Marie Mutsuki Mockett was born in Carmel, California to an American father and Japanese mother. She graduated from Columbia University with a degree in East Asian Studies. Her essay, “Letter from a Japanese Crematorium,” was short listed for Best New American Essays 2008 and anthologized in The Best Creative Nonfiction 3. Her book Picking Bones from Ash was published in October by Graywolf Press; this is her first novel.
Q (Meg Pokrass): What story or book do you feel closest to?
A big part of me is always going to identify with stories and books I read and loved as a kid. Even as an adult, I’m looking for that experience of being transported, and it gets harder and harder to find and is complicated by the fact that the adult part of me wants complexity from fiction, from language, situations and character. But if there is one story that I’ve turned to again and again, it’s the myth of Psyche, as told by the Greeks. Most of their mythology concerns male heroes, but Psyche is intriguing. She’s the only mortal to turn into a god. She travels to the underworld and survives. She forces the gods to reveal their true nature to her. And it’s telling that her name is the one we use today when we talk about the complexities of the mind.
Do you have a mentor?
No and there are times when I wish I did. I never got an MFA, so I didn’t enter into a formal program where I had a teacher. This summer, I did go to Bread Loaf for Non Fiction, and loved working with Patricia Hampl. Maybe I could convince her to be my mentor. But otherwise, I’ve been doing things the old fashioned way, turning to books for help when I’m stuck and reading about other writers for inspiration. And I guess I have some pretend mentors–people I have conversations with in my head when I am stuck. But they don’t know about this and it would be very embarrassing for us all if I revealed too much more. It would make me sound like Hilary Clinton talking to Eleanor Roosevelt.
How do you stay creative? What are your tricks to get “unstuck?”
I stop feeling creative when some other part of the world–that thing called reality–gets in the way. You know. My agent pointing out that I don’t have much of a sales record. An editor rejecting me because she “already has one half-Asian writer” whom she couldn’t figure out how to market. McNally Jackson in Soho inviting me to read, and then uninviting me (that’s my favorite story right now). These kinds of things are depressing because they don’t have to do with writing, and they demonstrate just how much crap writers have to battle, just to get their work out. But eventually, my mind wanders off somewhere and I have some new idea, or observe something new in the world, and then I want to write it down, and somehow I end up slogging through the muck. I don’t seem to be able to escape the impulse to write.
What are you working on now?
I’m in the middle of promoting my book, so my creative work has come to a temporary halt. But I plan to get to Japan next year to visit Osorezan, a version of Mount Doom, where blind mediums congregate twice a year to predict the future. That sounds like fun. I can speak Japanese, and am curious to try to engage them in conversation. I’ve also started my new novel, which will be set here in the US, and in various parts of Asia; it’s sort of speculative and is about some people who try to police reincarnation, which, if you study Chinese law, is not as outlandish as it sounds. And I have various ideas for short essays that I will continue to explore. I placed one recently on “love quests” in video games; I’d like to write more things like this.
Do you keep a notebook with you?
I have lots of notebooks lying around. I will sometimes scribble instructions for myself, and then lose the notebook. Then I will do a thorough cleaning and organizing of the apartment and find the notebooks. Today, for example, I finally cleaned up after neglecting the apartment for a good two weeks (I was traveling). I’m looking at a stack of 9 little notebooks. In the beginning, I relied on my notebook to make lists of things to do; it was useful to have the lists staring at me, like little commands.
How do you feel about trees?
City trees are like these noble creatures who are very out of place. And this makes me sad, so I try not to think about city trees. To me they are like city dogs who don’t know what it’s like to run around on the beach every evening, but must instead wear those little shoes in the winter so the salt won’t hurt their feet. I should have a better attitude about all these things. I ought to love Central Park, for example, but it’s always so crowded. I grew up very spoiled when it comes to nature–on the Monterey Peninsula in California. And, speaking more broadly, there is nothing like the west when you want to experience the grandeur of trees. So, I guess I’m sort of unfair to trees in New York because I can’t help but compare them to trees that live in the really crazy wild, like Yosemite or Mt. Shasta. I had a call once from a pollster asking me how much I was influenced by voting when it comes to “city green spaces,” and I felt very bad when I said that I just didn’t associate my city life with trees at all. It seems like such a lost cause to me. This is a terrible attitude to take. But I often feel like a non-physical entity in New York–I feel like a cerebral one. I get to have a body when I’m back in California, or at least out of the city. Maybe all this will change once I have a child. I think people constantly take small children to parks.
Do you plan what you write, or does the process of writing lead the way?
It’s a little bit of both. In the beginning, I tried to write outlines. But the work that resulted from the outlines always felt flat–the writing was dead and unsurprising. Things changed when I stopped working on my novel for a while, and wrote and published short stories. I found that I could have a sort of “structural shape” in my head, and that I could use that shape as a starting point. The more I did this, the easier it became. The same has been true for essays. When I finally sat down to finish the novel a few years ago, I let go of the outline and trusted my imagination to help me along. As I write this, I realize I sound like I’m describing that scene in Star Wars where Ben makes Luke put on the helmet so he can’t see, but he still has to use his lightsaber. Corny as that might sound to you, I think that’s the kind of transition I had to make in order for the writing to feel alive and surprising. I will still make some notes to myself–like little signposts pointing the way for which direction to take. But ultimately, I find that some part of the creation of anything had to happen just inside my head. I think this is partly because I’m attracted to unusual structures; I like Japanese fairy tales, for example, which do not conform to the standards of western storytelling, but maintain their own integrity. Outlining and planning, in such instances, are not useful; the rigidity shows in the writing.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is an editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and her stories and poems have been published widely. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.