How Do You Live?
I often begin my reflections on a given book with a brief explanation of how that title came to be on my TBR shelf. So far, I’ve only shared reflections here on non-fiction titles. With this offering, I’m going to break both conventions.
Back in 2016, I was yearning for a story that portrayed a healthy mother-daughter relationship. With a four-year-old at home, the unending march of children’s stories–from Disney princesses to PJ Library picture books–painted a pretty clear picture: the only good mothers were dead ones. If a mother (or stepmother) is alive and present in a young woman or girl’s life, she is at best neglectful and at worst abusive. I banned some of the worst heteronormative gender stereotyped princess (I’m looking at you Ariel and Aurora), and still, it seemed there were almost no role models for healthy and loving mother-daughter relationships in literature/movies.
I decided I should write that role model relationship.
The next few decisions sort of flowed:
I have made a fairly successful side-hustle writing letters. I love the power of the second person. Letters are my jam. It would be an epistolary novel.
I had recently started down my path of dedicated pursuit of racial justice. So race and racism would be a key theme.
I enjoy historical fiction, and wanted it to be set in Baltimore. My main characters would be (white) Jews like myself, so what historical period to focus on? The desegregation of Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, of course! All those times walking past the enlarged version of the newspaper article about Rabbi Lieberman being arrested at Gwynn Oak were paying off.
I started my writing by researching. I read Round and Round Together, and took careful notes, imagining different things historical players said in the mouths of my as-yet-unformed characters. I interviewed my mom and her sisters about what she remembered from the time. I interviewed a few Black Baltimoreans about what they remembered. I interviewed some Black friends about their experiences in church and their parents’ stories about the Civil Rights era.
I also followed up with some attention to the original sources (thank goodness for Baltimore County Public Library’s access to historical newspapers!). I read all of the newspaper articles about Gwynn Oak–from the Baltimore Sun and the Afro-American.
The newspaper articles were fascinating to me. I realized they told quite a tale all by themselves. I decided to integrate the actual news stories with my fictional letters to help tell my historical fiction.
I created a hard copy calendar of 1962 - 1963 and mapped out the historic facts (e.g. protests at the park and other spots in Baltimore and Maryland, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the murder of Medgar Evers) as well as events in the lives of my characters.
I developed a conceit – a mother and daughter (Alice and Rose) wrote letters back and forth to one another in what they called their Letterbook. A vehicle originally designed to assist young Rose with reading and writing that became a means to talk about the things that can be hard to talk about. Interspersed with the letters between mother and daughter are letters from Rose’s friend Lily, a Black girl her age whom she knows as the niece of her grandparents’ driver.
And then I began writing. It took me 3 years. I researched Baltimore bus lines and movie theaters and national popular culture from the 1960s and did my best to infuse the novel with truthiness as best I could construct it. I wrote a novel consisting of letters between the characters (and at least one real-life figure in Rabbi Morris Lieberman), diary entries from Alice, the mom, and actual historic newspaper articles from the Baltimore Sun and the Afro-American.
My sister read the final draft. The newspaper articles interrupted the flow of the narrative. I rewrote it and edited them way down or out.
A writer friend read the second draft. It felt like it needed a little bit more of an omniscient narrator to help the reader through the sequence. I rewrote it, taking out even more of the newspaper articles and adding in a narrator to assist with the flow.
This third version was amazing. A full year after the completion of draft 1, I was so proud of it. I started researching literary agents. I wanted to publish this novel more than I’d wanted recognition for just about anything, ever. And, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t inadvertently perpetuating racism or erasure.
I sought out a sensitivity reader to give me feedback. A Black woman writer and editor, she told me she really loves cross-cultural friendships, and was excited to read my manuscript. We settled on a price and timing.
When it came time for the phone call with her feedback, I was so excited I sent her the wrong phone number because I was rushing and fat-fingered the digits. Once we actually connected, she started to tell me about my work:
It’s well-researched. (Yes!) It’s grounded in authenticity. (Yes!) The vehicles of the writers of the time and the school assignments the kids go through make sense and advance the story (Yes!) The characters are well-developed. (Yes!) The positive mother-daughter relationship really comes through. (Yes! Yes!) But when it comes to market, it feels “betwixt and between.” It’s not fully YA, but it’s also not fully an adult title. (Okay.) There are too many formats; too many ways characters are presenting information. (Oh.) The narrator’s interstitial moments may be confusing to some readers. (What?) There isn’t enough of a central conflict. The stakes aren’t high enough for readers to care. (oh.) The letters from the mother are sometimes a bit too instructional (oh.) What I really need is to insert a plot into the existing framework. (oh shit.) And, the white characters really have too much “screen time.” If this is a book about race, you need to decenter the white characters. (oh yes. that’s right. of course, that’s right.)
My sensitivity reader/editor had some specific suggestions on what to do (maybe the mom doesn’t need to be in the book so much. Maybe you should lose the newspaper articles altogether.) I had some generalized reactions to our conversation: in general, I felt alone, I felt like I was somehow wrong. In general, I avoided thinking about the novel or publishing it.
I canceled my subscription to “Publishers Lunch.” I abandoned the google sheet with literary agents who might be interested in a YA epistolary coming-of-age historical fiction. I moved on.
About 6 months later, it started to resurface in my consciousness. I casually started thinking about how to rewrite. I turned over in my mind what it would look like to push the manuscript squarely into YA or Adult territory. I didn’t write.
About 2 months after that, I realized that many folks today–including my sensitivity reader herself–are pairing up to write novels like this one, with each author writing the dialogue for the character who matches their background. I started thinking about Black friends and former colleagues who might be able to come on as a co-author to give more authentic voice to Lily. I even reached out to an old grad school friend who grew up Jewish-adjacent in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She was planning her wedding, it wasn’t a great time. We tried to schedule and never managed to find another time. I didn’t write.
About 2 months after that, something made me question the western storytelling rules that require conflict to move the story forward. I followed an internet rabbit hole about story craft in Japan and other eastern cultures. I spent a lot of time thinking about kishōtenketsu, the Japanese story structure that relies on some sort of twist rather than a rising conflict. But still I didn’t write.
Then a story crossed my email inbox: “The First English Translation of Hayao Miyazaki’s Favorite Childhood Book.” It was a review of the recently published How Do You Live? I admit I am not as big a fan of Hayo Miyazaki’s work as some of my contemporaries, but I am a big fan of animation and adored My Neighbor Totoro once I was finally introduced to it. I can’t say exactly why, but I really really wanted to read this book. The English translation was published in late October. The article I read about it was published in mid-November, but by the time I logged on to Bookshop.org later that week, it was already backordered. I acquired a copy in late November at a brick-and-mortar bookshop, and immediately moved it to the top of the TBR shelf.
The English translation of this book has an foreward from Neil Gaiman (another hero of mine). In it Gaiman writes, “this is such a strange book, and such a wise book. I wish I had been given it as a small boy, but I suspect I would have found it puzzling or even dull.” (i) What Gaiman is reacting to is the same thing that kept the book from being translated into English until now, even though it is seemingly compulsory reading for Japanese youth. This book feels a bit “betwixt and between” YA and adult; it doesn’t have enough of a central conflict; the stakes aren’t high enough; and the letters from the uncle are a bit too instructional.
How Do You Live? Is the story of Copper, a young man living in 1937 Tokyo. The novel alternates between narrated episodes in Copper’s life and letters written to him by his uncle. These letters are explicitly instructions on how to be a good person, and are carried through examination of different intellectual fields, including scientific principles, art, religion, and history. Indeed, the uncle takes quite a number of pages to explore what we can learn about how to live from Napoleon’s rise and fall.
Friends, I loved this novel. I absolutely loved it. The central conflict (which is decidedly not high-enough stakes for the western mind) when Copper fails to stand up for a friend in the schoolyard and feels ashamed of himself feels so real to me–precisely because the stakes aren’t particularly high, though Copper perceives them to be. Though the Japanese characters’ and author’s fascination with and idolization of the European emperor Napoleon gave me pause and made me a bit sad, I adored the extrapolation of lessons from history. Copper’s uncle posits that Napoleon was successful when he used his extraordinary talents to improve society and culture, and he failed when “he turned to the exercise of power for its own sake.” (174). I loved this interpretation of the history of Napoleon Bonaparte.
How Do You Live? didn’t change my life. But it buoyed me. I was left with a quiet sense of satisfaction. Copper and his uncle make plain that living well–that is living up to the best that one can be–doesn’t need to involve splashy heroics, it just needs to involve choosing compassion, forgiveness, and integrity.
I also felt deeply validated by this novel. The manuscript I wrote still has all of the flaws my sensitivity reader named. It also shares many characteristics with How Do You Live?. I may never see my Letterbook published (at the current rate of attention/revision all the more so), but some of the rules I broke are not universal rules, they’re cultural. Seeing those same rules "broken" by a beloved cultural artifact from Japan is making me feel less wrong and decidedly less alone.