Interview with Newbery Medal Winner Cynthia Kadohata
Cynthia Kadohata spends most of the work day sitting in front of her computer writing and wasting time in equal measure. She hardly ever goes out because she hates to drive and has a hard time judging her right side, which you would know if you ever saw the right side of her 1988 Volvo. Nearly the only time she leaves the house is to walk her Doberman and her poodle mix — separately. She is currently in a desperate battle against caffeine addiction. She has spent approximately $1,587,937 on Legos. Her eight-year-old son and her dogs have the energy of ten NBA stars between them — that’s why she needs caffeine. In short, her life is very nearly perfect. Visit her site here.
Would you rather publish a string of mainstream books or one classic?
Wow, this is a hard one. On the one hand, I’d like to choose the string of mainstream books because I have an 8-year-old son to support, and I’d like to do it through writing. On the other hand, if I had a classic, he could be getting the royalties for it after I die. So either one works for me. From a purely writing perspective and not thinking about practical life issues, I’d definitely choose the classic.
If you could only write one more book, what would it be about?
Do you begin with character or plot?
Usually I just begin with a snippet of something that has really caught my attention in a big way. It may be just a couple of sentences someone has said to me, and my mind just goes PING, and I know this is something I have to write about. Then I just do research on the subject matter and let everything kind of arrange itself in my mind. So I don’t really start with either character or plot, but rather with letting a mix of details and issues and emotional moments and phrases and sentences interact in my brain.
Tell us about the book you’re working on.
It’s about a Japanese-American family based in Kansas working on a custom harvesting team cutting mostly wheat for farmers across the Great Plains.
What is your favorite quote?
So many people have said so many brilliant things over the years, but when asked this question I usually say Gandhi’s “Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.” I love this quote because it’s so easy to give in to the beliefs of the day instead of staying true to your own beliefs.
Describe your perfect day.
Getting Sammy off to school, having a good writing day when I feel like I’m really coming up with good stuff instead of stuff I’m going to end up deleting, walking my dogs on a 70-degree afternoon under blue skies with a few puffy white clouds, doing Sammy’s homework with him without him having a meltdown, watching the Lakers versus the Clippers with my boyfriend, and talking and lying in bed with Sammy until he falls asleep.
Best thing that happened to you this weekend?
Last weekend I was sick, so nothing good happened. This coming weekend, any of the above from my perfect day would be great.
Who inspires you and how are you a bit like them?
This changes day by day, and even then there are many people in a day who inspire me. If I’m not writing well for a long time, this makes me have lower self-esteem, and just about every ant on the ground inspires me. But if I’m feeling normal, it does depend on what just happened. At the moment, I’m inspired by friend, Amy, whom I’ve known since fourth grade. I had a major issue to deal with, and she helped me through it like the wonderful and generous friend she is.
If you were an animal, who would you be?
Dogs, because they live in the moment and seem to be in a naturally happy state. They love unconditionally, and they’re full of energy and life force. Of course, my very strong Doberman is a bit too full of energy, perhaps! And because their sense of smell is so astonishing. I would love to know what that feels like and how that changes your world view.
Where do you get your ideas?
From everywhere. I got the idea for the book I’m writing now (which should be out in early 2013) from a maybe one-minute casual exchange with someone I hardly know. We were at an award ceremony in Kansas for my book Cracker, and the woman running the events said a couple of sentences to me, and I said a couple of sentences to her, and that was it. I’m also going to be writing a book about adopting from Kazakhstan, where I adopted my son from. I had several stories in The New Yorker in the 1980s, and those were inspired mostly by my family.
What advice would you give to new writers?
I did many interviews for Cracker with a retired Special Forces soldier who had been in numerous highly dangerous situations. He said one of the things he learned was that a sixth sense was real. He had a highly developed intuition. So I would advise a new writer to learn as much as s(he) can through reading and through some traditional avenues like reading the best books on writing out there, but also to develop an intuition for finding the right words to use.
Weirdest food you’ve ever eaten?
I haven’t traveled a lot outside the country, so I haven’t really eaten any foods that might be considered weird to an American. Pigeon in Hong Kong might be the weirdest, but it sure tasted good. There have been a handful of times in my life when I’ve eaten sushi in a restaurant I’d never eaten in before, and I became violently ill later. But you know how if you stare at a word long enough or write it over and over, the words starts to look weird? It’s kind of the same with food. If you take, say, one of those immense Subway sandwiches and look at it long enough, it starts to look pretty weird. I don’t know if it’s still made, but Sammy used to like this two-colored yogurt that looked really strange to me. So I’ve eaten that before. Sometimes I walk down the cereal aisle looking for cereal for Sammy, and some of that stuff looks like it came from another planet. I’ve tried some of it. But I mean Lucky Charms? I’ve eaten that, and it’s got colored pieces of who-knows-what in it. Why eat blue food? That’s just plain weird.
What do you consider to the most valuable thing you own?
Well, I don’t want to be morbid, but the ashes of two of my previous dogs, Sara and Shika. I tied a lock of my hair around each of their necks before having them cremated.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Make a mess, then clean it up.
What one word describes you?
I can’t think of one. But did you ever see that Gary Larson Far Side cartoon that was called something like The Four Personality Types? I may be getting this wrong, but basically the first panel had a glass of water on the table. A lady was joyously proclaiming, “The glass is half full.” Then the next panel had a depressed man saying, “The glass is half empty.” The third panel had someone saying, “Half full! No, half empty! Wait, what was the question again?” And the last panel had a guy saying something like, “Hey, I ordered a hamburger.” I’m like the third person.
What would you like your life to look like in ten years?
I love my life now, but there are a few areas in desperate need of improvement. But those are pretty personal, so I won’t say anything about it here. I do hope Sammy is a young man filled with compassion. I feel really proud of him when I see him doing or saying something compassionate. Professionally, I’ve always wanted ten books in print at the same time.
Most embarrassing moment?
Gosh….how old is your audience? I don’t think I should say…. I will say that I actually still get teased about it decades after the fact.
The work is done. How do you recharge?
Actually, I need to continually recharge during the writing. When the book is done I’m elated and don’t need to recharge.
What book was the easiest to write?
They all seem so hard during the writing stage. It’s very frustrating at times. I don’t know why I have such a compulsion to do it.
Do you let anyone read your work-in-progress?
Now and then I let someone read a work-in-progress. But I really don’t like to do that. I prefer to focus on my editor’s take on things. My agent has also been very helpful. They’re both brilliant women.
Outliner or seat-of-the-pantser?
Depends on the book, but I tend toward being an outliner.
What element would you add to your writing space if money wasn’t an issue?
I’m kind of oblivious to my surroundings when I write, so I don’t know how to answer that. I’ve got two dogs sleeping behind me, some plants, and a very light room. So that’s pretty perfect. I do wish I had more space for shelves, and I would love a magic genie to keep my desk neater. In grad school I had a very small writing space, and it didn’t really bother me. But if my overall living space is tiny, that does drive me insane. I sublet an apartment in New York once that was about two inches by two inches, and I felt at times that I was going to lose my mind.
How long do you take to write a book?
Different amounts of time. I’m always aiming for a year for each book, but that rarely happens.
Easier to write before or after you were published?
Before! Absolutely and without a doubt.
Earliest childhood memory?
The milkman bringing my sister, my brother, and me striped gum. Or moving from here to there with my family and constantly eating and sleeping on the road.
What initially drew you to writing?
It was just a ravenous hunger that existed in every cell in my body. I don’t know where the hunger came from or why.
If you could spend a vacation with three authors, who would they be?
I don’t know if I would want to spend a vacation with three authors I don’t know, even if I adored their books. So it would have to be three authors I already know and click with, except for I hardly know any authors, and I don’t know any authors at all very well. Maybe the poet Garrett Hongo, the children’s writer Eileen Rosenbloom, and the short-story writer and memoirist James Alan McPherson. I don’t know any of them well, so I’m sure they’d be quite surprised if I invited them on a vacation. Although the more I think about it, the more I think we’d all have a good time.
Daily word count?
Today? Zero. There’s no typical day. Zero to 1,500, I guess.
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