Alison Jean Lester Interview
I received an email from the author Alison Jean Lester, as a book reviewer whenever I get an email out of the blue from an Author whose book I’ve reviewed, good or bad, I always get an uneasy feeling. Are they going to be vengeful towards me for not enjoying their book or is it a generic copy and paste email they send out to everyone. In this case it was neither, the email was polite and Alison wanted to talk to me more about her book Yuki Means Happiness that I had reviewed on my YouTube channel in the video “June Book Reviews 2018”. To give you some context I will put in an extract of my review here: “I really enjoyed this but I wasn’t satisfied with it.” “I didn’t get the feeling of justice”. My review was a mixed bag of emotions and I really enjoyed the novel whilst reading it but after I had finished it I was unsure on the ending for me personally. I recommend the novel which is about an American woman called Diana who goes to Japan to work as a nanny and starts to suspect something is wrong with the child’s father. Skip forward a few weeks after this video and I’m looking at an email from Alison. I was worried on how she would take my review but there was no need to be worried as she just wanted to talk about my thoughts. The more we emailed the more I got out of our conversations and understood her take on the ending of the novel. I then asked her if I could ask her some questions for my website and she agreed so without further a due here is my interview with the lovely Alison Jean Lester.
So let’s kick it off with an easy question which is, what is the most annoying question as an author you get asked?
If that question is in my list then I apologise in advance and will shrivel with embarrassment!
I’ve just checked, and it isn’t! Well done.
There are actually two questions that raise my temperature. One is ‘How much of your book is autobiographical?’ The frustration with that question comes not from wanting to hide episodes from my life (if I really did, would I dare put them in a novel?), but rather from the writer’s desire to present the world with a finished, seamless product. When people want to start picking it apart, dividing the fact from the fiction, it’s a disappointment. One can be flattered that people feel that the writing feels so real that you must be describing something from first-hand experience, but being pressed to say what you’ve lived through and what you’ve invented is usually unwelcome. (You can see a humorous video I made with my husband about this very question here)
The second question is ‘How’s your book doing?’ If someone needs to ask this, it’s because you haven’t made the bestseller lists. If you had, they’d probably know. I look forward to making a video about this question as well!
Now onto your book Yuki Means Happiness. Why did you set the book in Japan?
I’ll let you in on a secret. The first draft of this book had nothing about Japan in it at all. It was only over time, figuring out what I really wanted Diana to go through in order to find her way to being able to trust, that I had things move to Japan. I lived in Japan for eight years, from 1991 to 1999. I knew a nanny there, and I had my own small children there, and a lot of that came together.
In our conversations I said to you that I was a bit disappointed that justice was not served to one of the characters, why did you choose not seek revenge on that character?
SPOILER ALERT! I’m imagining that by this question you’re asking why I didn’t choose to have Naoki lose everything, not just his daughter. The simple answer is that the way things function in Japan, it would have been very unlikely. Diana can only use what limited power she has to take care of Yuki, which is her top priority. So that’s what she does, and then heads for a better life for herself. She would have loved to have done more, but even Yuki’s own mother could only do so much. I also have a pretty pessimistic view of how often narcissists like Naoki actually get their full comeuppance.
How long did it take you to write the book?
I can’t say exactly, as I had to stop and start a lot. I was still working as a corporate coach then, so I couldn’t write every day, or even every week. I started it in the autumn of 2010, and I sent it to potential agents in late 2012 and early 2013. At that point it still took place in Massachusetts, not Japan. I think John Murray accepted the final reworked version of it sometime in 2015.
The cover of the UK edition is stunning, did you design it?
I love it too! It was so exciting to get the email when they presented the idea to me. The art director at John Murray, Sara Marafini, designed it. Typically what happens is that the editor describes the book to the art department in a way that gives them the most important impressions. In this case, my editor also asked me to send over some of my photos from Japan, to help with Sara’s ideas. They then sent me the cover to see if I had any problems or suggestions, but I was over the moon.
In the book Diana leaves her job in America to become a nanny in Japan, why does she make this dramatic change in her life? Is she looking for a change or is the money too good to refuse?
It’s a big leap she takes, isn’t it? Two things converge for Diana when Naoki shows up offering her the position in Tokyo. The first is the job situation. She’s been able to get away from geriatric nursing, but working in a paediatric clinic hasn’t yet given her the responsibility she craved. She’s bored and frustrated. And she’s also unsettled by her relationship with Porter. It’s no doubt very hard for some people to believe that she would choose to fly to the other side of the world when things seem to be going so well, but the potential for real intimacy frightened her.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I usually think for a long time before I start writing (right now I’m writing a novel I was thinking about when I was writing Yuki Means Happiness, and while writing it I’m also thinking about the one I’ll be writing next). Once I’ve started, I research as I’m writing. In the current novel, the couple are building a house. I’ve talked with architects, floor layers, people who’ve built a similar house, and a lawyer. I’ve watched a ton of DIY videos. I never thought I’d watch even one video about laying underfloor heating, but I’ve watched at least half a dozen.
How many hours a day do you write?
Between one and five, depending on other demands on my time.
What is your favourite childhood book?
So many books gave me deep feelings in my childhood. On my bookshelf here in my writing room I have all the little Beatrix Potter books I had as a little girl, my favourite of which is The Tale of Mrs Tiggywinkle. I loved her so much. I also enjoyed The Wheel on the School, by Meindert DeJong, and The Story of Ping by Pearl S. Buck. When I was a bit older, The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell really got me. I don’t remember having a favourite above all.
I can’t wait for your next book and am curious about how many unpublished and half-finished books you have?
Ha! What a great question. No one ever asks this, and I wish they did, because it gives a good picture of what the writing life is really like. When people refer to my ‘first novel’ (Lillian on Life), I usually correct them by saying ‘my first published novel’. I have three other novel manuscripts knocking around. I’m not sure I’m willing to reread the first one. I’m not sure I can find the second one. I wrote the first draft for the third one in 1996, and worked on it again in 1999-2000, when an agent loved the first three chapters and hated the rest. I picked it up again a few years ago, and have done a new draft. When I’ve finished the novel I’m currently working on, I’ll see if anyone wants to buy both!
Thank you for answering my questions.
Thanks very much for asking them!
I recommend everyone reads Yuki Means Happiness and then you can let me know your thoughts on what we discussed in the interview. Thank you again Alison to agreeing to the interview and reaching out to me about your novel.