California Book Club: Julie Otsuka Transcript

Read a lightly-edited transcript of The Swimmers author Julie Otsuka's conversation with California Book Club host John Freeman and special guest Michael Cunningham.

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Blaise Zerega: Hello everyone, and welcome to Alta Journal's California Book Club. It's a thrill to be here tonight to welcome Julie Otsuka and a special guest, Michael Cunningham. My name is Blaise Zerega, Alta Journal's managing editor, and I'm broadcasting live tonight from San Francisco. And it's great to see so many people chiming in from all across America and even the world.

So before we get started, I wanted to do a little housekeeping please. For those joining for the first time, the California Book Club is our free monthly gathering featuring books that reflect the wonderful diversity and humanity of life in the Golden State today. In the weeks leading up to each club meeting, publishes numerous articles and essays about that month's pick. And if you haven't had a chance to read some of these articles, I'd encourage you to go back and do so. Everything's free.

Related to our book coverage, we've got numerous newsletters. We do a Monday book review as well as all the California Book Club coverage. And this time around we publish an excerpt from The Swimmers, tonight's book, as well as many online essays. All the articles are also included in the California Book Club newsletter. Again, it's free. I encourage you to sign up. Trust me, you're going to love the CBC newsletter.

And the club would not be possible without the amazing support of our partners. These include the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, Book Passage, Books Inc., Vroman's Bookshop, West Portal, Book Soup,, Diesel, Narrative Magazine, and ZYZZYVA. And you too can support the work we do, all of our in depth essays, articles, and interviews, by becoming a member of Alta Journal. We've got, for $50 you would receive the award winning Alta Journal. I told you we love bookstores and in fact, we encourage you, please go out and visit a bookstore and buy a copy of The Swimmers if you haven't done so yet.

So for the $50 you will receive the quarterly journal, and these ... Mine's pretty well used. These are incredible tote bags and they're going fast. Very few, very few left. So if you want one, they will not be available after this month. So act fast. This is where you can keep all of your California Book Club books. Tonight's book. Upcoming, Stan Robinson. This was last month's, Robbie Almandeen, as well as another upcoming book, Jaime Cortez, Gordo. Really looking forward to this one.

So watch for Mondays, thank you. And recap email for a link to this great deal. Or go ahead and sign up tonight at forward slash tote, T-O-T-E. Or you can visit and become a digital member for just $3 a month.


So without further ado, please let me turn this over to the host of the California Book Club, John Freeman.

John Freeman: Hello Blaise. Thank you for that introduction. Welcome everybody. It's so nice to be back here in the California Book Club with all of you. Especially happy to be here tonight because I've got so many questions to ask of our guests tonight as well as the guest who will be asking her questions, Michael Cunningham.

But when it comes to why we set up this club, I feel like there's very little that could be said that is on par with the three exquisite books that Julie Otsuka has written in the last 20 years. When the Emperor was Divine, which chronicles the experience of a young child and his parent going into the internment camps in California; Buddha in The Attic, which is kind of a prequel to that book, which describes the experience of Japanese picture brides coming to the US in the 1900s, and the men they meet do not look like their Facebook pictures, let's just put it that way.

And finally, the book we are here to celebrate tonight, her third novel, The Swimmers, which takes place in a community pool, at least in the beginning. And people have gathered there to get their exercise, to lighten their load, to add ritual to their life. And it's told as ever in this sumptuous third person collective voice that Julie developed at the end of her first book, When the Emperor was Divine. And this voice here is wry, it's bemused. It's actually incredibly funny, because anybody who's gone to a community pool knows the splashers, the feet touchers, the ritual people, all the sorts of quirks that happen and that are on full display when people are semi dressed, splashing through an element that they weren't necessarily made for.

But then a crack develops and this book changes. The narrative is sort of cracked in half, and suddenly we realize that someone we met in the first part of the book turns out to have been the centerpiece of this book. And her name is Alice. She's a retired lab tech. And what we discover is that she is suffering from a frontal lobe dementia.

And the second half of the book, we get a completely different experience of what that collective voice is. It's the voice of an institution where Alice is being taken care of, and it's an institution that has all the opposite impulses of the institution that she partially made her joy in retirement. While the pool takes care of her, the institution that's supposed to take care of her, well, it wants to make money.

I have a lot more I could say about it, but it is just a tremendous book about a communal experience we all live through, which is aging and death. Julie Otsuka, it is a pleasure to have you here. Hello.

Julie Otsuka: Hey, John.

Freeman: I want to start just with the thing that students everywhere, your books are taught very frequently, they're parts of community reads, big reads, state reads, is that exquisite third person plural voice, which is a song that developed at the end of When the Emperor was Divine and carried us through Buddha in the Attic and is mostly the guide of the swimmers. And I just, I'm curious how you stumbled upon it or developed it and if you could take us back to that moment and describe the experience and what the sort of thought process was around developing that as a style?

Otsuka: Sure. It really was an accidentally found voice. I was really having a hard time beginning the Buddha in the Attic. And so I had tried at one point to tell the story from the point of view of one picture bride. And then, this is why you should always keep old drafts and notes. But I was looking through some old pages that I'd written months earlier, and I saw this line, which is now the first line of the novel. "On the boat, we were mostly virgins." And as soon as I saw that, I just knew that that was the first line of the novel, and that gave me the idea for using the we, what I call the we voice. And I'd never, I'd used a form of the we voice in When the Emperor was Divine. There's one chapter that's told from the point of view of the girl and the boy, brother and sister. But I'd never used an enormous we voice before.

Freeman: That actually reminds me, when we talked, when The Buddha in the Attic was just out, you basically told me a bit about, that so much of it was based on research. And I, rereading it again before we talked, I was struck by how much it reminds me of Svetlana Alexievich and those books. And I'm curious if you can describe the experience of making The Buddha in the Attic, which was drawn heavily from research and The Swimmers, which if it is, it's a different kind of research.

Otsuka: Well, I love Chernobyl, Alexievich's book. And actually, I mean, it's an oral history, but it reads like poetry. And I do a lot of research, especially for my first two novels. But I really, I love reading histories. That's my favorite way to take in my history. But she just presents this plurality of voices and intense pain. And yet something about, at least in English, the translation is just gorgeous. It really is like listening to a song. And I can't remember what the last part of your question was.

Freeman: I guess the difference. What's the difference between making that kind of voice for Buddha in the Attic, which was drawn more heavily from historical research, and The Swimmers, where the we voice is, presumably you're a little freer with where to take the characters from and their facts of their life.

Otsuka: I mean, The Buddha in the Attic was constrained by history. I wanted to stay fairly true to events that really did happen. And I think almost every line was based on some piece of research that I did. I mean, that's probably the most research intensive novel that I've ever written. The Swimmers, I did some research on dementia, but I drew on my own personal experience of having been a recreational swimmer. So that part was a little easier to write. And I just felt, I think I kind of taught myself how to use the we voice with The Buddha in the Attic. And by the time I got to Swimmers, I felt a little bit more relaxed with it.

Freeman: One of the questions, which has already come in from Mercilee Jenkins from the audience said, "What's your relationship to swimming?" And take that where you wish.

Otsuka: Well, I mean I am a Californian through and through, so I grew up in northern and southern. But when I was a teen, I went to the beach every day in the summer, Torrance Beach, for those of you in that area, sometimes Redondo Beach. But I did junior lifeguards. I just love being in the ocean. And then when I moved to New York as an adult, I began swimming in the local chlorinated pool, which was a very different experience of being in the ... It's just this box, right? A concrete box filled with water. But I actually loved it. I'd never swum laps before, but there was something really meditative about lap swimming. And then of course I really was fascinated by the community of odd fanatic people who went there almost religiously.

Freeman: Do you think you could read maybe from the opening section of the book?

Otsuka: Sure. This is, I'm going to read the first two paragraphs of the very first chapter, which is called The Underground Pool.

The pool is located deep underground in a large cavernous chamber, many feet beneath the streets of our town. Some of us come here because we are injured and need to heal. We suffer from bad backs, fallen arches, shattered dreams, broken hearts, anxiety, melancholia anhedonia, the usual above ground afflictions. Others of us are employed at the college nearby and prefer to take our lunch breaks down below in the waters far away from the harsh glares of our colleagues and screens. Some of us come here to escape, if only for an hour, our disappointing marriages on land. Many of us live in the neighborhood and simply love to swim. One of us, Alice, a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia, comes here because she always has. And even though she may not remember the combination to her locker or where she put her towel, the moment she slips into the water, she knows what to do. Her stroke is long and fluid, her kick is strong. Her mind clear. Up there, she says, "I'm just another little old lady. But down here at the pool I'm myself."

Most days at the pool, we are able to leave our troubles on land behind. Failed painters become elegant breaststrokers, untenured professors slice shark like through the water with breathtaking speed. The newly divorced HR manager grabs a faded red Styrofoam board and kicks with impunity. The downsized ad man floats otter like on his back as he stares up at the clouds on the painted pale blue ceiling, thinking, for the first time all day long, of nothing, let it go. Worriers stop worrying. Bereaved widows cease to grieve. Out-of-work actors, unable to get traction above ground, glide effortlessly down the fast lane, in their element at last. I've arrived! And for a brief interlude, we are at home in the world. Bad moods lift, tics disappear. Memories reawaken, migraines dissolve, and slowly, slowly the chatter in our minds begins to subside as stroke after stroke, length after length, we swim. And when we are finished with our laps, we hoist ourselves up out of the pool, dripping and refreshed, our equilibrium restored, ready to face another day on land.

Freeman: Oh, I love that opening so much. You have such great music in your prose. "On the boat, we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet, and we were not very tall." There's a rhythm to your prose. I once heard The Buddha in the Attic read from a Norwegian and I could hear the English behind it singing. And in the section you just read, there's just such exquisite sonics that just sort of pours you into the pool and sort of slowly allows you to look around and see people. And I'm just very curious how you tune into those things and how you hear sentences when you're writing, and what you do as you edit to make that just absolutely sort of perfectly balanced sound.

Otsuka: It's very intuitive. I mean, I could never teach what I do. It's just, I think I'm obsessed with the rhythm of language. I don't know why. I don't think I was aware of that for a long, long time. But I think part of my brain is always just listening to rhythm. But it's just, I mean, I guess there's that. And then I'm also always just paying attention to the visuals of a scene, how things would look. So there are those two things going on at the same time. But I kind of see the rhythm of the sentences, this kind of secret underground grid that holds the whole novel together. And it hopefully kind of lulls the reader or draws the reader into the book without the reader actually knowing why they're being drawn into it. But it is just very intuitive.

Freeman: Tony Morrison called that the deep structure of fiction.

Otsuka: That's great.

Freeman: Yeah, she's so right about so many things. But I'm curious about the portrait of communal life. All of your books are in some ways about community, this one too. And I'm curious if you have any ideas without lying back and getting on the couch about where that kind of interest in communality comes from, and if you had some early experience.

Otsuka: I don't think I ... No, I didn't. I mean growing up, I was not ... We were one of the very, I mean this was California in the '60s, so it was a very different landscape then. There just weren't a lot of Asians. So we weren't part of the larger Japanese American community. I grew up in a very white neighborhood in Palo Alto, which was very, very white back then. And yet actually our family was really welcomed on that street, Los Palo Avenue for those of you in Palo Alto. And I never really felt different. I mean we were just the people who live next door. A white family, my mother and the woman next door became best friends, and the kids, we were just all raised together, just in and out of each other's houses. So there was that sense of community, I think, which just operates in a very neighborhood sense.

But I think when I began The Buddha in the Attic, that's when I began thinking about a group of women. But just, that kind of emerged out of my research and just stories that I heard. And I really did want to focus, I think I'm very interested in women's lives, so I did really want to focus on the women. I could have focused on the men as well. I think I sort of gave them short shrift. Sorry, guys. But I think I am just inherently interested in people and why they do what they do, especially in groups. But it's hard to say why. Maybe it's a way of avoiding the first person, which is a voice I actually haven't really used yet. So maybe it's easier for me to turn the camera outwards than inwards. I'm not really sure.

Freeman: The structure of this book is also a kind of work of genius. It begins in this sort of wry, amusing manner. You get these habits that are quirky, understandable, and then they take on a slightly different turn, they turn darker. And then you realize that the book is going to become about mortality. And I wonder if you can talk about habitualness. When I first met you, you went to the same coffee shop every day, had the same tea, the same pastry, wrote in the same type of notebook. Clearly habitualness is both friend or foe to your life. What are you saying, or what was interesting to you about habitualness in writing this book?

Otsuka: I think in a way, the underground pool, I was actually thinking of the cafe in terms of being addicted to doing a thing every day, like going to the pool and swimming. I also felt like I kind of was addicted to that cafe. I couldn't get through a day without going there.

Freeman: Sorry to interrupt, but for those who haven't been to the Upper West Side of New York, do you want to just say something about this place?

Otsuka: It's really special. I feel sad. I have not been there since the beginning of the pandemic, but they're doing very well. I think what's special is that a lot of creative people go there to do their thing. Mathematicians, composers, a lot of screenwriters, poets, just a lot of creative people go there. There's also no wifi, no outlets, no music. And the coffee refills are endless and free.

So it's very conducive, at least for me, to working because there are really not a lot of distractions. I always like to sit in the back because visually I like to look out across the room and see what's going on. There's always some sort of drama. The next table, a breakup or first date, equally fascinating. So I think I like being alone and not alone. And I love working in public spaces. I also love just catching overheard snatches of dialogue, copy them down in my notebook.

And some of them worked their way into whatever I'm working on it at the time. So I really do miss that. But I thought, I didn't think I'd be able to function without going to the cafe. But actually I found during the pandemic that I did fine in my apartment. And I always thought I'd never be able to work in these four walls. But I actually felt like, I'm getting a little bit more done. The cafe can be a very social place. Which is what I love about it, just meeting people from the neighborhood. It's also, many people have been going there for years, some for decades, like myself. So you know New York, every little neighborhood is a little village.

Freeman: I don't think it gives away too much of the book to know that Alice, who we met in the section that Julie read at the beginning, returns as a character and has developed a frontal lobe dementia. And after this crack is discovered in the pool, we suddenly see Alice from the perspective of a different person who was watching everything that she remembers, everything she forgets. And in the second part of the book, we see Alice enter a different institution.

And I was struck Julia, just in how you were speaking now about the coffee shop that you used to go to. And there are these institutions that we are equally members of, a coffee shop, a pool, something that we're kind of communally involved in. And then there are others that we are drawn into. Sometimes it's a nation, sometimes it's a hospital. Not by choice. And I'm curious if in your experience in your life when you've been in the non-choice institutions, what kind of notes you take and how, if all at all those filtered into Alice's experience?

Otsuka: The non-choice. I'm trying to think of the places that I've been against my will. I think, I have constructed my life so that I can do what I want pretty much all day long. So I haven't had a lot of non-choice experiences. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Yeah, I'm not sure.

Freeman: Yeah, I've spent enough time in hospitals to realize that no one terribly wants to be there, including the people that work there to some degree. And I think the juxtaposition of these worlds of the pool, which is where people float, and the hospital where supposedly they're taken care of, and in fact they're just sort of units of capital data, which is something that your book makes a very strong point about and which I strongly agree with, is stark.

But before I start editorializing about your incredible book, I'd like to bring on someone who shares a number of things with you. One, he grew up in California, Pasadena. Two, he won the Penn Faulkner Prize for his incredible novel, The Hours, for which he also won the Pulitzer. He the author of seven novels and a book of tales as well as an anthology of some fantastic Whitman pieces. His name is Michael Cunningham and he teaches at the university which you attended. Michael, could you join us and maybe jump into the pool with a question or two?

Cunningham: I would be happy to. Hey Julie.

Otsuka: Hi Michael.

Cunningham: Well, we have to start by talking about the fact that you went to the MFA program at Columbia where I taught, and I was not your teacher, sorry to say, but I was one of the people who read your thesis. And you sent me the notes that I'd written a while ago, and it was just so clear that there was something serious going on there. And it is just such an incredible thrill to see what you're doing, what's happened. I knew it.

Otsuka: I am so happy to see you, Michael. I didn't know if you would remember that you were my outside thesis reader, but I left that thesis, the final thesis review, just walking on air because I felt like you saw me as a novelist and I'd never really seen, or you thought that I could become a novelist. And I had always thought of myself as being a short story writer. So I remember thinking, Michael Cunningham thinks I could be a novelist. And something just shifted internally in the way I thought about myself and my work. And it kind of blew me away that you had said that. And it was also just the right thing that I needed to hear at that point as I was about to graduate.

Cunningham: Great, great, great, great. Yes, I do remember. And yeah, I had a sense, you submitted some, a few chapters from a novel and some short stories. They were all remarkable. But yeah, I remember thinking, this amazing young writer might need the space that a novel provides.

Otsuka: You said something like, "I think she needs the space to let the characters' lives spin and spin." And that, something about just taking my time and just seeing what happens with the character's lives and how they intersect or don't intersect. But that was a new way. Because I had, up until then, I'd just written these kind of very short self-contained stories and I hadn't written about characters over an extended amount of time. I had never written large before. I was starting something I think with the novel, but it's not what I thought of as being my prime, I thought of myself as being a comedic writer rather than a novelist. A writer of serious fiction.

Cunningham: Yeah. Yeah. You never know what's going to happen to you. We were talking and it came out that both you and I started out to be visual artists. I wanted to be a painter. I think you were doing sculpture and painting. And clearly we both changed our minds. Could you talk a little bit about being self transformed from an aspiring painter and sculptor to an aspiring and then enormously successful writer?

Otsuka: Yeah, I mean, I felt like I came to writing as a failed painter. It was really the one thing I'd always wanted. All throughout my twenties I was painting, trying to paint, and I felt so defeated. But in the end there was just this gap between the kinds of paintings I was seeing in my head and what I was able to execute technically. Before painting. But I love the material of paint, I love the color. It's just amazing. And I just love, it's just so visceral also. It's just good stuff, oil paint, as you know.

And before I painted, I sculpted from the figure and that is really how I learned to see. I remember just looking at a cal femur bone and it was the first time I looked at something that I had no preconceived idea of. And it was just gorgeous, these really complex curves moving through space. So I imprinted on that bone. I actually saw it 30 years later and I recognized it right away. But that was really my way of learning how to see, which has hopefully stayed with me, just approaching something almost dumbly, as if you'd never seen it before and looking at it, trying to look at it for the first time.

Cunningham: It's really good training for a writer. I certainly didn't think of it that way when I thought I was going to be an artist, but yeah. Yeah, drawing the figure.

Otsuka: It's hard, right? It's really- [inaudible]

Cunningham: You have to really look at a hand because if you don't really look at the hand attached to the model, the hand owned and operated by the model, it's going to be a Mickey Mouse hand. You really have to abandon your sense of how the object, the body, the bone, the hand, should look, and see it as it actually does look.

Otsuka: Yes. And I feel like when I'm writing I'm just, I am trying, I really am trying to keep that just sense of, just of newness and of not knowing and trying to see something as if I'd never ever seen it before, because everything is really complicated, I think.

Cunningham: Everything is really complicated. I know. That that's why we write books about the world, because it's just so incredibly complicated. Actually you said something about painting that I found really especially interesting, and I felt the same way, that finally I just could not bear the gap between the painting I was trying to create, to produce, and the painting I was able to produce. I don't know about you, but that's true of writing for me as well. I always had a greater book in mind than what I'm able to write. And one of the fundamental differences is, I can survive that.

Otsuka: I think I have less of a gap. I think for whatever reason, I feel much more comfortable with the medium of language, maybe because I've spoken since I was two or whatever. But I didn't learn how to paint until, I think I started, I was 19 or 20, so fairly late. So I didn't live without language for so long.

But I also think when I began to write, I didn't think I would become a writer. It was just something that was really fun that I liked to do, that it was almost like a hobby. And when I began my novels, I didn't have the greater work in mind. I didn't know what it would be. So I think I just began from a very still point and I built out from there, but I didn't have a vision. So maybe that's what you have, a vision of something greater. But I think I don't start out, I don't know where I'm going to go or what the eventual construct will be.

Cunningham: One of the many reasons I love talking to writers is it's so different for every single one of us. The process, the relationship to it, it's like every one of us is doing something fundamentally different, and yet- [inaudible].

Could we talk just for a minute about having been in an MFA program, which is a very common experience for writers now. I went to one, and then I taught one. And I feel like there are all kinds of good reasons to go to an MFA program, but one of the sort of dangers of going to an MFA program is that they can have a kind of normalizing effect. That there can be a certain pressure to produce something that will be well received by the viciously competitive other writers. I was never viciously competitive, but the other people were. And I've seen it happen. It can tame you, it can cause you without quite realizing it, to sort of do the thing that you know will be well received, which is often the thing that people have read before in a slightly different version. And you came out unnormalized. [inaudible] Could you talk about that a little bit?

Otsuka: Yeah, I think that I began the program fairly normalized and that I was writing these kind of comedic short stories about a young woman living in New York City. They were very autobiographical and they were maybe a little hipper than what I ended up writing. And I felt what I ended up writing was not, there weren't very many people who were writing historical fiction in the program. So I felt a little odd. It didn't seem marketable for one thing, back then. Again, this was 20 something years ago. I didn't think anyone would want to read about this Japanese American family during World War II.

But my advisor, Maureen Howard was, she was very encouraging of what I thought were just stories about this Japanese American family. And I think if it hadn't been for her, I probably would've set those stories aside and just returned to my humorous work, which I felt very comfortable in that place. But I think it was kind of a safe, smaller place than where I eventually ended up.

Cunningham: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you Maureen Howard, wherever you are. I have at least 75 more questions. I think we get another chance to talk, but I am going to turn it back to John.

Freeman: I could listen for another 75 minutes. It's so exciting to me because the two of you were big parts of the constellation that lit up literary life for a long time for me. Michael Cunningham, his last novels, his book, The Snow Queen. And you want to see a painter using words. "The street lamps in the park emit long circles, skirts of light with a thin, agitated darkness between them." And just this tiny, two sentences. And suddenly you get this sort of magic of a city in a snowstorm.

And while Michael was talking to you about gesturing, and how do you capture gesturalness in words, I thought about the moment where the you voice has taken over and you as a character, who's probably the daughter of Alice, and, "You find her sitting quietly in the day room by the window that looks out onto the street, watching the children walk home from school. Her hands are neatly folded, like two birds in the shallow dip of her lap." And when you come across an image like that, you kind of just absolutely have to stop.

But I think what I'd like now, Julie is, because we've talked a lot about the pool, I wonder if you could perhaps take us to the second institution, which a guest named Rebecca has rightly chastised me. It is not a hospital, it is a long term care, for profit memory clinic, which Alice is staying at.

Otsuka: Sure. So the name of the institution is Bella Vista.

You are here today because you have failed the test. Maybe you are unable to draw all the numbers on the clock face or spell world backwards, or remember even one of the five unrelated words that were just recited to you mere minutes ago by one of our professionally trained testers. Or maybe for the first time ever, you just couldn't copy that cube. "I'm not in the mood," you said. Or perhaps your name the animal skills have atrophied since we last saw you, or you totally botched the executive function, alternating trail making section, or your social integration score came back as a dismal one. Or maybe you didn't even take the test. Maybe you went out to the supermarket to buy a carton of eggs and came back two days later with an overripe mango instead.

Got it. Or you tried to race past a fire truck, but I signaled, or couldn't remember how to make your famous rustic plum tart. Or perhaps unbeknownst to you, you have become an extremely difficult person to live with. You won't eat, you won't bathe. You get up 10 and sometimes 20 times a night, driving your loved ones to exhaustion. Or maybe your husband simply put you in the car this morning and told you he was taking you for a ride, or your daughter announced that she had made arrangements and you thought, "Great, a plan." And here you are. Welcome to Bella Vista. We are a long-term, for profit memory residence, conveniently located on a former parking lot off the freeway, just minutes from the Valley Plaza Mall. Other names we have gone by in the past include Heritage Point, Palomar Gardens, Municipal Ward Number Three, and the Villages at Pacifica, Inc. Also, the nice place, the new place, the last place, a wonderful place, you'll love it. And most recently by an eight-year-old boy to his mother, from behind the tinted glass windows of a rapidly departing SUV, the bug house.

Freeman: Wow. Yeah. Considering that, how many people wind up in these places? My mother was in one, she was diagnosed with Pick's disease, and I published the Diem Perdidi chapter of this book in Granta right after she died. So I was absolutely destroyed by that chapter. And one of the reasons why I adore this book so much is that you take us inside a place like this where so many parents and loved ones have gone and where probably so many of us will go. And it's so unseen. There was The American Way of Death a long time ago, a book published about how we treat our aging. But I wonder if there's anything you can say about having spent any time in facilities like this, if there is any redeeming thing about them other than the people in them that are loved.

Otsuka: I think the people who work there. I mean, some of them are really amazing, and they don't get paid a lot. But I just want to say first, I didn't know that your mother also had Pick's disease, John.

I never knew that. I just thought it was some, I mean, I knew she had dementia, but I didn't know it was specifically Pick's. It's really interesting.

Freeman: It's very rare, too. And so, she also lived, as your book has a sort of brief detour about this, in the Rust Belt where heavy metals were in the water. And so there was a lot of agonizing about whether maybe by living in the Midwest, Michael also is from Cincinnati. We were living near Cleveland. If that kind of pollution had led to what she had. And in the end, she didn't have it at all. She donated her brain to science and they had an autopsy, and it turned out that she had Alzheimer's and dementia, just at a very young age. And I wouldn't say it's an epidemic, but there's so many people with these types of dementia. I think your book is speaking into a realm of experience that has not yet had its story ... told is the wrong word, but I think maybe reflected back to them in the other dream life that fiction can be.

Otsuka: Yeah. I mean, think for one thing I remember, I always think it's more interesting to tell the story of something that somebody wants rather than something that somebody dreads. And the story of somebody dying in a nursing home is, it's just so predictable and kind of dreary. So I guess the question was, can I make it come alive in some way and without it being a complete downer on the page? Can I make it a good read as well? And yet do so with empathy and a lot of feeling.

But I do think that not all nursing homes are terrible. I mean, I think that some of them are actually amazing places and there sometimes comes a point in a family's life when really the right thing to do for the best in terms of the patient and getting her the best care is to leave her with people who can take better care of her than you could. But it's hard. It's very, very hard. Nobody wants- [inaudible]

Freeman: It's brutal. Yeah. There's a question I wanted to ask you about the interior life of Alice that one of the guests had put into us, and I don't have his or her name, but essentially they were asking, how can you imagine the thoughts of someone like Alice? Because what Julie does so beautifully here is, Alice is sort of living across time. And so she's sort of reliving her childhood, she's reliving her romance, her marriage, a miscarriage, the smell of oranges, and all almost simultaneously. And I guess the question might be, how did you conceive of an inner world that you had no access to or no reports back from?

Otsuka: I mean, guess I did what I always do whenever I'm writing about a character is I just deeply imagine myself as the character. That's really the simple answer. What would the memories be that stayed with this person till the very end? What were her most ... In a way, it's kind of great for a fiction writer. You can really kind of focus on the best moments, the most interesting moments of the character's life, if that is how her mind works. And it is for many people who are becoming demented, is that they hang onto their most important memories and especially their memories of their youth.

Freeman: Someone asks a question about the mix of some humor, the slight social commentary in the Bella Vista chapter through its kind of snarled irony. That's my editorializing, by the way, not the questioner. But the question questioner wants to know, how did you think about the balance? Because that it would be very key to a text that is this short.

Otsuka: Yeah, that, wait, the balance between ... ?

Freeman: Social commentary, sort of humor, and also just the pathos of Alice's situation.

Otsuka: Yeah. I wasn't actually aware of making social commentary, although I realized that I was making some sort of comment on how some of these institutions change especially, or really about the bottom line and how they are just truly businesses. But I just went all in. It was the first time I'd written in the voice of an evil oppressor as the we voice. Usually the is the we are the victims, we the Japanese Americans sent away to the camps or we the picture brides sent to America.

And I found it great fun, actually. I think it brought out my inner sadist or something. I could really, it was actually, it was a really fun voice to write in. But I kind of went all in in terms of being the voice of a slightly malign institution. So there are times, I think when I had to pull back. But at the same time it is, I mean that chapter is kind of told in the form of a brochure or an introductory talk to a new patient. So it does have that sort of corporate gloss speak laid over it. And I don't think that it's a terribly humane chapter. I think that Alice's humanity comes out more in the final chapter and in the preceding chapter, Diem Perdidi.

Freeman: When Michael was asking you questions and talking to you, one of the brave things he did after writing The Hours was to go and write Specimen Days, which is a very different type of book, even though it is invokes Whitman as a sort of central figure. It's so different in its scope and style and approach. And I wonder if for you, if there was a facility you had developed that you were wary of deploying and in some ways reiterating what you had done before?

Otsuka: Yeah, I mean, I definitely don't want to repeat myself, and I think I'm finished with this we voice for now. I think it served its purposes. And now, I mean, I did begin something new that was being written in the second person voice, which is slightly new to me, but I used it a little bit in the summaries, but I really kind of love it. But then I got sidetracked. I'm now writing about the painter, Joan Mitchell, as work I love, for a gallery. And it's the first time I've done ... I painted and then I stopped painting and then I stopped thinking about painting.

And it's really fun to be writing about something completely outside of myself and just I'm looking at this external thing, this woman's work, and thinking about it, and how do I write about it? It's a completely different problem. So it's really exciting. Just because I don't know what the final form is going to be. I don't really know what I'm doing. I don't really, I'm like, "Well, I'm not an art critic, so I'm not going to use that." I want to approach her work as a writer, but is as a writer with knowledge of painting and with personal experience of painting. So it just feels like my brain is in a completely new place, which I really kind of like.

Freeman: I want to bring Michael Cunningham back on for the final 10 minutes so that if anyone has some questions of Michael Cunningham as well as Julie at the same time, they can pose them. And one that might overlap here with both of you is talking about symbols within work. And the question has arisen, what does the crack represent? And I wonder if I can ask you, Michael, if in reading this book or other books, how you interact with a symbol like that? Is it as someone who deploys them himself and wants them to be given wide berth of meaning? Or were you sitting- [inaudible]

Cunningham: How do I think of objects that have some sort of symbolic relevance?

Freeman: Yes.

Cunningham: I mean, I would love to talk for about half an hour about the crack in that swimming pool. And I think I may have, I just want to say I think I may have audibly gasped when I realized that it was going to segue into the disintegration of this person. I just thought, fuck, you do that. [inaudible]. Believe me, it's Tourette's, like I have to swear sometimes.

I never think in terms of any person's or object's symbolic relevance. I feel like that would make it DOA. I am thinking always only initially about the life of the person, the life of the object, the complications of the femur. That said, then you go back and you look at what you've done and you think, "Oh, this seems to be something. Maybe there should be more of this."

But Julie, I'd love to hear where you have say about this. It remains, right up to the end, at least semi intuitive, something about in The Hours, flower, flowers, flowers in each section just felt right. And often a critic, bless them, an academic, bless them too, a reader, really bless the readers, will point out some, a kind of resonance, a kind of symbolic aspect that I, "Well, yeah, yeah. Right. Got it." And maybe it was working, it was there unconsciously, subconsciously, but I think it's one of the reasons that I feel like I'm not always the best authority on my own writing. I don't always know why it's there, and then I hear about it from other people and I'm, "Yeah. Yeah, right."

Freeman: Julie, did the crack just appear as you were writing and, or did ... Tell us-

Otsuka: It did. Yeah. No, I actually think about symbols exactly the same way that Michael does. I never think about symbols when I'm writing at all. And I don't think most writers do. I think we just tell the story, but then I go back and then if I see something recurring, like there are a lot of birds and eggs in The Swimmers. I don't know if you noticed. But that wasn't something I was consciously doing. But I went back and I pulled up the bird references, like the two hands in the lap.

But I do believe that if you let your unconscious write a story, then these symbols will emerge without your really realizing what it is that you're doing. And it's always fun when people see things in your work that you didn't, you weren't even aware of doing. I think just because you didn't realize that your symbolism was working in a certain way doesn't mean that it's not there. But that's what I love about the act of reading is every reader brings something different to the work.

Freeman: Yeah. Michael, did you grow up around pools in Pasadena?

Cunningham: Oh, I grew up in a pool.

Otsuka: I didn't know that.

Cunningham: I only left the pool to go to school. And that was [inaudible] because I had no choice. No, yes. I grew up in Pasadena at the foot of the San Gabriels. So we did have a swimming pool. It didn't seem especially unusual to have a swimming pool. It just seemed like people had houses. And then behind the house was this funny little, I love what Julie, like a little box of water.

But as I got a little bit older, I would come home at night and sort of wander out to the pool, ready to take my clothes off and just jump in and try to sober up. And there would be coyotes drinking out of the pool. "Get out of here." Someone had had peacocks that went feral and lived up, I think they're all gone now. But for years, every now and then, you would go out to the pool and a peacock would be standing at the edge of the diving board. And every now and then it would spread its tail feathers.

So it was suburban. There were swimming pools, there were little boxes of aqua water. But it felt to me also like an earth town that had been for mysterious purposes, transported to another planet where the life forms just insistently rose up from the grass and the coping and the asphalt and the little topiary trees.

Freeman: It feels a bit like this. One of the dream elements of California is that crystal blue water in a pool. And I'm not unaware that the three of us are displaced Californians. By choice, we've spent a lot of our lives on the east coast. Julie, you're in New York. Michael, you're in New York and teach in Connecticut, but have done some work in Hollywood and presumably gone back there. But I wonder what your relationship is with California now as an actual place, and how often you're there, and when you're not there, what sort of dream scape kind of fills in the memory blank.

Cunningham: Julie? Me, both of us? Julie, you go first.

Otsuka: Oh, I just want to say that I also grew up with peacocks, first.

Cunningham: We're essentially the same person in two different [inaudible]. We're writers, and we grew up with peacocks.

Otsuka: But no coyotes. But there were peacocks that would just come to the yard and just spread their feathers. So, they're amazing. But they're kind of annoying, I have to say. And they'll sometimes colonize one particular house.

But I feel like I imprinted on the California landscape. It's just in me forever. I mean, my father, he died in 2021, so he's the last, so the family house is gone. But I really grew up always just knowing where the water was. You know, you always know where west is. That's where, I just always knew where the ocean was. You could see it literally. And also just the kind of brown dryness of the landscape, I kind of love, actually. There's so many trees on the east coast, that was the first thing. There's just so many trees. It's just very, very green. But California, I don't know, I just love that landscape.

And I feel like the entire state has changed though. It's now just, it's so different. I mean we didn't have an air conditioner when I was growing up, and now you can't live there without one. So it's just very, it's very, very different. And, yeah.

Cunningham: I love LA. And I think this LA right now is the best LA ever. And it is very different from, certainly from the LA I grew up in. Yeah, it's 110 and it's on fire. There are some serious problems. But I also feel like LA is reinventing itself. It's sort of re imagining itself. And New York, I love New York, but New York to me is much more in the business of continuing to replicate itself. And whenever I'm in LA, which is every chance I get, I feel like, "Oh wow, this is why, a peacock could land at any moment anywhere." [inaudible].

Freeman: There's a lot of people commenting on lack of air conditioning where they are. One of the last questions, Julie, one of the guests was curious about whether you ever considered making part of the second half of The Swimmers into a play, or if you ever worked in theater?

Otsuka: No, no. That never even occurred to me, actually. I'm just trying to think now that ... No, no I haven't. I don't think I'd even know how to do that.

Freeman: And I kind of want to round this back through Michael. You wrote the screenplay to Evening, correct? The Susan Minot novel?

Cunningham: I did, yes.

Freeman: Which is another kind of, which is in a similar space as this book. And I wonder if it's at all relevant to ask you what it was like to inhabit say that story versus one like this, which is told collectively.

Cunningham: To inhabit what, Susan Minot's story?

Freeman: Yes.

Cunningham: I think Susan is a remarkable writer. I did my very best to of honor her characters and reimagine them in such a way that they were both in a movie.

Oh, I am going to get in trouble for this with somebody. But it did not ... It's a perfectly good movie. It's not what we hoped it would be. However, it did introduce Claire Danes to Hugh Dancy who went on to get married and have two children. So it did real good in the world.

But let me just, Susan Minot, if you're listening or if anybody who knows Susan is listening, I wish the movie had done better justice to your book. And one of the things you learn, if you've had anything to do with any movie is, it's amazing that any of them get made at all. Over a hundred people all have to do the right thing at the right time. The dimensions of the magic required are phenomen. And then the fact that some of them are occasionally actually good is literally a miracle.

Freeman: I see in some ways, Julie, why you've, you sort of described it tonight as this life of radical freedom where you can do what you want in the way that you want for as long as it takes to do what you want. And I think a lot of people here in this audience will hope that you sustain that because of the fruits that have come out of it. These three extraordinary books, When The Emperor Was Divine, The Buddha in the Attic, and now The Swimmers. It's been such a pleasure to speak to you about it and to have you on as well, Michael Cunningham. Always glorious to hear you speak and think. Thank you very much for joining us. Blaise, I believe you're here to take us into the outro where you'll hear some more about where you can go to read more about Julie's book and some upcoming shows.

Zerega: I guess this is my cue. Well, I mean, wow, thank you, big thank you to Julie, to Michael, to John. I mean, this was a powerful evening. Thank you so much. And I'm sure the audience feels the same way.

Tonight's program was recorded and it will be up on We'll send you a recap email with links and so forth on Monday. Be sure to join us next month please for Natalia Molina's, A Place at the Nayarit. That is on October 20th.

And don't forget, this is your last chance to get this fancy tote bag. It's got zippers. I mean, I use this all the time. It's really endurable. It's fantastic. It's $50, or again, a $3 digital membership.

And finally, we'd be grateful if you would participate in a one minute survey that will pop up on your screens as soon as we end the event. So thank you so much for tuning in tonight. Stay safe and see you next month. Take care.•


The Swimmers, by Julie Otsuka


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