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NPM 2017: 5 Questions for the Verse Novelist, Featuring Leza Lowitz

Welcome back to my National Poetry Month, 2017, series of interview with verse novelists. I am spending this month learning more about the craft behind this form of writing with nine poet/novelists.

Leza Lowitz is the third author to take on my 5 Questions challenge. Leza is originally from California, but lives in Tokyo. Her novel UP FROM THE SEA is about the 2011 tsunami.

Blog readers, you know how much I love books about bi-cultural kids and their complicated families. UP FROM THE SEA is one of those books.

Leza, tell us about the most recent verse novel you published or one you are working on now. What is it about the story and characters that led you to write the book as poetry?

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, wiping out villages on the main island’s coast. On that day, Kai, a half-Japanese teenager, loses nearly everyone and everything he cares about. When he’s offered a trip to New York to meet kids whose lives were changed by 9/11, Kai realizes he also has a chance to look for his estranged American father. Visiting Ground Zero on the tenth anniversary of 9-11, Kai learns that the only way to make something good come out of the disaster back home is to return and help rebuild his town. Up from the Sea is one boy’s story about loss, survival, and starting anew, based on real events in the U.S. and Japan. I felt that immediacy and power of verse best captured the emotional intensity and drama of Kai’s experience of being swept up in the tsunami and its aftermath. Plus, for reasons I explain below, verse was really the only option.

I love the way that historical verse novels communicate a time and place without feeling weighed down by background information. Why do you think verse pairs so well with historical narratives?

Historical events can seem remote; news items that have happened at a remove of time and space.  The verse form is immediate, bringing the reader into the action. You’re there with the protagonist, time-traveling back to the event itself, experiencing it in real time as it unfolds. We get the “who, what, why, when, where and how” without the blah, blah, blah. The central event is stripped down to its essence.

REPORTERS COME CLOSER,

ask for a statement.
I tell them
to talk to Guts.
I tell them
to talk to the people
who donated
all the stuff
that made
our game possible.

I tell them
to talk to
the village women
and the fishermen
and Old Man Sato
and all the people
in the town
and all over the world
who cheered us on.

I say this team
is dedicated
to my mom
and grandparents
and to all the kids
who’ve lost someone they love
to a quake or a tsunami,
to hunger
or sickness
or war.

I say it’s dedicated
to our little coastal town
and to all the other towns
in the world
struck by disaster.
The ones that never
make the news.

WE LINE UP TO BOW

low to the field,
thanking the spectators,
thanking our town.
Arigatou gozaimasu!*
we shout in unison.

* Arigatou gozaimasu! Thank you very much.

Does your story spin on one central event and how it impacts the characters in the book? If so, how did you incorporate poetic elements such as metaphor and symbolism to show the echoes of that event through the novel? Would you share an example of this from your book?

The March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan came to be known as 3-11. This natural disaster impacted Japan as much as the “man-made” disaster of 9-11 impacted the U.S. Both countries were instantly changed. My novel crosses cultures, using oceanic and water imagery, but the central metaphors are those dates themselves—9.11 and 3.11–just ordinary days when life changed forever. Another powerful image I used were trees that actually survived each disaster–an ancient pine tree in Japan and a pear tree at the World Trade Center. These were symbols of hope and resilience. I was also drawn to the true story of a soccer ball from 3-11 that washed up in the U.S. and was returned to the owner–a young boy in Japan. That ball became a powerful symbol of loss and renewal.  Finally, the tsunami area is famous for its Miyagi oysters. When dirt enters an oyster, it’s polished to become a pearl. This became a metaphor for the fact that challenges and difficulties can similarly give rise to beauty and appreciation.

As a first-time verse novelist, how was the experience different from writing prose fiction? What makes you return to poetry as the backbone of how you tell a story?

I did my master’s degree on the Dramatic Monologue form, but I never imagined I’d write a novel in verse. I was in Japan when the disaster struck, and experienced the 9.1 magnitude earthquake in Tokyo. Luckily, we were safe, but when I visited the tsunami-stricken region to volunteer, I met a boy who inspired me to write this novel to keep a light shining on the area, which is still struggling. Thousands of aftershocks rattled the country; some of them were earthquakes as large as 7.2 magnitude. Writing a conventional novel requires uninterrupted chunks of time and the ability to focus for long stretches. I didn’t have either! Every time a quake hit, I’d dive under the desk. But I managed to sit still long enough to write one poem at a time. The verse form arose from these circumstances.

Necessity is the mother of form, in your case. That must have been a harrowing time for everyone in Japan.

I see a similarity between the poems in novels-in-verse and dramatic monologues. Each poem in a verse novel has a character communicating his or her emotions and observations. There is often a realization or shift in thinking that happens in both monologues and in a verse novel’s poems. What do you think about the overlap between a speech for the stage and a poem in a verse novel?

Verse novels can have the same visceral impact as Dramatic Monologues. We don’t get stage directions, we get lights! camera! action! There’s no “fourth wall” as we experience what the protagonist is experiencing firsthand. It’s a powerful form for the writer and hopefully, for the reader as well.

Thanks for your insights into UP FROM THE SEA, Leza. I’m looking forward to your next book.

Leza Lowitz has published 20 books in many genres, including Up from the Sea (Crown Books for Young Readers), recipient of the 2014 SCBWI Work-In-Progress Honor for Multicultural Literature, Jet Black and the Ninja Wind, winner of the 2013 APALA Young Adult Literature Award, and Here Comes the Sun, her memoir on arriving at motherhood via two continents, two decades, and two thousand yoga poses.  Lowitz also runs a popular Tokyo yoga studio. Find her at www.lezalowitz.com and www.sunandmoon.jp.

My series of interviews with verse novelists continues later this week with Shari Green.Here is the full list of posts:

4/3 Jeannine Atkins, STONE MIRRORS: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis (Find the post here.)

4/6 Caroline Starr Rose, BLUE BIRDS (Find the post here.)

4/10 Leza Lowitz, UP FROM THE SEA (Find the post here.)

4/13 Shari Green, MACY McMILLAN AND THE RAINBOW GODDESS (Find the post here.)

4/17 Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu, SOMEWHERE AMONG (Find the post here.)

4/20 Ellie Terry, FORGET ME NOT (Find the post here.)

4/24 Margarita Engle, MORNING STAR HORSE and FOREST WORLD (Find the post here.)

4/25 Tamera Will Wissinger, GONE CAMPING (Find the post here.)

4/27 Debut novelist Amanda Rawson-Hill (Find the post here.)

4/30 Holly Thompson, FALLING INTO THE DRAGON’S MOUTH (Find the post here.)

You can find a list of National Poetry Month blog projects at Jama’s Alphabet Soup. And check out this great list of recommended MG verse novels from educator Cassie Thomas at the blog Teachers Who Read.