This past week, I had the exciting opportunity to interview Margi Preus. Her book Heart of a Samurai has turned me back onto historical fiction. I must admit though the interview left me wanting to know even more about this talented author. Perhaps in the future there will be another review and therefore hopefully another interview. In the meantime, I appreciate that Margi Preus took time to answer my questions and let me get to know just a little bit about her. Enjoy!
Allison: You’re an animal lover. Do you have pets? What’s your favorite animal? Any YouTube recommendations of funny animal antics?
Margi: I have a yellow lab named Jeeves, after the P.G. Wodehouse character (a very intelligent valet). We had high hopes for our dog to live up to his name, and he does greet our guests at the door. However, we have not yet successfully trained him to carry a tray of martinis without mishap. As for youtube, I am particularly fond of “Bailey the Unknown Reindeer.”
Allison: What’s your best skiing, hiking, and/or boating stories?
Margi: Wow. I have had so many fantastic skiing/boating/hiking experiences. One of my more unusual outdoor experiences was, years ago, hitch-hiking through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota (it’s a canoe only area, so I was hitching rides in other peoples’ canoes.) A bit odd, perhaps, and a long story, but I needed to get back to work. I was late by a day, which did not rattle my employer at all, as she assumed I had been windbound.
Allison: What’s your worst skiing, hiking, and/or boating stories?
Margi: The worst hiking experience by far was losing my 11-year-old son in the fog at the top of a razor-sharp mountain in Norway. We found him, and he was okay, but there were some heart-stopping moments I would never want to relive.
Allison: What got you interested in writing historical fiction?
Margi: I did not, in fact, get interested in writing Historical Fiction. I didn’t even know I was writing H.F. until someone pointed it out. I was just interested in telling a story, actually. It just so happened to be a historical one. It has had the effect of making me interested in writing more, though.
Allison: What got you interested in writing about other cultures?
Margi: I also didn’t plan on writing about other cultures. It was the story that interested me, I think, first. Then, in learning about the culture, I became interested in it. Isn’t that the way it usually works?
Allison: Congratulations on winning the Newbery Honor for Heart of a Samurai! How did you hear the news and how did it feel?
Margi: Thank you. I was on a ski vacation, actually, in Washington State (another fantastic ski adventure!). Just four of us in a little cabin in the mountains. I didn’t know my cell phone even worked there until it rang at 7 o’clock in the morning. I was, well, shocked, you could say. Thrilled. Amazed. I stood watching the sun rise, illuminating the Enchantment Mountains, feeling pretty enchanted myself. Then we went for a celebratory ski and afterwards lunch with some good Washington grown wine.
Allison: As part of your research for Heart of a Samurai, you visited Japan. What sites would you recommend most to tourists?
Margi: I’m hardly an expert on travel in Japan, but if you haven’t been there before, then you should go straight to Kyoto and just start walking. And/or, If you can swing it, it is a pretty cool thing to get to the farther reaches of the country, to the small towns and traditional inns. It’s tricky if you don’t speak or read the language, but, you know–hey!–adventure?
Allison: What are some similarities and differences you found between Japan and America?
Margi: Similarities and differences? So many of both. The Japanese people I have met have been extremely generous, kind and hospitable. Also polite, with consummate manners. One thing I noticed on my return from Japan, from the first moment I stepped off the plane in the U.S., were airport personnel yelling at us, rather than politely bowing.
Allison: As an American woman, how were you able to take on the perspective of a Japanese fisherman?
Margi: While writing, I was painfully aware of how audacious it was for me to be writing from the point of view of a 19th century Japanese boy, but I guess somewhere deep inside me there must be one. As for the fisherman part, I spent a lot of time fishing with my dad as a kid, so that part wasn’t a terrible stretch. You know, you’re not really trying to BE that character or person when you’re writing, you’re trying to be a kind of voice for them, in a way. I don’t know if that’s what I mean.
Allison: There is not a lot available about Manjiro himself. How were you able to make his story come alive through fiction?
Margi: The luckiest thing for me is that Drifting to the Southeast, Manjiro’s own account of his adventures, had been translated and published by Spinner Publications shortly before I started working on the story. That was my bible, and while I wrote I constantly referred to it to try to make my story as accurate as I could, while still writing a novel. Making the story read like a novel required flexing some writing muscles I didn’t know I had. It was a work out! It’s also true that there are large portions of his experience where there is very little information. His time in America, for instance. Not much to go on. It’s been a relief and a pleasure when kids and adults, too, tell me that their favorite parts are those sections that I had to completely make up. Whew.
Drifting to the Southeast, was translated by Junya Nagakuni and Junji Kitadai and published in 2003 by Spinner Publications of New Bedford, Mass. It isn’t exactly kid-friendly reading, but for die-hard Manjiro fans, it’s a must. Another good book, more suitable for young people, is Shipwrecked by Rhoda Blumberg, a nonfiction picture books with lots of photos and period drawings. This is the book that introduced me to Manjiro. Excellent!
Allison: Besides writing, you also teach. What’s your best and worst teaching story?
Margi: I really enjoy teaching and have had some very fun and memorable classes. However, my early years of teaching had some bumpy parts. As adjunct faculty, I sometimes get asked to teach things I probably have no business teaching. One time it was a freshman seminar, “Humor in American Literature” (I suppose I was considered qualified because I directed a comedy theater for many years). Anyway, we spent the first few weeks staring at each other, the students and I, with a kind of suspicion one might exhibit upon encountering fruitcake in your Christmas stocking. Or just fruitcake in general. Somehow, though, and I’m not sure how, we ended up having a great time. We read, we performed, but especially we wrote a lot. A lot of very funny stuff. I was extremely gratified when a number of students told me that they hadn’t thought they liked to write, but now they really did and wanted to do more. yippee ti yi yay!
Allison: What are your next book plans?
Margi: Thank you for asking. The next book is called Shadow on the Mountain and is. . . whattya know! Historical fiction! It is inspired by true life stories of people who were involved in the Resistance in Norway when it was occupied by Nazi Germany, 1940-1945 . My young hero starts out by delivering underground newspapers, becomes a courier, which requires him to transport coded messages and small weapons by bicycle or on skis, eventually becomes a spy and, when he is at last discovered, has to make his escape over the mountains, on skis, traveling only at night. All of this with the Gestapo on his heels! Many of his adventures are the real life adventures of Erling Storrusten, a man I interviewed in Norway last year. Shadow on the Mountain should be out this fall from Amulet Books!