The PEN Ten: An Interview with Emily Hashimoto
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
I wish I had an erudite answer, but here’s the truth: The Baby-Sitters Club. In elementary school, I had a shelf full of the pastel paperbacks; books were the only purchase my immigrant father didn’t think were frivolous. And while it’s a cheap, easy shot to call those books drivel, they were a blueprint of all of the options available to me as an older girl and young woman: artists, dancers, baseball players, environmental activists, even writers, all leaders in their own right. The books so firmly centered on young women, including young women of color, in a way that many books I’ve read since fail to do.
What I brought with me into my own life-turn as a novelist was the importance of representation. At the time, I was thrilled to read about a Japanese girl who struggled with her Asian identity in a white world. Seeing myself reflected back was formative and instructive, and it’s something I was eager to create in my own work. With any luck, I also created for readers the feeling that those books gave me in third grade, rushing through my schoolwork to attend to a fresh chapter book tucked inside my wooden desk.
2. How does your writing navigate truth? What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
In my debut novel A World Between, I wrote about a woman, Leena Shah, who navigated her queerness and how that played out in the non-queer facets of her life. To maintain separation, she ducked and weaved to avoid sharing the truth unnecessarily. She answered questions exactly, no more or less. I think this kind of life is exhausting to lead but interesting to read about, and it felt really authentic to depict that.
Truth is a great source for fiction, especially for me. I find that I draw in large and small chunks of my life, and fictionalize my lived experience. With probably lots of imposter syndrome at play, I don’t feel creative enough to truly world-build or completely invent anything new. Instead, I think my niche is in reflecting back what people see, braiding together shared experiences.
I’m really proud to be a part of the wave of queer writers and/or writers of color publishing their books today, because for many years, the truth we had came predominantly from cis, straight white men. How delightful to hear from other people contributing to the larger literary quilt, and furthermore, the way that readers feel seen or learn from what they take in.
“What I brought with me into my own life-turn as a novelist was the importance of representation. At the time, [in elementary school], I was thrilled to read about a Japanese girl who struggled with her Asian identity in a white world. Seeing myself reflected back was formative and instructive, and it’s something I was eager to create in my own work. With any luck, I also created for readers the feeling that those books gave me in third grade, rushing through my schoolwork to attend to a fresh chapter book tucked inside my wooden desk.”
3. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
I address most long-term projects with the same methodology: I try to read or watch other media that might exist in the characters’ lives (like And the Band Played On, a homework assignment for Leena’s public health class, or dig into books/movies/television that might help me consider craft and arc-building (like rewatching Saving Face). I usually create a Trello board where I can collect images and stray thoughts to revisit as I write. And I create a playlist of songs that, again, either exist in the characters’ lives or help influence my writing and get me “in the mood.” I find these external tools help shape what goes on the page.
Maintaining momentum and inspiration is a challenge! Especially in these days when the news is apocalyptic, and for me personally as I navigate being a writer, wife, mother, etc.—toddlers don’t give a shit about your inspiration. I am trying to be really patient with myself, knowing that if I can’t get into a deep groove one day, I can think through a particular scene while I’m folding tiny t-shirts or weathering a tantrum. Although tomorrow is never guaranteed, I find it helpful to not beat myself up too much if I don’t reach a daily word goal, with the hopes that another day will find me more productive.
Remaining inspired comes from seeking inspiration everywhere. As I mentioned, it strikes when I’m watching a movie or reading, or even watching friends squabble. My eyes stay open to anything that might influence my current (or future) projects. In this way, it lessens my disappointment in not having endless time for writing. If I mentally stay engaged with my project, then I’m always at work on it.
4. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. Its cover sort of suggests one thing––something saccharine and frothy––but inside it’s a funny, heartfelt, and well-executed romp. I’m excited to see a queer writer get so much acclaim, and for queer men in love to get exposure in such a mainstream way.
Next up: Due to a toddler and my book coming out this year, I have a long to-be-read queue. Likely up next is Amateur by Thomas Page McBee.
5. What advice do you have for young writers?
Of course, I can only speak out of my own mouth, from my own experience. I had a serpentine path to where I’ve ended up, and in that way, I’d advise: Live life. Take good notes, but go ahead and pursue whatever it is that you want before committing to living life behind a computer screen, tap-a-tapping away. I’ve spent decades being a student of people, watching the way they act and behave, and asking questions about why. These studies have led me, hopefully, to have more to say.
“I’m really proud to be a part of the wave of queer writers and/or writers of color publishing their books today, because for many years, the truth we had came predominantly from cis, straight white men. How delightful to hear from other people contributing to the larger literary quilt, and furthermore, the way that readers feel seen or learn from what they take in.”
6. Which writers working today are you most excited by?
Carmen Maria Machado is my favorite new-ish writer. In the Dream House completely upended my idea of memoir. And Her Body and Other Parties was so fantastic, multifaceted, and haunting). She writes in the most beautiful way, simply and elegantly, inventing word combinations heretofore unseen. I’m always surprised by what I read next. And as someone really bent on bringing in queer and feminist narratives, it’s great to see her work reaching such a wide audience.
7. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you like to discuss?
Audre Lorde. I worked closely with Sarah Schulman over the past few years, and when I learned that Lorde had once been her teacher, it was an ultimate fangirl moment for me. Lorde is namedropped in the first few pages of my novel, then later on, giving meaning and strength to one of our main characters through her brilliant writing.
For me, Audre Lorde is the Ultimate: a true thought leader, but with the soul of a poet. Speaking the truth and saying it well is not something everyone can achieve. She’s meant so much to me since my days as a women’s and gender studies major.
I’d be too shy to have a true discussion, but I’d like to hang out with her for a day and help her grocery shop or clean her kitchen, and if she wanted, she could share a few musings that I’d treasure until the end of my days.
8. A World Between follows two protagonists, Eleanor Suzuki and Leena Shah. Did you work on character development separately, or did they form in conversation with each other?
Something else that’s a part of my process: just writing, showing up to the page. I do have some organizing and structural tools, but I try to write down whatever comes to me; usually dialogue first. In that way, I first captured their banter, and at that point, they weren’t well-defined. Through continuing to write about them, and with the advice of wise editors, they began to tell me how they were similar and different.
Another tool that I relied on in the beginning was something that my teacher Minal Hajratwala shared: a self-world timeline, which traced the characters and their families over the years in a spreadsheet format. Taking into account what they inherited from their families—and the wounds that broke their skin—were really helpful in getting the characters to a fully realized place.
“For me, it helps to ground the story and expand characterization. The characters can be alive in 2004, fine, but for me, they also need to be reacting to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the March for Women’s Lives. Weaving in modern history grounds the whole enterprise––plus invites readers in who may share the same cultural or political touchstones.”
9. The events of the book take place from 2004 to 2017. That’s a very specific, recent past timeline. What role does history play in your model of storytelling?
Because one of the mothers of this book is When Harry Met Sally, I knew the plot of A World Between would unfold over the course of many years. I wanted to write close to my lived experience––perhaps to lessen needed research?––and wanted them to be in college when I had been. I also think that was an interesting moment for queer folks. 2004 was the thick of marriage equality advocacy, years before we’d see favorable verdicts or a shift to a more intersectional approach, or more attention on vulnerable/resilient members of our community like Black trans women. Queer-wise, 2004 for me is a relic of another time, which I wanted to contrast with 2017. In some ways, 2004 and 2017 look similar: oppressive, authoritarian, bleak. It matched the needed narrative arcs, of coming back around to the beginning (for example, the characters find themselves once again in Boston, once again thrown together).
In my desire to tell a story over a stretch of time, I knew I’d also have the opportunity to bring in real events. For me, it helps to ground the story and expand characterization. The characters can be alive in 2004, fine, but for me, they also need to be reacting to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the March for Women’s Lives. Weaving in modern history grounds the whole enterprise––plus invites readers in who may share the same cultural or political touchstones.
10. Which parts of this book were the most difficult to write? Which were the easiest?
I found that some of the easiest writing took place later in the process, by the sheer truth that I learned to write this book while writing it. When I had a better handle on craft and characters, some of the writing was joyful and triumphant. I also found first drafts effortless, in the mode of, “Well, let me just give this a go.” Some of that writing ended up being wonderful and spontaneous—the muse at work within me. And some of those first drafts really needed punching up after the fact. That was the hardest writing: the moments and beats that needed more texture. What was Leena feeling, to hear what her mother said? How was that displaying on her face? Interiority, in general, can be a challenge for me—and then so satisfying when I can crack it.
Emily Hashimoto is a queer writer of color from the suburbs of New Jersey. She is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in women’s and gender studies, and a MS in information science from Pratt Institute. She has received fellowships from VONA and Queer Arts. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in Catapult, Out, The Rumpus, LitHub, Bitch magazine, and more. She lives in New York City with her wife and child.