Lois Sepahban, Kidlit Author Extraordinaire
When I was a child, one of my friends had grandparents who had been forced to move to an internment camp during World War II. We lived in a small mountain town not far from Manzanar, one of two internment camps in California. Because of this personal connection, I have always been interested in learning more about the World War II internment camps.
I was inspired to write this novel by a photograph of a little girl in a book about the children who had been imprisoned at Manzanar. About half of those forced to move to Manzanar were children, and I wanted to write a story about the trauma of that forced relocation.
Explain how your primary research enabled you to create a realistic world for Manami and her family?
My research involved watching hours of interviews with former internees. Densho.org has an archive with hundreds of interviews that include former internees and other people who had worked at the camps, including interviews with teachers, like my fictional Miss Rosalie.
The Manzanar Historic Site is an amazing resource, too. It’s open to the public, and visitors can see what remains of the camp. They also have online exhibitions that include artifacts and documents.
The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community has an online museum that includes photographs, video and print interviews, and historical notes. It was a tremendous help during my research.
Anytime you write a historical novel, you are stepping outside of your known world. I’ve found that what works best for me is to spend weeks soaking up the research--taking notes, of course, but otherwise not writing. Once I am able to picture the setting and the characters moving around within that setting in my mind, then I feel ready to start writing. I completely stop researching while I’m drafting--but I do revisit my research after I have a solid draft.
One thing that I did not have to research was the climate, having grown up nearby. It’s dry and windy--so dry that hands and lips are chapped from fall to spring. I have vivid memories of my little brother’s lips with a rosy ring around them for months at a time.
Why would you consider your agent, Kathleen Rushall, a true cheerleader of your story?
Kathleen’s first words to me were, “I love this story.” She was so excited about Paper Wishes, that I knew she loved it at least as much as I did. During the last two years, her support has buoyed me in those moments when I’ve doubted myself and my work.
She does the work of a doula: big heart, warm hands, loving words.
Kathleen is more than a cheerleader for Paper Wishes--she’s a cheerleader for me.
Give us an example of a revision request you received from your editor, Margaret Ferguson, and how it moved your narrative to a stronger place.
Working with Margaret is like taking a master class in writing. She took on my raw manuscript which, at the time, was emotion, emotion, emotion, and very little plot. With precisely placed questions, she pulled scenes from me that have become so necessary to the story.
I think the best example of this is when Manami and her mother are in the garden in October at the end of the growing season. Manami’s mother describes the deep roots that the desert garden had to grow in order to survive and compares them to the shallow roots that grow when there is plenty of rain.
This scene is important for many reasons. It brings the garden’s growing season to a close. It reveals the love between Manami and her mother. And it provides Manami with a moment to reflect on how plants in the desert must be strong to survive, and perhaps to think about how the desert has made her stronger, too.
During the second round of revisions, Margaret wrote a note on the manuscript: need a scene here, perhaps in the garden. Few words, but the right words at the right time to inspire this scene. Her gentle influence is present from the beginning to the end.
Manami has a very close relationship with her family, especially her grandfather. How were you able to draw from your own family experience to develop such a touching narrative?
As a child, I had a deep connection with my paternal grandmother. My father is the youngest of six children, so she was quite old when I was born. But we had wonderful times together. She had a beautiful laugh and gave such good advice. I wanted Manami to have a similar anchoring connection to a grandparent, and it was important to me that strong, loving bonds between her family members were a part of the story.
Manami grieves over the loss of her beloved dog, Yujiin, and sends out "paper wishes" on the wind to try to bring him back again. Have you ever experienced a similar grief? How do you hope children who are grieving will find comfort in Manami's story?
I was deeply affected by my parents’ divorce when I was a child. It was probably the defining moment of my childhood--I tend to think of my childhood in terms of before the divorce and after the divorce. When we moved from our home, my parents decided it would be best to find a new home for our dog, Strider. Years later, I heard that Strider had been spotted near our old home--if that report is true, then he had traveled far to find his way back to us.
Writing about Manami’s grieving forced me to revisit my own grief. I found comfort in her loving family and in Grandfather’s words about love growing her heart, and I hope that readers will, too.
I think that the experience of voicelessness is common for children in difficult situations. Even if they are able to speak, they may not be able to articulate what they are thinking and feeling. I hope that young readers might be moved by Manami’s story to speak their own brave words.
She studied literature in college and became a teacher. Today, she is married and has two children. She lives on a small farm where she has a barn full of animals who need homes. She has dogs, cats, and the sweetest chickens in the world. She can be found online at loissepahban.com and Tweeting @loissepahban.
PAPER WISHES is historical-fiction for middle-grade readers ages 8-12. It is a debut novel penned by Lois Sepahban and published by Margaret Ferguson Books an imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux (BYR), January 2016. Read a starred Kirkus Review Here.