Today we’re speaking with Julie Otsuka, whose nationally-bestselling novel The Swimmers explores what happens to a group of obsessed recreational swimmers when a crack appears at the bottom of their local pool. Our conversation covers the art of crafting sentences and finding the right voice. We also discuss the joy of writing in cafes, and the element of surprise.
There are no spoilers on this episode.
The Stacks Book Club selection for April is Doppelgangbanger by Cortney Lamar Charleston. We will discuss the book on April 27th with Nate Marshall.
*Due to the nature of podcast advertising, these timestamps are not 100% accurate and will vary.
Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today we are joined by Julie Otsuka, author of when the emperor was divine, the Buddha in the attic, and The Swimmers, which is her newest novel about a group of obsessed recreational swimmers and what happens to them when a crack appears at the bottom of their local indoor pool? This book is easily one of the best novels I have read since starting the stacks and 2018. Julie and I are so careful today not to spoil any part of this book. I hope you’ll enjoy this conversation on craft, artistic medium, and the pleasure and community then I hope you’ll go and buy yourself a copy of the swimmers you deserve it. Remember, this is National Poetry Month. The stocks book club pick for April is Doppelgangbanger by Cortney Lamar Charleston, which we will discuss on Wednesday, April 27. With Nate Marshall. And a quick reminder every single thing we talked about on this episode in every episode of the stocks can be found in the link in the show notes. Okay, I’m so excited. Now it’s time for my conversation with Julie Otsuka.
All right, everyone. I am beyond thrilled today for my guest. If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I have been raving about this book. Since the moment I finished actually since the moment I finished the first chapter. Let me be honest, the book is called the swimmers. Our guest is author Julie Otsuka. Julie, welcome to the Stacks.
Julie Otsuka 2:33
Thank you so much, Traci.
Traci Thomas 2:36
I am not a huge fan of fiction. But Julie, this book blew me away. I was texting everyone I knew you absolutely immediately must pick up this book, I already told you in advance. But for everyone listening, we are going to do our darndest not to spoil a single thing in this book. So in 30 seconds or so Julie, can you tell us about the book.
Julie Otsuka 2:59
It begins in an underground pool. It’s a group of recreational swimmers who’ve been going there for many, many years. And it explains kind of what happens when a crack appears at the bottom of the pool. And I think that’s all I really need to say.
Traci Thomas 3:15
I think so. That’s basically how I’ve been describing it. I’m gonna get out swimmers, there’s a crack in the pool, don’t read anything about the book, just pick it up and enjoy. So this is obviously a tall task, because there’s so much I want to talk to you about that is later in the book. But we’re just gonna have to have another conversation you and I one day. But okay, the first thing I want to start with, because this is the first thing that took me just, I just was like, so taken by this book from the first page because of the voice you use in the first few chapters you’re using, I think and please don’t tell my English teachers. I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s first person plural. Okay, so you’re using first person plural. Tell me about that choice? Why did that feel right for you, for people who don’t know what that means? It’s sort of like the a wee voice like we do this and us and that kind of vibe.
Julie Otsuka 4:00
That’s what I call it up to the wave voice. I actually my last novel, The Buddha in the attic was written entirely in the first person plural. So I really kind of fell in love with that voice. But it was about very different topic. Japanese picture brides who came to this country in the early 1900s. And I wanted to write something set in contemporary times. And I had sketched out a few scenes set in this underground for many, many years ago before I’d finished before I finished my last novel. And I just love the wee voice because it’s very capacious. It allows me the writer to really kind of paint a very panoramic picture of what is going on with a group of people. And I like I think I like world building. And communities. I’m very interested in groups and what happens and I didn’t initially want to follow anyone particular colored character, I was really just very interested in describing the whole kind of meta world of the pool.
Traci Thomas 5:06
Yeah, yeah. I just loved it. I don’t know that I’ve read something in that voice. Maybe any any book in that voice, maybe ever, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. And then in the book, it shifts again. And this is where I don’t I don’t know what it is. It’s the you voice. So what does that second person? Yes. So how, how and why did you decide to do that? Was that always the plan? Or was that something you had to like, work through and figure out like, we’re going to use different voices here?
Julie Otsuka 5:36
No, actually, it was, like so much of my writing. It kind of happened very organically and accidentally, but I’d actually written the middle chapter dem PDD, probably two or three years after I sketched out those initial pool scenes. And but that was the first actually part of the book that was completed that chapter and I just wrote it in the voice. I don’t know why. It just seemed right for the material. And I wasn’t sure there were these. I don’t want to spell it too much. But there were these two things that I wanted to write about in the novel, I wasn’t sure how I, you know, deal with these two things. But that middle chatter DM PDD seemed like the kind of middle still point of the novel. It’s a kind of transitional chapter slash space. And I like, I think for myself as a writer, it keeps the material fresher. When I continue using different voices or points of view. I did that with my first novel. Also, each chapter was told from a different character’s point of view. And it’s just, it’s just livelier. For me, I think, yes, writer, so maybe that’s why I do for myself first.
Traci Thomas 6:44
It’s also lively for the reader to like, I was like, Wait, where are we? What’s happening? I have to, like, replug back in. But how do you know if you’re playing around with voice? How do you know when you’ve hit the right one? Like, does it just feel right to you? Or? Or do you take it to other people? Or do you read it out loud? Or like, how do you know that it’s working?
Julie Otsuka 7:01
I think I know when I’ve found usually the first sentence. Um, once I have that sentence, it’s really, it gives me the voice. And then I’m off and running. But I often really experiment a lot with you know, trying to tell a story different ways with different voices until I finally hit upon the one. That’s right. But once I know that first line, once I’ve kind of nailed it, then I just go with it.
Traci Thomas 7:29
I love this confidence, my gosh. Incredible.
Julie Otsuka 7:31
There’s a lot of doubt. That comes along the way. Believe me. It takes it could take months sometimes to arrive at the right first line.
Traci Thomas 7:41
Yeah, I mean, your sentences. I can’t even I can’t tell you how many people I texted was like, you have to read this book. These sentences are just like, delicious. They’re the most perfect sentences ever. And I want to know, like, and I and I have to be honest, I’m not really a sentence person. Like, I’m a reader. I’m not a writer. I don’t usually notice if a sentence is great all the time. But for your book, I was like, Oh my God, these sentences are like doing things to me. So when you’re writing it, do you know you have like great sentences? Or? Or are you reading them out loud? Are you? Are you editing them? Like what does it look like to create? Julie Ohtsuka sentences?
Julie Otsuka 8:22
No, I don’t think I’m aware of when I’ve written a good sentence, but I do trust my ear. So I do know, it’s really very Sonic. I think for me, I I know when a sentence sounds right. I just know I don’t it’s like an internal editor. I just I just know when something sounds right. But I don’t think about I don’t set out to intentionally write No, no beautiful sentences. I just I think each paragraph is kind of like a puzzle. And all the all the sentences have to fit together in the right way. And then everything has to sound right. So that is sort of my guide, I think is what things sound like.
Traci Thomas 8:58
Yeah, I love that. Because a lot of your sentences are very beautiful. But a lot of them are perfect in how like sparse they are and how tight they are and how clear they are. And, and I feel like so many writers try to write beautiful things. And I’m like, it doesn’t always have to be beautiful to be fantastic. It can just be like, clean, you know, there’s something about like, tightness that I that really makes me excited as a reader. You were mentioned before you sort of wrote that third chapter and some of the early stuff at different times. And when I was reading this book, I sort of was like, Oh, this feels a little like interconnected short stories, because there’s a lot of jumping around not only in voice but also in time and who were focused on. And I’m wondering when you were putting this book together, did you know those separate pieces were gonna go together? Did you approach it as your approached your previous novels or, or was it a different kind of approach for you having these separate pieces that you created at separate points in time?
Julie Otsuka 9:56
So I wrote that middle chapter to its end First after sketching out the first scenes of the pool chapters, but after I finished writing my last novel, I went back to those pool scenes. And I, I started with the first chapter, and I wrote it, you know, from front to back, and its entirety. And then after I wrote that, then I had the idea for the crack chapter, which was actually very fun to write. I kind of went to town with that. And then I knew that after that would come diem for DD. And after that, I wasn’t sure I don’t want to do it again, too much. But I didn’t know what the form of the next or the voice of the next two chapters would be, I sort of had a general idea, but I didn’t really write those two chapters in till I came to each one.
Traci Thomas 10:43
Is that, how do you come to it? Like, when you don’t know? How do you figure out what to do? Well,
Julie Otsuka 10:53
I knew the material that I wanted to deal with, I knew the place that I wanted to describe. So I just had, like, you know, kind of a massive details in my head. And some, you know, very loosely sketched out scenes, but I guess the problem was, what voice to use, what was the best way to put these scenes together, and in which voice, and I did try it, several different voices for the penultimate chapter. And then the last chapter, I went back to the second person, so it’s the same voice that was used in the third chapter, the you voice Yes, which I’ve also kind of fell in love with as well, I never really used it, I don’t think before my writing, and it’s, maybe I’m gradually, just kind of creeping up to the first person written in, it just seems like well, actually, the last chapter of my first novel was written in the in the first person, but it was very different first person, from myself, it was a male, older male voice. So, but I really did love the voice, it was a lot of fun.
Traci Thomas 12:00
It really is, like, I don’t I keep smiling because it really is fun. And like this book gets into very serious topics. And somehow, like with that you voice you were able to find the playfulness in some of these things that are very far from I would say playful. And, again, not trying to say too much. But some of this book is connected to parts of your story, and your family story. And I’m wondering, as a fiction writer, how you navigate how much of you and your family to put in and how much you’re creating, and what that process feels like for you finding that balance.
Julie Otsuka 12:37
I think that using the second person actually allowed me to have a little bit distance on myself and my own personal story, it somehow made it slightly other what it was writing about, I wasn’t writing about myself, you know, I was I was writing to a you. So that already made it suddenly seem like fiction and something other. And, you know, I used details from my own family’s history, and then inverted a lot of things. So I would never want someone to read this, as you know, as a memoir, because I think I’d be horrified. There’s just so much in there that that has no resemblance to you know, what happened in my own family’s history. And then there are parts that are the, you know, that are very close to what happened to my family. But I think just the familial elements, there were just things to there were just, you know, like sticks on the ground that I could use and perhaps build something and perhaps not, but I don’t think I could ever really write nonfiction because I really just like embellishing and making things up.
Traci Thomas 13:41
Like, I don’t want to fact check. Thank you very much. I respect this choice. I want to talk about the pool. And the swimmers because obviously, that’s a part we can talk about. And I think on another interview I heard you talk about as like the pool is sort of, you know, a metaphor for the world or the outside or whatever. And I’m sort of, you know, this is kind of like a bigger question. But I’m curious. How can you negotiate your fictional pool Julie’s pool, and like the history of actual pools in America and the deep hostility and segregation in those places? And did you think about that? And did you play with that at all? Or how did that work for you?
Julie Otsuka 14:24
Yes, no, I mean, I know I mean, I wanted to create a very democratic pool. We’re all are welcome. Because I know that historically, in this country pools have not been democratic spaces at all. You know, blacks were excluded from many, many public pools. Japanese Americans actually were excluded from from many, many public pools in the years leading up to World War Two. So they’re historically very unfair spaces, but in my pool on the page, I want it all to be welcome. And I intentionally never referred to To the races of the swimmers in the pool, I think because race is something I’ve been writing about, just for so, so long. I wanted I wanted it to be a space where there are people of different races, but you didn’t necessarily know who was what. And you might get a hint race through some of the names as to people’s ethnicities. But I didn’t want to lead with that. I think what I really loved about pool was that it didn’t matter who you were, it didn’t matter what color you were, you know, outside of the pool, it didn’t matter what your class status was, what your job was, the only thing that mattered was, you know, whether or not you are a fast, medium, or slow swimmer.
Traci Thomas 15:40
And your pool etiquette, right? Like, not like not touching people’s that like not being naughty. I am not a swimmer, but I dated a swimmer in high school, my first boyfriend ever. And I like learn how to swim. And I obviously, as a person who’s obsessed with talking, I despise swimming. So I was a little nervous picking up this book, I was like, I’m gonna hate this swimmers like, No, thank you. But it’s less to do with swimming than I thought. So I was very grateful for that. Yeah, I mean, I think this like location of the pool. And I, you know, I’ve heard people talk about this book, and a lot of different ways and talk about the crack and COVID. And all of these things, did your relationship or understanding of your pool and your crack and all of that stuff, did any of that sort of change from when you started writing this book, or sections of this book years and years ago, to when you sort of like, turn the book in, and we’re in the midst of this pandemic, and like crack in the society, like, all of a sudden, it feels like very on the nose in ways, you know?
Julie Otsuka 16:45
Yeah, I finished writing the crack chapter, you know, before COVID hit. And I actually didn’t go back and do a lot of rewriting the one chapter that I did, right? It was during the first year, the pandemic was the last chapter. So that kind of came together during a very different time. But I didn’t know I didn’t go back and adjust some of the crack details to fit with what was going on.
Traci Thomas 17:09
Did it change for you? Like, how you thought about your audience? Or like how they might understand the book? Like, did you ever think about what COVID would do to the work that you’ve done pre COVID? In this book?
Julie Otsuka 17:23
No, not really. I mean, I knew that the crack would be, it could be read as a metaphor for many things, you know, could be, you know, a bad diagnosis, or it could be read as as COVID. It could be many, many things. But no, I think I just really thought of it as being first like a physical crack in the world, you know.
Traci Thomas 17:48
So funny when I mean, I, again, I’m not a huge fiction person. And I think that I’m not a very good fiction reader, to be honest. Like, I’m not, I don’t do like the English class thing, where I like, come up with metaphors, all this stuff. And I didn’t, it never dawned on me that the crack was a metaphor, like, I just took the crack at face value. Terrifying. And then I was like, listening to other people talk about it. And I was like, wow, I have failed, because of course, sure, this could be a metaphor for, you know, things outside the pool, but also things that happened later in the book. And I felt like a real dum dum.
Julie Otsuka 18:18
So I think I think, no, I think I actually think very literally, when I’m, you know, when I’m making up my stories, I don’t think metaphorically at all. Although many readers, you know, they’ll mention the ask about symbolism and my books, and none of that’s intentional, but I think that whatever a reader brings to his story is true and correct for that reader. But, you know, I don’t really know any authors who go through and plant symbols in stories. You don’t think No, I think they really arise out of our unconscious. I think there’s a real desire there. But I think it’s something that we arrive at, you know, again, organically and unconsciously.
Traci Thomas 18:56
I love that idea. Because it makes me feel way better about my ability. You’re giving me some of your confidence. I appreciate this. Where did you get the idea for this book? Like? You said, it came to you, but like, how did you do this?
Julie Otsuka 19:14
I mean, I So you grew up in California, right? But in in Northern California, when
Traci Thomas 19:19
I grew up in Northern California, so the seawater is-
Julie Otsuka 19:20
Right, it’s too cold to swim. And so I did grow up, you know, for nine years in Southern California, and I was I just spent a lot of time at the beach. So I’ve always loved being in the water. And then when I moved to New York, which is where I’ve lived practically all of my adult life, I did begin swimming in a neighborhood recreational pool, and I was just fascinated by the world there. And despite, you know, just the attitudes of the people who swam there and you know, the groups that formed over the years and the women in the locker room, you know, I’m still I no longer swim, but I’m still in touch with some of the pool All ladies as I like to call them, and, you know, you learned something about people when you see them, you know, every day, right over the course of years, you get to know them in a kind of very special and unusual way. And also all these people had one shared passion, which was swimming and there were many of them were very, very, you know, kind of fanatic about it as well.
Traci Thomas 20:22
Yeah. swimmers have so many thoughts about you all you do you still swim?
Julie Otsuka 20:29
No, no, I have not seen for many, many years. I am I’m actually about to go back to the gym for the first time in two years, I think on Friday, so I’m a little nervous. But no, I switched my workouts on land just with the machines and the stationary bike. I just felt it was a better workout. For me personally, but I always said I’ve missed the pool, but I don’t know once I got out. It was fine.
Traci Thomas 20:53
Yeah, yeah, I still have not been back to the gym myself. I have peloton but you can see. So I do see it.
Julie Otsuka 20:58
I’m jealous. So do you miss it or the-
Traci Thomas 21:02
So I used to teach fitness classes I used to teach spin. And so I miss a lot of what goes into that, like teaching the classes in the community and all of that. But I don’t miss working out as much as I used to work out. sort of happy not doing it so much. But I do like I miss the communal aspect for sure. Because there it’s it has its own rhythms like you’re saying and there’s a there is some sort of like, have a democratic system and it has less to do and I live in LA and you know, Southern California LA is very like, social hierarchical. It’s about who’s the producer on this thing? Or who knows so and so. But in the spin to do it’s really not about that. And so I and like I got to know really cool, interesting people who outside of that space would have been like, you peasant girl? Yeah. I miss some of that stuff, but not so much the actual going to the gym? No, thank you. I do want to I kind of teased us, I think in the beginning, or maybe this was before we got on. But this book has a major shift from the beginning, which is about the pool that we’ve talked about, and to the things that we’re not that we shall not name. And I’m wondering how important that sort of element of surprise or change or or that switch was to you in writing it and how important it was that you surprise your audience are that you that you, you know, change the expectation sort of mid book, I know that the character who we spend a lot of time with does present themselves on the first page of the book. So I know that she’s there. But I’m just wondering, like, as an author, how concerned are you with changing expectations for your audience.
Julie Otsuka 22:44
I mean, I love the element of surprise as a reader and as a writer. And I knew that this character who we see, you know, in the very first paragraph is there but very peripherally in the beginning. So I didn’t want the reader necessarily to know that it was going to end up being this person’s story, but I knew where I wanted to go. And, you know, it, I knew that it also kind of seemed like a kind of radical, wacky structure and that it might not appeal to some people, some people might get very comfortable in the pool and want to stay there, you know, throughout the entire book, and I’m sorry, if people are disappointed, and then other readers, I think, have really wished that they could have just lived the you know, in the entire second half of the book and didn’t really care so much for the pool scene. So some kind of seems to be a mix, but um, no, I liked I liked the kind of radical shift. And just like when I’m watching, you know, if I watch a movie, I like not knowing what’s going to happen.
Traci Thomas 23:41
Same. So do you hate spoilers do because I despise a spoiler.
Julie Otsuka 23:45
I try not to read too much about if I’m going to watch a film. I try not to read too much about it. Yeah, I tried to read actually nothing about it. So I just go in cold.
Traci Thomas 23:53
Yeah, I’ve stopped reading book jackets. For this reason. I’ll read the first paragraph, maybe if I’m like trying to decide if I want to do something on the show. But otherwise, I’m like, No, thank you, which was sort of what was great about your book is so many people that I really respected. Were like, I don’t know if you’re gonna like this book, but I think you should read it and it’s so short. So even if you hate it, it’s really good. It’s well written, um, I was like, Okay, I have a little extra time. Like, let me just pick this book up. And then the minute I finished it, I immediately reached out to your team and was like, please, please, please, please, please make this for me.
Julie Otsuka 24:24
What do you normally read?
Traci Thomas 24:26
I love nonfiction. I just love nonfiction. I love a memoir. I love investigative journalism. But what I liked so much about your book, and I think that people who you know, like who so many people have been gushing about it are like you liked a novel and I think what it was for me is that it feels like real life. It doesn’t feel fantastical. It doesn’t even feel like heightened even though it is with the different voices. It feels like a world that we live in. It feels like a place that I know it feels like people that I know. And for me that ground ending in fiction is usually the thing that allows me in if I’m like trying to figure out a lot, I’m like, I can’t do it. I hate it here. There’s just too much, you know. And this book was just so well, again, I know it’s fiction, the people in the book felt very real to me. And like, they could be people that I could know. And I just, I just love, love, love that idea. I do want to talk for a second about the cover. And I’m sure you don’t design your covers and all those things. But your first two books are very similar looking. And this book looks very different. And it’s all the same publisher. So I’m wondering if you had any say in that, if you were interested in that part of it. I know you have a background in art. So I’m just curious sort of about the cover of the swimmers.
Julie Otsuka 25:45
Oh, yeah. No, I’m obsessed with covers are really important. Actually. I do too. Yeah, no, it really and plus, I’ve, you know, my background is in painting and sculpture. So that’s kind of how I was trained. So I rely a lot on my eye, there was actually an earlier version of the cover that I really, really loved. But it was, it was a really kind of way out their cover. It was kind of yellow. And we saw these, you know, different kind of swimmers, they almost looked like kind of aliens just kind of all swimming together towards the surface. But it was this bright, bright yellow, which I just thought was kind of great. But in the end, we decided not to go with that. And I love the final cover. There was a lot of tweaking of every little detail with the swimmers look like.
Traci Thomas 26:30
You know, looking at my copyright.
Julie Otsuka 26:33
Yeah, yeah, a lot of thought went into that cover. But I’m very, I’m very happy with the final product. I actually I just saw the French cover. And it’s completely different. But I love it. It’s it’s, it’s very, very kind of graphic. It’s, you know, does not rely on photographs. And it’s a lot of fun. But it’s different. It’s you know, it’s kind of fun to see how somebody else conceives of, you know, a cover for the same, the exact same book. But I think that the publisher wanted to keep the size of this book, The it has exact same dimensions as my first two novels, and I think very similar font, so they want to keep the look the same. But um, but yeah, the cover is very different. And I’m glad, I think, yeah, just a little bit lighter.
Traci Thomas 27:14
Yeah, I love it. It’s really eye catching. And I agree. I think covers are so important that anyone who says don’t judge a book by a cover is wrong. I think that you do you even if you shouldn’t you do? You know? Yeah, exactly. If you are seeing person-
Julie Otsuka 27:34
And especially, you know, we see things now all on screen. So, you know, covers, I think or maybe even more important than it were before. It’s not like walking into bookstores as much.
Traci Thomas 27:43
Right, right. Right. Right. That’s such a good point. I didn’t ask you this before. But I am curious what part of this book came easily to you, and what part of writing this book was the most difficult.
Julie Otsuka 28:00
I think the pool chapters were the easiest and the most fun to write. They were just these wonderful wild worlds, I wanted to really pardon the metaphor, but just dip into bad bad.
Traci Thomas 28:17
We love it. We love that fun.
Julie Otsuka 28:20
And the last chapter, I think was probably the most difficult to write I didn’t know for a long time, like how I was going to approach that, or what voice to use. And it was just it was tough material to and, and yet, it was probably at the same time, the most satisfying to write. So it was the most difficult, you know, material wise. Also, conceptually, it was the most difficult to conceptualize. But once I had the idea, then you know, I just began to write and then it actually for me, it came together fairly quickly. Like it took about a year I think that during the first year that pen and for me that’s that’s just like lightning speed.
Traci Thomas 29:00
How long did it take you to write your other books?
Julie Otsuka 29:02
My first novel, I think it took six years and the second one was eight or nine. Okay, got this one took even longer and I don’t know why they’re all about the same length actually. It seems to be my just my natural length. I I don’t know why I love. I always aim to write longer, but I seem to be. I don’t know,
Traci Thomas 29:21
Don’t ever write longer. I love a short book. Short books are it’s just it’s such a treat. Leave them wanting more people. If I could, if I could slash 100 pages from every book over 300 pages. I would no problem. I just it’s such a it’s just such an enjoyable experience to read a short book for me. I don’t know. Do you? Like how do you know when you’re done? Do you know does it feel complete to you?
Julie Otsuka 29:47
Uh huh. I think I know immediately when I’m done. I don’t usually have any qualms. I’m like, okay. But it could take a long time. I think for the last chapter it was, I guess it was a question of Finding the last scene, you know, because the last scene is sort of a flashback, it was, you know, and I, I’m sure that last scene was placed elsewhere along the way, probably wasn’t at the very end initially, was probably where it, you know, could have been chronologically. But then once I saw I’ll just pop this to the very end, if at all, that’s the perfect ending. That’s the note that I want to end it. And I’m you know that that was it.
Traci Thomas 30:24
I love. Okay, I want to talk to you about how you write, logistically, I saw on your website that it says every afternoon you write in your neighborhood cafe, is this still true?
Julie Otsuka 30:35
No, sadly, I stopped going to the cafe when the pandemic started. So it’s another space that I thought I would really really miss, like the pool, you know, and I do really miss it. And yet I you know, I never I didn’t know if I was I’d be able to write at home in my apartment. But But I was. But I’m, I’m really dying to get back at this point. But I just don’t feel like going into an indoor space. You know that it’s crowded yet. So. But no, I wrote my first two novels in this cafe. And I’m very attached to the family that runs the cafe. And I’ve known just regulars from the neighborhood, you know, for 20 years, plus, some of us have been going there. And it’s just a really, really special place.
Traci Thomas 31:20
And what’s your order when you go?
Julie Otsuka 31:23
Oh, it’s gotten more and more boring over the years. I started out with a croissant and I think a black coffee. And then at some point I think I switched to there was a sandwich store that opened up next door you know run by the same owners and I would just have wheat toast with butter and then coffee and then towards the end I was just I had pared it down to ginger tea. So I think it’s got dollar and dollar my orders the years went on. Yeah, but I love I just I really do love writing in public spaces I love just the kind of energy that you feel, you know, I have you know, favorite table sharing buddies and I have one friend and she would always save a seat for me and she texts me around the same time to sit or you come in because this guy just left and I’ll save your seat for you if you want me to and and I walk in there it would be so MSL that and I just miss you know serendipity and meeting people you wouldn’t otherwise me and I miss overhearing weird snatches of dialogue, you know that you can copy down in your notebook and maybe use at some future point in his story. And just you know, the clutter of dishes and you know, glasses and just the hum of voices I just I found it to be a very kind of calming zen place, although it was often just frenetic and really crowded and but I loved all that. It just I love that it was it was about was just kind of about being a space that was really beyond my control. Whatever happened happened.
Traci Thomas 32:50
Yeah, I miss cafes to don’t feel badly about not wanting to go to crowded indoor spaces. I still am not doing you’re not so you’ve been very careful this whole time. Yeah, I have small children and they’re not old enough to get vaccinated. So that is a very, you know, very strong deterrent, but I also am just a nervous person, and I don’t like risk. And so for me, it’s like, I don’t eat and I live in LA it’s not cold here. Like I can go back and be outside and still, you know, socialize. So for me, it’s just a no. Hard No. Okay, so you’re not obviously going to cafes right now. How are you writing at home? What’s your setup there? Are you having your coffee and toast? Are you drinking your ginger tea? We love snacks and beverages on this podcast. So please indulge Do you listen to music? Do you like put on ambient sound? How are you? How are you creating at home?
Julie Otsuka 33:41
I so I don’t know if you can see. I just taped up this paper to my wall. So I’ve got like, like, like, Oh, yeah.
Traci Thomas 33:50
Very, it’s very homeland.
Julie Otsuka 33:54
I have other ones too, that just have a lot of notes on them. So I think because I’m very visual. I just like being able to see stuff and I can rearrange things and I’ll write something down today. You know that I’ll later run across that I forgot. I forgotten that it ever written that note and it will just say oh yeah, that would actually be a good scene. What am I right, that scene today? So that’s something that I did. I’ve been doing more recently I think the walls so no kind of looks like, like the home of a crazy person.
Traci Thomas 34:24
Yes, we love this for you.
Julie Otsuka 34:26
That’s all over the walls, but it’s my space. So this is what I’m doing with it. Maybe I should just put up a whiteboard or something. But um, I can’t really commit to that yet. But
Traci Thomas 34:36
But do you do you have snacks and beverages at home?
Julie Otsuka 34:39
Yeah, no, I didn’t. I don’t really have a routine that much anymore. I mean, I have like my, you know, my meals that I eat and then I snack a lot in between, you know, a lot of nuts. And, you know, a lot of fruit. It’s a little again, I’m not like, well, I don’t really cook so, you know, it’s a little Land, the stuff that I can find in my own apartment, it’s not the same as just like going to the cafe and ordering a pastry if I feel like it. Yeah. So you know, now it’s like coffee with a little bit of soy, a lot of soy milk, actually. And that’ll keep me going for a while, but I can’t, I’m nice to be able to drink like five or six cups of coffee when I was younger, but knives can’t do that now anymore. So I missed that. But that just kind of continual buzz that was just great. I think. Maybe that’s why it didn’t take me as long to write my first two novels. I don’t know.
Traci Thomas 35:34
I’m curious. So we talked, we touched on this earlier, your background as a painter and a sculptor? How do you feel like that informs your writing and your approach to writing and the way that you think about writing? Because I feel like, you know, that’s a really different way to create or a different, it’s different. And so I’m wondering how it informs the work that you do?
Julie Otsuka 35:54
I think it does, it’s hard for me to know exactly how but I feel like, I really learned how to see the world at first as a sculptor. And I’ve told this anecdote before, but the first thing that we ever learned to look at and sculpt before doing like, our first head, you know, was a calcium or bone, which is just this really abstract, beautiful, beautiful thing. And you have no preconceived idea of what it should look like, you’re just looking at these lines and how they move through space. You know, it’s very, it’s just very abstract. And that’s, I think it’s kind of how I go about my route, I just look at something like a little dumbly, you know, just like, I just kind of look at it and try to figure out what it is, you know, and just okay, what am I actually seeing here? What am I actually trying to describe? And so I think, I hope, I hope I kind of keep that way of thinking went, you know, towards whatever it is that I’m approaching for the first time, but I like that element of something new. I like to deal with new subject matter with each book, I don’t like to repeat myself. But I think I did learn from painting just about the discipline of putting in the hours at the studio every day. And then when you sketch I would sketch out very loosely on a canvas scene, and then just try to bring up the details simultaneously not fixate on any one detail. And that’s my same strategy for writing a paragraph, I’ll just sketch out, you know, the sentences loosely, and then just kind of gradually bring everything into focus. Kind of it’s, I guess, it’s a very overall way of working. So I did, I did, I do feel like I am printed as an artist, you know, on the visual world. That was my way of learning how to work. And I feel like a lot of my writing is also about looking and just seeing
Traci Thomas 37:37
How did you make the switch? How did you know you wanted to write failure.
Julie Otsuka 37:42
I also got my 20s, I started graduate program and painting in Bloomington, Indiana. And I dropped out after a couple months, I just couldn’t handle the pressure of having to produce for a critique. And I moved to New York, and then I thought I’d That’s it, I’m done with painting. But I got very, you know, I really started to miss painting again. So I enrolled at the New York Studio School for a couple years down on a street in the village and, and then I just at a certain point, I hit this wall, I think that I had an idea of the kind of the kinds of paintings that I wanted to make, I could see them in my head, but it just wasn’t technically capable of executing when I was sitting in my mind. Um, so when I stopped painting, I began going to my neighborhood cafe. And I just began reading a lot of contemporary fiction for solace. Because I was just so bummed out that I just failed at this one thing that I’d always wanted to do. And I just found like, I love stories, I just love being immersed in other people’s stories. And then after a couple years of just really reading, I just began to tentatively try my hand at writing and I just found like, it just came to me, for whatever reason much more easily I think then painting did, I think I’m just more comfortable with the medium of words. And with paint and words, you can always what I hated about painting is that I have these gorgeous first drafts on the canvas. And then you can’t just stop there, you have to paint and you have to continue painting, and I will just lose them. But with with writing, you can always save your notes for the first draft, you can have as many draft copies as you want. And like I can always go back and because often the first draft is the freshest in a way it’s when you just you know, just gotten this idea. And things are very kind of immediate, and you’re kind of going to the heart of what it is that you might eventually you know, end up saying, but you might not know it yet but there’s a seed there that and so you never really lose that if you’re if you’re working you know on a computer.
Traci Thomas 39:38
Right? So I love I love this story because I am a failed artist of another kind before when I was an actress and a dancer or your whole life. Yeah, I went to NYU I studied acting, and then I wasn’t that good. I don’t know.
Julie Otsuka 39:55
You know that you weren’t that good. Or when did you know I
Traci Thomas 39:59
I think I I realized I wasn’t that good. When I had friends in college who were just so good. You know, you can see, like, I just had friends and I was like, I’d much rather watch you do things than me try because I’m not as good as you. And so I always knew I wasn’t the best dancer. But I was always a very good performer. Like, I’m not as good in rehearsal. I’m really good on stage, you know, like I can, I can hit the right know when it when it needs to happen. But I couldn’t quite figure out what the thing was not that podcasting is quite the same art, as you know, theater or dance, or at least not as long established. There’s not as much training and things like that. But it definitely is a shift from what I was trained to do, though. Similar, more similar, I think, than sculpting and writing perhaps, but maybe not.
Julie Otsuka 40:46
It seems very different to me even more different
Traci Thomas 40:48
Yeah. Oh, it dies.
Julie Otsuka 40:49
Oh, we’re going from the physical. I mean, it’s just so very physical, right? Yeah. Yeah. I mean, so did you continue to try to act and dance for many, many years before you stopped or
Traci Thomas 41:00
So I stopped dancing. First, I was an I was an actress and dancer in high school. When I went to college, I had to commit to either dancing or acting. So I committed to acting because I thought, well, I my body might fail me at some point. But I could still be an actor, you know. So I was like, let me do like the practical thing. And I can always take dance class, wherever I am, I can take a dance class, I don’t know if I need a degree in dance. And then I, you know, ended up working more professionally in the dance world, I did a lot of choreography and things like that. And then when I moved to LA, funny enough, I was like, I don’t want to be an actor anymore. Like, I’m not good at it. I just don’t like it here. And so I sort of just just stopped both within within a little bit of each other. And then this podcasting came totally just like had an idea. And I like listening to podcasts. And I just kind of tried it and it worked-
Julie Otsuka 41:49
I guess. And you’re just a natural, right?
Traci Thomas 41:53
I don’t think so. Yeah, it just it works for me. I’m a curious person. And so I think like this interview style, I don’t think I could do those, like, you know, serial podcasts where it’s like, you write out a whole thing, and you tell the story in that way. But that’s not my skill set. But asking questions and talking to people I’ve always loved and, and you know, I have someone on the show, it’s because I’m curious in their work, or I’m curious in their story. And so it’s easy to be enthusiastic about it, because it’s genuine, like, I never have people on where I hate the book. And I don’t care about the person, like, you know, which is sort of like what you’re saying about writing is like, you are not interested in saying the same thing over and over, you’re looking to tell these different stories and like, it’s whatever sparks something in you that you want to spend time with.
Julie Otsuka 42:35
Right? Um, and I don’t mean, do you miss acting sometimes,
Traci Thomas 42:40
I don’t miss act, I miss dancing, I love dancing, and I still dance a lot. Like I love dancing. And I miss sometimes like being in the theater, because podcasting is very solitary. And theater is so collaborative. So I definitely miss that part of it. But I don’t I don’t miss like memorizing lines, God no. And I love reading. And so because my podcasting allows me to do something else that I love to do, you know, I was reading as an actor, but just in different ways. So I don’t I don’t miss it. No. And I also love that I can now go and support other actors without any sense of like jealousy. Like, I get to go see my friends on Broadway and be like, You are the greatest actor that ever lived. And like, I didn’t audition for this part also, so I don’t meet myself a little bit too. You know,
Julie Otsuka 43:28
it sounds like a hard world. I think the world of acting sounds sounds actually worse than that. Then the world of writing. It just sounds it’s just really
Traci Thomas 43:35
You think I find writing songs? Oh, yeah, writing is a little more collaborative. Like, I’m not collaborative, but communal, like writers support each other a little bit more.
Julie Otsuka 43:43
Yeah, I mean, I mean, I can’t really I mean, I don’t know what actors are like, but yeah, it just seems like it just really hard.
Traci Thomas 43:54
I mean, I think isn’t painting really hard? That is a really hard roll to visual.
Julie Otsuka 43:58
You don’t have to go like addition. You know, I mean, that’s the scariest thing. No painting. I mean, I love I love being just one of my studio, but at a certain point you have to show you know, you can’t just you know, you have to do you still paint? No, I can’t even casually sketch or anything. And I don’t you know, I don’t feel a desire to. But I love I still love looking at paintings. It still just gives me a lot of pleasure. And that’s enough, you know, for I think what I’ve, I think I’ve always just loved reading, you know, yeah, and now I kind of get to do something that’s very, very related to reading.
Traci Thomas 44:28
I feel like you and I have similar but different paths, both love reading and do something related to reading
Julie Otsuka 44:33
So what about anxiety dreams like I had for a long time, I would have anxiety dreams. And it wasn’t about a blank page. It was about like a blank canvas. It was like I don’t know. Do you have anxiety dreams about like auditioning.
Traci Thomas 44:45
I used to I don’t anymore. I have anxiety, real life anxiety about a lot of things. And usually all of my like anxiety dreams are first day of school dreams. And that’s even now still they always work. Can and they are even now still, like have this first day. This first thing is coming and I’m terrified and I am unprepared which is of course my nightmare that being unprepared but not so much about like being in the theater. I don’t have dreams about that so much. But I did used to have like, I forgot my line dreams and those types of things. Going up on a line is really not fun.
Julie Otsuka 45:25
You’re so exposed. I mean, you’re not I mean, as a writer, as a painter as a sculptor, you’re just doing it in private. I mean, nobody’s really watching so
Traci Thomas 45:32
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s so true. I studied Shakespeare in one of my best friends who is a nally three time Tony nominee, so it’s fine. He’s fine. We were doing Richard the Third and he totally went up on a line and it was Shakespeare. It’s hard to fake your way out because it’s you know, iambic pentameter and it’s older English and all this stuff. He just turned to the other woman on stage reached his hand out and goes, you need to go five days days. Literally not the lie just in plain American English. Just like such a great moment. So you know it happens but he again he’s a three time Tony nominee. He’s fine. Now he’s, he’s doing great. Yeah, okay. Wait, I have to ask you this question. This is like one of my favorite and most important questions. Gotta get everybody on the record on this. What is a word? You can never spell correctly on the first try?
Julie Otsuka 46:26
She, I mean, accommodate.
Traci Thomas 46:28
Oh, so hard.
Julie Otsuka 46:30
It’s all the consonants- two c’s are two M’s? I don’t really know. I don’t know. I always forget, I think there’s one of one and two of the other, or maybe maybe two of both, but I can never really remember.
Traci Thomas 46:43
I thought there could be two Ds. So I’m glad that you’ve narrowed it down for me. Um, okay, I heard you on the on your New York Times interview. And you sort of casually mentioned that there was something that you were working on that was very different? And can you share any of that information with my audience? And also you can fully say, Absolutely not, not really.
Julie Otsuka 47:02
All I can say is that I’m using the you voice, this idea, the second person, that’s all I can really say it’s way too early. And I have this thing that I call like being inside the egg. So I don’t like to talk too much about something that I’m working on. I don’t want to judge you know, I’m like working this protected. womb like space, of course, sounds a woowoo. But I want once I’m out, you know, when something’s finished, once I’m out of eggs, and you can people can say whatever they want, it’s fine. And people can criticize. I’m totally fine with it. I’m open to suggestions. But while I’m in the middle of something, I keep it to myself. So yeah, but it is that voice that I’ve kind of newly fallen for this, I listen,
Traci Thomas 47:46
I will wait patiently for whatever it is stay in your egg as long as you need to make it the perfect thing. I totally respect that. I always ask that question when I have a sense that they’re working on something, or people are working on something. But I also fully respect the privacy of the creativity because it’s some people care a lot. And that’s super important to protect. I’m that way too. So as far as the swimmers go, who’s the coolest person you’ve heard of, or heard from? Or connected with? Who read the book or liked the book or reached out to?
Julie Otsuka 48:18
I don’t know about cool, huh?
Traci Thomas 48:21
Well, that’s cool as subjective to you, whatever cool means to you.
Julie Otsuka 48:24
Yeah. I mean, I’ve had some really just sweet emails from just like, regular ordinary swimmers, many of them older who are dealing with the thing that’s dealt with in the second half of the novel, got it, the thing that shall not be mentioned, and I love hearing from those folks, you know, they’re just like, they’re just people on the planet, you know, you love to love to swim. And for whatever reason, the novel has struck a chord with them. So it’s kind of great.
Traci Thomas 48:50
I have a hunch that the reason it struck a chord with them is because it’s brilliant, but that’s just my guess. I don’t know. I can’t say for sure. I’m so curious how you’ll answer this question for people who like love, adore the swimmers. What other book would you recommend to them? That’s maybe in conversation with what you’ve done.
Julie Otsuka 49:11
Oh, boy. I wasn’t even I mean, I wasn’t I wasn’t even thinking of other book this book just kind of just seem so weird. And it seemed to kind of kind of came out of nowhere, and I can’t it’s not even like other books that I can think about. I can’t really come up with a quick answer. I don’t really know.
Traci Thomas 49:29
This was my big fear because I also cannot compare it to anything that I’ve ever read. But I was hoping you would be like, Oh, it’s sort of in conversation with Okay, sorry.
Julie Otsuka 49:40
Like a college roommate was saying it kind of she read. I think it was Patricia Lockwood’s novel. It also has these two halves and then the second half is very personal, but I haven’t read it. Okay. So, so obviously I wasn’t in conversation with it because I haven’t read it but but she said it kind of seems similar the two books kind of seem similar, but okay.
Traci Thomas 50:03
Well, everybody, sometimes it’s nice to read something that’s unlike anything else. Um, I think, just so refreshing. Okay, I have only two more questions for you. One is what do you hope that people will keep in mind as they read your book?
Julie Otsuka 50:16
I think, like the importance of community, I feel like that’s something that I really, really miss, you know, dirt like now as we’re entering, like year three of the pandemic, and I mean, all the spaces that I’ve mentioned in this interview, the two spaces, like the cafe and the pool are these communal spaces, and I feel like, in some way, they just save us, you know, but um, I don’t know when I’m going to get when I get back to either of those spaces personally. But yeah, I love that people, you know, the pool kind of washed out for each other. And that was my experience of, you know, the pool and, you know, in my real life as well. So the the women that I got to know, in the locker room, people just were just, you know, they were watching out for each other, and I liked that. And also just, I guess, I would hope that readers would take away sort of, like, just the sheer joy of being a body and water, you know, just the sheer physicality of it all.
Traci Thomas 51:11
Yeah, I love that. Okay, last question. If you could have one person dead or alive, read the swimmers who would you want it to be?
Julie Otsuka 51:18
Oh. I mean, this is probably giving away too much. But maybe my mother. She died a few years ago, but maybe her but I and again, I can’t really say more than that.
Traci Thomas 51:35
Yeah, we won’t say more. Okay, everyone. This is Julie Otsuka. She’s the author of my favorite novel of the year so far, the swimmers. I don’t know if anything’s going to top it. It was such a share. Wonderful experience as a reader. Thank you so much for being here. Julie.
Julie Otsuka 51:55
Traci, thank you. It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed talking to you.
Traci Thomas 51:59
And everyone else we will see you in the Stacks.
Alright y’all that does it for us today. Thank you again to Julie for being my guest and thank you to Josie Kals for making this interview possible. Remember the stacks book club pick for April Doppelgangbanger by Cortney Lamar Charleston. We will be discussing the book on Wednesday, April 27. With Nate Marshall. If you love the show and want inside access to it, please head to patreon.com/thestacks to join the stackspack. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stacks wherever you listen to your podcasts. And if you’re listening through Apple podcast, be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stacks follow us on social media at the stacks pod on Instagram at the stacks pod underscore on Twitter and check out our website the stocks podcast.com This episode of the stacks was edited by Christian Duenas and production assistance came from Lauren Tyree. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas.
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