Tuesday, October 11, 2005

This interview with writer, poet, novelist and blogger Marie Mockett in New York City was conducted by reporter Dan Bloom in Taiwan -- by email in October 2005. For more information about Marie, check out her blog at: http://mariemockett.blogspot.com/

INTERVIEW QUESTION: Your mother is Japanese and your father is Caucasian American. Where did you grow up, where did you go to college, what did you major in, and how did you come to think of writing -- poems, novels, essays -- as a way of life, your life?

MARIE MOCKETT: I grew up in California, though I spent my earliest years in Vienna, Austria, which is where my parents met as music students. Initially, I spoke in German and Japanese with my parents, and only learned English in kindergarten when we returned to the USA. I distinctly remember not being able to communicate with my peers. I remember how English slowly started to make sense to me -- as though I were tuning into a signal -- but how I was too shy to speak for a long time. I am still enormously shy, and occasionally have to work hard to overcome that feeling in social situations.

I went to Columbia University in New York City, where I majored in East Asian studies. I took a lot of art history courses. I was fortunate to study under Professor David Sensabaugh, now at Yale, who really transmitted his love of Chinese antiques to me. I also studied under Professor Ryuichi Abe, now at Harvard. He is a Japanese religions professor and helped me focus my senior thesis on shamanism in Japan.

I've had two major ambitions in my life. I fell in love with dance as a child, and I continue to take dance class here in New York. But I am not a performer -- at least not in the dance sense. My other ambition was to be a writer. I started writing pretty much the minute I could put pencil to paper. I think when I was around 12 years old I understood that writing wasn't just a thing that I liked to do, but something I wanted to be.

INTERVIEW QUESTION: You visit Japan twice a year or so. What do you do there when you go, who do you stay with, and what are your observations of that country in terms of seeing it as an American of Japanese ancestry?

I've been visiting Japan for years. My father has never really learned Japanese, and he felt it was essential that I learned to speak the language so he encouraged my mother to travel with me, but without him; the minute my mother and I boarded the plane, we switched to Japanese and I wasnn't allowed to switch back to English until we came home. As a child, I usually started my trips up north, not far from Sendai, where our family has a Buddhist temple. My mother and I would then visit my grandparents and other family members, before she took me on very carefully planned trips throughout Japan. She took great pains to find new museums, new matsuri, parks, crafts and food to visit. She was amazing.

These days I travel by myself, with friends or with my mother. I am a matsuri junkie and always try to incorporate some kind of visit to a festival. In the past few years I've made a special effort to understand contemporary culture, visiting Tokyo, Osaka and their many shops. I now have friends who are my age or younger, and who love to clue me in on what is in or not in in Japan at any given moment. There are also many young Japanese living in New York, and it is always interesting to see what fascinates them about America, and which traditions they like to keep alive for themselves here.

I am in tears when the plane lands in Japan, and in tears when the plane takes off. I have strong emotional connection to this country. I remember when I was younger, there were certain things about the culture that I found odd -- the toilets, the handkerchiefs, the apologizing. Now when I am in Japan I feel incredibly happy to be able to express that part of myself which developed as a child. Many things -- the cuteness of Hello Kitty, or the Japanglish T-shirts -- don't strike me as odd, but rather as familiar. If I hadn't been exposed to Japan since I was small, I donn't think I would have the same level of emotional connection.

I remember when I was very small, we stayed in Japan for almost the entire summer, and I forgot how to speak English. When my mother and I returned to America, I was actually afraid of my father. It was a bizarre experience; I went from feeling very American, to very Japanese, to very American again. That feeling of morphing from one culture to another has always stayed with me, and is a mystery of a sort that I am always trying to understand -- how flexible and inflexible the mind can be.

INTERVIEW QUESTION: You've written poems and short stories, and published in several literary magazines. Do you have an agent now, how did you find him or her, and do you have plans to write a novel or a book of poetry?

MARIE MOCKETT: I have a literary agent now, at William Clark Associates in New York, who is currently working with my collection of short stories. I am at work on a novel set in Japan and in America.

I feel that am a slightly different Asian-American writer, in that my work deals a lot less with immigration and naturalization. My mother came to the USA over 30 years ago, but she has also never stopped going back to her homeland. I was fortunate that she always took me with her. So, being Japanese is something I always experienced in Japan, not here in America. My most Japanese experiences are very much in the context of my mother's homeland, and not here among an immigrant community. I want my work to reflect this; more and more of us are traveling between cultures and I hope that my stories speak to this trend.

INTERVIEWER: Which writers, novelists or poets, inspired you as you were growing up, and in college and even today?

MARIE MOCKETT: I loved all the magical stories of childhood -- The Wind in the Willows, The Wizard of Oz, The Secret Garden, etc. I particularly loved stories in which children found magical worlds -- like The Wizard of Oz. Now I realize I identified with those stories in the sense that I was going in between cultures from the time I was small.

I fell in love with Steinbeck as a teenager, and kept that obsession for a long time; I grew up in Steinbeck country after all. I liked the fact that he spoke for the common man; this was terribly important to me. These days I am very inspired and impressed by Kazuo Ishiguro, Lan Samantha Chang and John Fowles. Ishiguro is an incredible stylist and storyteller, and inspires me because, as a writer of Asian descent, he is able to write about all kinds of things; he isn't reined in by his ethnic background.

Chang was also important to me; her work encouraged me to find stories to tell that were not necessarily the classec Asian immigrant stories -- which people expected from Asian writers until recently.

John Fowles' best works are magical and intellectually challenging. There are numerous good writers working today. The half-Japanese, half-American writer Mary Yukari Waters published a lovely short story collection last year. I love the Irish author Colm Toibin and the English writer Jonathan Coe.

QUESTION: Where does your own personal inspiration for poems and stories come from?

I've also become increasingly interested in how the US and Japan are the world's richest, most "modern" countries, and how their responses are sometimes different and sometimes similar. Both countries yearn for spirituality, yet yearn for a rich material life. Both countries wrestle with individuality and conformity and have myths about both states of mind. I want my work to explore these tensions because, uncomfortable as they are, they are also relevant to the times in which we live.

As for the inspiration for individual pieces - the sources vary. Some stories are more personal; I wrote a story about a girl who goes to Japan from America, and forgets to speak English, which is similar to what happened to me, as I described above.

I also wrote a story about video games because I have become quite obsessed with video games in the past few years, and find their potential as a creative and entertainment outlet quite staggering.

It's interesting to think what the implications are of virtual reality, and how we can have such a strong emotional response to it. That whole idea seemed to me to require a story. Sometimes a snippet in the news might inspire me. I read a story about a guy in Japan who faked a royal wedding and cheated guests out of lots of money. That got me thinking about celebrity and money worship in both the US and Japan, and I wanted to write a story about what kind of a person would dream up such a scheme. Sometimes there is a relationship between people I want to explore. A friend visited me from Japan and told me that he was gay; his life here as a gay man was very different than his life as a gay man in Japan, and that felt like an important story to tell.

QUESTION: Do you write every day? Or do you write when the Muse comes to you?

MARIE: I basically write every day, though some days are better than others. I have a fear of being lazy and of wasting time. I don't adhere to the idea, however, that writers should follow a strict word count. It is very easy for me to sit here and spew out words; that doesn't mean that the words will be relevant to the story. I'm happiest when I know where the story is going, and that I am on the right path.

QUESTION: What other countries have you visited, other than Japan? Where would like to go to next?

MARIE MOCKETT: The UK, Mexico, France (I speak French), Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands and Italy. My boyfriend is from the UK, so I've had the opportunity to really get to know his country. We are going to Iceland this winter. I am not sure there are any places I wouldn't go if given the chance (and if I had some guarantee of safety and an unlimited supply of money).

I would very much like to visit more of Asia. Every time I am in Japan, I realize how close the rest of Asia is, relatively speaking, and I long to go to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Shangai, etc. I have a strong love of history, archeology and the arts, and would dearly love to visit more of Asia.

QUESTION: Have you ever thought about going to live in Japan for an extended period of time, like a year or two years, to live and observe and write? Does any other country beckon to you for a long extended stay? France or Greece or India?

MARIE MOCKETT: I would very much like to live in Japan for a time, and to have the experience of immersing myself even more deeply in it. I have lived in France, and enjoyed it. I think I would be happy to live most any place for a certain amount of time. I have a hug e wanderlust, I'm afraid. (She smiles here.)

QUESTION: What's your daily life in New York like? What's your daily routine, and what do you do for work, for pleasure, for fun, for dining out, friends and family there?

MARIE: Since I signed with a literary agent, and since he has started to work on selling my first book, I am essentially ''all hands on deck'' for my second book, so it will be ready for editors as soon as possible. I also take dance class a few times a week, and work on small creative projects -- knitting or sewing -- to keep my hands busy. I like to make things and do not like to be bored.

I love to dance; I think it really keeps me sane. We go to the Farmers Market here every Saturday and I buy vegetables and meat and plan the week's meals. I'm trying to cook recipes out of Orange Page and Lettuce Club, which are Japanese homemaker magazines. However, there are so many incredible restaurants here in New York, that it is hard to pass up the chance to eat out.

I had a feelance gig earlier this year which will see me through the end of the year, but the majority of my time has to be on my novel.

I do have numerous friends, and we like to go out. New York is wonderful for that! I try to get to the museums on days when it is free, and also see as much music and theater as I can, but the latter can get expensive. I have a weakness for fashion, and used to go to clothing sample sales when I worked full time. Now I just go to thrift stores which, by the way, are frequented by very hip Japanese kids looking for something original and trendy to wear.

QUESTION: You keep a blog and contribute to http://Japundit.com. What kinds of things do you like to talk about on your blog and how often do you update it? Who reads it, and where do they all come from?

MARIE: Initially, I just intended to keep a blog for family and friends, though comments from strangers around the world are starting to pop up. I am trying to update it every few days. I am trying to stick to the theme of living in two cultures -- that is, things Japanese here in America, or things Japanese that might interest Americans.

The blog is a chance for me to explore in a very conscious way what life is like in these two worlds. So often the things that intrigue Americans about Japan are the odd and the strange -- the kinky things. But Japan is a much richer place than things that make it seem strange from the outside. It's an impressive and wonderful place and I want people to understand that. Frankly, by understanding Japan better, I've come to understand and appreciate the USA better, too.

QUESTION: You will be visiting Japan again soon, in February 2006. What will you do when there, where wil you go, how long will you stay?

I will probably be in Japan for around 3 weeks next year in February, and then again in May. I want to see the Setsubun in Nara, and also the numerous snow/winter festivals up North.

There is also a special ceremony at our family's Buddhist temple, and I want to go.

I think I will also be spending lots of time in the hot springs, because Japan can be very cold during the winter. I have also promised to take my mother around Tokyo, because at this point I know the city better than she does. I want to show her some of my favorite places in Shibuya, Aoyama and Harajuku. I imagine I will also catch up with family and friends. There is never a shortage of things to do in Japan, and, as an American, I can use the very practical Japan Rail Pass to get around.

INTERVIEWER: Thank you, Marie Mockett, for your time.

Marie: Thank you, sir! It's been my pleasure to answer your questions.

This interview may be quoted from in any language, although we would appreciate your giving credit to this blog in so doing.
(c) 2005.2006

Note: Marie Mutsuki Mockett lives in New York. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in South Dakota Review, New Delta Review, North Dakota Quarterly, The Portland Review, LIT, The Texas Review, Primavera, and Phoebe. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in Carquinez Poetry Review, The Distillery, Fugue, The Ledge, West Wind Review, and Berkeley Poetry Review. She is a regular contributor to a Japanese news and culture site, Japundit, and is represented to the book industry by William Clark Associates.

Note: Marie Mockett was born in California to a Japanese mother and American father. Her mother and father met in Vienna, Austria, where both were studying music. Because German was the only language her parents shared in common, Marie grew up speaking Japanese with her mother, and German with both her parents, only learning English once she started school. Through numerous trips to Japan, Marie developed a deep love of her mother's homeland.

Her father, an Asian art collector and restorer, taught her the value of beautiful things.Marie graduated from Columbia University in 1992 with a degree in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. In her thesis, "Shamanism in Japan," she explored the powerful role that women have played in developing Japan's indigenous religion of Shinto.

Currently she is at work on a novel set in the United States and Japan in addition to a series of short stories. Her varied work experience has included freelance writing.

In 1999, Marie wrote and edited articles for a special issue of Newsweek magazine titled "How to Be a Great Mentor."