emotion. That talk was the first time I'd ever heard about comfort women and the history of it, and I felt that if I couldn't even express how I felt after hearing about their experience, how would I write about it? But the story stayed with me and haunted me. A few months later, I got up one night and started making notes and sketching out a story. I wrote a story called "Mother Tongue," which eventually turned into Chapter 2 of the novel. Still, I didn't think of doing anything more. I didn't think of my project as a novel. If I'd thought of it as a novel, I wouldn't have been able to do it. I would have been paralyzed.
Johnson: The title of your book, Comfort Woman, holds a sad irony, that the Japanese soldiers could turn "comfort" into something ugly and destructive.
Keller: I really struggled with even using the term "comfort women" because it was a term given by the Japanese soldiers to these women. As you said, it's so horribly ironic to us, but to the soldiers it wasn't. I was concerned that if I used the term, I'd be validating the term given to them, but I wanted to underscore the irony and expand the idea of comfort beyond the time of the war to the relationship between the mother and the daughter.
Johnson: So how did you approach it?
Keller: I approached it like I was writing short stories. I wrote all these stories from Akiko's point of view. I had about seven short stories and I thought maybe there was a possibility of doing a collection of stories, something larger, but I still would not use the word novel. At the point where I wanted to expand it, I realized that I needed another access point. Everything from Akiko's point of view was emotionally heavy, and also set in that one particular time. I thought of bringing in the daughter to give an emotional time-out to the reader, and to myself in writing it. Beccah brings the story more up to date, and gives an American, present-day viewpoint that helps readers access her mother's story. I wrote short stories in Beccah's voice, and when I had an equal number of stories in both voices, I started looking at how to put it together. I took all of Akiko's stories in one row, and put Beccah's stories in a row right below. I started piecing the chapters together like a puzzle, shuffling and putting it together. So it's not chronological in terms of how I wrote it, but I made a different sort of pattern by weaving the voices.
Johnson: Once you put it together, did you have to splice and bridge the pieces in places to make it flow?
Keller: Yes. I could see an arc that went through the whole story, but there were gaps that I had to fill in to make it work. I did this very visually, with papers and chapters on the floor so that the gaps were actually visual. I'd type notes on a blank piece of paper to fill the gap, and then later write the missing pieces. I can look at my chapters now and see that the earlier chapters have the form of a story—they're self-contained and stand on their own—then I can look at the other bridge chapters and see how they were written to link things together. Those chapters are more open ended.
Johnson: What did you do, and what do you continue to do to develop and deepen your craft?
Keller: I read. I don't read while I write, but otherwise I read a lot. I consider reading the best way to learn how to write, reading with awareness and consciousness of the choices an author makes to bring a character to life or to brighten dialogue. I don't think you can be a good writer without being an avid reader. I've had students say that they want to write, but they're not really interested in reading, which is just bizarre to me.
Johnson: Who are some of the writers who have influenced you, and who do you admire now?
Keller: I always say Maxine Hong Kingston because she was the first Asian American writer I read. I had a strong background in American Literature, but to me, up until that point, American Literature meant Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Faulkner, these great men. I admired them and enjoyed them, but never felt a personal connection. I think that's another reason that I never considered writing as a profession: the models I had up until that point didn't fit my life or my style at all. It wasn't until I read Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, that a little light went on. Here was someone with a similar experience growing up, and she was writing about it from a very ethnic perspective. It was amazing that people were writing about this experience, and also that people were reading it! Once I read her work, I became very hungry to read other works by Asian Americans.
Johnson: What did you find?
Keller: I took an Asian American literature course, which at that time meant Japanese American or Chinese American writers. We read Maxine Hong Kingston, Frank Chin, Joy Kogawa, Lawson Inada, but there were still no Korean American authors. I remember asking my professor if there were any Korean American writers, and she just said "No." Then she remembered a writer who was half Korean and half Chinese, and I was so excited. I was trying to find literary mothers and fathers whom I could draw on for my own work. Now there are so many people reclaiming and studying Asian American writing over the past 100 years, it seems a given that there was a whole legacy, generations of Asian Americans—not just Chinese and Japanese, but Filipino and Korean Americans, too—writing as soon as they set foot in this country, but back then it was a real struggle to find those role models.
Johnson: Where did you conduct research about the war and the recreation camps?
Keller: I tried to do as much research as I could for both novels. For Comfort Woman there was very little written material. It was just in the early '90s that women started speaking out about their experience. Forty years after the war, they started feeling that they were at the end of their lives and needed to bear witness for all of the women who didn't survive the camps, to speak out before it was too late. Even hearing that was powerfully moving to me.
Once I realized that I was going to write a book—even though I didn't use that term—I tried to look things up and found that there was hardly anything written in English. I contacted one of the professors at the University of Hawaii who helped to organize the human rights symposium where I heard Kim Ju Hwang speak. She gave me some documents that she had translated from Korean into English. These documents verified that there were in fact comfort camps and included a letter from former comfort women to the Japanese government demanding reparation. There was nothing that provided details as to what life was like in the camps themselves.
At a certain point, I had some materials from which I could build a framework based on history and research. Then came the scary part; I had to make that imaginative leap and try to put myself in this framework and imagine what life was like for these women on a daily basis. That was scary because there was so little material from which to build that foundation. I remember right before Comfort Woman was released, George Hicks's book Comfort Women was published. This is a collection of about a hundred oral testimonials from comfort women primarily from Korea, but also from the Philippines, Indonesia, even some Dutch women who were taken into these camps. I was so nervous when that book came out because I kept thinking, "what if I imagined everything in my book wrong?" I ran down to the bookstore and pulled George Hicks's book off the shelf, and I was flipping and reading through it with amazement and relief, thinking, "this is what happened to Akiko." It really validates the strength of the imagination and empathy, and also how when you write you connect to something so much larger than yourself.
Johnson: Were there challenges you encountered writing from two narrators' perspectives?
Keller: Not really, because I wrote all of Akiko's chapters first. Also, I thought of the book as a dialogue between the mother and daughter, but the mother's voice comes first. Beccah's life and her reaction is a response to her mother. Even though she doesn't know the secrets of her mother's past, she's responding to how her mother raises her because of that past. It was important for me to get Akiko's experience down first. Beccah came later, with a very Americanized viewpoint. I saw them as very, very different people. Also, Akiko's chapters are more dreamlike, while Beccah is much more grounded in the physical world.
Johnson: In addition to shifting between the two women's voices, you frequently move back and forth in time, not only between chapters, but also within each chapter. Beccah lives in contemporary America, but recalls her childhood with her mother, while Akiko recalls her life as a "comfort woman," and dreams back even further to recall the lives of her ancestors. Was it difficult to make these transitions work for the reader and to manage it all within the context of the novel?
Keller: No. I trust the reader will be smart enough to go with the time shifts because really, that's how we all think. Everything is layered within our daily life. We live in the present, but also part of us lives in the past as well. Naturally, there's always that time shift going on with everyone. What was difficult for me was when I didn't trust the reader. In an earlier draft I thought of putting in the dates, which became incredibly confusing and intrusive. Especially with Akiko, where the narrative is more dreamlike and she's flowing in and out of time, in and out of the spiritual and physical world, I couldn't have these markers on every page stating the date.
Johnson: There is something seamless about how you're able to pull it off. The reader knows that the time is changing without being told, which is beautiful because it does replicate how we have our own memories.
Keller: Thank you. I did try to replicate how memory works, and especially in Akiko's chapters, I was very conscious of how memories are evoked.
Johnson: "The baby I could keep came when I was already dead. I was twelve when I was murdered, fourteen when I looked into the Yalu River and, finding no face looking back at me, know that I was dead." Akiko, in order to save herself, kills herself, or suffers what would now be called a disassociative reaction, killing off Induk to become Akiko, the comfort girl working in the camp. Only by leaving Induk behind, by casting her into the world of spirits, can she survive. How did you come to this?
Keller: It's not like I went to a psychology book and looked up posttraumatic stress syndrome, although some psychologists who read the book wrote to me and said that the story mirrored exactly a typical post-traumatic reaction. The choice was intuitive for me. When I reflect back on it, I can look at two specific things. One is how many people who have experienced trauma talk about how they felt separated from themselves, their body and their consciousness split. So, I knew that was part of what happened in very traumatic situations, but I didn't think about it as I was writing. Second, years before I began working on Comfort Woman, I had been interested in the tradition of shamanism in Korea, which is a very woman-centered tradition. In it, to become a shaman, one of the things that a woman must go through is a split between body and spirit. I did think about this in the writing, because later as Akiko becomes a shaman, I wanted those chapters after she left the camp to mirror the experience of the traditional Korean shaman, and often there is that split between body and self or consciousness.
Ultimately, I can say that this was part of the background, and these are some of the things that I see reflected in the work now. But in the writing of it, I'm in the imaginative world. I'm not planning the psychology. I'm trying to inhabit her soul.
Johnson: It's interesting that psychologists told you that Akiko's response was psychologically accurate given her experience. Your ability to empathize and enter into the character and capture her humanity and be truly present is reflected in your accuracy. It's as though you lived through her experience, and had the same reaction that any person in that experience would have.
Keller: My main goal with both novels was not to give a political message or to depict the history, which are both important, and I realize that, but each time I went into a story it was to get into the character's heart and her spirit and to write directly from her voice.
Johnson: Your narrators, especially Akiko, drift between dreams and reality, between memory and awareness, between insanity and sanity, between the spirit world and the mortal world. These transitions are so deftly woven into the fabric of the narrative that I'm wondering if you had any difficulties working them in or in keeping the narrative grounded?
Keller: These states flowed in much the same way that time and memory flowed through the novel with her chapters. It's almost a dream-state where the boundaries between time are shifted or not so marked. One thing that helped with grounding was that Beccah gave another way to see her mother and her mother's story. Some readers have said that they only wanted to hear Akiko's story, but I think Beccah is critical in helping the reader gain some perspective on Akiko. Otherwise, it would be easy to get lost in Akiko's mind and to lose track of what was going on. After the Akiko chapters, we have Beccah giving some reflection. Whether or not we agree with her interpretation, it gives us the perspective of an outside mind looking at Akiko. Akiko's chapters are so internal, readers could get lost in there. Also, that's what daughter's do; they mirror the mother's experience.
Johnson: Did you have to research the spirit names and stories or the rituals that Akiko carries out throughout Beccah-san's childhood?
Keller: The spirits that Akiko invokes—like the Birth Grandmother that Akiko later fuses with Induk from the camp—are traditional figures from Korean Shamanism. I did research those spirits and their personalities, as well as the rituals involved. But shamanism is something that I've long been interested in. The women who become shamans are outrageous and bold in ways that women in Korea are not usually allowed to be. I've heard that even today the president of Korea will consult shamans, and for the most sought after shaman, you have to make an appointment a year and a half in advance. But at the same time they have this power, they're considered outcasts. It's very odd. They hold a very important place in society, but no mother would want her daughter to become a shaman.
Johnson: The role of story is very important in the lives of Akiko and Beccah. Story is a way to pass down experience and knowledge, superstition and tradition, as well as a way to cover up painful truths about the past, or a way to assuage fear and anger and grief, or a way to understand one's life. What did you want to show about the importance of telling stories?
Keller: Well, that's exactly it. Stories are to teach and to warn, not just enjoyment. They impart important cultural values as well. Storytelling was such an important part of my growing up. My mother and older sister and brother always told stories about Korea as well as folk tales and fables. I grew up loving them. All of these interests, in shamanism, stories, and history, come through when I sit down to write.
Johnson: Are the stories that you include actual Korean folk tales?
Keller: They're based on real stories, yes. In Comfort Woman, the frogs and toads represent particular things in stories, like rebirth and fertility, just as they do in Korean myths. Then of course, in Fox Girl, the story of the fox runs throughout the novel. I enjoy playing with the different versions of stories, and the different perspectives of stories, and how a story can twist with just a change in perspective. With Fox Girl, I did a little bit more tweaking with the traditional Korean fox story. One version I made up, wondering what would happen if the story ended differently, or if it was told by the fox.
Johnson: It underlines what you were saying about the role of story and how it can be used in different ways by people in different situations.
Keller: Right. A story's not just a story, but there's some kind of underlying reason for why it's told at a particular time. Also, I wanted to say that the frog story in Comfort Woman where the mother frog warns the child frog about disobedience, is a story that is always told. Almost every Korean person I know has been told that story by a parent wanting to teach their child a lesson.
Johnson: Akiko narrates her impressions on visiting her first American city: "That's what all of America was like to me. When you see it for the first time, it glitters, beautiful, like a dream. But then, the longer you walk through it, the more you realize that the dream is empty, false, sterile. You realize that you have no face and no place in this country." This disappointment in the reality vs. the dream of America crops up throughout your work. Comment?
Keller: I think it's a common experience with many immigrants coming to this country, which is represented in terms of Disneyland and gold in the streets and a McDonald's on every corner. America is a very mythic place outside this country, and to get here and realize that there are homeless people on the street, there are hungry people, there are shantytowns in every city, "America Towns" in every city can come as a shock to anyone coming here for the first time.
Johnson: Here you also bring up the theme of facelessness among the Americans, and that theme comes up again in Fox Girl . What interests you about this idea? I'm thinking of the scene in Fox Girl, when the mother is painting the girls' faces and describing how American's don't really see them.
Keller: This comes from a lot of Asian American history and fiction, that so many Asian Americans have felt invisible throughout history and under represented or misrepresented.
Johnson: Your Asian American literature class is a perfect example.
Keller: That's true. The professor was an expert in her field at that time, and she told me that there were no Korean writers. And beyond that class, throughout all the American literature that I had to study, there were no Asian American characters or authors in the American literature cannon. Even on television, I don't see Asian Americans represented in a strong way.
Johnson: Fox Girl seems a very natural progression from Comfort Woman. How did you come up with this story?
Keller: I did want to link the books in terms of theme and history. Comfort Woman takes place during World War II, and in Fox Girl the children are born during the Korean War. There's a natural progression in terms of history, and also, literally. Some of the comfort women who felt that they couldn't return to their families because they'd been shamed-they felt that the girl they'd been no longer existed-migrated down to the camp towns that sprung up around the American military bases after World War II. They continued as prostitutes but for soldiers of a different country. As those camp towns grew, the women and the children of those women stayed on. Now some of the prostitutes in these camp towns are fourth generation descendents from comfort women. The children now are only a quarter or an eighth Korean, but they identify themselves as Korean, they speak Korean, they're culturally Korean, but racially they're not more than a quarter Korean. Because of their mixed race, there's no way that they can leave and integrate with the rest of the homogenous Korean society. These towns are incredibly desolate. These women and children don't belong anywhere. They live in this no man's land where they are not accepted by Korea and not accepted by America.
Johnson: Was this a difficult novel to research? How did you learn about the postwar culture and America Town and all the details of how the prostitutes lived and worked, from their visits to VD Road, to their working cards, to the Monkey House to the fish tanks where Duk Hee winds up?
Keller: Yes, those are all real. It's strange. There is a silence surrounding these camp towns in the same way that there was once a silence surrounding the comfort women's history. The difference is that while the silence of the comfort women was due to the fact that the women themselves didn't speak out. They held that silence out of shame or pain. The silence surrounding the camp towns is one that arises out of people feeling that it's distasteful to talk about it. Many people know about it, but no one wants to talk about it for fear of making a social offense. So the Koreans don't acknowledge or discuss it in any way, and the Americans don't want to discuss it either. And the camp towns aren't only in Korea, but also in Okinawa, the Philippines, or Germany—wherever they have American military bases there are these camp towns around them.
Because of this silence, I had difficulty in researching Comfort Woman, so I had expected the same difficulty in finding information about these camp towns. In reality, there was so much material that it was shocking, because, as I said, nobody talks about these places and what goes on there. There's so much written about the American military presence in Asia, American Korean relations, oral histories of American GIs during the Korean War. All of this material discusses the camp towns, but the more I read, the more I realized that the material didn't treat the women in the towns like humans, but more like props, in the same way that Japanese documents during WWII showed comfort women as military supplies. The women were there, but I got no sense of who the women were or their pain or their histories—they were part of the background setting. Some great documentaries came out later by a couple of great Korean-American women. One is Camp Arirang, and another is The Women Outside. Both are fairly recent documentaries that get at the woman's experience of living in these camps. Just as I was finishing Fox Girl, Kathy Moon came out with Sex Among Allies, which is an excellent political analysis of the camptowns. But academic. The more I researched, the more I was pulled to try to get at the heart of the story and the heart of the characters through fiction.
Johnson: Was it difficult to write about disenfranchised children suffering the harsh realities of post-war Korea ?
Keller: Yes, especially since I have two girls of my own, and one of them is about the age that Hyun Jin and Sookie are when they get pulled into prostitution. It makes you realize how precarious life is for so many children around the world. It made me want to protect my daughters more.
Johnson: How do you know how far to go with a scene like the one in which Hyan Jin has sex with three men during her first prostitution experience. The scene is very horrifying and graphic, and it goes from bad to worse. With a scene like that, how do you know how far to go?
Keller: I actually didn't know how far to go. That was one of the last and most difficult scenes that I wrote. Someone asked me if it was as bad in the camps as I write in my book, and really the answer is that it was worse. I pulled back in certain scenes, and pulled back on some of the things that would've happened to these girls. I felt that it would be difficult to write about, and maybe more difficult to read about. Some places I decided to imply but not tell, and other places I pulled back entirely from how bad it could get.
Johnson: It seems important that you have that one brutal scene because it lets readers know the reality of what goes on. You don't have to have innumerable scenes like that, but the one scene says, "This is what it is."
Keller: I didn't want to turn away from that. It's ugly and it's brutal and it's graphic and it's violent. I didn't want to ignore that those kind of things do go on. While writing, I tried to walk the fine line between dwelling in it, not wanting to dwell in it, not wanting to exploit it, and yet not wanting to deny it either.
Johnson: I guess it comes down to honoring the character's experience.
Keller: That's always what I came back to: trying to get in touch with the view point of the character, empathize with her and feel her emotions and her spirit and her voice. But it was hard. As an author, I went into Fox Girl knowing that it was a novel. I couldn't trick myself the way I did with Comfort Woman, and I was very conscious of the choices I could make as an author. I wanted to challenge myself. I didn't want to take the easy way out. I wanted to let the characters do their own unpredictable things and not try to guide them along a preconceived plot. At one point, it got very difficult, and the girls had made so many bad life choices. About two-thirds of the way in, I got stuck. I'd come to a dead end where I didn't know how to get the girls out. I didn't have the energy, and I was emotionally and intellectually stuck. I showed up at my monthly writing group empty handed, ready to quit. I told them I didn't know how it was going to end, and they all said that they'd been reading for months and they wanted an ending. They wouldn't let me quit. For four or five months I was determined that I was done with it, that I wouldn't go back. It was very difficult to go back because some of the characters' cynicism was working it's way into my life. After a few months—I realize now that I probably needed those months to gain some perspective and have some breathing space-I thought that not only was I obligated to my writing group, but to my characters as well. I owed it to them to get them out of this horrible mess. I went through from the very beginning and looked for places to interject some hope so that when they reach that dead end, it wasn't a dead end. There was a little window of light open at the top that they could escape through. But really, I almost had to quit.
Johnson: You open Fox Girl with a description about how ugly the girls are, Sookie "bulbous eyes and dark skinned," and Hyun Jin's cheek covered with a birthmark. Why was it important for them to be ugly?
Keller: Part of that has to do with the idea of transformation that runs through and the myth of the fox girl and taking on different skin. Part of it also had to do with the whole confrontation that takes place in America Town between the Korean ways of seeing and the American viewpoint, so that you have this clash. The girls, once seen as ugly, are redefined, re-visioned later, when skinny and dark is considered exotic and desirable by the Americans. It emphasizes the difference in viewpoint and in values and the constant clash between these two cultural perspectives. The birthmark also represents race and how race is viewed, how skin is marked.
Johnson: Is the story of the fox girl that gets passed down to Hyun Jin an actual Korean story?
Keller: Yes. There are many myths about the fox spirit. It's usually a demonic spirit who comes in and devours the livers or hearts of humans, young men.
Johnson: Did you have the fox girl image in the beginning or did you come up with it through the writing?
Keller: It's hard to say now. I was aware of it from the beginning and drawn to it in the way that the fox spirit is always a woman. She represents both danger and power.
Johnson: Both novels capture a particular dialect and rhythm of speaking that stays with readers long after putting the books down. How did you develop the language, and did you face any challenges in establishing the dialects?
Keller: For both novels I tried to be aware of language in the sense that there are so many different languages and dialects being spoken—you have English, Hawaiian pidgin, Korean, and variations of camptown pidgin—so I was always trying to be aware of the differences as they came up. I wanted it to come off without the Korean sounding very stilted. I wanted to avoid that accenty, stilted language that signified that this was true Korean. So that was a challenge. At one point, I was so concerned with it that every time someone spoke, I was overanalyzing and running it by my writing group. But they assured me that the reader would be caught up enough in the story and the characters were speaking in strong enough voices that I didn't need to question it so much.
Johnson: Both Comfort Woman and Fox Girl are based on historical truths. With each novel, how much did you rely on historical fact and how much did you rely on the imaginative gifts of fiction? To what point do you feel obligated to be historically accurate?
Keller: I try to be as historically accurate as possible throughout. I consider that the foundation. I build the framework with that history. With Fox Girl, I tried to give historical markers to set the time period, but there were a couple of times where I stepped outside the accuracy of history. For instance, there was a well-documented case in the papers about a GI murdering a girl by inserting an umbrella into her vagina. That was an actual case in the early '90s, and I allude to it in the text, so it's outside the time frame of the novel, yet I included it because that sort of thing was happening at the time Fox Girl is set as well. I'm sure it wasn't an isolated event that occurred only once. These murders and abuses have been going on for decades. So, I'll say that I base the foundation on history, and if I have to make an emotional leap, I do.
Johnson: So much of your themes have to do with the mother-daughter relationship. What draws you to this complicated and unruly terrain?
Keller: In part, it's the life that I'm living now. I'm raising two young daughters. It's so much of my emotional life so that it naturally filters down into the work that I'm doing. I also told my mom that Comfort Woman is an apology to her for all of my adolescent rebellion against her and her culture, her traditional identity. I think of the novel as my coming home and addressing the relationship from another viewpoint.
Johnson: Both novels end on a redemptive note. In Comfort Woman, Beccah cements and honors her bond to her mother through seeing to the details of her preparation and burial, while in Fox Girl, Hyan Jin find's joy and solace in her daughter, who she realizes embodies the best of the people most important to her. Redemption is experienced through one's ability to love and connect with a misunderstood past, to take something good forward into the future. Comment?
Keller: Well, you said it all right there. The redemption is critical to me. It's a way to survive and move on. If you look at the differences in how Sookie and Hyan Jin survive, you'll see that Sookie has to kill all of that emotional contact with the world and try to repress any connection between her and another human being. For Hyan Jin, her way to survive was to build on that love. That was her redemption—it was the way that she survived America Town. I think it was an important way to end, but I struggled with that ending in Fox Girl. Originally it had a much darker ending where characters were emotionally or literally killed off, but it became too dark and too painful, and my work became about trying to interject some light. Neither novel ends with a traditional happy ending neatly tied in a bow. But each does end with hope for the future.
Johnson: What do you look for in an ending?
Keller: In an ending, I want the characters to come to some sense of peace or realization, and also an ending should offer hope for a new beginning. Coming to the end of both Comfort Woman and Fox Girl, I do think that there was hope for the new beginning, so much so in Fox Girl, that I'm going to write a sequel.
Johnson: Will that be your next book?
Keller: I don't want to talk too much about it, because it's still formulating in my head, but yes.
Johnson: So you have a trilogy.
Keller: Yes, a loosely based trilogy. It definitely connects theme wise, and in time. It's a sense of history from World War II to the Korean War, and the aftermath of the Korean War to the '80s. I'll take some of the same characters and some of the same themes from Fox Girl into the new book, but I need to find a new twist, a new perspective that offers its own version of events.
Johnson: Comfort Woman was very successful, winning the American Book Award and enjoying wide sales and excellent reviews. That must have been very exciting.
Keller: It was much more successful than I had ever dreamed. After I finished writing Comfort Woman, I expected that it would be published with a local press in Hawaii, maybe a thousand copies, and I was fine with that. I hadn't told people that I was writing a novel, partly because I was trying to trick myself into writing it, and partly because I was afraid of failing and worried that if it didn't get published I'd have to deal with peoples' expectations, and that was too much to think about on top of the writing, which is hard enough in itself. When Viking decided to publish it, I couldn't believe it. People came up to me and wanted to know why I'd never told them I was a writer. Then I was worried about how people would view my mother, because already people were asking me if my mother was a comfort woman. I was so worried about how my mother would handle this.
Johnson: And how did she?
Keller: Well, I called her up and told that I'd written this book and that Viking was going to publish it, and I explained what the book was about and let her know that people were going to ask her if she'd been a comfort woman because people would assume that it was in some way autobiographical. I assured her that I would make it clear that the book was fiction and that she was never a comfort woman. She said, "If it sells more books, tell them I was a comfort woman!" She was great!
Johnson: How long was there between Fox Girl and Comfort Woman ?
Keller: Five years, and part of that was spent writing what I thought would be my second novel—which was not Fox Girl—but I got distracted by the research I did, and the more references I read about America Town and the camp towns around these bases, the more I was drawn to that story. Also, tying into what we said about letting the characters develop as you write it—part of the trouble with that second novel was that I told so many people what I was going to write. I told the whole story, what the characters were like, what was going to happen, and so I lost that vital sense of discovery which is one of the joys of writing.
Johnson: How did you decide in Fox Girl to write about the kids instead of the adults like in Comfort Woman?
Keller: Well, with Hyan Jin we experience her loss of innocence and her realizing what life really is in America Town. Her vulnerability is very important in showing how desolate the life is there, and the fact that she is a child underscores her vulnerability as she's worrying about how to feed herself and find shelter and survive.
Johnson: I found the humor in light of the desperate circumstances surprising and interesting. It makes the story more realistic and it shows how resilient kids really are.
Keller: Yes, and it also plays into this whole thing about transformation. All children are constantly in a state of transformation and we don't know how they're going to turn out.
Johnson: I like what you said earlier too about letting your characters surprise you and be spontaneous and not being married to some idea of what you think they're going to do.
Keller: That's so important. When you first start out, you don't know your characters well enough to know what they're going to do. The fun of writing is the discovery of who your characters are and what's going to happen to them. When you start with an outline and a preconceived idea, I think you kill something off. It deadens your characters.
Johnson: What would you say to writers working on their first stories or novel?
Keller: I would say to not worry so much about the end product, or if it's going to get published, or what your message is. Start from your characters and let your characters tell the story. Let the story develop on its own from your characters' viewpoint and be as honest as possible to that. Then all the rest will come. If you keep trying to get to the emotional heart or truth of the characters, the story will come from that. I've read so many things that say to plot out your book, and I feel that that puts even more pressure on the writing. I tried it once and found my story going off in different directions and had to go back and erase my outline and rewrite it to make it conform with how the story was developing. Now that's backwards.
Johnson: Do you think you'll write any more short stories?
Keller: At this point I'm really drawn to the larger work, and part of that has to do with this idea of discovery, of getting to know my characters. With short stories, I feel like you have to know the punch ahead of time. Now, I'm drawn to these situations and characters and I don't know what the story is or the punch is or the climax is. I need the time and space to develop it that a novel provides.
Sarah Anne Johnson earned an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her book of interviews Conversations with American Women Writers was published by University Press of New England in January 2004. Her fiction has appeared in Other Voices. <http://www.sarahannejohnson.com>.