Today, I am thrilled to feature Holly Thompson to talk about her new release, The Language Inside (Delacorte Books for Young Readers).
Holly: Thank you for having me!
Like Orchards, The Language Inside began as a verse novel, not because I wanted the follow-up novel to be in verse format but because the story started telling itself to me in verse—probably because of Emma’s voice and the pain of displacement, the aphasia she experiences during her migraines, and the poems created as she volunteers to help Zena at the long-term care center. There is a lot packed into this novel and verse enabled the various elements to be pared down and braided together. I write in prose as well as verse, but these novels definitely required verse.
Debby: What was the inspiration for The Language Inside?
Holly: As a graduate student in the NYU Creative Writing Program, I volunteered to assist patients writing poetry at Goldwater Hospital and participated in the writing workshops led by poet Sharon Olds there. At Goldwater I was assigned to several patients, and my experiences with poet Julia Tavalaro (see my blog post) were unforgettable and inspired the character of Zena in The Language Inside. I wanted to write about a teen character working with such an individual, who, despite the inability to speak, can control and manipulate conversations and communicate a profound determination and zest for life.
Debby: What is your favorite line in The Language Inside?
Holly: I’m not sure I can identify a specific line or stanza, but I liked working on the “Breasts” chapter, in which Zena and Emma wrangled total control of the story and surprised me as they spoke and shared their poems. I also liked the poem that Emma created on language, “Lonely Is,” from which the book’s title is derived that begins:
when the language outside
is not the language inside
and words are made of just 26 letters
not parts that tell stories
Debby: Holly, that is breathtakingly beautiful. Thank you for sharing Emma’s poem. In addition to the undeniable power of your prose, I think you do a wonderful job of depicting the difficulties of being bicultural. I know you have lived in Japan for many years. What would you miss the most if you returned to the US? And what do you miss the most about the US while living in Japan?
Holly: Whenever I’m in the U.S. I miss Japan—big things like the volcanic landscape, many aspects of the culture, baths, the service ethic, as well as specifics like the cicada songs, train convenience, my neighborhood, Japanese cuisine. It’s hard to pinpoint any one thing, though I always miss Japanese food when I’m not in Japan. And when I’m in Japan, I miss my U.S. family, New England landscapes, diverse U.S. cities, casual conversations, pies and burritos.
Debby: Orchards is such a beautiful, heart-wrenching book, and every time I look at the pages again, I am struck by how you have managed to tell such a complex story with poetry. Did writing the story in verse limit you or did it expand you ability to tell the story?
Holly: Orchards was a painful story to write, and it was only possible in spare, pared down verse in which the white space provides breathing room for the character Kana, as well as the reader. The verse and the voice are so integral to the story that I didn’t find the format limiting; rather, the story fed the verse and the verse fed the story.
Debby: Do you have a favorite line in Orchards?
Holly: It’s a simple metaphor and it’s a stanza not a line, but I like Kana’s description of her bicultural self when her Japanese grandparents expect her to act Japanese:
they seem to think
I can just switch
one half of me
and leave the other
half of me
but I’m like
pouring from a faucet
Debby: I think these feelings can be shared by all of us when people expect us to be one thing and we are more than that. We are all hot and cold both flowing as one. You have this incredible ability to grip the reader with Kana’s pain and then give us some space to recover. The hanging crow image in Orchards was so powerful for me. And the pain in the book really comes through viscerally in those pages. My book was also seeped in grief, and the writing was very painful for me. How do you work through the pain of your characters?
Holly: Yes, the hanging crow, a fairly common rural Japan custom, made for an intense scene. Grief is central to Orchards, and I cried my way through writing the story. I had to force myself to write through to the end of my first draft during a period when my husband and children were away—crying as much and as long as I needed to. Of course, as I was writing through the pain and Kana’s ranging forms of grief, I was also discovering Kana’s humor, compassion and resilience.
Debby: I’m always interested to hear about how other writer’s work. Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process? Do you work with a critique group?
Holly: I’m always working on writing, but not at the same time each day and not necessarily every day. I work with a critique group—writer members of SCBWI Japan, both face to face and online. I share the opening chapter or two of a novel once I feel like I know what I’m doing and where I’m going. The critique group comments are so helpful in grounding me. Later, after several revisions of the full draft, I usually share the manuscript with a few beta readers. I also enlist the help of folks who helped guide my research and have them check pages within their area of specialty. And of course, feedback from my agent and editor is always critical in shaping my novels.
Debby: What do you hope your readers will take with them after reading The Language Inside?
Holly: I hope that readers will feel as though they’ve journeyed to Japan in a way, and that they’ll want to know more about Cambodia and Japan, and vibrant immigrant communities such as those found in cities like Lowell, Massachusetts. Also, like Emma, many people around the world identify with cultures outside their ethnicity and heritage, so I hope that readers will become curious about the cultures and languages that individuals may carry within themselves. And finally, the characters of Emma and Samnang both volunteer on a regular basis—perhaps they will inspire readers to consider what they can do to make a difference in their communities.
Debby: I hope so, too. Thank you again, Holly, for taking the time to be here today. And thank you for writing such beautiful fiction.
You can find out more about Holly at her website www.hatbooks.com.