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Professor’s book mixes ‘monsters and magic’ of Japanese folklore

Book Cover: "Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone"
St. Olaf faculty member Sequoia Nagamatsu’s new book is a story collection inspired by Japanese folklore and pop culture.

St. Olaf College Assistant Professor of English Jeremy (Sequoia) Nagamatsu says that story collections are the mixtapes of the literary world.

If that’s true, his new book certainly has a track for everyone.

The book, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, is a story collection that mixes the monsters and magic of Japanese folklore with the everyday chaos of human relationships.

As Nagamatsu celebrates the launch of Where We Go When All We Were is Gone, he took time to answer a few questions about how a Japanese fireworks show inspired one of his stories, why the publication process is such a “strange beast,” and what it really means to treat writing as a job.

Tell me a little about your book. Are there any key messages that you want to come across to your readers?
Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone is a story collection inspired by Japanese folklore and pop culture. The stories all deal with estranged relationships, marital problems, and loss of loved ones. And they use the fantastical Godzilla, ghosts, folk heroes as a way of illuminating the human condition during times of chaos. I shy away from prescribing messages, though. My vision will not necessarily be the reader’s. But if I’ve been true to my characters, it is my hope that readers will recognize at least some aspect of themselves in the monsters and the magic in my stories.

What did you draw inspiration from as you wrote this book?
I lived in Japan teaching English at companies like Sharp and Mitsubishi for two years. While there, I attended several firework shows, which were nothing like I had experienced anywhere else, and I became fascinated with the competitive aspect at these shows, as well as the process of how the firework shells were made. That’s when I conceived of the oldest and the last story in the collection, which focuses on a father completing a firework shell his dead son had designed in the hopes that his spirit will move on. So, my time in Japan in this case and in the case of many of the other stories was certainly influential. Of course, I went to the usual tourist destinations, but I was more often drawn to places off the beaten path where the folklore I was reading in my spare time seemed more tangible.

Assistant Professor of English Jeremy (Sequoia) Nagamatsu
Assistant Professor of English Jeremy (Sequoia) Nagamatsu says he hopes readers of his new book “will find something that moves them, delights them, or makes them think.”

What was the most exciting or rewarding moment in the publication process? What about the most frustrating?
I think the most exciting part of the publication process was getting “that phone call” from an editor and hearing that they have been thinking about my manuscript and would like to publish it. The publication process is really a strange beast, particularly when it comes to short stories. Several agents had approached me over the year based on journal and magazine publications but had little interest in a collection. “Let me know when the novel is done” was the typical answer. From the time I finished the collection and began sending it out to the time it was accepted, a half a year had passed. Another year would pass before I would actually get to hold the book. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a frustration, but the reality is that by the time I did my first reading to publicize the book, I was already a different writer, working on a second collection (this time much more grounded in reality) and novel revisions.

Is there anything in your book that you think the St. Olaf community might find of particular interest?
I hope that people who happen to read the book will find something that moves them, delights them, or makes them think. Poetry and story collections are sort of the mixtapes of the literary world. There is cohesion and maybe even a sense of beginning and closure. But the tracks along the way provide a diverse experience that I think can speak to the liberal arts and especially those interested in structural forms and genres of writing, Japanese literature and culture, and folklore.

What advice do you have for St. Olaf students who have an interest in becoming writers themselves?
Read widely, first and foremost. That might sound obvious, but I don’t think even established writers do it nearly enough. Part of the reason I love teaching is that it forces me to wade in literary territories that I don’t naturally gravitate toward or practice very often. And there are always useful tools waiting for writers in places that they might least expect it.

Second, hold yourself accountable. It’s easy to ignore writing a story or poem or essay if you see it as a hobby. But if you treat it like a second job that has set hours that you stick to, you’re less likely to make excuses. A lot of people like the idea of being a writer but then realize that in order for that to happen they actually have to write (and read critically). And that means a lot of hours alone, sitting down, and typing.

And finally, form a literary community. Whether that starts at St. Olaf, in the Twin Cities, or further afield, interacting with writers and editors will not only give you an awareness of how writers and presses work but also offer you avenues for formal and informal criticism and professional development. Help your fellow writer because you never know where those relationships will lead. Writing is a solitary act, but nobody gets better alone and nobody certainly publishes professionally by themselves.