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Author Holly Thompson MAG
Holly Thompson is a cultural chameleon. Though raised in New England, Holly is a long-time resident of Japan and teaches creative writing and American culture, among other things, at Yokohama City University. Her writing reflects the cross-cultural stories and identities she experienced in her life.
Holly's new book, Orchards, follows the story of Kana Goldberg, the classmate of a bullied girl who unexpectedly commits suicide. Kana, who is half-Jewish American and half-Japanese, is sent to Japan for the summer, where she comes to terms with her feelings of guilt.
Written in free verse poetry, Orchards explores classic Japanese culture while commenting on contemporary issues.
Nena: Why did you choose to write a young adult novel dealing with tough issues like bullying and mental illness?
Holly Thompson: I didn't initially set out with a plan to write about bullying or mental illness. Often we don't choose our stories; they choose us. With Orchards, I set about writing lines of poetry that began swirling in my head after suicide touched my life. Bullying and mental illness are tough issues, but they are all around us.
In Orchards, Kana's town is shocked by the suicide of a bullied girl, Ruth. The blame is immediately focused on the younger generation of “stupid, spiteful” girls at the school. Today, similar stories of bullying and suicide appear all too often in the news, with real-life stigma certain to impact the survivors of suicide. Who is truly responsible for the suicides? The bullies and the silent observers, or the school, parents, and society?
There are no easy answers. We all need to ask ourselves if we are doing our best to create environments of tolerance and empathy – in our homes, schools, communities, and workplaces.
Are we speaking up when we see abusive behavior? Are we falling into abusive patterns ourselves – harping on others' faults, speaking with stinging sarcasm, singling out those who are different? Are we doing enough to stop cruel behavior before it escalates?
Are we doing our best to listen to peers, colleagues, and family members – not only to their words but their gestures and actions that might indicate a state of depression? Are we offering clear avenues to help for those who need it?
If we can all learn to recognize signs of depression, we can be better equipped to guide friends and family to professional help. Many who attempt suicide but survive, go on to live full lives, grateful they survived.
You dedicate Orchards to “survivors everywhere.” Was this novel inspired by a personal story?
Orchards is dedicated to the three individuals whose suicide directly impacted me. First was a friend's 14-year-old daughter; I learned of her death while holding my infant daughter in my arms. The news haunted me for years. About 10 years later, my brother-in-law committed suicide, leaving a grieving wife, two young children, and many devastated family members who had tried for years to help him cope with bipolar disorder. Soon after that, a dear friend lost his wife to suicide. At that point, I started hearing Kana's voice in my head, and I began writing the first chapters of Orchards.
Do you believe that society needs to be more informed about mental illness? Is this book as much about increasing awareness of mental illness as it is about bullying?
Yes, absolutely. We all need to be better informed about mental illness, and we need to be better trained to recognize symptoms of depression in particular. Teens need to be familiar with the signs of depression and need to know how to point friends, family members, and themselves toward professional help when they recognize those signs. Perhaps Orchards can help generate some discussion on depression and teen wellness.
In writing the novel from Kana's perspective, what do you hope readers will take away from it?
I hope readers take away several things. One is awareness of how profoundly a suicide affects survivors, even individuals who might not be considered close to the victim. Schools and communities need to be tuned into survivors' needs. A suicide survivor, whether a friend or family member, close or peripheral, feels so many emotions – loss, anger, regret, guilt, fear, blame, despair, love.
I hope that through reading Kana's story, readers might make more effort at respect and empathy, and that they will take those important small steps to reach out to their classmates sooner. Those small efforts may actually help prevent a suicide.
What are the implications of bearing witness to bullying and doing nothing to stop it? Do you believe that Kana's guilt is justified?
Bullying escalates when it is condoned and allowed to continue. Witnesses who do nothing to stop nasty comments, nothing to halt abusive actions, nothing to intervene directly or indirectly via help from others are complicit in a way.
Kana may not have been able to prevent Ruth's suicide. But she could have allowed herself to recognize her loneliness and withdrawal. I like to ask teens what they think Kana and her friends could have done differently so that Ruth might have reached out to one of them. If Ruth had had one sympathetic girlfriend to call in the middle of the night when she felt low, would the outcome have been different?
What is your opinion of high school cliques, or “atoms”? What can outside parties do to reduce some of the toxic effects of cliques in schools?
First, school programs that help create environments of tolerance and respect are essential. Programs in teen wellness and anger management are important, as are those that strive to improve self-esteem in young girls. Schools and youth groups need to help raise awareness of the problems associated with cliques. And we all need to do our part to create communities where individual differences are accepted.
Young girls seem to get into the habit of basing their opinions and ideals around those of the most popular person at school. How does this follower mentality play into bullying in the novel and in real life?
Studies show that teens often make irresponsible decisions when they are with their peers rather than alone. Many teens who might go along with a bully when in a group might not bully on their own.
Kana and her friends were followers. Bullying is fed by followers who contribute to the bullying or who don't stop the abusive words or actions.
Teens who have higher self-esteem are often those with the confidence to be diplomats and negotiators among their peers. Teens should consider giving themselves time away from social scenes to do things with just one friend, not to feel they have to operate as a group.
Orchards focuses on themes of healing and forgiveness. Do you believe that forgiveness in the wake of tragedy is attainable in real life? Regardless, is forgiveness a reality we should aim for more often?
The difficulty for Kana and her peers is that they have to come to terms with the fact that their actions and inaction may have contributed to Ruth's feelings of hopelessness. There are many paths to healing. Kana's path is different from those of her peers. Speaking directly to Ruth was one way for Kana to begin to heal. Working on the memorial is another.
What I am hoping readers will consider even more than forgiveness is that they will think deeply about how we can prevent anger from escalating, how we can better mediate for our friends and family members, how we can develop into more caring, tolerant, and empathetic individuals so that we can be certain we do not simply stand by while abuse takes place. What is often considered minor bullying is not minor to the one being bullied.
Kana is a character many teens can relate to, in terms of being a bystander to bullying. How did you create this understated and authentic character? Did your own adolescence help you write this novel?
I cried, literally, through every draft of Orchards I wrote. Kana's story pains me. When I was drafting Orchards, my kids and husband would come home and find me with red eyes and say, “Oh, you've been writing again.”
Having lost friends and a family member to suicide, I knew all too well the fluctuating emotions that follow. To write the book, I had to tap into those emotions and center them in that 14-year-old time of great confusion and possibility.
I tried to balance the pain with moments of humor while looking at the world through Kana's eyes. I conjured myself at 14. I listened to teens around me. I drew on conversations with bicultural teens. I wrote vignettes and moments, I enacted conversations in my head. I revised and revised then extracted and replaced words until the story felt understated and true to Kana.
What inspired you to write a novel in the form of free-verse poetry? What were the benefits and drawbacks of this undertaking?
With Orchards I felt I had to write in verse, because Kana's emotions were too intense for prose. I wanted to capture the intensity I knew I needed to tell the story in as few words as possible. I have always written poetry. And I have always written fiction. Separately. But this was the first time that I let myself blend fiction and poetry. I loved the opportunity to control page turns – deciding when to grant the reader a pause before turning a page and using that pause for effect. This is something you can't really do with ordinary novel prose. Verse narrative can be difficult to sustain for an entire novel, though, and the form makes dialogue a challenge.
What do you wish you had known about writing or the publishing industry before you became the professional you are now?
Maybe that you can tell your own story in your own unique way, but you must also be knowledgeable about what works in the market today. This doesn't mean you need to adapt your style or your plot to match what is currently being published, but rather that you need to make sure your work will stand apart from other works, be completely unique, and yet follow some basic style guidelines.
As a pre-published author, you also need to keep an open mind about trying new approaches, new forms, and new ways of developing your stories. You need to always be exercising those writing muscles. Above all, you need to read. Constantly.
How have you grown as a writer since your first book?
First, I've learned how to research more methodically and professionally, going directly to primary resources and taking more photos than I think will be necessary. I'm also less shy about requesting interviews.
Second, I am perhaps more relaxed and less self-conscious as a writer, no longer putting the brakes on my tangents that sometimes lead to what could be the break-through scenes in a story. Third, I have learned that a first draft is just that, and that revision is perhaps 90 percent of the work of writing a novel.
Are there differences between how you approached writing when you were younger and how you approach it now?
I can now write anywhere and anytime. I don't need to be in a particular place or frame of mind. This flexibility comes from years of having absolutely no time for writing and having to magically conjure time while working full time and raising kids. I have learned how to make the most of whatever free moments I have – whether to fiddle with revisions, scribble notes for a new story, advance a scene in a new work, draft a poem, or jot down thoughts in a journal. There is always some phase or genre or style of writing I can plug myself into regardless of my state of mind and the world around me.
What was your writing process like for this book?
Though I had done the mikan research, I didn't really know where I was headed with this story when I began. When I started scribbling the first poems of Orchards, I knew the opening scene, I knew Kana's raw emotions in reaction to her classmate's death, and I knew that Kana would be sent to visit her relatives in Japan, but I had little else. I just began moving the story forward, line by line, often overwriting, then pulling back, extracting and distilling the story until it felt authentic to Kana.
How did you get your foot in the publishing industry's door?
Basically by working hard at writing over many years, doing my homework, and striving to improve my craft. The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators played an enormous role in helping me get my foot in the door with regard to writing for kids and teens. I have learned so much through SCBWI. As the regional advisor of SCBWI Japan, I organize events with guest authors, illustrators, editors, and agents, and I've learned volumes from each and every one of them. I met my agent at an SCBWI conference.
How did you prepare to write this book, in terms of research about Japanese and mikan orchards culture and lifestyle?
When I was beginning work on an adult novel about an American woman who marries into a Japanese farming family, I realized I needed to actually study mikan farming to tell the story.
I drove around checking out mikan growing areas near where we live in Japan, and one day on the way back from camping on the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka, I came upon the perfect coastal village for my story.
I managed to get introduced to some of the village leaders and made arrangements to apprentice to a farmer there for a year. Once or twice a week, I'd drive two hours each way to the village to work in the mikan groves.
Eventually I was able to rent rooms in a nearby farmhouse and move there with my daughter, who attended the local school. My mikan work provided me with several hundred pages of notes and hundreds of photographs, which I made full use of when writing Orchards.
Did writing this novel change you in any way?
Orchards represents a number of firsts for me: my first YA novel, my first work sold through an agent, my first novel-in-verse. All of these firsts have given me the incentive to write more YA fiction, whether in verse or prose. Orchards, in particular, has given me the courage to tackle the stories I want to tell, even if they focus on painful topics.
If you hadn't become a writer, what other interests would you be pursuing right now?
I might be doing something with biology, which was my undergraduate major, or photography, or music, or dance …. I have interests all over the map, and this is one reason I enjoy being a writer. Through writing I can explore ideas, issues, places, and people that I want to know more about. My job is to be curious, to ask “what if” and to follow wherever a story leads me. Book research has led me into so many areas I might not have otherwise explored.
What advice do you have for teens who want to pursue a career in writing fiction?
Read, read, read. Read short stories. Read novels. Read poetry. Set goals in your reading, and attend readings by authors when they appear in your town, even if you haven't read their books. And of course, write. Often. Set goals in your writing – three short stories over summer break, a poem a week, a new story idea a day. Experiment with different voices and different writing styles.
What kind of books do you read? Are there any writers who have influenced or inspired you?
I read all sorts of books – poetry, picture books, YA, adult. I tend to prefer realistic narratives rather than fantasy and lean toward narrative poetry. I love lyrical, poetic prose, and I love to read stories that focus on intercultural interactions.
Some of my favorite writers are David Almond, Cynthia Kadohata, Allen Say, Gary Soto, Jaqueline Woodson, Linda Sue Park, Naomi Shihab Nye, Helen Frost, Michael Ondaatje, Jhumpa Lahiri, Orhan Pamuk, Shaun Tan, Ruth Ozeki, Gish Jen.
How did the character of Kana get created? In what ways do you relate to her?
At one point an American-born niece of the Shizuoka mikan farmer I was working with came to visit. Observing her, a second-generation Japanese-American, in that rural Japanese village where she seemed to feel out of place got me thinking about a story of a bicultural character coming to Japan to visit relatives. Although Kana's mother is Japanese, Kana has been raised in the U.S. In the mikan village, Kana is an insider in some respects and an outsider in others.
In the novel, we see Kana undergo a quest of self-identity in Japan. Do you believe that a healthy self-identity requires a sense of cultural belonging?
Kana gains a better sense of her Japanese identity while staying with her relatives in Japan. I would wish this sort of direct cultural connection for anyone who is bicultural. Kana is lucky to have this opportunity to immerse herself in the world of her Japanese heritage, and no doubt this experience will impact her future decisions in life. It takes great effort and determination for individuals from multiple cultures to maintain ties with each of those cultures. Experiencing the cultures directly has enormous impact and helps biculturals/multiculturals gain a stronger and clearer sense of identity.
Why did you make Kana bicultural?
The world is full of intercultural marriages and children growing up navigating several cultures, whether because of their mixed heritage or their living circumstances.
I have been living a bicultural life between Japan and the U.S. for most of my adult life. Our extended family practices many religions. I have taught intercultural and mixed-roots children and teens for years. For me, biculturalism, multiculturalism, interculturalism is the norm. My stories simply reflect this.