Terry Watada is a Toronto writer with many titles to his credit. His publications include Light at a Window (a manga, HpF Press and the NAJC, 2015), The Game of 100 Ghosts (poetry, Mawenzi House, Fall 2014), The Sword, the Medal and the Rosary (a manga, HpF Press and the NAJC, 2013), The TBC: the Toronto Buddhist Church, 1995 – 2010, (non-fiction, HpF Press & the Toronto Buddhist Church 2010), Kuroshio: The Blood of Foxes, (novel, Arsenal Pulp Press 2007), Obon: the Festival of the Dead (poetry, Thistledown Press 2006), Ten Thousand Views of Rain (poetry, Thistledown Press 2001), Seeing the Invisible (a children’s biography, Umbrella Press 1998), Daruma Days (short fiction, Ronsdale Press 1997), Bukkyo Tozen: a History of Buddhism in Canada (non-fiction, HpF Press & the Toronto Buddhist Church 1996) and A Thousand Homes (poetry, Mercury Press 1995). He is also proud to be part of the anthology Vancouver Confidential (ed. John Belshaw, Anvil Press 2014), which was ranked number 1 by the BC Publishers Association two weeks in a row. His current publications include The Nishga Girl, (HpF Press and the NAJC 2017) a children’s story about Judo Jack Tasaka (a Nisei boatbuilder) and Eli Gosnell, a chief of the Nisga’a Nation; and his second novel, The Three Pleasures (Anvil Press, 2017). The book centres on the Nisei (second generation JC) Resistance Movement during WWII.
As a playwright, he has seen seven of his plays receive mainstage production; his best known is perhaps Vincent, a play about a Toronto family dealing with a schizophrenic son. Workman Arts of Toronto has remounted it every year from 1993 to 2008. Most notably, it was produced at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and the first and second Madness and Arts World Festival in Toronto and Muenster, Germany, respectively.
His essays have been published in such varied journals and books as Maclean's Magazine (March 2011), Canadian Literature (UBC), and Ritsumeikan Hogaku “Kotoba to sonohirogari” (Ritsumeikan University Press, Kyoto Jpn). He wrote a monthly column in the Japanese Canadian national journal the Nikkei Voice for 25 years. Since 2012, he has continued his column in the Vancouver JCCA Bulletin when the magazine expanded to a national level. Essays about his work have appeared in the International Journal of Canadian Studies, Modern Drama (UTP), and in Transcultural Reinventions: Asian American and Asian Canadian Short-Story Cycles (TSAR Publications).
For all his efforts, Terry was awarded the William P. Hubbard Race Relations Award from the City of Toronto and a Citation of Citizenship from the Government of Canada. Recently, he received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal and the NAJC’s National Merit Award. His dedication to the development of human rights in Canada was recognized with the Dr. Gordon Hirabayashi Human Rights Award. His archives of the Asian North American experience have been collected as the Terry Watada Special Collection and housed in the East Asian Library. His literary papers are part of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Robarts Library, the University of Toronto. His theatre production papers are part of the Guelph University Library collection, his oral history is stored within the Simon Fraser University Library. His books are part of the collections of the National Library of Canada, Stanford University Library, the Japanese American National Museum, the National Nikkei (Canadian) Library, the Library of Congress in Washington DC, and the Beijing Foreign Studies University Library.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, A Thousand Homes, was a collection of poetry based on my mother’s life. When she died in 1984, I discovered I had many, many stories about her that could’ve been lost if I hadn’t started writing. So I composed a long poem about her in one night. I entered it into the CBC Writing Contest. “Chisato” (her name which translates to a “thousand homes”) made it to the final round.
I then broke down the long poem into component parts, adding new poems along the way, and voila, I had a book-length group of poems. I submitted it to Mercury Press which published it in 1995. The collection was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. With such encouragement, I decided to write more poetry and to work on prose pieces. My life was profoundly changed as a result.
My recent collection of poetry, The Game of 100 Ghosts (Mawenzi House, Toronto, 2014), is much more assured. I remember one critic said of A Thousand Homes that I didn’t have the “chops” to write poetry. That of course is a matter of opinion, but I will say I am much more confident in writing poetry than I was in the 1980s and 90s.
My second novel, The Three Pleasures (Anvil Press, Vancouver, 2017), continues my exploration of Japanese Canadian history, traditions and community, but beyond my family stories. It feels different because I imagine I am resurrecting that lost community, the JC community just prior WWII and throughout the war.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
As I said, I began with poetry. In actuality, I started writing songs first. A friend once quipped that writing lyrics was writing bad poetry, so I was following my true passion, I suppose. I was in various rock bands in the 1960s, playing around and beyond Toronto. When the last band I was in broke up in 1970, I decided to write my own music as many singer/songwriters were doing at the time (Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Carole King to name a few). Fortunately, I found an audience in the Asian Canadian communities. With their encouragement, I continued writing and performing music in the folk scenes across the country and into the US.
I turned to writing short fiction and then novels because I found I couldn’t express everything I wanted to within the confines of a poem or song. I could create worlds with prose; I wasn’t good enough to do so with poems or lyrics.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I haven’t found it a problem starting a writing project. I’ve heard many stories within and outside my family over the decades. No matter where I am people tell me stories. I feel blessed that I have their trust. Once I have the kernel of an idea for a book, I begin an intense period of study through interviews, histories, and self-published memoirs.
I find the writing comes quickly afterwards, but initial drafts need a lot of rewriting. Then the editing process takes it through several more drafts. So I would say the final manuscript in no way resembles the initial drafts.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
With a poem, an image or phrase comes to mind which I like. I then work to make it into a poem. I wouldn’t say my short pieces become novels, but anecdotes do. I like expanding and stretching them into full plot lines.
Back in the 1990s, an agent suggested I write a long novel (about 1000 pages in length). Writers like Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie and others were all the rage then. So I thought about a book that could include all the personal anecdotes I had. When I returned to her a year later, she said “long books are out”. Somewhat discouraged but not diminished, I took what I had and devised three distinct books. I never went back to that agent. But I had my path clearly mapped out before me.
Having said that, I can see taking any of my short stories and incorporating them into a longer piece. I do have an idea for a collection when writing short pieces. Every subsequent piece then is in service to that idea.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy public readings. I guess that comes from my years as a musician. I like to raise the reading to a performance using emotion and different voices. Readings of poetry and prose are a lot easier. In a band, I’ve had beer bottles thrown at me, audience members assault me while on stage, and call me all kinds of racist epithets. None of that happens when reading a poem.
I also see readings as part of the creative process; I find what works and what doesn’t.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
My primary concern is to get it right. What I write must sound authentic.
Questions: Is the language accurate to the first and second generation Japanese Canadians? Does the setting reflect the situation described? Do the traditions, customs and cultural imperatives ring true for the characters? Therefore, do the characters act in a plausible way? What was life or the experience like?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The writer is the conscience of the larger culture. The writer’s role is to uncover the truth and reveal it to his/her reader.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both actually. I see the necessity of an outside editor when clearing up plot confusion, organization and a host of other things. The problem comes into play when the editor doesn’t understand the culture behind the characters. Misunderstanding follows.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Have the courage to create. Be truthful while being sensitive to all concerned.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to plays to music to poetry)? What do you see as the appeal?
Fairly easy. The challenge is the appeal. Can I write a play? Can I write an effective history or a memoir? As opposed to poetry or fiction, which I know I can write.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
My day begins with breakfast with the family and seeing them off. I then catch the news before watching something entertaining, like a favourite drama or comedy. By then it is 9:00 and I begin to write in my office. I stop at 11:00 to make myself lunch, read the paper and catch the noon news. I then continue writing after 1:00 until about 4:00 when family begin to arrive home. I seldom write in the evening unless I have a pressing deadline. I carry this routine throughout the week (including the weekend), making time for family chores and social obligations.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I do read (at night) to gain inspiration. Sometimes an intelligent film or a TV series does the same.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Sizzling beef in a pan. More aroma than fragrance, I suppose. When I was a kid, beef was a rare dinner, my working-class parents could afford it but once a month, if lucky. Whenever I came home and smelled the frying beef, I was in heaven. I had it like my father: sliced beef, rice, and tofu (with a hot vegetable on the side of course), soy sauce added for flavour. That is what made home special.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Old Japanese fairy tales and ghost stories really influence my work. Hence the Japanese ghost film is important for me to watch. It helps me to create atmosphere in my work.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Haruki Murakami is my guru. The magic in his work mesmerizes me. I love the disappearing characters and the parallel worlds. I attempt to sink that influence into my work. Don’t know if I am successful. Only time will tell, I suppose.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Win a major literary prize.
Outside of writing, I’d like to take a train across the country, hopping off and on as I go, meeting the people, sampling the local food and taking in the countryside. I did it once, but I was seven-years-old at the time. I now fly over the country.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I was a college professor, but it served to finance my writing and musical ambitions. I suppose I would’ve become a full-time musician.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
As I stated before, my mother’s death caused me to write. Other than that, I developed a real yearning to know what life was like in the Japanese and Japanese Canadian community before, during and after WWII (until the 1960s). I could approach that through writing.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book was IQ84 by Haruki Murakami. The title is a Japanese pun for 1984 – Q is the number 9 in Japanese.
The last great film would have to be The Human Condition by Masaki Kobayashi. I couldn’t believe it tackles the controversial themes of Korean Comfort Women and the brutal treatment of Chinese war prisoners. And this was in 1961! Amazing nine-hour film done by an artist of great courage.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve got two projects going at present: my fifth collection of poetry and a third novel. The poetry collection is called The Four Sufferings, based on a teaching of the Buddha, and the novel is called The Mysterious Dreams of the Dead. The novel is partly based on my friend who robbed a bank in the name of Japanese Canadian redress in the 1980s, and another part centres on the search for the protagonist’s father with supernatural and magical elements in play. I am nearly ready to submit the manuscripts for both.