|Author Margi Preus|
Q: Please tell us a little bit about how you learned about the story of Manjiro and why you decided to write a novel about him.
A: I was introduced to Manjiro by a friend, an astute elementary media specialist, while I was researching a picture book, The Peace Bell (Holt, 2008) (also based on a true story with Japan-America themes). She gave me Shipwrecked! by Rhoda Blumberg, and said "read this." Manjiro's story was compelling, and resonated with the same themes I was working with in The Peace Bell--fostering peace and friendship between antagonistic nations, which turned out to be a timely subject as we were deep into war in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time. Unfortunately, I guess it's always a timely subject. I decided to write a novel because I didn't think it was possible to cram everything about Manjiro's life into a picture book. I had no idea what that meant--writing a novel. I thought it'd take me a couple of months--ha ha!
Q: I understand you made two trips to Japan to research this story; did you rely mostly on primary or secondary sources?
A: Secondary. I have an enormous stack of books, only a few of which are about Manjiro himself. The others are about whaling or life in traditional Japan or nautical reference books. Also, of course, my constant companion, Moby Dick.
Q: As an animal lover, I found it difficult to read the fairly graphic whaling scenes in the book. How did you approach balancing a realistic portrayal of whaling practices versus writing something that would be palatable to young readers?
A: Is it palatable? I thought it was pretty gruesome. It took me days and days to work up the courage to even read about whaling, and then many more days to work up the courage to write about it. I wasn't sure I could do it. Writing those chapters felt like cleaning gravel out of a bloody knee after falling off a bike, you don't want to look at it; you don't want to do it, but you have to grit your teeth and do it, don't you?
Q: With your background in comedy theatre, have you considered writing funny books for young people?
A: I want to! I'm working up to it. Writing well for young people is hard. Writing good humor is even harder. It's harder than anything. I have great respect for good comic writers.
Q: What new projects are you currently working on?
A:I have a picture book about famous trees of the world (Celebritrees, Holt) coming out early 2011. I'm also working on a picture book length story based on the extraordinary adventures of a treehouse builder and a YA mystery--which is humorous! I hope. At least a little bit.
Q: What books do you have on your nightstand? (that is, that you are reading or plan to read)
A: I always have an enormous pile of books which occasionally topple over in the middle of the night. I just finished The Madonnas of Leningrad. Go read it right now! I've also been reading the Stieg Larsson mysteries, like everyone else in the whole world. And now I've started Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet and The Omnivore's Dilemma (which everyone else has already read). I'm also reading the YA novel Bog Child by . I listen to a lot of books for young people on audio books when I drive. They're short, for one thing. I positively adored The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie who also reads, or perhaps I should say shouts the whole thing, yet makes you cry and laugh and sit in the car in the driveway when you get back from your trip, listening until the car battery finally wears out.
Q: What were some of your favorite books as a child? Were you especially interested in history?
A: My favorite book was National Geographic's Indians of the Americas, especially the very colorful depictions of Mayan ritual sacrifice. Let's just say, I'm pretty sure it wasn't meant to be a kids' book. But the illustrations were riveting. I don't think I was interested in history as a subject. Some junior high history teacher took care of that. Fortunately, I loved to read, so when I read Green Mansions, I spent time in a 19th century Venezuelan jungle. When I read A Tale of Two Cities, I lived through the French Revolution. Reading Kristin Lavransdatter, I breathed medieval Norway, as sure as if I had been transported there by time machine. Ever since reading Huckleberry Finn I feel as if I, myself, have drifted down the Mississippi on a raft. If you read enough, sooner or later you are going to learn to appreciate history. And everything else, for that matter. Literature gives one the privilege of living in a different time, a different place, and getting to know a host of people--wonderful and terrible--intimately.