Cynthia Kadohata! I had the great pleasure of meeting her in 2007 at the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Ceremony where her novel, Weedflower, won the award for Older Children.
Here’s Cynthia’s autograph:
Huh? An honor? Cynthia Kadohata, author of the Newbery Award winning Kira-Kira? To this writing newbie, her message shone with humility and generosity.
Those qualities shone through again when I emailed Cynthia (after no contact in between) to ask if she might be interested in being interviewed for my future blog (i.e. still a figment of my imagination).
Since 2007 Cynthia has published several other novels to great acclaim including The Thing About Luck, winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. You get the picture: this woman can really write!
Although this interview is my first lengthy exchange with Cynthia, l have felt a sense of connection to her over the years through her novels which I find luminous, honest, and humorous.
“Sometimes it’s simply amazing how the world blooms around you when you are searching for something.” – Cynthia Kadohata
Amy: Welcome, Cynthia! It’s truly my honor. You’ve had a long writing career including ten published books. You started off writing for adults, publishing your first novel, The Floating World, in 1989. How did you make the shift from writing adult novels to writing children’s novels?
Cynthia: My editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, was my grad school roommate, and while I went off to write for adults, she went off to become a children’s book editor. We remained good friends, and now and then over the years she suggested that I write for children.
Then in 2002 I read a pile of children’s novels she’d sent me, and something just clicked. I hadn’t read children’s novels in many years. It was like a light being turned on. So I decided to try it.
My writing was always from the POV of a young person – my first adult novel’s narrator is a child at the start of the book – so the switch to writing children’s novels wasn’t that much of a jolt to my system. It felt very natural, and I loved it. Channeling my inner twelve-year-old is one of my favorite things to do!
Amy: I’m glad that you brought up your inner twelve-year-old. I’ve read four of your novels (so far) and noticed that the protagonists are all at the threshold of adolescence. What is it about that age that speaks to you so strongly?
Cynthia: I’m not sure. I’m still in touch with a number of the “kids” I knew from when I was twelve, and I feel a connection with them that I don’t feel with many other people from my past. It was a fun, intense, vivid time.
Often when I’m writing, the character just naturally comes out eleven or twelve, so I just let that happen. My February 2018 novel, Checked, is from the POV of a boy who starts out eleven and turns twelve during the novel. I think it’s a sign that my development stalled at age twelve!!!
Amy: Ha! If you’re stalled at twelve, I’m stalled at nine or ten. Care to share anything about Checked?
Cynthia: Checked is about a group of hyper-competitive, athletically talented, and sensitive twelve-year-old alpha boys playing elite hockey in Southern California. The main character, Conor, owns a Doberman named Sinbad who is his best friend in the world. Sinbad gets very sick, and Conor learns to navigate the world and play the game he loves while also suffering through the ups and downs of Sinbad’s illness. In short, he grows up!
Amy: Sounds compelling and I look forward reading to it! A year after your last book, Half A World Away, was released, I had the pleasure of taking an intensive on editing and revising with your editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, at the SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Mid-Atlantic Conference. She said that after a few rounds of back-and-forth edits, she suggested that you put away the manuscript in the drawer. You then sent her a much revised manuscript which she described as “the biggest blow-my-mind ever.” How did you take this manuscript from drawer to publication?
Cynthia: I think a lot of it was discovering Bruce Springsteen’s song “Backstreets.” It’s a really intense song, and when I first discovered it, I went to sleep with my earphones on, and the song just played over and over while I slept. And then this really intense boy character just came to me when I woke up. I listened to that song a lot as I wrote.
Amy: Such a cool story! I do find the voice of Jaden, the adopted son and protagonist of Half A World Away, to be intense (and honest) which is largely why I find him endearing…When you adopted your son Sammy from Kazakhstan, you had already made the transition to writing for children. How has being a mom influenced your writing?
Cynthia: One thing is that I have greater confidence to write from a young boy’s point of view. And of course loving someone so much is transformational. I’m not sure how that changes my writing, but I’m sure it does. On the down side, I don’t have as much time to write anymore! Checked is about a boy who plays ice hockey, like Sammy does. At this point I sometimes think I can write more naturally from a boy’s POV than a girl’s.
Amy: Yet you’ve been prolific with six published books since becoming a mom. How do you manage your writing time? Any tips to share with other writer-parents?
Cynthia: I don’t feel I manage my writing time very well at all! I feel I should have had a book published every year and am actually kind of disappointed in myself that I haven’t. Well, more than kind of disappointed. It eats at me! I used to write daily, but now I write more in spurts when I can. Either way seems to work out fine.
Amy: Writers and parents are two groups of people who never seem to have enough time. If you were gifted with an extra hour each day — your only restrictions are that you may not do anything directly related to your writing career or being a mom — what are some of the things that you might do?
Cynthia: If I could save all the hours up and have a big hunk of time, I would take Amtrak somewhere, anywhere. I love the train! My sister was interested in visiting our childhood home in Arkansas, and that’s something I’d like to do as well. If I could have only one hour at a time, I also like to draw.
Amy: Ooh, what do you like to draw?
Cynthia: I used to love drawing the faces of old people. Their faces are so beautiful and expressive! I’m not good enough to do that anymore, as I really haven’t kept it up. So now when I draw, it’s always a still life that I set up. For a while I was drawing regularly with my son, but for some reason we stopped doing that even though we both enjoyed it.
My drawings are kind of embarrassing now – really, really simple, but at the same time it is kind of cool because I could feel that if I really put work into it, I could get back to where I was. But I feel like it would take 100% commitment…which isn’t going to happen.
Amy: I hope that you’ll find some time to draw and take that train ride with your sister! Many of your protagonists possess strong sibling relationships that help sustain them through very challenging circumstances. Will you tell us about your portrayal of realistic yet tender, devoted sibling relationships?
Cynthia: My childhood, while far, far from perfect, was nonetheless totally magical. And my brother and sister were a part of that magic, so I really like writing about siblings. Of course I love my brother and sister a lot…more some days than others – I guess that’s where the “realistic” parts come from.
Amy: I love your point that life, while imperfect, may still be magical. American and world history are filled with imperfections, and yet you write historical fiction that is nonetheless magical…Little known chapters of history often undergird your novels. How would you describe your relationship with the research process? Do you have any words of advice for other writers who need to do intensive research?
Cynthia: I just read a 1,000-page historical book to help me write a novel that’s less than 150 pages. The history book is backstory for one of my main characters, and I didn’t feel I could write my novel without this backstory. I get really involved in the research, and I’d say it takes up as much time as the actual writing.
I also do a lot of interviews. My only advice would be to treat your interviewees like the royalty they are. I recently watched a video featuring short-story writer George Saunders. He used the phrase “intuit their expansiveness.” I LOVE that phrase, and I think it’s a good idea to intuit the expansiveness of your interviewees. They turn out to be such wonderful and generous people, as well as unique and full of great depth of emotion.
Amy: “Intuit their expansiveness” — that’s wonderful advice for any writer. What keeps you writing for children? Do you have any interest in writing another adult novel?
Cynthia: I love writing for children! I don’t have a particular interest in writing another adult novel, but I would never say never. If a story idea came to me, I would gladly do another adult book. It seems like it’s fairly common for me to run a story idea by my editor, and she thinks it sounds too adult for kids. Like I wanted to write about the Battle of Stalingrad from the POV of a young boy, but she didn’t really see how it could be a children’s story. I had even started studying the Russian language a bit.
Amy: What are you working on now? What do readers have to look forward to?
Cynthia: Checked just went into copy-editing, so while I wait for the copy-edited version, I’m working on a novel about a Japanese American girl whose father renounces his American citizenship while incarcerated during WWII. Several thousand Japanese Americans did just that. At the moment I’m working on deepening the girl’s character, or intuiting her expansiveness. It’s coming in fits and starts.
Amy: Is there anything that you’d like to add?
Cynthia: Hmmm, well, right now I’m into the concept of serendipity. I’d been worrying because I didn’t see how I was going to get firsthand information on what Hiroshima was like after the war for my current project. I didn’t know who I could interview. And then a translator who is generously helping me with the project happened to mention that she has friends whose parents come from Hiroshima, and they could help me.
Sometimes when you’re writing a novel, things just fall into place in a miraculous way. Seeing this happen is one of the best parts of writing a book. And THEN I found a woman whose parents renounced their citizenship AND they went to the Hiroshima area after the war! Sometimes it’s simply amazing how the world blooms around you when you are searching for something.
Amy: Thank you, Cynthia, and I wish you much continued serendipity!
To find out more about Cynthia, please go to http://www.cynthiakadohata.com. And be on the look-out for her next novel, Checked, in February 2018!
Until we meet again,