Maui / Oliver Sachs

A few days into my Hawaii research trip this year, I woke up before dawn and drove down the dark, windy roads from Wailuku to Lahaina.  I had yet to see Maui during daylight, having arrived late the night before.  I took this research trip on a tight budget, relying on the public bus systems of six cities, springing occasionally for the economy class on trains.  But twice in Hawaii I’d had to rent cars to reach farther-flung courthouses and archives, and the previous night at the Maui airport my bargain-basement car rental got upgraded to a Mustang sports car.  It revved when my foot approached the pedal, and I guided it warily around the local streets from the airport to my Wailuku hostel.  In the dark pre-dawn hours, when I headed out for the next day’s research, a light beneath the car door shone a shoe-sized mustang onto the pavement below.

I wound my way from the middle of the island to its western edge.  The darkness of a Maui dark is complete.  The road arced under trees, eventually lined the coast.  I trusted in the darkness that substituted for landscape, sensed rather than saw the ocean, the West Maui mountains overhead.  Before daybreak, I parked on a Lahaina residential street and made my way to the downtown port where I would board my ferry to Lana’i.  I sat on a rock and waited by the clapboard ticket shed.

There was so very little discretionary time on this research trip.  Most days I had barely enough time to get from one archive to the next; usually I was running, scribbling notes on a bus.  I ate granola from Down to Earth by the handful.  Once in a while, I would stop and stand in stilled awe: face-to-face with a place my book described.  At night, I typed notes, prepared the next day’s questions, put on reserve yet more materials from the Hawaiian and Pacific Collections at the University of Hawaii.

Occasionally there would be random moments of stillness.  Like that morning, in the dark by the dock of Lahaina, waiting for the ferry to Lana’i.  And in those few minutes of silence I found this op-ed in that morning’s New York Times: Oliver Sachs had terminal cancer (he has since died).  He had this to say: “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

So much of my own life is a vacillation between my richest, most productive life and periods of compromise.  A life in the arts is immensely rich: it opens me to wonderful, thoughtful friends and acquaintance who care deeply about the world and create beautiful work.  It opens me to endless curiosity and exploration, it gives me a regular pathway to empathy, and to the great joy of creative work.  It demands that I take risks.  I am happiest when I am in these moments, facing risk, focusing on my work, stretching, growing, building momentum.  My life is not always that: for periods of months or years I often feel stagnant, focused on my income-sustaining second career, which I have not always found as enlivening as my first.

I am so grateful to have had Oliver Sachs’ words resonating alongside my book that morning.  In the dawning sun, I attended carefully to the details of landscape from the ferry.  Soon, I will be describing that landscape (not this one, photographed, but the one I saw of Lana’i, just forty minutes afterwards) in the pages of my book.  In the moment that morning, I was completely present.  And I was also removed: aware of just what it was to be there and to be my most purposeful.

If you haven’t read the Sachs op-ed yet, please do.  His reflection has the charge of a mission statement.  Here is what I would like my life to do:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.  — Oliver Sachs

Book Research, Japan

My research in Japan has been more amorphous than my research in Seattle and Hawaii, where my days were scheduled into tight timelines of meetings and archives appointments.  Which is not to say that my time here is freewheeling by any stretch of the imagination.  On the contrary, my trip to Japan is charted by the geography and trajectory of my book.  My days here are organized by research.

It’s just that the nature of this research is different.  In Japan I visit temples, shrines, Taisho buildings, specific houses and villages that appear in the book, the few remaining pre-war Tokyo neighborhoods.  And even as I make careful notes on architectural detail and landscape and historic references, I understand that my research here also encompasses a more nebulous set of impressions and observations and thoughts.

Here I am tracing a vanished landscape.

One of the great challenges of writing this book set in Japan and Hawaii and a few other places during the second World War, is that so little survives of that landscape.  Places are paved over, torn down, bombed out, rebuilt.  And in some ways this confers both a freedom of imagination and the obligation that comes with it.  We can know these places only through invention, through the access fiction alone can give us to our past.

For the section of the book that’s set in Japan, I am gathering the intangible.  I am looking for a felt sense, an imaginative access point.  For all the small cues and sensations that later become the fuel and spark and sustenance of creative work.

I do not know yet what they will be or how they will enter my work.   Only that they will arrive as I remain present in these places, and that I will trust in the unforeseen ways they might infiltrate and populate my book.  So much of artistic process is this gathering, this blind trust.  Allowing ourselves to float suspended and see what connects.

Sugimotodera

I arrived at Sugimotodera Temple just after four o’clock, after a long afternoon of being lost.  My map was stretched to fit the dimensions of the page on which it was printed, and so northbound streets slanted west, and the map’s roman alphabet transcriptions of road names meant nothing next to the Japanese street signs.  I was actually aiming for Hokokuji (not, as it turns out from subsequent days’ explorations, too far away), but I came upon Sugimotodera first and stopped, transfixed by that light.

I was lucky the monk let me in; it was late in the day for Japanese temples.  Most close around four or four-thirty.  But I’d been walking such an awfully long time by that point, and I suppose it showed.

By the time I arrived, the temple had emptied of anyone who’d visited earlier in the day, and I was here in this space by myself.  Striking, how quiet and bright it was on the hillside after the busy grey streets.  How the air cleansed.  I stayed until the border of my welcome, drinking in this yellow light, these white banners, which in my foreign eyes turn to pattern and shape.  It is so liberating to be freed of text.

The stairs here are cobbled and worn by footsteps.  They slant and waver, tilt into themselves and tumble together.

The wooden temple glows in the afternoon light, the warm boards coppered and golden.  Under dense roof thatching, it stands on its slender stilts, this steady scaffolding.

Reflective Day in Portland

Reflective Day in Portland

Between stops on this research trip, I planned a few days in Portland, Oregon.  My extended family is from Portland, and I used to visit every few years.  Growing up, I always believed I’d wind up living in Oregon.  Still for me, there is a sense of coming home when I go to the Pacific Northwest.  My body relaxes into belonging.

On this visit, I stayed at my great-aunt and uncle’s house on the hillside.  I love this house — its energy and views and the way it admits daylight.  I wish I reserved the word love for places like this one.

I’ve learned on this research trip how important these few days of reflection can be.  For the most part, my research has been conducted on this trip at a pretty relentless pace.  In between Seattle and Japan, these few days in my great-uncle’s study overlooking the trees gave me an opportunity to gather my thoughts, to process information and impressions.

It felt right to do so in this space that belonged to my great-aunt and uncle, who had their own connections to both Japan and Seattle.  In the sunlit quiet of their living room, I looked through their 1930s jazz records, poured tea from their Japanese teapot.  It felt good to be connected with them across time through these shared spaces.

University of Washington

As I’ve been walking through the University of Washington campus this week researching for a story in my collection that’s set, in part, here in Seattle in the 1930s, it’s occurred to me that my father’s father was a student at the University of Washington not much after that.

My father’s father, who died a few years ago, wasn’t one to share much about his past.  But he came to school here at the University of Washington as a newly orphaned teenager.  He played the flute and the piccolo and diligently studied science.  In just a few years his life would take an entirely new arc: he’d join the army, study medicine, go oversees, settle east.

In subject and content the stories in my collection have nothing to do with my family.  Yet the idea for the first story sparked from a letter my mother’s father wrote home from wartime Hawaii.  By coincidence, through the winding intricacies of research, the last story in my collection has led me to Seattle.  Somehow, twelve years and 3,000 miles later, this book that started with the letters of one grandfather has now brought me to the other.

Bookshopping: Magus Books, Seattle

The other bookstore I visited in Seattle is Magus Books.  Just steps from the University of Washington campus, Magus Books has an extensive collection of used books in this old, vine-laced bookshop.

The shop is especially strong in its older hardcovers.  There are bookshelves full of well-cared for gilded spine collectibles and classic hardcovers complete with box sleeves.

They also carry a great collection of children’s novels from the early and mid-twentieth century.  (I bought one of the ones on this shelf!)*

I really like how they mark the beginning of each section with related prints and images.

The day I was there I was especially drawn to their botany and birding and antique book collections, along with their impressive art books.  I found one on Stuart Davis and another great one on Henry Moore that I wished I could fit in my luggage.  Not to mention a couple more children’s novels and pocket books I really wanted.

One of the aspects I liked best about this bookstore is its knowledgeable and thoughtful staff.  I had a great conversation with the man working there that day about various older book series they had on display, and really admired his expertise and low-key generosity.

I liked this bookstore and Elliott Bay Books for different reasons.  The two are a terrific balance.  Magus is another one of those bookstores I wish I lived close to.  It’s the kind of place where I think if I dropped by every so often, I’d light on something different each time.  And I have so much more I want to talk over with these booksellers about early 20th-century book publications.

*Yes, I did already violate my prohibition on buying books on this research trip.  I really don’t have any spare room or weight in my backpack during these nomadic next few weeks, so I’ll have to ship this one home to myself before I leave Seattle….  Not buying books (or supporting these independent bookstores) is lousy!

Fang Lijun Woodblock, Seattle

One of my research stops in Seattle was the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.  I was primarily there to visit some of the older pieces in the collection, but I stopped into the contemporary galleries, too, and was completely captivated by this large-scale woodblock print No. 19 by Chinese artist Fang Lijun.  I really like the linear textiles contrasted against the soft sinuous shadows.  The piece renders its figures with such sensitivity — and on a monumental scale.

Bookshopping: Elliott Bay Books, Seattle

After some research meetings the other day, I stopped at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.  Their New Fiction table and staff recommendation shelves reflect an unusually broad and sensitive reading of new book releases.

Their staff has pulled together recommendations that not only include the books that are currently getting a lot of attention, but also a rich collection of new books that I hadn’t yet heard about.   I felt like the two hours I spent there were completely absorbed in taking in these tables of new titles.  Being there felt like an important part of my work as a fiction writer.

They have extensive staff recommendation shelves — the largest staff recommendation section I’ve ever seen, peppered with some especially lovely and evocative description cards.  And even beyond the usual sections of staff recommendations and new releases and bookclub suggestions, there are themed tables and endcaps upon endcaps of interesting selections.  Elliott Bay Books’ tables and shelves feel like a cross between a great reading list and a Maureen Corrigan book review.

I was particularly taken with their Resolution Reads shelf — always an interesting concept in books.  Theirs feels playful: it includes classics like Ulysses, contemporary giants such as Murakami and Tartt’s Goldfinch, mixed in with a book on personal finance, The Art of Urban Sketching and Mindy Kaling’s essay collection.  Elliott Bay’s staff seems to embrace a wide picture of what, exactly, our resolutions may include (laughter, possibly?)

The bookstore is also active in supporting local and contemporary writers: Elliott Bay hosts an extensive reading series.  (Even while I was there, a staff member was updating their chalkboard with details on the next night’s reading.)  And augmenting this effort to promote contemporary writers, they publish two newsletters — a monthly event guide to upcoming readings and a seasonal gazette full of book recommendations.

In addition to all that, Elliott Bay has impressive selections of art magazines and literary journals, and a whole table devoted to poetry collection highlights (which I’ve found is always a hallmark of a good bookstore).

The store itself is beautiful — huge and full of rich, warm wood floors and wooden beams.  There are two floors of books and a lower level just for their readings.

I wish I lived closer to this bookstore so that I could stop here more often to replenish my reading list from their selections.

And I really wish I could have picked up a handful of books here during my visit.  On this research trip, I have to keep my pack light, so I really can’t carry books.  It killed me though.  There are at least half a dozen books from Elliott Bay I’m eager to read — and it’s so important to support independent bookstores.  Fortunately, they do sell online, so an order is certainly in my future when I get back.