Sara Backer’s novel, American Fuji, was a book club pick of the Honolulu Advertiser and a nominee for the Kiriyama Prize. Backer lived in Japan for three years and was the first American and first woman to serve as Visiting Professor of English at Shizuoka University. Her poetry chapbook, Bicycle Lotus (whose title poem is set in Japan), won the 2015 Turtle Island Poetry Award. She currently teaches composition at UMass Lowell.
Backer, who received fellowships from the Djerassi Resident Artist Program and Norton Island Resident Artist Program, has written short fiction and poems that appeared in Poetry, Bamboo Ridge, The Rialto (UK), Carve, Crannóg (Ireland), Gargoyle, New Welsh Reader (UK), Southern Poetry Review, Poetry Northwest, Arc Poetry Magazine (Canada), PANK, The Seattle Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Turtle Island Quarterly, Waccamaw Journal, and many more. Her writing has received six Pushcart prize nominations. Follow her publications on Twitter @BackerSara or her web site: www.sarabacker.com.
Geosi Gyasi: What actually took you to Japan?
Sara Backer: I needed a job, and there weren’t many teaching jobs in the U.S. when I earned my graduate degree from the University of California at Davis. I had travelled a lot before graduate school–Europe and Central America–and was up for adventure outside the U.S. I was neither a Japanophile nor a Japanophobe. I had no agenda with Japan; it was simply a place where I could teach and explore another culture. In short, I had no idea what I was in for. I left for Japan like the tarot card The Fool, cheerfully stepping off the cliff.
Geosi Gyasi: So you ended up spending three years in Japan. Was your time spent enough to immerse yourself with their lifestyle and culture?
Sara Backer: It was both not enough and too much. Some Americans live in Japan oblivious to the culture. I was observant, but I only figured out my mistakes months later because Japanese people were too polite to correct me. For example, I asked a train station clerk for a ticket from one city to another. He answered, “Muzikashii . . .” meaning “difficult.” Being American, I was prepared to handle difficulty–money? schedule? all something that could be solved. I was frustrated with the clerk who would not sell me a ticket. Later, I learned there was no train track between those cities, and “difficult” was his polite way of saying “impossible.” In three years, I developed a lot of awareness, but I was always aware of how much more I had to learn.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you compare the literary culture between America and Japan?
Sara Backer: I wish I could, but I didn’t learn enough Japanese to handle such a task. Japan is a highly literate nation and people were always reading in the trains. That impressed me.
Geosi Gyasi: In your three years stay in Japan, were you able to learn Japanese?
Sara Backer: I reached the level of Competent Tourist Japanese but I was far from fluent. If I had a do-over, I’d study Japanese before I left. Unlike most countries, immersion doesn’t work in Japan. Japanese is a deeply inflected SVO language chock full of status markers–not an easy hear it/say it language.
Geosi Gyasi: Is “American Fuji” based on your experiences in Japan?
Sara Backer: Yes and no. The plot was entirely invented, but everything about Japan was real–such as the banking and medical systems, the food, the song of the sweet potato vendor, etc.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you manage to choose character names for your book, “American Fuji”
Sara Backer: Character names are always tough for me. I wanted my male protagonist’s name to be unpronounceable in Japanese: thus, Alexander Thorne, who was called Zone-san. My female protagonist was a groundbreaking feminist, so I named Gaby Stanton after feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Eguchi was the name of a spirited student in my class.
Geosi Gyasi: I am so eager to know what “Fuji” means?
Sara Backer: The kanji for Fuji means wealth and abundance. Mt. Fuji is pictured on the 5000¥ note–in beautiful purple ink–and to dream of Mt. Fuji on New Year’s Eve is considered the luckiest of dreams.
Geosi Gyasi: You keep a blog online called American Fuji. What led to the setting up of the blog?
Sara Backer: Boring answer: my publisher wanted me to. I decided to show what wasn’t in the novel–that is, my life in Japan. I vowed I would never blog about writing itself. So far, I’ve managed that.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind being referred to as a travel writer?
Sara Backer: I don’t think I am referred to as a travel writer, but I wouldn’t mind if I were. Just being referred to as any kind of writer is a compliment!
Geosi Gyasi: What was your greatest challenge in writing “American Fuji”?
Sara Backer: Making the reality of Japan seem real to skeptical readers.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you always want to be a writer?
Sara Backer: I started writing when I was three years old. Writing is something I do because I’m me, but I didn’t think of it in terms of wanting to be a writer. As a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, an actress, or a nun–in that order. Later on, I wanted to be a composer, and later still, a teacher. That’s the one I got traction with, for better or worse.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you predominantly read?
Sara Backer: Literary fiction, literary and science fiction poetry, and whatever I come across online. These days, perhaps due to my worsening vision, I mostly read poetry.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write every day?
Sara Backer: I wish–but no. Teaching is not only a time-consuming, but a mind-consuming job. I mostly write during summer vacation and breaks.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you read reviews of your book?
Sara Backer: I did at first. While praise is nice, I didn’t find most reviews to be useful or interesting, so I stopped seeking them out.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there any writers that inspire you to write?
Sara Backer: Life inspires me to write. I write from my own observations. I’ve never had the desire to write like a certain author, though I admire many.
Geosi Gyasi: Does teaching teach you any lessons about writing?
Sara Backer: Mostly that if you want to be a professional writer, don’t get a job as a teacher. It’s a definite clash. You use the same brain cells. I think Jack London had it right–living a life of physical labor and adventure and then writing about it.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you get the kind of feedback you expected to get after the publication of “American Fuji”?
Sara Backer: I didn’t know what to expect. I hoped American Fuji would be discussed in terms of character, plot, setting, and so forth. Instead, I got more commentary on whether Japan was or wasn’t as I portrayed it. Also, several readers seemed to want a memoir instead of a novel, and there was nothing I could do about that, you know? But I appreciated all the readers who took the time and trouble to email me and tell me how my novel reached them, and I answered each one. That’s the best part about getting published–reaching readers in a meaningful way.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you keep a journal?
Sara Backer: No, but my desk is a mess of scribbled notes on the backs of first drafts.
Geosi Gyasi: What most excites you as a writer?
Sara Backer: The ongoing challenge to transmute the vision in my mind into words on a screen or page. Nothing beats that.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that a writer ought to be disciplined —— write regularly —— so as to produce great works?
Sara Backer: Oh, gosh, I have no idea. I think writing regularly is a good idea because ultimately quantity will lead to quality, but with so many definitions of “great works” and “regularly” and so many things beyond a writer’s control, I resist endorsing any one way to achieve greatness.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you first begin to write poetry?
Sara Backer: I wrote a poem about a butterfly when I was three years old.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you feel poetry is an art of the past?
Sara Backer: What?! No, no, no! Poetry is alive and eternal in many guises.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you think we should conclude the interview?
Sara Backer: How about with coffee and apple pie? (Oh, and a link to my web site: www.sarabacker.com) Cheers!