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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, Constance Hays Matsumoto talks about her new book, Of White Ashes, and what inspired her to write it.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Constance Hays Matsumoto about her life and career, what inspried her to write her novel, Of White Ashes, and her creative writing process.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
Hello Table Read Readers! My name is Connie Matsumoto, and I live in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region with my husband, Kent, and our adorable Westie. Kent and I co-authored Of White Ashes, available May 1, 2023, a historical novel inspired by true events of our family and intended to influence positive change in our world.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I’ve wanted this story to be developed into a book since 1996, the year I met Kent and learned about his parents’ remarkable experiences. At the time, I never imagined I’d be one of the authors. The desire and sense of urgency to write the book happened decades later.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I took my first step into writing Of White Ashes in 2017. Rather than a first step, it was more like a dive off of the high board into the deep end of the unknown literary world! I followed my heart, closed my business, and became a sponge for learning the craft of fiction, researching history, and writing.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
It has taken nearly six years from diving off of that high-dive to bring our novel into the world.
What made you want to write Of White Ashes?
Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the uniqueness of a family history; it seems I was that outsider in Kent’s family. Kent’s mother spent her early teenage years incarcerated in the WWII Japanese American camps. His father is a Hiroshima survivor. Both are American citizens. Each suffered and survived the horrors of war inflicted by the U.S., yet were driven to live the American dream and raise their children to do the same. They were remarkable. Learning their stories and knowing them changed my life.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Of White Ashes?
My biggest challenge was my lack of skill in the craft of creative writing. But my confidence in myself and the importance of the story I wanted to tell was strong. And rather than allow this remarkable story to be left untold, like so many stories about the Japanese American WWII experiences, I closed my interior design business, took creative fiction classes, attended writers’ conferences, joined a critique group and writers’ organizations, prioritized the importance of active literary citizenship, hired a developmental editor, and asked friends and published authors to read and critique our work.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
Love and respect. Ruby Ishimaru is the protagonist in Of White Ashes. Her character is based on my mother-in-law, Reiko Odate Matsumoto, who suffered greatly as a child and spent her early teenage years incarcerated in the Japanese American camps during WWII.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
Loss and trauma. The antagonist forces in Of White Ashes are multi-dimensional: Death. A world war that derails Ruby’s childhood and forces her to face and overcome extreme hardship. Ruby’s own shortcomings create impediments to achieving her dreams.
What is the inciting incident of Of White Ashes?
When Ruby’s father, a Buddhist minister, is arrested the day after the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor.
What is the main conflict of Of White Ashes?
The central conflict lies in the Japanese phrase Shikata ga nai, meaning it can’t be helped. Ruby had scoffed at the Japanese belief her entire life. In her mind, things could have been helped. Something could have been done. Something should have been done. Will Ruby release the pain of her soul wounds—rooted in abandonment, betrayal, injustice, and prejudice—and release her past? Can she?
Did you plot Of White Ashes in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
The notion of flying by the seat of my pants for anything—writing, managing a workload, deciding how to enjoy a weekend—gives me the heebie-jeebies!
I plotted Of White Ashes so carefully, that I plotted how I would go about plotting! I taped multiple pieces of flip chart paper together and developed a timeline across the bottom with the ages of the main characters and key events, e.g., bombing of Pearl Harbor, uprooting from home to the Japanese American incarceration camps, bombing of Hiroshima).
My creativity meandered through this period in history and the timeline informed what happened in the novel. Rather than outline, I populated the flip charts with Post-it notes in a variety of colors (some stayed, many moved, others were tossed). At the chapter level, I carefully considered setting, how to advance the story forward, and how the characters reacted to and were changed by the events they experienced.
The art of developing emotional impact, crafting how it felt for the characters to experience these events, came later during the many, many revisions.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Of White Ashes need?
Absolutely! I had much to learn as a new creative fiction writer, and I wasn’t afraid to ask for help. Kent was a terrific grammar editor, but was as new to the craft of creative writing as me. We hired a developmental editor who believed in the book and in us and gave us the individual attention we required. We are grateful for her kind and thorough critiques about craft, flow, and structure.
Many chapters were also critiqued by our author critique group at a local library. Beta readers reviewed our completed manuscript. We also received editing support from our publisher, Apprentice House Press of Loyola University Maryland. We revised pages again and again before a final copy edit.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Be clear why they are writing the story and what they hope to achieve with the final product.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
Not quite yet, as we’re noodling an idea around. Stay tuned though!
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I’m absolutely proud of our book and it was definitely worth the effort. The story is too important not to be told, and hopefully will impact hearts and minds one reader at a time. More importantly, Kent and I hope the book would have made his parents proud, and we believe they would be. They, like my parents have passed. When my mom was proud of me, she would say, “Con, my buttons are bursting with pride.” I love imagining her reading our book and her buttons bursting all over the place!
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