The last special guest for May Asian author interviews is Kathleen Burkinshaw. Her debut novel, The Last Cherry Blossom, was published just last year, and in this interview delve into the behind the scenes writing process for the book, which was based on Kathleen’s mother’s experience.
Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden from its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.
SW: Please tell us a little about The Last Cherry Blossom beyond what the synopsis says.
Kathleen: The Last Cherry Blossom depicts the culture, mindset, and daily life during WWII before the bomb was dropped through the eyes of a 12-year-old-something that has not been done before.
My hope is not only to convey the message that nuclear weapons should never be used again; but to also reveal that the children in Japan had the same love for family, fear of what could happen to them, and hopes for peace as the Allied children had. I want the students/readers to walk away knowing that the ones we may think are our “enemy” are not always so different from ourselves. A message that needs to be heard now more than ever.
SW: I definitely agree since the othering of the “enemy” is constantly used to justify violence.
Aside from talking to your mother, what kinds of research did you do for this story? What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned?
I had to search for books that were about daily life in Japan during WWII-not as easy when you need to find them written in English 😊 But I was lucky to find a couple out of print books on eBay. Also, my local library had some great resources. In addition, the website for Hiroshima has some information on life during WWII in Hiroshima as well.
The most surprising and interesting piece of research happened while in Hiroshima. In July 2015, we went to honor my mom at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. (Sadly, my mom had passed away in January 2015. Thankfully, she did know TLCB would be published and had read one of the drafts). The most surprising information came while visiting with the librarians at the Memorial Hall. They kindly spent about 2 hours with me. I gave them my mother’s Hiroshima address and they showed it to me on a map from the early 1940’s. My mother had always said she was over an hour from the center of the city. However, when we looked at it on the map she was only 2 miles away from the epicenter; much closer than what I had thought! To me, it’s a miracle that she survived considering how close she was to the epicenter.
Also, while there I realized the beauty of Hiroshima. I had been so focused on the horrific destruction of August 6th itself. But while we were there I saw the beauty of the sea, the mountains, and palm trees! My mother always said she grew up in a beautiful place and I finally could see it through her eyes. This came in very handy when I returned to my first round of edits from my publisher. The visit to Hiroshima enhanced my descriptions in of Hiroshima before the bombing.
SW: I’m glad your trip surprised you in a good way and allowed you to connect to your mother’s feelings and memories. 🙂
Representing a culture that is unfamiliar to most readers is like an act of translation. Did you have any difficulties on this front while writing your book?
Kathleen: Yes, I wanted to be as true to the culture and time period as I could. However, I needed to make it flow naturally. I spent a great deal of time working through this. One of the issues I had involved dialogue. The Japanese language has a polite form-especially at that time. There are also no contractions when they speak. So, I wanted to show that, but struggled with it sounding stilted. I finally found a balance by using contractions and less formal conversation when Yuriko narrated and when speaking with her friends. However, when a younger character spoke to an adult, or an adult was speaking to the younger character’s, it would be more formal and no contractions used.
SW: Making historical fiction both educational and engaging can be difficult. What techniques did you use to strike this balance?
Kathleen: Yes, it is very difficult. I tried to describe the historic information so it would flow with the story. I didn’t want it to read like a report of Japan during WWII. One of the reasons I used newspaper headlines, propaganda poster text, and radio slogans as chapter headings was to set the tone on what was happening and how it was reported. I wanted the story to be about the characters and their personal issues. The war would be part of the scenery in the world that these young girls happened to live in. I hope I came close to that balance for the readers. 😊
SW: Do you have any favorite historical fiction kidlit titles?
Kathleen: Yes, I do! I have too many to list them all. But a few are: Kira-Kira and Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata. Two books that were inspirational to me were Blue by Joyce Moyer Hostetter and Eleanor Hill by Lisa Williams Kline. Also from the 2016 debut authors- Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban.
SW: I have Kira-Kira and Weedflower on my shelf, but I still need to read them. Weedflower stands out to me in particular because it shows a Japanese girl prominently on the cover.
Although it doesn’t have a person represented in it, I honestly love the cover for The Last Cherry Blossom. Did you have any input on the design, and how did that process work?
Kathleen: Thank you! Katy Betz is the talented artist behind the stunning cover art. My editor asked me to make a mood board. A few weeks later she sent me the cover art. I would have never come up with it (which is why I write and can’t draw), but from the moment I saw it I knew it perfectly represented beauty from the ashes.
SW: What would you say has been the most rewarding part of being a children’s author?
Kathleen: Meeting readers and students who tell me that my mother’s story taught them something they didn’t know about WWII, that her story inspired them, they think differently about nuclear weapons, and that they want me to write more books, touch my heart and amaze me so much.
Also, I’ve received emails from students/readers who didn’t like to read, but after reading The Last Cherry Blossom, they are interested in reading again! What could be a better compliment to an author?!
SW: That sounds lovely. I can’t wait to read and experience The Last Cherry Blossom for myself!
Kathleen Burkinshaw is a Japanese American author residing in Charlotte, NC. She’s a wife, mom to a daughter in college, and owns a dog who is a kitchen ninja. Kathleen enjoyed a 10+ year career in HealthCare Management unfortunately cut short by the onset of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD). Writing gives her an outlet for her daily struggle with chronic pain. She has presented her mother’s experience in Hiroshima to middle schools for the past 6 years. She has carried her mother’s story in her heart and feels privileged to now share it with the world. Writing historical fiction also satisfies her obsessive love of researching anything and everything. The Last Cherry Blossom is a SCBWI Crystal Kite Award Finalist (southeast region) and 2016 Scholastic WNDB Reading Club selection.