The Blogging Sumo: A Conversation with Author Jennifer Griffith Continued

On Monday, I posted the first part of a discussion between myself and Jennifer Griffith, author of BIG IN JAPAN from Jolly Fish Press. Jennifer was one of the first people to read my upcoming novel, THE RELUCTANT BLOGGER, and was instrumental in getting the manuscript in shape to submit to publishers. The first post began a discussion back and forth about different aspects of writing our books and that conversation continues below.

RR: Prior to BIG IN JAPAN, you wrote and published three LDS centered romance novels. What is it that made you decide to leave that genre knowing that your established audience might not respond to a story about an overweight Texan traveling to Japan and making it big in the sport of sumo? Also, what did you learn from your first three published novels that helped you write BIG IN JAPAN?”

JG: For one thing, my original publisher was taking a hiatus from publishing due to the 2008 economy. My last LDS book came out in the fall of 2007, and at that point I had just given birth to my fifth child and I was deep in the mommy trenches. Writing wasn’t really even on my radar screen at the time. I figured, with that situation, I might not ever bother trying to get published again. But the sumo story popped up, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started it in the summer of 2009 when the rolling storm of life smoothed out a bit.

I had always wanted to write mainstream stories. I like LDS stories, and I read quite a few, but I found a really great book called “Plot and Structure” by James Scott Bell, and in it he outlines how to write commercial fiction. It made me want to give it a shot–just to push myself to try something new. The sports genre is almost funny–I hardly ever have a strong interest in sports, so it’s ironic that I would be the person who writes a sports novel at all, let alone one that peaks at #9 of the Kindle sports genre list. I guess life is full of ironies.

Still, your question about audience is a good one. I think for some people who’d read my earlier stuff, this was a stretch. However, it’s hard to imagine that my voice or my writing style is that much different. When I read an author I like, I’m looking for that voice. I don’t really care what the setting is most of the time. I might have lost a few readers for that, but I did make inroads into the 50+ male readership crowd that I’d never have garnered if I’d stuck with the other genre.

But I have another question for you, Ryan. I’ve heard you say this novel ended up being somewhat cathartic for you. Your main character, Todd, writes for his therapy (against his will.) Do you think all writers write to work through their thoughts and concerns to some extent?

RR: You know what’s funny about this question? My wife enjoys the food/mystery genre with the recipes at the end of each chapter. One author she likes has a main character who enjoys the affections of two different men. Book after book she can’t decide between them. Yet, neither man is jealous of the other and both are content to bide their time like until she is ready to make a decision. When Shannon told me about these books, I couldn’t help but chuckle. My immediate thought was, “This is a woman who probably didn’t date a lot in high school and is now living out her fantasies of how men truly should behave through her writing.” Maybe that comment is unfair, but I think it is safe to say that there are very few men in this world who would be willing to live with that dating scenario.

Anyway, back to your question: I think an author’s level of catharsis is probably related directly to the story they are trying to tell. But on the other hand, I can’t see how a person’s real life would not have a direct affect on their writing. In recent interviews, Steven Spielberg talks about watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He says he can clearly see the darkness in that movie that he believes is a direct correlation to the fact that both he and George Lucas were going through divorces.

As for THE RELUCTANT BLOGGER, I had lost my mom to cancer not long before I started writing. At the time, I didn’t put two and two together, but once I was finished, it was clear how writing portions of the story had helped me get emotions out that I had not really shared before. There are other aspects of the book that function similarly. In hindsight, I think my proximity to the subject matter made it a better story—certainly more real. But I must admit that I am now curious as to how good of a writer I am when I try something different.  Will I still be able to tell a compelling story when the subject matter doesn’t so closely mirror my own life? I guess I’ll have to see.

What about you? What aspects of your writing have been influenced by the life you were living at the time? I know you lived in Japan for about a year and a half, but what other facets, if any, of BIG IN JAPAN can be attributed to your life experience?

JG: Probably a lot of aspects of the story mirror my life. I know that sounds far-fetched, that I as a 5’1” Mormon mother of 5 could have much in common with any member of the sumo world. However, it’s the human experience I tried to touch on. I might never have been over 400 pounds, but I don’t know many women who haven’t felt some measure of despair about their weight, especially while going through pregnancies and post-partum physical changes. I found lots of moments where I could tap into my own experiences worrying about physical appearance and self-confidence related to that. Maybe that’s too much sharing, but I think many, many people can relate to Buck in that way. I know I did.

Also, when I was drawing Chocho, I really wanted her to be a capable woman, but I wanted her to be thoroughly feminine. As I have aged, I have seen how strong a woman can be while still remaining in the traditional feminine role. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world is the old saying. Even though I worked hard to get an education, traveled abroad some, lived in Japan, worked for Congress, I now am a homemaker and mother. That is my most fulfilling role. It may sound non-progressive to say this, but I wanted to create a character in Chocho that would be a really good role model for women who want to keep the traditional femininity alive but who are devoted to having strong opinions within that realm and within their best sphere of influence. Does that even make sense? Am I rambling? I guess I could see myself at a crossroads at one point, choosing between career and home, and I chose home. I have never regretted that. Chocho would, to my mind, choose home. Do you agree with that assessment of her?

I would agree with that assessment, but I probably wouldn’t have picked up on it had you not pointed it out. I think this is a difference of point of view with regards to men and women. What I liked about Chocho was her inherent goodness. You did a good job on portraying a man’s preoccupation with appearance. At the beginning of your book, Buck is transfixed on a woman who is beautiful, but nothing more. She treats him like garbage. When Buck meets Chocho for the first time, he again is struck by her physical beauty. But as Buck matures and gains self-confidence, Allison’s overall desirability fades and Chocho’s expands because he realizes she is so much more than just a pretty face. Her kindness, in my mind, is her greatest feature. And because that is what I took away from Chocho’s character, that is why I would agree that she would choose home over career and never look back.

And now back to your book, Ryan: It was really different for me to write from a male point of view. I botched it here and there, I’m sure. You were laughing about the male leads in your wife’s favorite series, that they were just not very believable to a man. For part of your editing process, I know you reworked “the love interest” for Todd the Blogger–at least a couple of times. How was it finding a way to create a female character, likable and believable? Because I would think your book will appeal equally to male and female readership. What helped you get her just right?

RR: Well, in short, you and Aimee Staten. But to expand on that answer, again we are getting into male vs. female perspectives. Prior to your critique, only two females had “met” that character. Both of those individuals also had greater access to my thoughts and motivations during the writing process, so they understood not only what was on the paper, but what was in my mind. But when you and Aimee encountered the character for the first time, you were both adamant that she was not likable. I have to admit, I was stunned. I loved this character. I went back to my male friend who had read the book and asked if he felt the same way you had. He was as mystified as I was. However, when I mentioned it to my wife and to the other female who had read the book, they both admitted they could understand where you were coming from.

So, once I got over my shock and dismay, I set about trying to “fix” her. My issue was, I wanted a character that was somewhat broken herself. What was difficult for me was finding that thin line between a broken character that was overly bitter and one that was not bitter enough. It took a few attempts to get that right. But what is interesting to me is that although the character comes across much differently now than she did originally, she never changed in my mind. She is still the same person. I just wasn’t allowing her to express herself correctly.

End of part 2

In the third and final installment, we will turn the tables on each other and ask questions about our own books. Check back later next week for the conclusion of our discussion.

BIG IN JAPAN is available in most book stores and can be found on-line at Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can also find Jennifer Griffith at her website or you can follow her on Twitter and/or “like” her author page on Facebook.

THE RELUCTANT BLOGGER arrives August 2013. You can follow Ryan Rapier at his twitter feed @RyanRapier or “like” his author page at Ryan Rapier, Author on Facebook.


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