Michelle Bailat-Jones on writing Fog Island Mountains

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My novel Fog Island Mountains is about a mixed-culture family living in southern Japan. The novel centers on the father’s unexpected diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and his wife’s flight from and denial of this difficult situation. It is a short novel, both in pages and in focus, covering just about a week of time in the lives of the characters, just enough to see a typhoon build and land on the island of Kyūshū. The book is narrated by a storyteller figure, an elderly woman named Azami with a peculiar story of her own, and it looks at Japan’s kitsune (foxes with magical powers) folktales.

One of the more curious things about experiencing this first publication is being asked to write “about it.” All throughout the writing and submitting and editing process, I assumed that once the book was out in the world, I wouldn’t really have to think about it anymore. (Except, obviously, with nervous nail-biting as friends and other readers graciously picked it up). Instead, I’ve been asked to talk about the genesis of the book or to “explicate” the story in different ways. Although this is something I would have normally resisted, preferring to let readers make of the book what they might, this has been a surprisingly fun part of the process.

Because Fog Island Mountains fits into a category of expat or foreign fiction, the writer Jeffrey Condran asked me to contribute a piece to a project he had put together looking at literary flâneurs. For that, I wrote a hybrid essay/short story (click here) that focused on the geography of the Fog Island Mountains (the eponymous region of Kyūshū). This was my attempt to show how special this particular region is to me and how it fits into Japan’s storytelling and linguistic tradition.

And then, because Fog Island Mountains won the Christopher Doheny Award, which honors writing about serious illness, I wrote a short essay (click here) for The Center for Fiction that tried to speak to how the novel approaches our willingness to discuss illness and grief, and how grief can become prescriptive, which was a central question for me as I wrote the novel.

So, thinking about those two essays and the approaches they take toward the book, I wanted to write something here that completed them. That took up with an aspect of the book I hadn’t yet written about—and this brings me to its structure.

All writers have different approaches to structure. Some are amazingly gifted at handling linear narratives, at moving their readers through a text from A to Z, stopping where necessary, jumping time when needed but keeping it all very consistent and straightforward. I admire those writers and wish this came naturally to me as well, but I have always been someone who writes in disconnected scenes and who enjoys layering different time spans together to see how they play off or inform one another.

For Fog Island Mountains—which I wanted to contain a large number of different scenes focusing on a crowded cast on characters—I wanted to impose a structure over the story that would be both meaningful and help keep those disparate scenes in a kind of synchronicity. In 2007, when I was writing the first drafts of the novel, I was also researching typhoons as an element to include in the story. The island of Kyūshū gets, on average, 10 typhoons a year. They are a major focus of Kyūshū life; they have their own season. I discovered that the meteorological language used to talk about typhoons has this subtle poetry to it—it struck me as very beautiful and could be easily related to difficult emotions: disturbed weather, tropical depression, upwelling, feeder bands, organized convection and so on and so forth. I knew I had one part of my structure as I laid out these terms for the major stages of a typhoon. Seven sections that moved the characters and the story through a storm.

The last bit of my structure fell into place with a large measure of serendipity. As I was drafting out these seven parts, I noticed that I’d actually made my groupings of scenes into sections of either five or seven scenes long. I’m an admirer of classical Japanese poetry and realized (with both astonishment and delight) that I had before me something that gave a little wink to the chōka, the longest and most intricate form of classical Japanese poetry. The best part of all of this was that I did not have to do any awkward scene creating – for the first three sections, the novel focuses on two characters only – Alec Chester and his wife Kanae, but once the Feeder Bands section opens (NB: Feeder Bands are the lines or bands of thunderstorms that spiral into and around the center of a tropical system) the book then looks at every other tangential character who has been previously introduced. And the numbers worked exactly—5, 7, 5, 7, 5, 7, 7—every character got their own vignette, and the chōka was intact.

Ultimately, these are background details. They should not matter. What should matter is the movement of the reader through each page and through the story, and how a reader might connect (or not) with each character’s actions and experience or with the writing. But as a writer who loves reading books with structures that stick their neck out a bit, I wanted very much to manage something complicated that did not distract, at least not too much, from the story but that added to it or enhanced it.

I will never be the best judge of whether I actually pulled that off, but the attempt was a wonderful learning experience and it has been fascinating to see how different readers react to this aspect of the book.

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Michelle Bailat-Jones is a writer and translator. You can find her online at www.michellebailatjones.com

Read Rebecca Hussey’s review of Fog Island Mountains here.

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