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Interview With an Author: Sequoia Nagamatsu

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Sequoia Nagamatsu and his debut novel, How High We Go in the Dark
Author Sequoia Nagamatsu and his debut novel, How High We Go in the Dark. Photo credit: Lauren B Photography

Sequoia Nagamatsu is a Japanese-American writer and managing editor of Psychopomp Magazine, an online quarterly dedicated to innovative prose. Originally from Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area, he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University and a BA in Anthropology from Grinnell College. He is the author of the award-winning short story collection Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone and teaches creative writing at St. Olaf College and the Rainier Writing Workshop Low-Residency MFA program. He currently lives in Minnesota with his wife, cat, and a robot dog named Calvino. His debut novel is How High We Go in the Dark and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for How High We Go in the Dark?

The novel began with explorations of grief and reimagining funerary practices on the heels of grieving for my grandfather. Other threads and themes gradually intertwined with these base explorations (including of course the concept of a virus unleashed by melting permafrost and nods at the climate crisis). Narrative inspirations run the gamut from Star Trek to the work of David Mitchell to short stories by Italo Calvino. Ultimately, I was interested in exploring how people carve out new spaces to grieve and how spaces of tragedy can also be possibility spaces for memory, community, and reimagining life.

Your novel has a large number of characters. Are any of them inspired by or based on specific individuals?

I think many writers will admit that aspects of their characters speak to aspects of themselves or people they know (and certainly some of my characters are named after people I know or have known), but if I had to pinpoint a character that is specifically inspired by someone I’d have to name Dennis in the "Elegy Hotel" chapter, who is largely inspired by me and my own life. I also think my great-grandmother infuses the grandmother/baba character in "Grave Friends". Beyond this, I tried to craft characters whose personal histories alongside their professions could comment on both the evolving world, as well as highlight individual struggles and points of hope.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

The process of writing this book was very kaleidoscopic, which I suppose is fitting since the reading experience can mirror this. Some of the stories began as stand-alone pieces before I began to consider a novel-in-stories structure in terms of theme, inciting incident, recurrent characters, and puzzle-like through lines that are comprised of cosmic hints. The first chapter was one of the last chapters I wrote and the last chapter was initially a novel concept that I wrote a few drafts of in grad school. Lost scenes? Probably too many to count, but I definitely got rid of certain chapters late in revision since they no longer fit in the timeline, forward motion of the larger narrative. But I still managed to save some of the characters (and parts of their journeys) from those lost chapters in the form of minor/side characters.

When did you write How High We Go in the Dark? Was it written prior to the start of the global pandemic in 2020? Or did you write it during the pandemic? Did the actual pandemic affect or influence what you wrote? If so, how?

The early seeds of what would become the novel emerged in 2008 or so with the oldest chapter, "Melancholy Nights in a Tokyo Virtual Café". The plague element entered my explorations in 2014 but wouldn’t become a consistent thread in the book until 2018. The novel was largely completed before the pandemic and was sold in the early days of Covid. While the pandemic didn’t really influence the formation of the book, it did influence some late revisions. In particular, I wanted to make sure that I diminished or deleted any element that was too close to our own pandemic by coincidence.

The idea of a rollercoaster that induces euthanasia seems unique while, at the same time, I’m sure many people feel like they may be dying while riding these types of rides! Do you like rollercoasters and other thrill rides? If so, do you have a favorite? Is there a ride that you absolutely would not ride?

The euthanasia rollercoaster is actually a thought experiment/model developed by artist, Julijonas Urbonas a little over ten years ago. I was very attracted to the idea and inherent tension of merging a traditional place of joy with a space of grief and goodbyes (and of course, there’s something somewhat dystopian about theme park culture). I personally hate roller coasters, so I definitely do not have a favorite. This might be the result of being put on these rides too early and actually being tricked to go onto Space Mountain as a toddler.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

It takes me forever to get through my to-read stack (and it’s a never-ending pursuit since I keep buying books). But a few things that I intend to get to in the near future (don’t hold me to that though): Burntcoat by Sarah Hall, The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa, The Actual Star by Monica Byrne, Goldilocks by Laura Lam, and The Disordered Cosmos by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami, JG Ballard, Kevin Brockmeier, and Yoko Ogawa.

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

I don’t think a lot of writers just starting out realize just how much publishing a book (esp. with a larger publisher) is a collaborative/village effort. I’ve learned so much about my own process and strengths/weaknesses, about the marketplace, about how much work goes into helping ensure the success of a book prior to a book’s launch.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I didn’t really have a favorite. At least not that I can remember. I read a lot of nonfiction mostly (even as a little kid)—lots of books about space exploration, paranormal phenomena, ancient history. I subscribed to the Time Warner Mysteries of the Unknown series, Archaeology Magazine, Star Trek: The Next Generation Magazine, and National Geographic. When I was a bit older (pre-teen/teen), I became mildly obsessed with Asimov and Babylon 5 novels. I read a ton of comic books: Morbius the Living Vampire was a favorite.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

My family was always very supportive of my weird obsessions. I’ll just say that I was a very weird and angsty kid, so sometimes my reading reflected this. I do remember my family telling me to make book covers for some of my books b/c they didn’t want me hanging out around them with certain covers. I will name a couple: The Goetia, which is basically a compendium of demon/fallen angel sigils collected by King Solomon and the Malleus Maleficarum, the Salem Witch trials era witch-hunting manual.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

I’m a professor, so yeah...on my academic journey in college, grad school, and beyond I’ve faked reading books. Not so much in recent memory, but when you’re rising as a writer and teacher there’s a sense that you do need to “keep up” even if you’re not interested in reading something that is buzzing or the hot read of a particular clique.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Recently? Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon and A Pecurliar Peril by Jeff Vandermeer.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Not really, but I’m not an easily impressed person. There are books that have been influential on my journey as a writer (and I’ve named some of those authors above), but I don’t think there has ever been a book that I could say was “the book” that changed my worldview, shook up my craft. But if you’re looking for some titles that I thought were neat? Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino, Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Murakami, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, and the body of work of Kelly Link.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Again, this is a tough one b/c I think it’s a rare book that could appeal to most anybody. I have very particular tastes that I know wouldn’t fly with many readers and vice versa. But if people who like genre-bending work and don’t mind diving into the speculative with some heart? Take a look at Kevin Brockmeier’s The Truth About Celia. It’s one of his first books and still among my favorites.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I’ve been enjoying the M. Night Shyamalan series “Servant”.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Probably hanging out in Monterey, CA (my favorite little city) by the ocean and sea otter watching.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Honestly, at this point I feel like I’ve been asked just about everything. But I’m a huge Star Trek nerd and the franchise has had a huge influence on my work, so I suppose if given the opportunity (for an appropriate audience) I’d dive a bit more deeply into favorite/influential episodes.

What are you working on now?

A second novel (also for William Morrow and Bloomsbury) called Girl Zero. Also in the speculative realm. A shapeshifter replacement of a deceased girl is the central focus—a story of identity formation grief, coming of age.

Book cover for How High We Go in the Dark
How High We Go in the Dark
Nagamatsu, Sequoia