Interview with Sophie Littlefield
Please welcome the author of Garden of Stones, Sophie Littlefield, to On the Bookcase in an exciting interview!
Garden of Stones is very different from other books you’ve published. What led to your decision to write something new, and what inspired your ideas for the story and characters in the book?
When I began writing several decades ago, I found I loved the freedom of moving between genres—crime fiction, young adult, dark fantasy—trying to craft the most compelling story possible. There is great excitement in treading on unfamiliar ground, and I think risk-taking can lead to captivating and unforgettable stories.
Garden of Stones came about over a series of conversations I had with my dear friend, author Juliet Blackwell. She is a native Californian, and knew much more about the Japanese internment camps than I did, having grown up in the Midwest. I found this chapter of our nation’s history engrossing and horrifying, so I started thinking about how to explore it through fiction. My own novels often feature women—specifically mothers and daughters—at the heart, which led me to focus on their experience during this troubling era. Other story elements came about serendipitously, even small details like the Nancy Drew mysteries mentioned in the book—I’d unearthed an old copy of The Mystery at Lilac Inn, and I kept it on my desk as I wrote.
You’ve written about a very specific—and difficult—period in U.S. history. What drew you to this time and setting? What kind of research did you do, and what were the challenges you faced writing a historical novel?
When I began this project, I knew I had a daunting research challenge ahead of me. I read everything I could get my hands on: dozens of books, first-person accounts, journals, newsletters. I pored over photographs and covered the walls of my office with maps and illustrations.
I made the trip to Manzanar and spent a day at the restored camp, talking to the staff and viewing the exhibits. Walking among the ruins of the blocks and gardens I’d read so much about was inexplicably moving. I felt as though I was standing with the spirits of those who had lived there. I also visited a small museum in the town of Independence that had a wonderful collection of ephemera and memorabilia: letters, handicrafts, school photos, newspapers, dishes, clothes and furniture made by internees.
There are also many wonderful websites about the pop culture of the era; I spent an entire afternoon learning about 1940s cleaning products!
Did you find it challenging to write about a culture that’s different from your own? What sort of research did you do to ensure the authenticity of your characters and life inside the Manzanar prison camp?
I was concerned about this aspect of the book until I started reading the first-person accounts and interviews of internees. The perspective differed greatly between the Issei (born in Japan) and Nisei (born in America), and between those who were children and those who were adults. The accounts are rich with detail and helped me understand the values and priorities of the families and communities whose lives were affected by the war, which in turn helped me create credible fictional accounts. There was such a strong sense of patriotism among many of the internees, despite their treatment by our government and citizens. The determination to self-identify as American remained powerful in nearly every account I read, and I tried to reflect that in the novel.
In the book, you explore the lengths a mother will go to protect her children—even if it means hurting them. Some readers may find Miyako’s actions cruel and unspeakable, while others may feel the consequences of doing nothing would have been far worse. Did you intend for Miyako to be a sympathetic character? What do you want readers to take from her actions?
Despite Miyako’s struggle with her fragile mental health, she fights to hold herself together for the sake of her daughter. A woman with Miyako’s challenges in modern America might find effective treatment and be able to lead a full and rewarding life. During the war, that was nearly impossible, and yet Miyako did the best she could for Lucy.
I think the interesting question is whether she failed Lucy in the end. I spent a lot of time considering how a girl who had suffered what Lucy suffered would grow up—what kind of woman she would become, and whether she would be able to forgive. I must admit that I’m not entirely decided, myself.
What was your biggest surprise as you were writing this novel?
I am very surprised at how familiar the adult Lucy felt to me as I began to write her. I thought I would have been much more tentative in describing her attitudes, emotions and actions. But she arrived, as characters occasionally do, completely formed, and I felt no hesitation as I wrote her scenes.
Can you describe your writing process? Do you outline first or dive right in? Do you write scenes consecutively or jump around? Do you have a schedule or routine? A lucky charm?
I am still searching for my best process, and I’m getting the feeling that search will last a lifetime! True to my restless nature, I try lots of different things. I’ve written with detailed outlines and none at all; in chronological order and jumping around.
I do keep a detailed guide for every book and series. This includes a table of characters with their most salient characteristics, a time line and a list of significant places. As for schedule…I adore the fact that this job lets me set my own hours. I work throughout the day—from first sip of coffee through the glass of wine that marks the end of most evenings.
But I take breaks whenever I feel like it: to do chores, go to the gym or hiking, have lunch with friends, hang out with my daughter after school. I have a variety of talismans in my office. There are three little plastic penguins, a mini Etch A Sketch on which my son wrote “I Love You” when he was 8 or 10, a tiara given to me by a writing friend, and the card that came with the f lowers my brother sent to mark the publication of my first novel.
What can you tell us about your next novel?
I am working on a novel in which an affluent suburban family is forced to endure a terrifying event together. Over the course of two days, all of their relationships with each other are profoundly altered.
Sophie Littlefield grew up in rural Missouri and attended college in Indiana. She worked in technology before having children, and was lucky enough to stay home with them while they were growing up. She writes novels for kids and adults, and lives in Northern California.