You know those moments, when someone sends you a copy of their book, and you know you want to read it, but you’re thinking…what if? What if you don’t like it? What if it doesn’t grab you? What if it’s not your kind of book?
Believe me, all those bits of worry were a complete waste of time. A Diamond in the Desert is brilliant. I’ve been reading a LOT of historical fiction lately, and while much of the YA genre dispenses with most of the heavy detail and dense historical context that I’m not fond of, Kathryn goes beyond that. The book’s chapters are short, some less than a page, and the voice is light and tight, all at once. She has worked magic–created a world in which the hero is pretty much closing in on himself, with good reason, and pulling back from sharing his thoughts and feelings, and yet…it’s a world in which we fall in love with that character and his story. We know him by his reluctance to let us in. Believe me, this book will challenge all your ideas about what historical fiction is and excite you about what it can be.
And one of you will get challenged right away, because Kathryn’s book launches today, and I’m giving away a copy of A Diamond in the Desert to a commenter on this post. Just leave a comment by Monday, February 20th, and I’ll put your name in the hat. Make sure to leave contact info in the comment!
And now, read on, to see what Kathryn has to say.
BL: What made you decide to write about the Japanese internment camps and the baseball played there?
KF: The idea to write this story came when I visited my oldest son’s middle school National History Day competition. One of his friends, a girl, had built a model of the Zenimura baseball field as it sat outside the camp. I couldn’t stop looking at it. I asked her if I could interview her grandfather, who played outfield for the team. After that interview, I wanted to know everything I could about Gila River, so I contacted two other players and interviewed them, also. I thought I would write a short article about the big game, where they beat the Arizona state champions, because, honestly, the idea of a novel was overwhelming. There was so much I didn’t know, and I wasn’t Japanese. It took a long time before I came up with the courage to start writing the novel. Those months of researching everything and talking with Mr. Furukawa, who was the pitcher for the team, helped tremendously.
BL: Please describe your research process. Do you research and write at the same time? Is your research complete before you get to the revision stage?
KF: After I completed the interviews with the three gentlemen who were on the team, I visited the Laguna Niguel National Archives Building and asked them to order the Gila River newspaper so I could read it. Because I am not Japanese, I felt like I really needed to read all three and half years of the newspaper before writing even one word of the story. It was very intimidating to write about a culture I was not a part of. I was constantly calling Mr. Furukawa to ask him things. I would read about something in the newspaper, an event, (for example, the young girl almost drowning in the dirt canal), and call him to see if he remembered it and what it was like from his point of view. When I got through the newspapers on microfiche, I then bought many books about baseball in the 1940’s, and several about the war. I made a timeline for all three things, one for baseball, one for the war, and one for everything that had happened in Gila River that I wanted to write about. I put the most important events on sticky notes and taped them on the wall of my home office, so that the timeline stretched over four walls. I also taped up a map of the camp and photos of the main character. This took many months, but I felt like it was necessary in order to make me understand, as best as an outsider could, the time period. The only thing I really understood was the setting because I grew up outside of Phoenix. I knew the desert, I knew the way the sun looked when it set, the Gila monsters and snakes, the roadrunners. I knew how it felt to live in the climate. When I started writing the story, with each draft, I would send it to Mr. Furukawa and he would read it and make suggestions. When I was finished writing, I put everything in a folder, in order, so I could go back to it whenever I needed to see it.
BL: All of your chapters are short, many of them less than a page. I love the tightness of this structure, the feeling of scenes that are almost snapshots. Did you know right away you wanted to use this structure, or was it something you developed as you wrote and revised?
KF: This probably happened for two reasons. First, the events I was writing about were all on sticky notes, and so when I was writing, each thing felt, to me, as if it was done, as if there was nothing else to say about it. Also, the first draft was written in poems, with haiku chapter titles, but then when Jennifer Rofe (my agent) and I looked more closely at the entire manuscript, we decided this would not be what young boys would want to read, a book of poems about baseball, so I rewrote the whole manuscript into regular verse.
BL: Why did this structure feel right to you, for Tetsu’s story?
KF: I think, because I can only write from my own point of view, even after interviewing people and reading about what happened, I was not actually there, and so, writing in short snippets made it feel easier for me to understand.
BL: The history of the 1940s causes what happens to Tetsu, but you use few actual instances of outside-the-camp history in the book, and you don’t spend a lot of words on those you include. I’m thinking, for example, of Franklin Roosevelt’s death. For me, the sparseness of these “big” historical moments really brought home the camp’s isolation. How did you pick which historic events you wanted to let inside Tetsu’s immediate story?
KF: For the baseball events, I picked the ones that I thought would have mattered to a young boy who loved baseball, the World Series games, when a new baseball was invented that would travel farther, when Joe DiMaggio was drafted, things like that. For the war, I chose the things that were somehow related to the camp, Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to the camp, what they did at the camp to celebrate the president’s birthday, things that affected them specifically. I also added a few major war events which were in the Gila River newspaper. I figured if the editors there wrote about them, they were important to the Japanese people at the camp, so I tried to include them in the story.
BL: Can you tell us a little bit about new projects you’re working on now?
KF: I just completed a contemporary fiction MG novel about a girl who tries to change her destiny. She’s named after a poet and is expected to become one, though she doesn’t like poetry at all. Molly O’Neill at HarperCollins is editing it. Our current title is Tied Up in Destiny, due out winter 2013, though that may change. I’ve started another contemporary fiction MG novel, only five pages in at the moment, which is changing everyday as I figure it out!
Thank you very much for interviewing me, Becky. I know you’re working on a YA historical fiction novel also!