Thursday, June 13, 2013

Interview with Jennifer Cody Epstein, author of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment

Today Flashlight Commentary is pleased to welcome author Jennifer Cody Epstein to discuss her latest release, The Gods Of Heavenly Punishment. 

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Jennifer. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Gods of Heavenly Punishment.
Sure! The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is a novel set against the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo. It explores that event and the Pacific Conflict as a whole from the perspectives of six different characters, and from both sides of the war.

Who or what inspired you to write this story? Why did you feel it needed to be told? 
In part it was my experience living in Japan, which I did for a total of five years (first as a student and teacher, then as a journalist). I was always fascinated by how vastly different our cultures are, and yet how closely twined we are as nations—and I’d never fully felt like I understood the war. I also knew that I wanted to write about our two countries, but didn’t feel like I had a concrete “peg” to hang the story on until my husband came back from an interview he’d done for a film he’s making about a massacre that took place in Iraq. He had been speaking with a military lawyer, and they were talking about the definition of “war crime.” Apparently the lawyer mentioned the Tokyo firebombing as something that by today’s standards would be considered a war crime—which made me realize that I really didn’t know much about that particular incident (like most Americans, my knowledge of our bombings of Japan tends to center around the atomic bombings that took place in August of 1945). When I went to research the firebombing a little I was just blown away—it was so completely devastating, and yet so unmentioned in most historical accounts. I immediately was intrigued by the idea of trying to somehow fill that silence a little by telling a story around it.

What research went into The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and what, if any, challenges did you face in adapting your research to fiction?
Mainly I read, read, and read some more—pretty much anything I could get my hands on about World War II, Japan’s conquest of Northern China, America’s various bombing campaigns against Japan and German, life in the U.S. and Japan during wartime, etc. I also took a research trip to Japan in 2009 and interviewed Japanese historians of the period and several women who had lived through the firebombings. On the U.S. military side, I was lucky enough to gain access to some of the original bombers that were used against Japan during the war, and climbed around a little inside some of them. Lastly, I had some terrific input from a former Occupation Intelligence Agent who’d been in Japan following the Surrender and was able to give me some information about how the country would have appeared to an American at that time.

In terms of adapting research to fiction: I think the biggest challenge is always knowing how to draw the balance between your story and the history. As someone who spends a lot of time researching, there is an instinct to sort of “dump” everything you learn into your book because you don’t want to feel like you’ve wasted any of that time and effort—but not everything you learn in research is of real service to your narrative. Knowing what to include and what to leave out is a balancing act.

What scene posed the greatest challenges for you as an author?
There were two, I think. One was the scene where Cam takes off in his B-25 from the deck of the U.S. S. Hornet. I honestly have no idea at all how to fly a plane, so the first draft of that was waaaaay off in terms of technical detail and perception. Happily, my dad flew planes for the Navy in the 1950’s and offered a lot of insight, as did a friend who was one of the first Air Force officers to fly into Iraq during our first war there. The latter was a real wealth of information as well—she must have read four drafts of the chapter before we felt it was ready to “fly.”

The other scene that posed a challenge was the firebombing scene itself—for obvious reasons. I’ve never lived through anything like that myself, so I had to really trust my imagination to recreate the sensations and the horror of seeing a city consumed by so much heat and fire. It was also psychologically very draining.

Photography plays a unique role in The Gods of Heavenly Punishment. What led you to incorporate visual imagery as a central component in this piece?
I knew I wanted to use an art form to try to sort of “soften” the war element of the novel and to connect my characters—much as I did in my first novel, The Painter from Shanghai, which is about one of China’s first post-impressionist artists, Pan Yuliang. Photography came to me after researching the book online and finding so many powerful and thought-provoking photographs of the period—in many ways, World War II was the first war really brought to us directly by photographs, and I wanted to explore that.

The book's title comes from the Hell Scroll. How did this 12th century artifact influence your story?
I think mostly in that the moment I saw the title, I thought: “That’s it. That’s the name of my book.” It just so perfectly summed up everything I was trying to talk about; fire, punishment, sky, and two nations who each respectively took on godlike powers in their capacities as aggressors. I also felt like the violence of the image captured the grimness of some of the book’s content.

Most war stories are one sided. Why did you opt to tell The Gods of Heavenly Punishment through individuals on both sides of WWII?
I think because I really didn’t want this to be a polemic or a political story about one side being “right” or “wrong.” I was interested in going deeper than that; in seeing how the war came about and was fought and rationalized on both sides, and how those two sides interacted. I also think I was trying to show war itself in all its brutality-not just the brutality inflicted by one side upon the other.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, who would you choose and why?
Probably Hana—because she’s the character I understand the least, and I have a lot of questions for her! Plus I really think she’d be fun and witty to chat with. And could give me some great style tips to boot. J

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
I think that war itself—regardless of who begins or ends it—is a brutal and dehumanizing experience for all involved, and that we have to be very, very careful about justifying it in any context. Also, that there is always hope amid the destruction, because despite everything I believe the human spirit has an infinite ability to reach out, connect, redeem.

Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings? 
I have two that I’m juggling in my head right now—both from the same time period but from opposite sides of the globe! I’m not sure which will win out in the end but check back with me in a month or two

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About the Author: Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, Self, Mademoiselle and NBC, and has worked in Hong Kong, Japan and Bangkok, Thailand. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, two daughters and especially needy Springer Spaniel.For more information, please visit her website.

About the Book: In this evocative and thrilling epic novel, fifteen-year-old Yoshi Kobayashi, child of Japan’s New Empire, daughter of an ardent expansionist and a mother with a haunting past, is on her way home on a March night when American bombers shower her city with napalm—an attack that leaves one hundred thousand dead within hours and half the city in ashen ruins. In the days that follow, Yoshi’s old life will blur beyond recognition, leading her to a new world marked by destruction and shaped by those considered the enemy: Cam, a downed bomber pilot taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese Army; Anton, a gifted architect who helped modernize Tokyo’s prewar skyline but is now charged with destroying it; and Billy, an Occupation soldier who arrives in the blackened city with a dark secret of his own. Directly or indirectly, each will shape Yoshi’s journey as she seeks safety, love, and redemption.

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Check out all the stops On Jennifer Cody Epstein's The Gods of Heavenly Punishment virtual book tour

Monday, June 10

Review & Giveaway at Bippity Boppity Book
Tuesday, June 11
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Wednesday, June 12
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Thursday, June 13
Review at Book Lovers Paradise
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Friday, June 14
Review & Interview at A Bookish Libraria
Monday, June 17
Review at A Bookish Affair
Tuesday, June 18
Guest Post & Giveaway at A Bookish Affair
Wednesday, June 19
Review at Just One More Chapter
Thursday, June 20
Review at Tiny Library
Friday, June 21
Interview & Giveaway at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Monday, June 24
Review at Confessions of an Avid Reader
Tuesday, June 25
Review at Kinx’s Book Nook
Review & Giveaway at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time
Wednesday, June 26
Review at Bitches with Books
Thursday, June 27
Guest Post at HF Connection
Friday, June 28
Review & Giveaway at Broken Teepee
Saturday, June 29
Review at WTF Are You Reading?

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