Todd Shimoda has published five novels described as “philosophical and psychological mysteries with page-turning plots”: Why Ghosts Appear (Chin Music Press), Subduction (Chin Music Press), Oh! A Mystery of ‘Mono no Aware’ (Chin Music Press), The Fourth Treasure (Nan Talese/Doubleday), and 365 Views of Mt. Fuji (Stone Bridge Press). He received the 2010 Elliot Cades Award for Literature from the Hawai’i Literary Arts Council, the highest award in the state for literary achievement. His books have been translated into seven languages, Oh! was selected as a NPR Summer Best Read, and The Fourth Treasure was listed as a 2002 Notable Book by the Kiriyama Prize. He blogs about writing at Shimodaworks. His book reviews are at the Asian Review of Books.
Contact Todd by email: public(at)toddshimoda.com
An Interview with Todd Shimoda
Is Zack Hara, the main character, based on you?
Not in the strict sense of an autobiography. Zack and I do share a few things. We are Americans of Japanese ancestry (me on my dad’s side, Zack on both). We are technical writers (well, I was one). Our grandfathers were born in Japan and after immigrating worked as farmers then as landscapers (mine in Colorado, Zack’s in California). Our sense of humor is dry. We like Mexican food, beer, and watch way too much TV. We taught English in Japan and are interested in mono no aware. But that’s about it.
What’s this mono no aware and how did you get interested in it?
Mono no aware is literally translated as “things of emotional response.” It’s an old Japanese literary and aesthetic term referring to moments of intense emotional awareness. Its main source is the sadness and transient nature of beauty – cherry blossoms, for example. I bumped into the concept while studying Japanese literature and arts. Over the past several years I’ve been researching the concept’s historical, cultural and literary roots. To understand it in a more modern context, I’ve been collecting people’s thoughts and experiences related to the concept, as well as comparing it to other ways of conceptualizing the aesthetic, from cognitive science to philosophy to literary theory. (Please see the mono no aware page for more info.)
How did the idea of creating a novel around the concept come about?
A few years ago I wrote a monograph and memoir about mono no aware. But I was frustrated because the nonfiction approach really wasn’t capturing the deep meaning of the concept. I shelved the project, hoping for inspiration. Then a couple of years ago I was invited to do a reading at a literary conference. I wanted to read something new so I built a little story around one of the events in the memoir I used it to illustrate mono no aware. The little story, which are the first three chapters of Oh!, was a hit at the reading. So I kept adding to the story until I had a novel. I believe Oh! brings the concept to life in a way nonfiction can’t.
Professor Imai, a strong character in the novel, researches the biology of personality. What is that?
It’s the study of how the body and mind form an individual’s attitudes, desires and behaviors. It’s a complex subject because there are many individual differences and many interacting variables. At the University of California, Berkeley I studied cognitive science, which looks at mental aspects of behavior such as reasoning, problem solving, learning and communication. For example, I’ve studied the effectiveness of virtual counselors helping people quit smoking and middle school science students interacting with virtual tutors. My coursework included neurobiology and psychology, the basic sciences in the study of the biology of personality.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the science in the novel is poetry. Are you also a poet?
I would definitely not consider myself a poet. I’ve dabbled in it and wrote Zack’s attempts at poetry in the novel. I don’t think I have the patience or the skills to write poetry. As a novelist I like to throw words on the page, moving the story along, developing characters. Sure, I like a well-turned phrase that is poetic, but I’m primarily interested in story and character.
Suicide and Japanese suicide clubs are important parts of the novel. What drew you to this issue?
Suicide in general and the phenomenon of group suicide are very tragic subjects and difficult to write about. A handful of my friends or acquaintances have committed suicide, and I’ve found it very difficult to fully comprehend why. The group suicide of strangers who met on a website is even more incomprehensible. As a novelist, I explore the human condition trying to understand what makes us tick. Aspects of human behavior which seem incomprehensible intrigue me. In the book, suicide clubs and mono no aware become intertwined and are integral to the plot. (Please see Reader’s Resources for more info on Japanese suicide clubs.)
What is the purpose of the art in the novel and how did you collaborate with the artist, your wife Linda?
The art in the storyline follows Zack creating art to jar loose his emotions. The professor initially suggests it, along with poetry, as ways of expressing what he experiences. The art itself becomes a part of the plot in a very interesting way. Linda and I collaborate loosely at first. She knows the basic premise of the story and uses that to inspire her work. I also use what she is doing with her art to inspire what I’m writing. When I’ve finished a draft, she reads it and places her pieces appropriately to what is going on in the story. It’s amazing how well it all comes together in the end considering how loosely we collaborate. (To read more about the art, please see Linda’s page about the art.)
The book design is really stunning and adds much to the reading experience. How did the design process occur?
While I was working on Oh! I began noticing the beauty of Chin Music Press books. Suitably impressed I approached them about publishing our book. They saw the possibilities immediately and it’s been a great match. Bruce Rutledge, publisher and editor, leads an incredibly creative and professional team and several contributed design ideas. But mainly, Josh Powell, Chin Music Press’s book designer, really did an outstanding job. He understood what Oh! is about and I think that was key. His design took all of our text and visual elements and integrated them so well I can’t imagine anyone doing better. See the Book Design page for more info.
The book is called a “mystery.” In what sense do you mean?
The novel’s plot is structured partially like a mystery, although not a who-done-it murder mystery. Rather, the mystery of what will happen to Zack creates the suspense. His search for the professor’s missing daughter is also plotted as a mystery. But the main reason is the mystery of mono no aware itself. What does it mean? Will Zack ever understand it? Will he ever feel it?
In the end, will readers understand mono no aware?
I hope so. One of my friends said he didn’t think he was fully understanding the concept while reading the story. But when he read the ending, the meaning, or at least the feeling of mono no aware, hit him in an instant.