In Conversation with Elizabeth Martin
Sequoia Nagamatsu is the author of Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone. His work has appeared in Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, Zyzzyva, and the Fairy Tale Review, among others. He is the managing editor of Psychopomp Magazine and an assistant professor at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. More about him may be found at http://sequoianagamatsu.net. Below, he discusses monstrosity, fabulism, and creating balance in his recently published collection.
Elizabeth Martin: I was excited you started your collection with, “The Return to Monsterland,” a Godzilla story straight off. But as I read the story and indeed the whole collection, I stopped thinking of the creatures in the book as monsters. There is often great sympathy for the monsters. Was it important for you to humanize them right from the start? Would you even use the word monster to describe these creatures?
Sequoia Nagamatsu: I think it’s generally important to find the humanity or at least a human connection to any fantastical element being introduced to a story. I grew up reading comics, and I think what drew me to characters wasn’t so much their powers and the situations they found themselves in (although that certainly didn’t hurt) but the relationship they had with their powers and circumstances. And, at least for me, I try to make these elements or connections (or the promise of them) at least somewhat apparent early on because that dialogue between the real and unreal provides tension, establishes an ongoing predicament, and often helps ask a question that the story will explore. Would I use the word monster to describe the creatures in the book? No. And I guess that answer comes from exploring what these beings are all about. In the story, “Rokurokubi,” the narrator is afraid that his wife will see him as a monster if he reveals his secret of having the demonic ability to stretch his neck to incredible lengths. In “The Return to Monsterland,” a scientist is trying to look past the word “monster” and find something beautiful his wife saw in Godzilla and other Kaiju. A monster is in the eye of the beholder. And the journey in seeing something other than a monster or accepting a monster within is one that attracts me as a writer because it forces characters closer together, forces characters to reflect, and often leaves little room for complete resolutions.
EM: The creatures are such a normalized part of the world of your stories that it seems like you have a real comfort and familiarity with them. Were you excited by Godzilla movies, folklore, or horror as a child? How do these legends resonate with you, personally?
SN: I definitely watched a lot of Godzilla movies as a kid, and I ate up anything horror, science-fiction, and fantasy. In college (and even in high school), a lot of these interests evolved into studying folklore, although it wouldn’t be until I lived in Japan while teaching English when I began to look into the folklore of Japan with any seriousness. My time in Japan was very formative for me as a writer, and I think the period when I really decided that I wanted to pursue writing. So, the stories in the collection and the tales that inspired them are indicative of this time. But on another level, I can see my stories in dialogue with the fantastical fiction written by Japanese writers. The fantasy writing of Japan (and I’ll include anime in this as well) is more often than not instilled with the tension of yearning for a past that cannot be reclaimed, a search for identity, and the dialogue between the natural world and technology. As a fourth generation Japanese American, I feel like whenever I write about Japan that I am searching for an identity and heritage that I cannot fully claim, and this duality of being neither here nor there, a liminal state if you will, was never more apparent than when I lived there.
EM: The title of your collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, really speaks to that dialogue you just mentioned. While reading, I found myself connecting many of the characters back to the title. Such as in “Girl Zero,” when the father goes to extreme lengths to get his daughter back after she drowns. Where he goes is very dark in every sense, but also a fantastical place. How did fabulism give you a way to explore such loss here, or in your other stories?
SN: In some ways I am the “monster” in my stories. And fantasy is a vehicle that allows me to dig into the monstrous, the complexities of humanity that might otherwise be too uncomfortable or seemingly boring. The realm of fabulism is a possibility space where the unreal deconstructs and bends the real into the entertaining, palpable, and symbolic. I’ve always been attracted to imaginative and fantastic writing because on a fundamental level it gets me excited, and I know for that for the span of a few thousand words or a few hundred pages that I’ll get to see the world in another way. As a writer, I’m keenly interested in how people operate, and certainly every writer’s own personal baggage is going to seep into their work to some degree. Would I rather explore those nuances on a farm or on a spaceship? I’ll take the spaceship every time and part of that is a recognition of the new spaces technology and a global culture has created for society, as well as the spaces that we will soon inhabit. And that’s not to knock “the farm story,” but that’s not where my interests reside.
EM: Even though your stories do take place in this “realm of fabulism,” you have several characters who leave their spouses and many couples who are living in tumultuous marriages. Is there something about dysfunctional marriages, or marriage as an institution, that fascinates you?
SN: As I’ve suggested earlier, I like studying people. Maybe that’s the anthropology student in me. But I suppose the other part of it is that I come from a relatively dysfunctional family, so it’s a landscape that I have a lot of experience with. But I imagine there would still be a lot of dysfunction in my work even if I did grow up in a well-adjusted environment. Why? Well, happy people from an artistic perspective are boring. If someone is happy at the beginning of a story, where do they go? Do they want to go anywhere? And that’s not to say I don’t believe in happiness in stories because I think that’s important, too. I just don’t believe in total happiness or the traditional happy ending, and I’m highly suspect of a character that is portrayed as happy. There’s always something boiling under the surface.
EM: In between each of the stories is an interstitial text that acts as a preamble or introduction, like a recipe for a Placenta Bloody Mary or “Ten Things You Should Have Known Before You Die [Text Unavailable to the Living].” What was your process for writing these pieces? Did they come first or after you’d written the story?
SN: They came after. I saw them as palette cleansers, as well as threads that made the book seem like more of an artifact of stories in a different reality vs. simply a collection of stories that had some geographical and thematic connections.
EM: Despite death focusing the collection, there are also moments of playfulness. Like in “The Inn of the Dead’s Orientation for Being a Japanese Ghost” when you write, “But many kids die without having lived enough to be truly pissed off. (We’re talking decades of an abusive marriage vs. not getting the right colored Power Ranger here.)” Were you trying to create a balance in your collection overall with lighter moments, within the stories individually?
SN: I felt like the collection, along with the interstitial texts, needed a bit of tonal balance, which accounted for my choices in “The Inn of the Dead” and certain moments in other stories. And I really can’t imagine the collection at present not having those lighter moments. Divorce, death, relationships under fire, missing persons, miscarriage, an inability to love etc. These are obviously serious matters but everyone deals with these things differently. At a funeral, some people cry with friends and family. Some people shut out the world. And others might cope through laughter and reliving the past. So, I felt like the tone of my stories also needed to reflect those realities and not just my characters.
EM: What are you working on now? What are you reading? What pop culture are you bingeing on?
SN: I’m currently working on a second story collection tentatively titled “Before You Melt Into the Sea,” which revolves around how we cope with death and dying. While there is certainly some genre-bending, this book is much more grounded in realism. So, yeah, it’s another sunny collection. I’m also working on a novel called “Girl Zero,” which is a coming-of-age story about the genetic copy of a couple’s deceased daughter who is both the indirect cause and potential cure for an epidemic of people losing all of their memories.
Reading? Just picked up Nix, and I’m excited to dive into that. And I’m very excited for Kelly Luce’s upcoming novel, Pull Me Under, and Allegra Hyde’s collection, Of This New World.
Like everyone else, I just binge watched Stranger Things. I also ended up playing the video games Life Is Strange and Oxenfree not long after, which are apt companions to the series.