By Jerry Waxler
In this last part of my interview with Lisa Fineberg Cook, author of “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” I ask her more questions about her writing process and her decisions about the way she put her memoir together.
(To read the first of my three part review of her memoir, click here.)
Jerry Waxler: Many writers wonder how to find dramatic tension within their ordinary lives. I think your scene about being disappointed by not having sheets on your bed makes a great example. I think most of us have had moments when creature comforts fail to meet our expectations and we sink into an emotional stew. So maybe it’s not a JAP problem but a human problem. From that point of view, your scene of being disappointed about a sheetless bed makes a statement about how people handle unexpected loss of comfort. When writing your memoir, what did you think about this creative project of turning ordinary experiences into compelling story elements?
Lisa Fineberg Cook: It’s the little things that we can all relate to. For me, to walk into my new home — first ever as a married woman — at ten o’clock at night in an entirely different part of the world and not have sheets on a bed when I was so tired that all I wanted to do was fall down — seemed like the cruelest form of deprivation I could imagine (LOL!) Looking back now thirteen years later, not having sheets on a bed seems pretty insignificant so my threshold for little inconveniences is much higher but at the time it seemed symbolic of the whole experience – I imagined at the time that this must be what the Peace Corp is like! Again, perception is key in all of life’s experiences and at the time it seemed huge to be deprived in that way.
In other anecdotes too, it’s the little things, like when I was in downtown Nagoya and found the store that sells American products, I was so happy I cried — Kraft Macaroni and Cheese woo hoo!
Jerry Waxler: You structured the book, along lines of domestic responsibilities. Because of my preference for chronological story telling, I would have expected this organization to disrupt the story, but it didn’t. In fact, it pulled me along, consistently guiding me through your experience. What sort of training or experience went into developing your knack for writing in a story flow so naturally that even when you messed around with the organization, it still felt like a good story?
Lisa Fineberg Cook: I wrote the laundry section in my head and when it came time to put it on paper, I liked the idea of organizing the sections into domestic chores. However, I felt that I wanted to chronicle the first of the two years as it was the more significant of the two, so even though it’s sectioned into domestic topics, it does follow the year and doesn’t jump around. This happened organically by the way, I didn’t necessarily plan it but it evolved in a way that made too much sense to ignore.
Jerry Waxler: The title emphasizes two aspects of your journey, the trip to Japan and your loss of princess status. In addition, the book is also about the transition from single and spoiled to married and responsible. Memoir writers, especially with commercial ambitions, are supposed to stick with one particular theme. What sort of angst or decisions went into incorporating the multiple facets into the container of one story?
Lisa Fineberg Cook: I had no angst whatsoever (is that bad to admit? LOL!) Truthfully, I felt like the theme was all about perception and expectation. Wherever someone grows up, there are societal expectations and perceptions about how to behave, how to mold yourself, how to succeed, choices you make, creature comforts, etc.. When a woman gets married, there again are the expectations and perceptions about how to behave, what it means to be a wife. Then when you combine the change of single to married and take a person out of their comfort zone — entirely mind you — and put them in a place that also has very strict, structured societal expectations and perceptions (very different from your own) — it is yet another way of having to figure out how to make sense of it all and how to make it work for you as opposed to against you. None of it was easy and what’s true is that if I had decided to write the book immediately after returning to the States, it would NOT have been a humorous book, it would have been a much more serious, angst-filled memoir because Japan was incredibly challenging for me, very painful and an enormous growth experience. But again, with time and perspective, humor wins out and I feel like the humor is a way of saying ‘I’m over it. I win. Japan 0, Lisa 1.’
Jerry Waxler: When I grew up in the fifties and sixties, being Jewish was not particularly hip. In fact, as far as I remember, most Jews tried to hide their religion. It’s interesting that you are putting Jewishness in the name of your book, and also interesting that the contents of the book has almost nothing to do with the religion. You use JAP as a sort of stand-in for culturally privileged, entitled young woman. So is JAP now a word that can apply to any girl of any religion who feels entitled to a world of comfort and privilege, or were you really trying to say something in particular about being Jewish?
Lisa Fineberg Cook: I think there’s definitely a stigma attached to Jewishness, or if not a stigma then a stereotype about what a Jewish man or woman looks like, acts like, sounds like and while I do believe stereotypes have elements of truth running through them, it is obviously not an exclusive and accurate portrait of anyone. I love being a Jewish woman and most of my women friends who are Jewish are beautiful, smart, successful and very funny. In regards to the use of the word JAP, it’s interesting because I have so many girlfriends (both Jewish and not) who commented after reading the book ‘wow, I’m more of a JAP than I thought.’ (Almost all of them said ‘Lisa there is no way I could have stayed past the first laundry experience. I would have come straight home.’) And in truth, the term is more about a particular attitude towards lifestyle and behavior than being a Jewish woman — again I think a ‘JAP’ mentality has to do with expectations, particularly when it comes to dealing with service based industry; how they will be treated, dealt with, immediately attended to, provided with excellent service – that sort of thing. I definitely do not think this is an exclusively Jewish characteristic, however, I do know some Jewish women who would be considered the Olympians of JAP-ness.
Jerry Waxler: Thank you for your time. I think you have a great knack for communicating and look forward to reading more of your work. What else of yours can I read and what are you working on next.
Lisa Fineberg Cook: This is my first published work and I am currently working on two projects – one is the sequel to JAP which is titled LumberJAP about the three years we spent in rural Maine post-Japan and a novel titled Greedy Bitches which is a dark comedy.
Click here to read part one of my interview with Lisa Fineberg Cook.
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.