Sara Fujimura is the talented author of Tanabata Wish (2017), Breathe (2018), and Every Reason We Shouldn’t (releasing March 3, 2020). You can learn more about her on her website. Fujimura recently answered questions for ARHtistic License.
You’re a white woman married to a Asian man. Your family celebrates your dual heritage. You’ve written about raising bicultural children, and characters in two of your books are biracial. This is obviously an issue close to your heart. Has your family experienced prejudice? What advice do you give to other biracial families?
SF: Toshi and I have been married for 26 years now though we’ve been friends since I was seventeen. We have two college-aged kids, one son and one daughter. We spend about a month each summer in a very rural part of Gifu Prefecture with their Japanese grandparents. My first YA book, TANABATA WISH, is not an autobiography, but my long-time friends can pick out the true parts based on my annual summer missives from Japan via Facebook. I’ve been writing about bicultural life for a long time. First as magazine articles and later as young adult books. I have a large number of biracial and/or bicultural teens and young adults in my life, so it only makes sense that my work reflects the group of now college-aged kids you will see in my living room playing videogames on any given Saturday night. I have been reading YA books for twenty years, and there has never been a shortage of YA books in my house, yet we lost both of my children (especially my son) to anime, manga, and Japanese TV because they didn’t see themselves represented very often. Seriously, werewolves are easier to find in YA books than Asian or biracial Asian guys as the main character. Within the last few years, that has begun to change, so I hope we won’t lose another generation of boys. Yes, we have felt prejudice both here and in Japan. All I can suggest is keep pushing against the stereotypes and speaking up for your kids. Also, try to find books and other forms of media that your kids can see themselves in.
What sort of research did you need to do for your historical novel, Breathe?
SF: Tons and tons and tons. TANABATA WISH was relatively easy because it came out of my real life and many of the experiences my family has had. BREATHE is set in Philadelphia against the great Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. My degree is in Public Health Education, and deadly diseases have always been my jam. Most of the medical details (especially the grossest parts) came directly from first person accounts from that time period. But that was only the tip of the research iceberg. I read newspaper articles, women’s fashion magazines from the time, listened to popular songs from 1918, watched the original 1918 TARZAN OF THE APES silent movie, looked through historical photos from the women’s suffrage movement, ate a lot of vintage candy in the name of research, and spent a good chunk of time in Philadelphia in all the major settings of BREATHE. I didn’t want to write a textbook but know that even what might look like a throwaway line has a purpose. If you want to dive deeper and go behind the scenes of BREATHE, you can go to my blog at: https://saraffujimura.com/blog. Are you a science teacher, history teacher, or homeschooler? I have high school-level curriculum tie-ins to BREATHE created by local high school teachers on the blog too.
Your soon-to-be-released book, Every Reason We Shouldn’t, is about ice skating. Is that a sport that you’ve participated in?
SF: EVERY REASON WE SHOULDN’T is about perfectionism and the high cost that comes with being number one. I like to say that it is like THE CUTTING EDGE meets YURI ON ICE. At sixteen, Olivia is a washed-up Olympic-level pairs figure skater trying to figure out how to be a normal teen. Jonah, 15, is chasing his Olympic dream: To be the next Apolo Ohno. Jonah simultaneously needles Olivia, inspires her, and reignites her flame. I do own a pair of ice skates, but I am much better at roller skating (which is why there is also roller derby in this book). Just like my other books, I have other people who are much more knowledgeable about different topics look over my work. No spoilers but Olivia and Jonah’s signature move came directly from my beta reader who was a competitive skater. What I had originally would have been fine, but Katie’s knowledge took it to the next level.
Where does your inspiration come from?
SF: Real life. Even for BREATHE. I pull strings from real places, people, conversations, and experiences and weave them into new stories. For EVERY REASON WE SHOULDN’T, I actually had Jonah’s character down first even though Olivia ended up telling the story. Jonah was very much inspired by reading Apolo Ohno’s autobiography, specifically the part about when he was a teenager. I have two one-in-a-million girls like Olivia in my life who I’ve watched blossom into young women. There are a lot of super talented teens out there, but I wanted to write about an amped up version of what a lot of talented teens go through. Just because you are the star at your local dance studio doesn’t guarantee that you’ll dance on Broadway. ERWS is about gifted teens at a crossroad when pure talent is no longer enough. Do you quit? Do you keep going?
Why do you write for young adults?
SF: I love to read and write YA for the same reason: The sense of hope. Though the path might be difficult, anything is still possible. Also, the sense of newness and how the world begins to open up in your late teens as you break away from your family.
Do you have an agent? Who is your agent, and how did you connect?
SF: I do! Rebecca Angus of Golden Wheat Literary Agency hearted my ERWS pitch during Pitch Wars on Twitter. I signed with her in early January 2018, and she sold ERWS to Tor Teen by the end of March. That said, know that it took me almost twenty years of querying multiple books and enough rejection letters to wallpaper my living room to get to that point.
What’s up next?
SF: I have two projects I’m actively working on now. One is a screenplay, and the other will be my second contracted book with Tor Teen. I’m still in the beginning stages of both and have endless hours of research ahead of me still (which I kinda love). That’s all I can say right now.
Do you have a funny story about any of your books or about the writing process?
SF: The first time I went to Philadelphia to do research for BREATHE, Philly gave me the worst case of influenza that I have ever had. Being a writer, I took copious notes and wove them into the opening chapters of BREATHE.
What is something about your books or about yourself that you wish your readers knew?
SF: If you go to the local anime cons, you will often see me as my alter ego, The Obento Lady. I sell cute bento boxes and all the things to make your lunch fun and artistic (Bunny-shaped hard-boiled egg mold, anyone?). I made bento for my kids from the time they were 4 and 6 until they finished high school. You can imagine how many plastic baggies didn’t go into the landfill because of that. Sometimes my lunches were fabulous and artistic. Sometimes they were meh, but we still called it a win for Mother Earth. If you see me at events (book or anime), show me your lunch. I am happy to give it a makeover.