If you weren’t already tuned into Kelly Luce after her debut story collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail hit shelves in 2013, now’s the time to change things. Kelly Luce’s first novel Pull Me Under, coming out November 1, is primed to astound. Following the life of Chizuru, a woman who’s left Japan after she ages out of the juvenile detention system (it’s no spoiler to say this here: Chizuru , in a fit of rage, fatally stabbed her classmate at the age of 12), Pull Me Under uncovers a story of redemption, truth, and how the past continues to touch the present. Read on to hear some questions from this brilliant young voice:
Kati Heng: Can you tell me about the time you spent in Japan? What did you do there, and in what ways did it influence the novel?
Kelly Luce: My first job in Japan was as a teacher with the JET Program, where I taught English at public junior high schools.
While I was in that job, I learned about this phenomenon in Japan known as kireru—which means “to cut” or “to snap.” It was/is this phenomenon of young children, often under 14, committing violent acts for seemingly no reason. Kids who were otherwise well-behaved, got good grades, didn’t get in trouble. There was a boy who beheaded a classmate in the next prefecture when I was there who was in the same grade—7th—that I was teaching.
Another aspect of this phenomenon that caught my attention was that it happened with female students, too. In the west, statistics show that males are far more likely to commit violent acts. So it became this question for me, as a person interacting with kids in Japan who were this age on a daily basis: what would make a young girl do this? Why does this happen in Japan, a relatively crime-free and peaceful country? And that’s where Rio came from.
KH: How did you research kireru?
KL: Research was tricky. There are very few articles on this phenomenon that get translated into English, and my requests for help translating were often turned down, maybe due to the sensitive nature of the topic. I read a lot and corresponded with a couple experts on Japanese law to make sure the legal side of Chizuru/Rio’s story was accurate. I had to be careful because the laws on, say, at what age a child can be tried as an adult for murder have changed over the last 30 years.
KH: There’s a lot in this story about the way Japanese can be cold or exclusive towards those only half-ethnically Japanese. How did you see this played out in Japan? As someone who is not Japanese, how were you treated differently while there?
KL: Being different in a racially homogenous country like Japan, with its history of isolationism, is complicated. For one, there are different ways of being different. There’s a conversation happening right now in Japan about whether mixed-race Japanese people like Ariana Morimoto, or Priyanka Yoshikawa, who are both half-Japanese, should be able to represent Japan in major beauty pageants like Miss Universe. Some people still believe that being Japanese means having “pure” blood. Though there are plenty who disagree with this statement, especially the younger generation.
As a tall, blue-eyed white person, I stood out in Japan. This made me the subject of curiosity, most of which was innocent, some of which felt inappropriate (strangers touching my hair, for example; or being propositioned on the street a couple of times). In general, I was treated with overwhelming kindness and generosity. I once left my wallet on a train; it was full of cash and also contained my alien registration card (which you’re supposed to carry at all times). I had no idea what to do. Hours later, a woman knocked on my door and handed me the wallet. She had traveled over 100 kilometers to return it to me personally because she thought I might not, as a foreign resident, know the process for filing a police report and wouldn’t want to wait to get my lost item back.
KH: A major theme for the novel is how children uncover their parents imperfections, slowly, over time. At what age did you start learning your own parents weren’t perfect?
KL: I’m not sure if I ever considered my parents perfect or imperfect–I don’t remember thinking in those terms. But thinking of them as people who had struggled the same way I was struggling, with relationships or work or body image, or as people who partied and got in trouble–that took a long time, maybe age 17 or 18. My mom has this newspaper clipping of a fan letter she wrote to a singer in this band, and she told me how she ran away to go on tour with them one weekend when she was a teenager. It took a long time to reconcile that image with the woman who owned two Springer Spaniel calendars and packed brown-bag lunches.
KH: Finally, tell me about your books. How do you keep them organized? What books have you had since you were 11? What books have some kind of special place? What books are on your nightstand right now?
KL: I found a lawyer bookcase–the kind with the glass doors on each shelf–on Craiglist last year for $40 and now that’s where all my favorite books live. On the top shelf I keep Banana Yoshimoto, John Steinbeck, Zadie Smith, Stuart Dybek, Margaret Atwood, Joy Williams, and Italo Calvino. I keep books all over the house, wherever there’s room–on ledges, above the kitchen cabinets, stacked on chairs. My poetry collection is in an old green metal locker with the door ripped off. I don’t keep them in any particular order, generally. But even though it’s sort of chaotic, I generally know where in the house to find a particular book.
The books I’ve had the longest are my Shel Silversteins–Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. On my nightstand right now I’ve got books for research on my next novel–a biography of Michael Jackson, a couple books by a Vatican astronomer (including one called Would You Baptize an Alien? and some scientific articles on pre-natal and infant memory. Oh! And for pleasure there’s an amazing chapbook by Nico Alvarado, The Collected Poems of Tim Riggins.