You include little descriptions of culture norms in Japan at the beginning of each chapter. Do you have a favourite one?
My favourite is ‘sharing an umbrella’. It’s that idea of ‘how do you show emotion, how do you show love, in a society that has very particular cultural norms and ways of behaviour?’ And that idea of a man offering his umbrella as his kind of coded way of saying “I’m in love with you,” it’s just really sweet and endearing. So when I read that I thought it goes well with the chapter, which is when one of the main characters goes on I guess what we would call “a date” and it’s that idea of her realising that there might be a connection there between them, so I thought it was a lovely way to illustrate that.
It’s quite a safe, intimate moment, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s intimate but it’s really – like you say – safe, there’s no kind of inappropriate behaviour, so I like the kind of gentleness of it. Because some of the things that happen in the book are not that gentle so I thought that was just a lovely sweet way of talking about a love that isn’t a big, booming, ‘ta-da!’ moment, but is just slowly growing and gestating.
When you were researching and writing the book, did your feelings about nuclear weapons and about what happened on that day change?
I guess the thing is, when we talk about nuclear weapons and the possibility of them being used, we always do so from a Western view, which is very removed, we’re kind of looking at the mushroom cloud from a distance. And I think the book forced me to kind of go under that cloud for a moment and see what it actually might have been like on the ground. And I think sometimes we almost like forget that things like Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened, and it’s almost like we’ve been lulled into this false sense of security, and that nuclear weapons have become almost like an accepted norm in our society, and I find that really odd and peculiar, that we don’t talk about it or question it more than we do.
I remember when I grew up they would show you things like what to do if a bomb went off, and you’d think well that’s ridiculous because, “go to the nearest hospital,” well there wouldn’t be a hospital, there wouldn’t be medication to help. So – I don’t want to depress people with that thought! – it’s just made me more aware of the possible threat, to the extent that because I’ve written this book, it’s always on my mind. I did a bit of writing on Loch Long and Argyll – that’s where Britain’s nuclear weapons are stored – so I would sometimes see the nuclear subs go by, so it feels really present to me. I would love to see a world free of nuclear weapons, but then I imagine most people would! It’s just how do we get there, and when do we get there, and do we get there? Is there a political will from both people in power and ordinary citizens? Time will tell. It would be lovely to think that I’m not being naive thinking we can be in a world free of nuclear weapons! But we shall see.
But I wouldn’t want people to be put off, by going “oh I don’t want to read about nuclear devastation”; it’s the setting, the trigger for a lot of the story, but the story’s a lot more about a mother’s love, and dealing with regret, and the past, and how to forgive people you feel have wronged you in some way and learning to forgive yourself. So actually, although the setting is very depressing, it’s an uplifting book; ultimately it’s a book about hope and finding joy when you least expected it.
How and where do you like it to write?
Well, I like my parents’ caravan, I love writing there because I look out to the water and it’s just a beautiful setting, there are seals, there’s porpoises, there’s herons; but over the water I can see Coulport where the nuclear weapons are stored, so that’s kind of odd! But the actual setting is glorious, so that’s a lovely place to write. But I have written in a cupboard before, just to get a space that’s your own, and we live in a very small flat so the only place that could be was our hall cupboard, so I basically turned that into a writing den. So my poor husband was like, “where are you going?” and I’d be like “I’m going into my cupboard! See you in two hours!” But I loved it because I literally sat there and there was no distractions, I couldn’t get internet there, so basically I had to write! To the extent that I’m actually thinking I might go back to the cupboard, I might return to the cupboard for book two – there will always be the cupboard!
So are you quite a spontaneous writer, or do you like to plan everything out?
Very spontaneous, which I wish I wasn’t, I wish I could plot everything out and stick to it. But I kind of almost have to write sketches first, I mean for A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding I probably threw away at least a couple of hundred thousand words. I think it’s because it was my first book so I was really learning as I went along, and there were things that I probably could have just thought about in my head that I wrote down, and then it was a case of culling it all away until the actual story emerged. The way I write is very laborious, very time-consuming, it’s not very efficient; but it appears to be the only way I can extract a story. I don’t lie there going “and this will happen,” I have to kind of write it and see where it goes. It can be quite torturous, but lovely at the same time because you’re always pleasantly surprised at where the story can take you, rather than having to go from A, to B, to C.
Is there a message or a feeling that you hoped readers would take away from the book?
I hope they have a feeling of joy… maybe it’s not joy, I think I want them to feel that there is hope in a hopeless situation, and that there is unexpected joy that can come out of very dark periods of your life. I want them to be with Ama on her journey as she tries to looks back at the past and reassess it, and try to forgive herself – I mean she holds herself responsible for her daughter’s death – and it’s a way of her finding a peaceful ending and the readers being glad for her that she’s managed to work through her daemons and ended at as happy a place as she could reach given the life that she’s led.
Did you have favourite character in the book?
Yes, I think that my favourite character was Kenzo, who is Ama’s husband. He’s really steady, he’s really calm, he’s really kind, he sticks by her. He’s a bit of a surprise, in a way. Well he was a surprise for me because I felt like he almost was like the hero of the book, because his one wish is for Ama to find peace and to find happiness, and to find a way for them both to move forward after they lose their daughter; and so in my head head he’s very funny, he’s very sociable, he’ll crack a joke. I love the fact that he goes to America and he’s determined to learn the language, unlike Ama who just goes into shutdown, she literally silences herself. So yeah he’s my favourite I think, but I wouldn’t have thought that, he was almost like a side character and when I look back I’m very fond of him.
I felt really sad when Kenzo died because it really hit me that he’d been through all the same experiences-
– but he doesn’t get to take part in the happier bit? Yeah, the poor man! He basically leads her out of all this trauma and doesn’t get to go on the journey that she goes on.
And he was really strong for her, saying “look after yourself, make sure you eat, keep living” that sort of thing…
I know! And I mean she was pretty isolated before but after he goes, she almost gives up. Until there’s a knock on the door and this disfigured man says “I’m your grandson”. And even though she doesn’t want to believe it and she kind of rejects the idea, she’s so full of self-loathing she doesn’t think she deserves this miracle. And is it a miracle? Is he who he says he is? She’s very suspicious of his motives, and of turning up when she’s in her 80s – why has it taken so long for him to do so? So it’s hopefully a bit of an unravelling of a mystery, as well.
Do you have a favourite author?
These questions are so hard! I think just because of the book, one of my favourite authors is Kazuo Ishiguro, and his first book was called ‘A Pale View of Hills’, and it’s just a gorgeous book. It has a really kind of weird tone to it, and it’s set in Nagasaki after the war, as the city is re-generating, and it’s about how the people are coming to terms with what has happened, and also this idea of Japan as a military nation, and this new generation coming up and rejecting what had happened. But the story itself is just about a young bride, and she’s living in a house, and a woman turns up with her very odd daughter and it’s about their very odd interactions. But he manages to weave this kind of “where did Japan go after the war?” in amongst that very simple, unsettling story – it’s really unsettling, I totally recommend it! And as I say it’s set in Nagasaki, so it’s extra special for me.