Ghost Wrote Her Mother’s Memoir, Part 3

by Jerry Waxler

This is the third part of an interview with author Linda Austin about her memoir Cherry Blossoms in Twilight. Linda’s mother grew up in Japan before World War II. After the war, she married an American serviceman and then moved to the United States. The memoir is a product of extensive interviews Linda conducted with her mother, and is written in the first person from Yaeko Sugama’s point of view. Click here [link] for my thoughts about the memoir and the first part of my interview with her. I continue the interview here.

Jerry Waxler: Your mother mentions her shame in a few places. For most people, shame creates a barrier so strong we try to hide the subject altogether. How did shame enter into your interviews? What convinced her to open up?

Linda Austin: The divorce was almost unbearably shameful to my mother. She eventually became used to the idea of divorce in America because it became so common, but in the 1970s  it was not. Even my sister and I were embarrassed. My mother still considers her divorce a badge of shame to her and her Japanese family, but because she feels a sense of victimization, she is open to talking about it to me and her American friends, so that wasn’t a problem. Talking about it too much was the problem. There were also some issues with her mother and brother, but again, since it wasn’t her fault she’s okay talking about it–to an American audience. I think I’m the one most embarrassed about the world seeing the intimate life of my mother.

Jerry Waxler: What did you learn about her or her family from the memoir that you didn’t know before?

Linda Austin: I learned why my mother behaves the way she does, which is one reason why I strongly encourage telling life stories. What happens to us affects who we are and how we behave. Once I cried with my mother while parked in the lot of the Social Security building. She had told me about some incidents with her mother, and suddenly I saw how that affected her own behavior toward me. I so wished I had known this long ago so I would have understood her own foibles and not have been so angry. I felt so bad for not understanding.

Jerry Waxler: How did writing and publishing the memoir affect your own sense of identity?

Linda Austin: I think I’ve always had a strong sense of Japanese identity. I mean, I love natto!  [Note: For a definition of natto, see this Wikipedia entry.] When I was a child, there weren’t any brown people in our schools so my sister and I kept our heads low. But my mother enjoyed her Japanese heritage and my dad still loves things Japanese, so my sister and I were exposed to as much Japanese as possible for living in a small lily-white town in the Midwest. Thank goodness for Chicago.

Writing the book and getting lots of compliments and speaking requests really changed me as a person, though. My mother was astonished to see her painfully shy daughter speak comfortably in front of a crowd of about 100. “I didn’t recognize you!” I became much more confident and outgoing and took leadership positions in the Japanese and the writing/publishing communities in St. Louis. I called myself a renaissance woman.

Jerry Waxler: How does it feel going out on book signings and revealing so much about your own mother? Does it feel strange…? Liberating…? Generous…?

Linda Austin: When I’m doing presentations, I think only about the message I want the audience to take away:  that the enemy’s people are the same as you and me inside, and that we should write down our stories for our families. I’m passionate about both those messages. I don’t talk about the divorce or anything too personal. Only when I get home and see another book sold on Amazon, or a review posted, I cringe. It’s not even my story, but I feel a sense of protectiveness towards my mother and a sense that this information belongs to our family, not to strangers. It takes guts to show your lifewritings to others because if you’ve done a good job and told your story in all its glory and pain, it’s like you’re standing naked in front of them. So it really takes guts to publish for the public. Sometimes you don’t think about that until somebody you don’t know wants to read your book.

Jerry Waxler: Have you considered writing a memoir from the point of view of an American girl with mixed race parents trying to come to terms with her own identity?

Linda Austin: I have, but there are too many very good, similar stories published, although with American-born all-Asian-heritage kids struggling to make sense of living in the U.S. with two traditional Asian parents. Even as a half-Japanese, I can relate to Linda Furiya’s Bento Box in the Heartland. Grace Lin did a fabulous job with her children’s chapter books, Year of the Dog and Year of the Rat, which inspire me–those are fiction based on truth, and I would consider doing something like that. Nowadays, diversity is cool, so some of the pressures I felt seem passé.

This finishes part 3 of a 3 part interview

Click here for Part 1 of article and interview with Linda Austin
Click here for Part 2 of my interview with Linda Austin

Notes

Linda Austin’s home page:

Cherry Blossoms in Twilight By Yaeko Sugama Weldon and Linda E. Austin

For 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.

Ghost Wrote Her Mother’s Memoir, Interview Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

Linda Austin was the daughter of an American serviceman and a Japanese mother. Her parents met in Japan when he was stationed there after World War II. They then moved to the United States where Linda was born and raised. When Linda set out to understand her mother’s early life, she decided to write it as a first person story. Based on extensive interviews and research, she wrote Cherry Blossoms in Twilight. Click here [link] for my thoughts about the memoir and the first part of my interview with her. I continue the interview here.

Jerry Waxler: Did your mother talk much about these experiences, as you were growing up? Many kids have the experience of hearing about a few specific stories over and over. We roll our eyes and think “I’ve heard that story a hundred times?” Did that happen in your house?

Linda Austin: My mother did tell us the same stories over and over, but it took a long time for my sister and I to get bored of them because they were just so different than anything we knew growing up in the U.S. Actually, I had decided by my early twenties that I should capture those stories somehow since they were so unique. In those days, that meant audio tape recordings, and I did do a couple of those on cheap equipment because that’s all we had in the house. I never heard the WWII stories until I was a prying adult.

Jerry Waxler: What convinced you to make the transition from a bunch of anecdotes to a continuous, sequential story?

Linda Austin: It always was going to be a memoir. My mom had just too fascinating a life. She’d complain while I interviewed her that nobody wanted to hear about her tough, sad life, not understanding that that’s what was so interesting. The hard part was segueing the stories together and blending the mix of anecdotes, history, and culture–thank goodness for word processing! Many memoirs have transition bumps from story to story, but I think I did a pretty good job blending. An elementary-school librarian helped with organization and editing.

Jerry Waxler: When you started the memoir, were there places where you felt you needed to fill in but were afraid to ask? Did you ever feel you were prying or disrespectful? If so, how did you handle those feelings?

Linda Austin: My mom is very open about her life, unusual for a Japanese woman, but I guess she’d become Americanized quite well. I was afraid to ask some things because she would be way too open! I had to work on stories about my father very carefully to avoid upsetting her for days. I would only ask a couple questions at a time and then avoid the topic for awhile. That was a very difficult dance, and I stumbled many times. Editing was a fight because she would have liked some revenge in the book. My dad was amazing in that he never asked about what I would write and seemed to trust me. Incidentally, he and my step-mom love the book.

Jerry Waxler: Describe the interviewing process. What sort of questions did you ask? What was your mother’s attitude? Describe a situation when you were interviewing that might help us understand some of the challenges of interviewing your mother.

Linda Austin: My mother liked telling stories and talking about the festivals, but hated being interviewed, and she thought I was crazy for writing about her life. She thought her life was difficult and sad so who’d want to hear about that. She also thought since everyone in Japan had lived through those tough times that her story was nothing special. Her best friend at the time, Frankie, pushed her to get her life written down and actually started typing the stories while I was out of the country for a year. If it weren’t for Frankie, there might not be a memoir. Still, Mom would get really irritated when I wanted to know little details, like explaining the Japanese bathroom or kitchen. “Who cares about that?!” I repeated many times during the questionings, “I want to know, and your grandchildren will want to know. This is all new to us.” Sometimes telling stories and explaining details led her to make beautiful sketches, usually on scrap paper, which I tidied up for printing and added to the book.

The other difficulty was when she didn’t remember what she thought about events and experiences, if she even thought about some of them at all. Kids don’t always analyze how they feel, and in Japan in those times people were not supposed to think for themselves and were to do and believe what the government told them. I think the Japanese are more stoic and definitely more reticent about feelings anyway, at least in those days. One reviewer complained there wasn’t enough about how my mother felt. Well, I did the best I could with what I had to work with. Therein lies the difficulty of ghostwriting and the value of fiction.

This finishes part 2 of a 3 part interview

Click here for Part 1 of article and interview with Linda Austin
Click here for Part 3 of my interview with Linda Austin

Notes

Linda Austin’s home page:

Cherry Blossoms in Twilight By Yaeko Sugama Weldon and Linda E. Austin

For 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.

Parent’s Memoir: Finding Roots Across Generations

by Jerry Waxler

Memoir writers reach back through time to find our own story. Is it still a memoir if we reach into our mother’s memory to find her story? That’s what I wanted to find out when I read “Cherry Blossoms in Twilight.” The book is about Yaeko Sugama Weldon, who grew up in a small rural town in Japan before World War II, married a serviceman and moved to the United States. Her daughter, Linda Austin, grew up in America with a Japanese mother and an American father. Naturally she was curious about her mother’s earlier life, and as her mother aged, Linda began to put it all together. After extensive interviews and edits, Cherry Blossoms is the result.

Is it co-authored or ghost written? Is it a memoir or a biography? These distinctions blur into artistic interpretations rather than hard definitions. For example, in the memoir “Color of Water,” when James McBride searched for his mother’s past, he maintained his own point of view, with occasional well-marked shifts into his mother’s voice. In Cherry Blossoms, Linda Austin drops out of the frame and lets her mother tell the story.

Thanks to Yaeko’s willingness to explore her past, Linda Austin has the opportunity to delve deep into her mother’s journey. It’s an achievement that many people, me for example, wish they had achieved with their own parents.

The book is pleasant, easy, and informative. Since it is written for a younger audience, it does not go into deep analysis of emotionally sensitive topics, but despite this lightness, it gives profound glimpses into painful subjects, like war, prejudice, family splits, and abandonment. Because Yaeko does not hide her pain or the difficulties in her family, the memoir feels authentic and respectful, allowing me to stay connected with the protagonist’s emotions and experiences. In the end, it satisfies my criteria for a fascinating memoir and has convinced me to extend my definition of memoirs to include assisted ones.

To learn more about this book, and the experience of the author in working with her mother, I interviewed Linda Austin. Here is part 1 of that interview:

Jerry Waxler: I love this book. It’s short and easy to read, and yet it feels complete, and authentic. Nice work! So tell me what made you decide to write it as a children’s book?

Linda Austin: Thank you, Jerry. My mother had a lot of stories of when she was a little girl, in a different culture and era of history, plus the many Japanese festivals are fun for kids. I also wanted to preserve the children’s songs she taught us, so I thought the obvious audience for all of this would be upper elementary and older school children. And my mother speaks simply, too—perfect for a younger audience.

Jerry Waxler: How has the decision to write it as a children’s book worked out? Are you happy with the choice? What sort of feedback are you getting?

Linda Austin: It didn’t work out that well as a children’s book, partly because as an indie-published book it could not get pre-pub reviews from the all-important Kirkus or School Library Journal which librarians use to help determine which books to stock in their libraries. The kids I know who have read it love the children’s parts, but lose interest when my mother moves to the U.S. as an adult. Instead, I was shocked to hear all the praise from older adults who had lived through WWII in the U.S. – they loved comparing their experiences to my mother’s in Japan. Another, less shocking, development was that university libraries wanted it, I’m sure for its unique perspective of WWII—I’m proud to say that Princeton carries it.

Jerry Waxler: In addition to interviewing, what other research did you do? Did you go back to her home, or interview people who knew her when she was young?

Linda Austin: Believe it or not, I have never been to Japan. It’s very expensive, the time was never right, my relatives speak only Japanese and I speak only English. My mother rarely went back to Japan. Mostly I had to research WWII history and what was going on in Japan during the War. I read books and searched online. If I could not verify something I either left it out or stated it as an opinion or personal belief. I had a Japanese gentleman and his wife who are close in age to my mother review the book for details of the Japanese culture of that time.

Jerry Waxler: If it’s not too personal, what role if any did your father play in helping you construct the story?

Linda Austin: My dad played almost no role in writing the story. He knew I was working on this so a couple of times he suggested things to ask my mother about, and he graciously reviewed bits that pertained to him and his early relationship with my mother. It is all my mother’s story and her perspective. My parents had a bitter divorce, so writing the sections about my father was very difficult for both my mother and I as she is still very hurt. I had to negotiate difficult terrain and we had some arguments. I had to keep reminding my mother that this was a children’s book.

Jerry Waxler: Your time frame continues into her adulthood. Since this is a children’s book, I might have thought you would be tempted to stop when she was no longer a child. Tell about your decision about where to end.

Linda Austin: It was logical the book should end when she moved to America, but she was about 28 years old then. I tried to make the adult-life part shorter, less detailed, and of interest to at least middle-school kids. This is actually the second edition out there because I learned so much from the St. Louis Publishers Association that I just had to re-do the original. I honed down the grown-up years and added songs, photos and a concordance and glossary of Japanese terms specifically for the kidlit market. Because of the sales channel setup, I can’t tell if the book sells to schools.

Many times I’ve thought to create a fictionalized version of this book just for kids because the story is an important learning experience for youngsters and fiction allows freedom to develop the story in a way they would respond to better. On the other hand, adults tell me they want to know more about what happened to my mom in the U.S.! I’m lost between audiences.

This finishes Part 1 of a 3 part interview.

Click here for Part 2 of my interview with Linda Austin
Click here for Part 3 of my interview with Linda Austin

Notes

Linda Austin’s home page:

Cherry Blossoms in Twilight By Yaeko Sugama Weldon and Linda E. Austin

Color of Water, by James McBride: a memoir of race, family and fabulous writing

I am reading another story of a father’s life, written by his son called Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham about his father’s life through the Vietnam war.

For 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.

Memoir Author Finds Drama in Everyday Life

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.

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

 —

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.

Memoir Author Offers Writing and Story Insights

by Jerry Waxler

In previous posts, I reviewed the memoir “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me.” In this second part of a three part interview, I ask author Lisa Fineberg Cook to share observations about writing the memoir. Her answers included several surprises that proved how each of us has our own system, and even as we try to learn from each other, we also need to do what works best for us.

(To read the first of my three part review of her memoir, click here.)

Audience and Voice

Jerry Waxler: I’m guessing from your writing voice that you are accustomed to writing for a hip, young pop-culture magazine reading audience. That’s my assumption. What’s your reality?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: LOL! Oh, no. I don’t consider myself young or hip.  I think once you’re over forty it can be dangerous to call yourself young and hip – you’re more inclined to wear thong underwear and four inch platform heels – either of which would cause me great discomfort.  No, seriously, as I stated in an earlier answer, I wrote this particular book for an audience of ‘girlfriends.’  I think life can be so challenging, as well as mundane – laundry – though I do like doing it now – is one of the most redundant, mundane activities we perform in our lives – most days I’m thinking ‘I just washed this!’ or ‘wait a minute, the laundry basket was empty two seconds ago!’

My female friendships are such an integral part of my life and my sanity.  They are my ‘other husbands’ and they are the ones I call when the laundry basket gets too full and the fridge is empty and my hair is a mess and my kids are driving me crazy.  I can literally call them and just give a good primal scream and they say ‘I get it. Say no more.’ So I wrote this book for them – the ones I know personally and the ones who I imagine would be my friends if I knew them.  They would get the humor, the ridiculousness, the self-effacing attitude.  Some of those girlfriends might be in their twenties, others in their forties and some might even be in their fifties or sixties and I think if they don’t flinch at the ‘f’ words and they laugh out loud a few times then that’s as young and hip as I need to be.

Jerry Waxler: Considering my age and gender, I’m a bit bewildered at how much I enjoyed reading the memoir. The language was simple and engaging, and yet there was a lot of emotional depth. So were you on some level writing to me too? In other words, do you have a conscious creative goal to present deep emotional realism in a straightforward, breezy package? (The way Shakespeare could aim his jokes at different members of his audience.)

Lisa Fineberg Cook: One thing that did surprise me was the amount of seniors and men who enjoyed the book. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was that reached across gender lines or age gaps and I cringe a little when I think of some of the sweet women who live in my building and are in their eighties who said they loved the book; because there’s a fair amount of expletives and some racy scenes, but my guess is, anyone who does like it, must be responding to the humor and the honesty and has found something relatable in it.  I can’t think too much about the ‘why’ though or it will get in the way of the writing. You never want to catch yourself thinking ‘how can I please everyone with this book?’

Writing Insights

Jerry Waxler: Did you keep a journal or writer’s notebook during your trip to Japan? If so, what was your process?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I never wrote a single word in Japan.  It never even occurred to me while I was there that this could be a book.  I actually didn’t start writing the book until four years later.  I am blessed (or cursed depending on how you look at it) with a memory that won’t let me forget anything.  I can remember passages in books that I read when I was ten, I can remember the most  random information like a street that I was on once twenty years ago.  I came up with the title for JAP while I was living in rural Maine (from 2001-2004) and I wrote entire passages in my head without ever putting it down on paper.  I started writing the book in 2005.

Jerry Waxler: Can you offer any writing tips that can help me and my readers understand and possibly emulate your good-natured, breezy style? Do you have some sort of image, or sentence structure technique or some other advice to offer an author in search of a stronger or signature voice?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I am a very visceral writer.  I write quickly and instinctively and I do very little editing when I write something that I think is good.  If I like it, I leave it alone, if I’m trying too hard to fix it then I take it out completely.  One thing my mother had always said to me was to write the truth and I try to stick to that, even if I’m working on fiction. I write from a place of truth and if I’m trying too hard to make something work and if it’s not working, chances are it’s because it’s not an authentic idea and that I’m ‘borrowing’ from others.  The other thing that seems to help me in writing is based around my life and my work schedule –  I commit to fifteen minutes a day.  Sometimes all I do is reread what I wrote the day before, but usually I can get something done in fifteen minutes. Obviously the goal is to write for longer but if I try to schedule a two-hour writing block I tend to get anxious and stressed about finding the two hours, so the fifteen minute rule allows me to relax and usually I do end up writing for much longer.  The other fact is that I own and operate a seasonal business and I do very little writing during the summer months so when I come back to my work after a three month hiatus, I am able to be even more objective about my own material and I can ruthlessly eliminate anything that isn’t working.

Jerry Waxler:  Good writing is usually a result of impeccable, high energy editing. Considering how much I enjoyed reading your memoir, I imagine there was considerable attention paid to that aspect of the final product. Tell me about how you edited your book.

Lisa Fineberg Cook: My personal editing would take place after the summer hiatus.  It took three years to write the book because I only wrote from September to February or March.  Towards the end of the summer I would begin to think about the book and then I would sit down and simply reread all that I had written – sometimes I did this for days before I even wrote another word.  I can’t stress enough what a great tool this turned out to be as it gave me just enough time off to approach the text from a fresh perspective and allowed me to be even more objective about my work. Frankly, I think it’s a potential death knell to good writing to be too protective of your own work. I was able to be quite ruthless about my own material, thinking ‘that stinks and it’s gone!’

Jerry Waxler: Alright, then. (Laughing).  Instead of editing, you throw away and rewrite. I have to think about that. I sometimes suspect that this continuous flow method of rewriting makes a book easier to read. It certainly seems to have had that effect in your case. What sort of help did you have from critique groups, writing buddies, or paid coaches and classes?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I only allowed two people to read my book as I was writing it – my girlfriend (the one who is the Stacey character in the book) and my husband who writes as well and has an excellent editing eye.  I would give ‘Stacey’ large sections of the book to read and then listen to how many times she laughed out loud.  If too many page turns went by without at least a chuckle I would make a mental note to look that section over again.  My husband was helpful if I was stuck on how to make a transition or bogged down in too many details.  In that he lived the story with me, he would often throw out ideas about other anecdotes that worked better.

Jerry Waxler: Fascinating. In fact, “common wisdom” suggests not even letting family members read the memoir while its being written. Another demonstration that there is no such thing as a rule, and that each memoir author is as unique in their writing style as they are in their life experience. I can only recall one other interview in which an author’s husband was her main editor, Doreen Orion, author of “Queen of the Road” and by coincidence, her book was about a one year voyage.

Click here to read part one of my interview with Lisa Fineberg Cook.

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

 

Click here to read my interview with author Doreen Orion about writing her travel memoir, Queen of the Road.

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.

Interview with Memoir Author Lisa Fineberg Cook

By Jerry Waxler

Firewood heats you twice, once when you chop it and once when you burn it. I find the same applies to memoirs, which warm me when I read them and then again when I dive back into them for lessons. In some cases, memoirs warm me a third time when I interview the author and find out more about her process. In this entry, I have the pleasure to speak with Lisa Fineberg Cook, a generous writer who has shared her experience in “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me.” In this three part interview she answers questions about how it felt to share her life, and what is a JAP anyway.

(To read the first of my three part review of her memoir, click here.)

Jerry Waxler: Of course, all of us make mistakes and go through rough spots. But most of us try to forget those things, and bury them deep in the vaults of memory. For memoir writers, though, such material becomes the basis for the story. As I write my own memoir, I see that in many situations I was neither a kind or wise person. I think, “Dear Lord, the protagonist in this story was a jerk. Do I really want to portray myself that way?”

Your memoir portrays edgy moments that you might not be particularly proud of, and yet there they are in plain sight, and you are the one who shared them. How did you feel when you saw your flaws first showing up on the page? Were you horrified? Did you learn things about yourself?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I have never been particularly concerned with hiding flaws.  I think flaws make people more interesting and because I look for humor in just about every situation, flaws can be especially funny. As far as learning things about myself, I think I learn more in reflection than I do in the moment.  I’m usually just trying to figure out how to deal with a situation when I’m in it and then later — sometimes even months or years later, I’ll look back and think how differently I’d handle that situation now, or how valuable that lesson was and I didn’t even realize it at the time. When I’m learning things about myself after the fact, it seems like useful information to be incorporated rather than a revelation.

Jerry Waxler: Tell me about the reasoning that ran through your mind as you decided to reveal moments that most people would try to hide into public stories.

Lisa Fineberg Cook: When I wrote JAP, my husband gave me great advice, which was to choose my audience and write solely for that person (or people depending) and not to concern myself with trying to write universally.  So when I sat down and started writing, I wrote as though I was having a series of anecdotal conversations with my girlfriends. I could imagine us at a bar, having cocktails while I regaled them with amusing stories about my plight in Japan. When we talk to friends, in a relaxed atmosphere, we are much less inclined to edit ourselves down to a superficial exterior that looks good and is in control.  Besides which, revealing moments are funny.

Jerry Waxler: While writing the book, how much did you discover about yourself or about the experiences during that period of your life by seeing yourself emerge on the pages of the book?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: What’s true is that I actually wrote the book using another name for both myself and my husband.  I wanted distance from myself and to be as objective as possible — I didn’t want to protect my image in any way because that would have ruined the story for me — so I began to think of the character as someone else entirely and then when it was sent to the publisher they told me I had to change back all the names to mine and my husband’s actual names.  That was weird because I really had begun to think of this person as a third person.

I think what’s important to remember too is that I was crafting a story, not documenting my autobiography.  I purposely edited my character to a fit the story the way I wanted it.  It is me but  not completely me and I certainly played up the Jappiness for humor and consistency.  Nora Ephron has a great line which is ‘memoirs are novels that your agent tells you will sell better as a memoir.’ (I’m paraphrasing slightly but that’s the gist of it).  I wanted the book to be entertaining more than anything else and I made stylistic choices about my character that were suited to this story in order to keep it funny.

Jerry Waxler: How much about the book did you understand before you started, and how much was revealed during the writing?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I had never written a book before and I really wanted to know what it felt like to finish it.  I continued to envision myself writing the last sentence and then the words ‘The End’ and emailing the final manuscript to my agent and the dedication and so on and so forth…

I think of the writing process now much the same way I do about raising a child.  I knew I wanted to be a mother absolutely but when the time actually comes, you know less than nothing about being the parent of an infant.  So basically you just show up and hope you’re getting it right most of the time.  By the time your infant is a toddler, you know what its like to have an infant. When your toddler is in preschool, you know what its like to have a toddler and so on…

How I relate that to writing this book and any subsequent projects I’m working on, is that I knew I wanted to write this book and I figured if I showed up every day to work on it, it would turn into something which would eventually resemble a book. I sort of learned about this whole process after each stage had been completed and by the time I was holding an advanced copy in my hands, I took about two minutes to say ‘wow, this is so cool,’ and then it was on to the next project because there is still so much I don’t understand yet and I can’t wait to find out.

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

Click here to read part 2, in which Lisa Fineberg Cook continues to offer observations about writing the memoir.

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.

Endings of Memoirs: She Returns Home

by Jerry Waxler

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s memoir, “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” is about the first year of her two year trip to Japan and, like many successful books, the structure fits nicely into the model of the Hero’s Journey. In the Hero’s Journey, the universal myth made famous by Joseph Campbell, an ordinary person departs from their familiar setting, and enters the world of the adventure, which is governed by strange rules. The hero learns how to navigate within the new rules, overcomes obstacles and then returns home, armed with deeper wisdom.

(This is the third of a three part review. To see the first part, click here.)

I have become accustomed to discovering this structure at the heart of many stories that I like, so I was not surprised to see it peeking out through the pages of  “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me.” The author travels from her familiar world of Los Angeles to the land of the adventure, Japan, where she must learn new rules. Inside herself, she overcomes the character flaws of being a spoiled teenager, and gradually becomes an adult. Like every Hero’s Journey, the conclusion of “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” affirms the importance of challenging yourself in order to achieve deeper meaning.

Some of the iconic stories of our time have followed a similar pattern. “The Wizard of Oz” offers a perfect example. Dorothy leaves her home in Kansas and enters the land of Oz. Like Lisa Cook leaving Los Angeles, Dorothy is actually on two simultaneous journeys. On the outside, she must solve the puzzles of Oz. Inside herself, Dorothy wrestles with her immaturity to discover her strengths. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey loses his grip on ordinary life, and out in the cold cruel world he must reclaim his sense of purpose. In the memoir “Here If You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup travels a similar road. She doesn’t lose money, the way George Bailey does. She loses her husband in a car accident. To earn a living and also look for meaning, she becomes a law enforcement chaplain and learns to steer through a world of legal violations and the cruelty of death.

Stories that make me feel wonderful often end with a celebration of family and community. Dorothy returns to Kansas armed with the wisdom to appreciate her parents’ love, and the assertiveness to fend off her bullying neighbor. In “It’s a Wonderful Life” George Bailey discovers his importance in the community. In her memoir “Here If You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup discovers that the antidote to evil and despair is the support of the community.

A Nuanced Ending Links Friendship and Maturity

When Lisa Fineberg Cook returns to Los Angeles at the end of the year, she meets her old friend Stacy. They go shopping and talk about their usual topics. As Lisa puts it, “When it comes to handbags and swimming pools, Stacey always comes first.” After her year of learning to cope in Japan, I was afraid that Lisa was backsliding. Did she forget everything she learned? She seems to ask herself the same question. But then, Lisa offers Stacey some advice and it appears that Lisa really has grown. Her interaction with her old girlfriend provides a foil that lets us see what she might have been like if she had stayed in Los Angeles.  After a year away, Lisa’s world has expanded. Based on her well-earned maturity, our hero reaches back to her friend not in a needy way, but in a supportive one.

As the memoir finishes, I feel confident that the wisdom she found during her journey will help her relate more maturely to her husband, her students, and her friend. That’s a perfect example for the inner and outer trajectory of an excellent memoir.

Structural Bonus: One year, one trip

“Japan Took the JAP out of Me” offers another interesting insight for aspiring memoir writers. Even though she went to Japan on a two year contract, the memoir covers one year of that trip. The one-year cycle turns out to be an excellent mental model which helps readers visualize the beginning middle and end.

Writing Prompt
Experiment with different time frames for your own memoir. What period might help your reader form a better mental image of your journey?

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

Notes
Here are a few examples of memoirs that wrap their story in a well-defined period of time, or a trip, or both:

Queen of the Road, by Doreen Orion
She travels around the U.S. in an attempt to combat mid-life crisis, and then returns home, wiser. Click here to see my series about “Queen of the Road” here.

Accidental Lessons by David Berner
His career as a radio broadcaster ends around the same time as his marriage. To reconstruct his life along more meaningful lines, he becomes a school teacher in a lower income community. At 50 years-old, he is the oldest and the newest teacher. The story takes place during one school year. Click here to see my series about Accidental Lessons.
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Holy Cow by Sarah McDonald
To escape a stalker in Australia, Sarah McDonald follows her fiancé to India, where she becomes a religious tourist for one year.

Zen and Now by Mark Richardson
This memoir is about a motorcycle trip that follows the same route as Robert Pirsig wrote about in the classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Richardson returns to the road, reminiscing about Pirsig, and as the miles roll by under his wheels, he has plenty of time to muse about his own life, as well. Click here to read my essay about Zen and Now.
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My Ruby Slippers by Tracy Seeley
She returns to Kansas to try to make sense of her roots. The memoir loosely follows that journey. Click here to read my essay about Ruby Slippers.

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.

Spoiled brat? What does spoiled even mean?

by Jerry Waxler

Lisa Cook Fineberg grew up in Los Angeles, a town where, by the rules of contemporary culture, the world bows down in submission to hot young women. But her memoir “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” is not about life as a princess. It’s about moving beyond her self-indulgent youth, and trying to find her way to the next step. When Lisa marries, she moves to Nagoya, Japan where the lack of chic hair salons or appreciation for her appearance hurtles her into a different world.

(This is the second of a three part review. To see the first part, click here.)

After the long flight, the newlyweds arrive at their supposedly-furnished apartment and discover there are no bed sheets. The prospect of sleeping on a bed without sheets throws Lisa into a panic. She wonders if she will be able to survive in Japan. Her husband coaxes her through it. “It’s an adventure,” he says. “You can handle it. If you can’t handle it we’ll go home.” She submits to his emotional support and reaffirms her original intention . “That’s okay. I’ll try to stick it out.”

During Lisa’s reaction, readers must make a choice. We could either say, “Dear Lord. It’s only a night with an inconvenient sleeping arrangement. Get over it.” Or we could cheer for her, the way her husband did. And that is the real charm of the book. Lisa lets us in on the debate she is having within herself. She generates dramatic tension when she feels discomfort, and then relieves the tension when she decides she can do it.

Subways show passage beyond “spoiled”

In another scene, she shows the tedium and crush of riding the subway to work. At first glance, her discomfort might seem “spoiled.” But when you think about it, why is she riding to work on a subway, anyway? Wouldn’t a princess take a cab? And she isn’t going shopping. She’s on her way to teaching an English language class, another non-princess-like activity. The subway scenes show excellent examples of her transition from youth to maturity. To go from princess to working woman, the only way she could do it was to push ahead, explore, experience it for herself, and keep trying.

Memoir Writer’s Courage

Some of her behavior to her husband and coworkers is clearly selfish. One scenes shows her unwillingness to be kind to a woman who reaches out to her. In another scene, she becomes furious because her husband doesn’t make a big enough fuss about her birthday. The scenes  provide emotional vulnerability that engages the reader. They also provide insight into the challenges faced by every aspiring memoir writer.

When we had to make the transition from the freedom of youth to the responsibility of adulthood, many of us tried to prolong our entitlements. Even as we were pushed into the new world, we clung to the notion that other people were supposed to serve us. In the process we made self-involved decisions. Like Lisa, we threw hissy-fits, angry at our fate and ready to ignore other people’s feelings on order to survive our own. After the snit was over, most of us forgave ourselves, forgot about it and moved on.

Memoir writers choose a different path. We look back on those memories squarely, and observe our behavior carefully.  When we consider scenes in which we ignored the rights and feelings of other people, we feel a pang of shame. I have read many memoir scenes that are clearly not included because the author was proud of their behavior, but because they are willing to fearlessly face them. In order to provide the full emotional experience to our readers, memoir writers remember the ups and downs and we share things about ourselves that most people hide.

Before the memoir wave, we tried to resolve unwanted memories by pretending they never happened. Memoirs offer us a different way of relating to our past, allowing us to face our memories, share them, and acknowledge those experiences as steps along our own long journey.

Writing prompt
Pick a moment when you felt the world was falling apart, but which in retrospect was just a temporary inconvenience. Looking back on it, you can see it was just your mind freezing up, demanding better circumstances. Write the scene with the outrage and hurt and victimization you felt at the time. Let the reader feel your pain.

Spoiled in creature comforts but generous in explanations

I love the way Lisa thinks about things and then clearly and thoughtfully communicates what she sees. For example, in her teen years she feels entitled to buy hair products, designer clothes, and look attractive. But she also realizes that some boys have a different form of entitlement. They treat her like an object and push her around. She decides to stay away from boys who have that attitude and she advises all young women to do the same. In a couple of simple sentences, she provides a primer on manipulative relationships and guidance on how to steer through that period of discovery in a young woman’s life.

Such simple clarity takes place on every page, where she offers observations in clear, sensible language. The writing reminds me of the famous advice to entertainers. “Work hard to make the audience think it’s easy.” So even though the younger Lisa Fineberg Cook is spoiled, years later she sits in front of a blank page and works hard to clearly show me her life. By revealing her vulnerable moments, Lisa paradoxically also demonstrates her courage as a writer, a revealer, and an explorer of self.

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

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.

Cultural Crossroads: Memoir of An American Princess In Japan

by Jerry Waxler

The memoir “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” is based on a familiar premise: a young woman marries and moves to a different city to follow her husband’s job. From this raw material, Lisa Fineberg Cook takes us on a rich, complex journey. The title is an extraordinarily clever play on words, referring to the acronym Jewish American Princess, or JAP. It refers to the fact that her sense of privilege and entitlement were squeezed out of her by the realities of her move to Japan.

As the title suggests, Japan plays an important role, but an American in Japan is only one of several contrasting cultural realities that make this book so delightfully multi-dimensional. Lisa grew up in Los Angeles, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. In Japan, she lives in Nagoya, which feels insulated. When she takes a trip to Tokyo, an international city with more global connections, she contrasts it to Nagoya, with its dearth of designer clothes and modern hair stylists. The less outgoing social conventions of her adopted city combined with the  clumsiness of crossing the language barrier force her to shift her cultural gears into speeds so slow she didn’t even know they existed.

Launching into Adulthood

The cultural transition that dominates this book is Lisa’s journey from the familiar world of a young adult to the strange new world of adulthood. Cook doesn’t just saunter into this transition. She catapults into it. Just before the memoir starts, the most important thing in her life was to beautify herself and attract boys. She marries and then flies to Japan where she must settle down and adapt to the adult world of compromise, when she actually had to work for things, and sometimes wait for gratification.

At the threshold of this new world, Cook describes adulthood through the eyes of a newcomer who is shocked that she must leave her entitlements behind. During her adjustment to marriage, she faces the mundane chores of house cleaning, laundry, and entertaining neighborhood women. The newlywed arguments are superb and insightful, offering a glimpse behind those closed walls at the way both partners are adjusting to their new roles. Just as Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball kept us engaged in newlywed problems thanks to humor and cultural contrasts, Lisa Fineberg Cook does the same thing. She keeps the story moving, thanks to excellently executed contrasts between L.A. and Japan.

Adapting to Japan While Growing Up

When Lisa meets her Japanese neighbors, she tries desperately to read social cues that are either absent or so understated as to be invisible to the American eye. The mismatch generates many opportunities for humorous misunderstanding and dramatic tension. There are also opportunities for insight.

For example, when she teaches English to Japanese girls, she encourages them to think independently. However, her efforts are frustrated by their social conventions. They seem to believe their highest social priority is to think exactly the same thoughts as everyone else. When one student furtively asks Lisa for help with an English poem, the teacher recognizes and admires the social risk the girl is taking. But like feeding a hummingbird, she must hide her excitement so she doesn’t scare the girl away. The situation highlights the contrast between American exuberance and Japanese reserve.

Tarnishing the Glow of Sexual Charisma

Another fascinating cultural insight in the memoir was the difference between beautiful women, head-turners who command the attention of a room, versus the rest of humanity, who walk into a room barely noticed. I sometimes wonder what it feels like to be a beautiful woman who attracts attention by simply looking good. Fortunately, I don’t have to reincarnate to find out. I can just read memoirs. In “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” Lisa Fineberg Cook explores the question through a sexy girl’s eyes. For example, she talks to her friend Stacy about how good it feels to walk past construction workers in L.A. in order to get an ego boost from a wolf whistle.

In Japan, Lisa discovers a fascinating twist to this experience of being stared at. When she commutes to her job on a crowded train everyone looks at her, a situation she is probably accustomed to at home, but this gaze is colder and more remote, as if the other passengers are examining a strange specimen. Her size, her shape, the color of her hair and skin, attract attention not because she is delicious but because she is different. Again, like so much of the memoir, this experience helps her grow beyond the entitlements of youth and move on to the next stage in her life.

Each time I turned the page, I learned more about how people must learn about and get along with each other. In each contrast, whether between sexy single and married adult, Japanese and American, charismatic and ordinary individuals, husbands and wives, I feel like I am peering into the heart of the human condition. Lisa Fineberg Cook’s life experience taught me many lessons about her in particular, about the people she encountered, and about writing memoirs. I’ll say more about these lessons in the next part of this essay.

(This is the first of a three part review. To see the second part, click here.)

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

Other Memoirs About Launching

Another book of a launching and pop culture is Jancee Dunn’s “Enough About Me” – Jancee left home to enter a career at Rolling Stone magazine, while she shifted her self-image from child to adult.

A similar transition takes place in “Sound of No Hands Clapping” by Toby Young, an excellent transition from a wild and often drunk single, to a married young father, looking to convert his attention from self to family.

Most of the drama of “Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls is about surviving mistakes made by her parents. When she is ready to take responsibility for herself, she emerges from poverty and into adulthood like a rocket.

Frank McCourt’s Coming of Age represents a dark difficult transition. Unlike Lisa Fineberg Cook’s “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” by the time McCourt reaches the end of “Angela’s Ashes,” he had no idea how to be an adult. He describes his launching in much greater detail in his second memoir, “Tis.”

For another article about launching into adulthood: How These Memoir Authors Emerged Into Adulthood

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.