The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Trying — but failing — to keep up with Wendy Nelson Tokunaga, Olympic e-book author and karaoke star

**Announcing a giveaway of one of Wendy Nelson Tokunaga’s Kindle e-books. open to DISPLACED DISPATCH SUBSCRIBERS  & ANYONE WHO COMMENTS. And guess what? You get to take your pick! Woo hoo!!**

During this summer’s London Olympics there will be endless displays of speed grace, strength, masochism, endurance, pain, and perseverance.

Just the the thought of it makes me feel exhausted and a little bit nauseous.

But I don’t necessarily have to look toward the Orbit (I refer to the “eyeful tower” that looms over London’s Olympic Stadium) to feel that way. Instead I can direct my weary gaze towards the Golden Gate Bridge, near to where the once-displaced Wendy Nelson Tokunaga resides.

Tokunaga was a special guest at The Displaced Nation before as one of our 12 Nomads of Christmas. We have invited her back today to showcase what it means to be an “Olympian author.” She has just completed the marathon-like feat of publishing three e-books — two novels and one work of nonfiction — in a period of 12 months.

Has she tired you out yet?

I ask because that’s not the whole story. A talented writer, Tokunaga is what the Japanese call a talento: she can sing jazz as well as j-pop and enka (a type of sentimental ballad). Put it this way: you do not want to compete with her in a karaoke contest!

If you don’t believe me, listen to her singing this enka she composed for one of her novels — you would never know that Tokunaga is a native-born Californian who’d spent time in Japan!

Just one of the many reasons why you’ll never keep up with her…or if you dare to try, you’ll be huffing and puffing, just as I am. (Why oh why did I agree to sing a few bars of “My Way” with her?)

* * *

[Catching my breath…] Thank you, Wendy, for agreeing to this interview with The Displaced Nation. While I rest for a bit, can you tell me a little more about yourself — where you were born and how you ended up living in Japan?
I was born in San Francisco and have lived in the Bay Area all my life except for when I lived in Tokyo during the early 1980s. I had been studying Japanese language and culture at San Francisco State University when I won a prize in a songwriting contest sponsored by Japan Victor Records. It allowed me to perform my song at Nakano Sun Plaza in Tokyo. After that I moved to Japan to pursue music, teach English and do narration work.

While I’m still catching my breath — let’s hope I don’t have a heart attack here — why don’t you tell us about all your books? I understand you’ve published eight of them in the past 12 years, of which three of them came out in the past 12 months?
I self-published my first novel, No Kidding, in 2000 with iUniverse. Then I wrote two books for elementary-school students with Kid Haven Press: Famous People: Christine Aguilera (2003) and Wonders of the World: Niagra Falls (2004). Next came two novels that featured Japan, both of which were published by St. Martin’s Griffin: Midori by Moonlight and Love in Translation. And then I self-published three Kindle e-books within the past 12 months: Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband, in 2011; Falling Uphill and His Wife and Daughters, both in 2012.

I suppose you’re working on another book right now?
Yes, a mystery/thriller.

Crossing publishing platforms…

Turning to your three recent books: what made you decide to join the Kindle e-book world?
Falling Uphill was a “trunk novel” I wrote in 2004 that never got published. With the popularity of e-books I decided to revise it a bit and put it out instead of having it gather dust on my hard drive. My agent at the time came close to selling His Wife and Daughters to a major publisher in 2011, but in the end things didn’t work out. I still wanted to bring the book out, so making it available as an e-book seemed like a great idea. I’d gotten a few bites from publishers regarding Marriage in Translation, which was based on a series of blog interviews I’d done of Western women married to Japanese men. But dealing with a publisher would mean the book would take at least a year to come out and would probably need to be longer. I just wanted to get it out as soon as I could to take advantage of the momentum of the blog. Coincidentally, when I was in the finishing stages, the disastrous earthquake and tsunami occurred in Japan. I brought out the book shortly after and for a time gave 50 percent of the proceeds to Japan relief.

Do you think you can reach a different audience through self-publishing?
What’s exciting about e-books is that I can reach an audience! For various reasons, these books wouldn’t have seen the light of day, so I’m happy to continually find readers for them. And, yes, I think I’m reaching a wider geographical audience. And another bonus is that in the e-book world, unlike in the traditional publishing world, the pub date is irrelevant — people can continue to discover my books and I can promote them as summer reads, fall reads or whatever. And e-books don’t ever go “out of print.” I couldn’t be happier with this platform, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t still appreciate traditional publishing and don’t rule out traditional publishing in the future.

Crossing genres…

You got your MFA in creative writing. You also teach and consult on creative writing. What was it like trying your hand at a nonfiction book Marriage in Translation?
These days, non-fiction written in the manner of creative non-fiction and/or narrative non-fiction has lots in common with novels. I think it can be easier for fiction writers to tackle non-fiction, but there might be more challenges for the strictly non-fiction writer to undertake writing fiction.

Why is it so challenging for nonfiction writers to switch over to fiction?
Some — not all — non-fiction writers find it difficult to “make things up” and use their imagination after being so ingrained at using “just the facts.” And, for journalists, I think it can be a challenge to structure a novel that doesn’t reveal everything at once and fight the tendency to go about verifying each point.

Crossing cultures…

Turning to Japan and its influence on your writing. For a while there, Japan was your lodestar. Both Midori by Moonlight and Love in Translation had strong Japanese themes, as does Marriage in Translation. But in your two latest novels your protagonists are all Americans. I’ve read His Wife and Daughters — and enjoyed it very much. There was a scene set in Japan — involving one of the daughters, Phoebe — but otherwise it’s about an American politician who has an affair that causes him to lose his job. I haven’t read Falling Uphill — does it have any Japanese references?
Falling Uphill doesn’t have any Japanese references, at least that I can recall! And in His Wife and Daughters, I thought that for the particular purpose of depicting a certain time in Phoebe’s life that setting it in Tokyo made sense because of the bar hostess culture there. Otherwise, Japan really wouldn’t have played any part in that novel.

Are you moving away from Japan, or will it always be something you write about?
There have been times when I’ve felt that I’ve said all I can say about Japan and need to move on, though it will always be a part of me. I’ve enjoyed writing about Japan and Japanese culture and I even had a Japan-themed short story published in the recent Tomo anthology published by Stone Bridge Press, but I do enjoy writing about topics other than Japan. Yet I am careful to “never say never” about most things.

That said, I think Japanese might enjoy His Wife and Daughters. They have plenty of sex scandals, the most recent one involving the political kingpin Ichiro Ozawa. But in that case, the wife has spoken out — and is trying to poison his career. What was the inspiration behind the book —  do you like politics?
I don’t see His Wife and Daughters as a particularly political book. I was more attracted to the theme of exploring why some women stand by their men in these situations and withstand the humiliation, as well as the fascinating dynamics of a dysfunctional family affected by serial adultery and public scandal.

Crossing art forms…

And now I’ve just got to ask you about your musical career. Are you still pursuing music alongside all this writing?
I’ve been singing and playing music for longer than I’ve been writing. And music is what originally got me to Japan so it’s very important to me. But I don’t have as much time to devote to music right now. My husband and I occasionally play together at home for fun (he plays keyboards), but we haven’t done any gigs for several years. And I wish I had time to keep up with J-pop and enka and go to karaoke! I do manage to catch some music shows via the TV-Japan satellite service, but that’s about it.

Didn’t you and your husband collaborate on a theme song for your book Love in Translation?
Yes we did. That was our last major musical project.

Do you listen to music when you’re writing?
Not usually, but I often have Pandora playing quietly downstairs from my office (the cat likes it!) on a variety of eclectic stations: piano jazz, trip hop, ambient, etc.

Last but not least, I’d like to quiz you about your reading and writing habits:
Last truly great book you read: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
Favorite literary genre: Books that are well written, fast paced and full of surprises.
Reading habits on a plane: I read on my iPad.
The one book you’d require the president to read: He’s so well read that I think he’s way ahead of me.
Favorite books as a child: I especially liked the Edward Eager Magic Series (Half Magic, Magic by the Lake, Seven Day Magic, etc.) as well as The Borrowers series by Mary Norton and The Summer Birds by Penelope Farmer.
Favorite heroine: I always liked books about girls who had special magical powers or mysterious backgrounds.
The writer, dead or alive, you’d most like to meet: I’m constantly networking with fellow writers and have gotten the opportunity to meet with many that I admire, but I suppose it would be quite fascinating to talk with Joan Didion, a writer who definitely excels at both fiction and non-fiction.
Your reading habits: I’m a pretty fast reader. I sometimes take notes and I am mainly reading electronically now. I do find myself constantly analyzing the books I read for craft and structure so it’s sometimes hard to get lost in a good book like I used to be able to back in those Edward Eager days.
Your favorite of your own books: Always the latest one: His Wife and Daughters.
The book of yours you’d most like to see as a film: Any of them!!!
The book you plan to read next: The Expats, by Chris Pavone.

Say, would you do a review for The Displaced Nation on what you think of Chris Pavone’s book?
I’m happy to do a review, but I can’t promise any time soon. I’m in the midst of some very big projects right now. So if there’s not a firm deadline, then I can say yes. 🙂

(See what I mean about how you just can’t keep up with her?) Okay, one final question before I let you go. Since you’ve been so prolific of late, I wonder if you have any advice to impart to other writers who struggle to wrap up their books?
I wish I knew the secret! I’m struggling with my current book and don’t know when the heck I’ll finish it. Writing takes discipline and there’s no magic formula, I’m afraid. And some books come quicker than others.

* * *

Readers, any more questions for Wendy? Please put them in the comments. To reiterate, we are doing a giveaway of one of Wendy’s Kindle e-books to Displaced Dispatch subscribers and to ANYONE WHO COMMENTS! As I can assure you from my own experience, you WANT TO WIN one of these books — they are THE PERFECT SUMMER READS!!!

STAY TUNED for some more fiction tomorrow, with another episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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img: Wendy Nelson Tokunaga throwing her considerable energy into yet another round of karaoke…

9 responses to “Trying — but failing — to keep up with Wendy Nelson Tokunaga, Olympic e-book author and karaoke star

  1. Jennifer Avventura July 26, 2012 at 2:12 am

    Wow, what a natural force of nature!

    Here’s my question for Wendy: How did you find the time, resources and will to write so many books in the span of 12 months? I ask this question because I’m a budding writer myself with two books locked in my head, I think it’s fear that’s holding me back. Can you offer some advice for a new writer? I am in awe.

    Thank you.

    Jennifer Avventura

    • ML Awanohara July 26, 2012 at 7:56 am

      A “force of nature” — what an apt descriptor for Wendy! Re: her three books: I don’t think she wrote all of them in a year. She published them on Kindle in the course of 12 months. But that’s still a feat in my book (pun intended!). How many of us have three manuscripts lying around that we can clean up and publish so quickly? One a mystery, the other a political drama, and the other a work of nonfiction?

      I love Jennifer’s question, esp as I know you’re in the business of giving new writers encouragement. Also, I’d like to know how you went from being a talento to being a full-time author. Was it an easy transition (did it come naturally), or did you have some hard slog in learning the craft of writing books? Hmmm… Notably, this question is along parallel lines to those we have for Olympic athletes: were you born this way or did you have to practice, practice, practice — or both?!

    • Wendy Tokunaga July 26, 2012 at 10:16 am

      Jennifer, thanks for posting! First thing I’d say is that you should never compare yourself to other writers. Your writing journey is your own and everyone has a different experience. I did put out those books all in one year by a kind of fluke, but one of them I’d written a long time ago and then revised. 🙂 Writing can be a scary thing–to put our work out there, so it’s understandable to have fears about it. But you’re ahead of the game since you have two (yes, two!) books locked in your head. Go for it! Start your journey. I think you’ll be glad you did. 🙂

  2. Wendy Tokunaga July 26, 2012 at 10:17 am

    Awanohara-san, I had a very LONG slog at learning the craft of writing fiction! In fact, I learned the hard way and made many mistakes along the way. Part of the reason I offer manuscript consulting services is that I am hoping to help others not make those same errors!

  3. DrieCulturen August 10, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    Wow, Wendy you must be really creative: you sing and you write (lots). I believe there is great freedom in expressing creativity. Do you have some good advice on how to stimulate or how to grow in creativity? Thanks for your inspiring story. Greetings from Holland, Janneke @DrieCulturen

    • Wendy Tokunaga August 10, 2012 at 6:28 pm

      Hello to you in Holland, Janneke! I think the best way to get the creative juices going is to take a class that allows you to be creative whether it be painting, writing, singing, or whatever. This is sure to stimulate you and get you into a creative mood. Good luck and have fun!

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