An interview with…Ana Johns

In my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum this month #213 Jul 2019, I interview Ana Johns about the research she did for her novel, The Woman in the White Kimono. This novel can be described as Romeo and Juliet meets Madam Butterfly.

Kimono High Res Cover (002)

The main protagonist is a twenty-first century investigative reporter who embarks on the most personal story of her life. She is trying to discover the truth about a woman with whom her father had a forbidden relationship with more than a half century ago. As her father’s secret past unfolds, the truth will reveal as much about him as about the woman and baby he left behind. 

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Ana told me that she worked backward, borrowing heavily from her father’s life, his ship, his military records, his cancer, and forward using her imagination by asking, “what if?” What if they preceded with the wedding without her parent’s blessing?  What if she were pregnant? To answer those questions, she studied 1950s international marriage and birth registry laws for the United States, Japan, and the military. Ana told me all the information was attainable online.

She explained:

This is where search engines are a writer’s best friend, even if you don’t know where to look for specific records, a single query will provide several links that point you in the needed direction. These sources, along with countless articles on the bureaucratic red tape those laws created, provided the working story structure for my dual narratives—the bones if you will. Ana Johns

Ana told me that she found internet articles and blogs invaluable but it was the real-life connections she made through various Japanese Facebook groups and military forums that gave the novel real authenticity.

Through the forum, the adoptees invited me to join their private Facebook community (again, I can’t stress the importance of these groups) where I was then invited to attend the first US Elizabeth Saunders Home reunion in San Diego on Shelter Island where the US statue of The Girl with Red Shoes stands for informal face-to-face interviews. Ana Johns

Girl With Red Shoes CA

The adoptees also inspired several of the character’s backstories that Naoko meets in a maternity home.

“Jin is somewhat lucky. At least she only battled one demon.”

My heart drops. Tears follow. Their moisture floods my fingertips and seeps through. That is why she took Jin under her wing. Stood up for her. Mothered her. I didn’t know. I didn’t guess. I didn’t ask.

“So, you see?” Her lips pull high and her shaky words fight to work through them. “When my child asks his or her new parents, ‘Why was I given away? Where did I come from?’ They won’t have a wedding story of magical lights and forbidden love to share. They will have nothing to offer, because with a story as horrible as mine, I have nothing to leave.”

“You leave life, Hatsu.” I slide close, wrapping her in my arms and whisper through tears. “You leave life.”

Extract from The Woman in the White Kimono by Ana Johns

Ana revealed that even the fictional outcast village where Naoko and Hajime rent a home was based on a discovered headline “Google crosses line with controversial old Tokyo maps”

It’s not the run-down little house that causes my alarm, but the community. It’s in a region that houses Eta, outcasts. The Burakumin are at the bottom of the social order. They are poor, some of mixed blood, and work necessary trades of death: butchers, leather tanners, undertakers. Therefore, they’re deemed tainted, unclean and unlucky.

I am the unlucky one.

My family will forbid it. To live here would damage Father’s reputation and Taro’s prospects to earn one.

Extract from The Woman in the White Kimono by Ana Johns

The novel may have begun with Ana’s father’s story, but through her diligent research it evolved into a story that belongs to many.

You can read the full interview in the July 2019 #213 issue of Writers Forum.

You can find more information about Ana Johns and her writing at: www.anajohns.com

Creating Conflict

Conflict is a storyteller’s best friend. The stronger the problem, the stronger the story.

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A story for children should open with conflict. 

Don’t be nice to your character! Create obstacles to their goal. The story is more exciting that way, the character learns more, and the reward is more valuable since the character worked so hard for it.

Conflicting Characters

The most popular, since conflicts between people are the most interesting to readers.

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Cinderella and her wicked stepmother

Inner Conflict 

Conflict between good and evil or strengths and weaknesses in a character. This is deep stuff and not usually the main conflict. The Grinch is evil and hates Christmas, but he is not evil at heart, he is like that because someone hurt him. The Grinch feels inner conflict over the good and evil inside of him.

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The Grinch

Fight Against Nature

Usually involves natural disasters or survival skills. This conflict is exciting, but often difficult to write about at length.

Lord of the Flies

You can combine different types of conflict. Maybe your characters struggle to survive and fight among themselves, such as in Lord of the Flies.

Add more conflicts and obstacles if your story seems slow or not ‘big’ enough.

Before you write, know how the problem will be solved. Don’t write yourself into a hole! Most importantly your main character must solve the problem. Don’t have someone (or something) enter at the last minute and save the day.

Book Review – cock-a-doodle hooooooo!

Title: cock-a-doodle hooooooo!

Written by: Mick Manning

Illustrated by: Brita Granström

Published by: Little Tiger Press

Cock-a-doodle hooooooo!

Another book with a theme of empathy. This beautiful picture book also encompasses themes of friendship, acceptance, role models and just being yourself. One stormy night, a lost and lonely owl walks into a farmyard looking for a place to rest. He sleeps in the hen house, but next morning the hens don’t want him to stay. They need a cockerel, not an owl! Owl has to convince the hens that he can be their perfect cockerel.

Cock-a-doodle hooooooo! is an entertaining story from award-winning author-illustrator team, Mick Manning and Brita Granström. I just love Owl’s facial expressions. This is a wonderful picture book to read aloud to pre-school aged children. Owl is very patient and does try and fit in to the hen house but in the end the hens realise he is perfect just the way he is. This is an ideal book for introducing a discussion on ourselves and looking at similarities and differences.

An interview with… Alec Price

In my Writing 4 Children column this month, I interviewed Alec Price about the pros and cons of mainstream publishing v self-publishing. He had some very interesting things to say about the two processes of becoming a published author.

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His children’s books are about the Trogglybogs, strange children who are only two feet tall and covered all over in brown fur. they live deep in the caverns on Brinscall moors. These cheeky mischief-makers enjoy nothing more than sneaking up on people who are picnicking on the hills and stealing their food.

Trogglybogs book cover

Alec told me that in the end of experiencing both methods he prefers the self-publishing route. he said:

I think it is much more satisfying, and more profitable, to do the whole publishing process yourself. It’s not that hard.

Alec Price

For both ways of getting published Alec explained he has to do most of his own self-promotion. The publisher did put his book on Amazon and other online book sites. He contacted local papers and radio stations, he organised his school visits and he also set up his own mobile book stall to take to fair and summer fetes. Alec said:

With self-publishing you have complete control of your book; it is your baby. you can make it a success and reap the rewards.

Alec Price

For more about Alec Price and his books you can check out his website: www.alecpricewrites.co.uk

You can read the complete feature in Writers’ Forum Magazine #213 July 2019

Point of View

When I saw this it made me laugh. It highlights how different characters can see things from different points of view.  These two frames get the creative juices flowing for a whole host of stories. How did the characters get there? what’s going to happen now? Generally though a story should be told through the eyes of a single character, usually the main character.

point of view

I have found this myself when reading a novel, sudden shifts in the story’s point of view can jolt and disorient me, as the reader, out of the story. As a rule to keep it consistent, I tend to narrate only what my chosen character would know and nothing they wouldn’t. For example, other people’s thoughts, or something out of sight. although some stories work excellently with two point of views. For example, Philip Pullman’s, The Subtle Knife is one of my all-time favourite books and is told from the viewpoint of Lyra and Will. So like Philip Pullman, if you do need to switch to a different point of view, set up a separate section or chapter for it.

subtle knife

Written in third person, The Subtle Knife, immerses the reader in both characters’ voices in alternate chapters. The narrator’s voice is kept well out of the picture. This again should be a general rule when writing novels, unless you are writing fairy tales and folktales, which opens up for a whole new post.

Book Review – Mole’s Star

Title: Mole’s Star

Written and Illustrated by: Britta Teckentrup

Published by: Orchard Books

mole's star

Mole’s Star by Britta Teckentrup is a cosy picture book about sharing and empathy told in fourteen spreads. Each night Mole sits on his favourite rock, gazing at the twinkling stars. One day he sees a shooting star and makes a wish. He wishes he could own all the stars and his wish comes true. Mole fills his burrow with star light and loves it.

But after several days, Mole misses his favourite rock so pops out of his burrow and finds the world is in darkness. He is shocked to discover all the other animals are upset about this. When he made his wish, he had not considered the effect it would have on the whole forest and had not realised the other animals loved the stars as much as he did.

Mole finds the wishing star and sets about putting the stars back with the help of the other animals so they can all enjoy the magical star light together.

This is a book for sharing. I think every child will enjoy comparing the dramatic contrast of the night sky with and without stars, which Britta Teckentrup’s portrays in her delightful illustrations. I particularly like the way some of the ladders are made of tiny little stars.

inside mole's star

This timeless book about the night sky is ideal for reading at bedtime to children from birth upwards. It has an enchanting lyrical feel that will calm and relax your child ready for a good night’s sleep. It could also be used at Key Stage One as the basis of classroom discussion on sharing and considering other’s feelings.

An interview with… Chitra Soundar

In September 2016, I interviewed Chitra Soundar about her favourite stationery for the Papers Pens Poets blog.

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She told me she is not keen on pencils for her writing she prefers pens because she fears with pencils her writing may become blurred over time. This would be a disaster.

“…especially if I become so famous that there might be a museum and these notebooks will have to go on display. What if a young researcher who wants to read my writing finds it hard to read?”

Her favourite pens are Pilot V-sign – especially the black and red hues. They are bright and will keep her words safe forever.

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As for notebooks Chitra prefers, plain paper rather than dots or lines, as she can scribble across and diagonally without the lines staring at me with disapproval.

In fact she is very fussy about notebooks and would rather have branded notebooks, such as Leuchtturm and Moleskine because of the thickness of the paper, the gorgeous vibrant colours of the covers and the options available – like hardbound vs leather covers vs cardboard covers. It’s the quality of paper that clinches it for her. The Moleskine Cahiers are journals with a flexible heavy-duty cardboard cover with visible stitching on the spine. For every new project she buys a new Cahier, which come in a pack of three. She likes the pastel coloured covers best. Chitra claims they look graceful.

“It’s not really about the brand – it’s more about the quality of paper. I recently found a A5 notebook in Paperchase which had same quality of paper and beautiful hardbound cover which I use as the “in-my-purse” notebook.”

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“I think buying a notebook is the same (but more important) as buying shoes or bags. Good functional quality and then design and looks. Then the price makes it either a “reward” buy or a mandatory buy. I absolutely cannot write my award-winning novel celebrating diversity without a French Cahier by British Moleskin written using Asian Pilot V-Sign.”

Chitra told me that when she was writing full-time on an empty stomach, she was not sure if she would choose wisely between a Cahier and a full meal. Just in case, she ended up choosing food, she was hoarding all her favourite notebooks so when the day came she had to suffer for her art, at least her art wouldn’t suffer.

You can read the full interview here.

You can find out more about Chitra and her books on her website: www.chitrasoundar.com Or follow her on Twitter  @csoundar. Or Facebook: www.facebook.com/ChitraSoundarAuthor