Interview with debut novelist Sarah Z. Sleeper

Today’s special guest author is Sarah Z. Sleeper to chat with me about her new literary fiction, Gaijin.

Sarah Z. Sleeper is an ex-journalist with an MFA in creative writing. She spent the first four years of her writing career as a journalist in Japan, which inspired Gaijin, her first novel. Her short story, “A Few Innocuous Lines,” won an award from Writer’s Digest. Her non-fiction essay, “On Getting Vivian,” was published in The Shanghai Literary Review. Her poetry was published in A Year in Ink, San Diego Poetry Annual and Painters & Poets, and exhibited at the Bellarmine Museum. In the recent past she was an editor at New Rivers Press, and editor-in-chief of the literary journal Mason’s Road. She completed her MFA at Fairfield University in 2012. Prior to that she had a twenty-five-year career as a business writer and technology reporter and won three journalism awards and a fellowship at the National Press Foundation.

Welcome, Sarah. Please tell us about your current release.
The Japanese word gaijin means “unwelcome foreigner.” It’s not profanity, but is a slur directed at non-Japanese people in Japan.

Lucy is a budding journalist at Northwestern University and she’s obsessed with an exotic new student, Owen Ota, who becomes her lover and her sensei. When he disappears without explanation, she’s devastated and sets out to find him.

On her three-month quest across Japan, she finds only snippets of the elegant culture Owen had described. Instead she faces anti-U.S. protests, menacing street thugs and sexist treatment, and she winds up at the base of Mt. Fuji, in the terrifying Suicide Forest. Will she ever find Owen? Will she be driven back to the U.S.? Gaijin is a coming-of-age story about a woman who solves a heartbreaking mystery that alters the trajectory of her life.

“This story of the “unwelcome foreigner” is not an easy one, and it takes an award-winning journalist like Sarah Sleeper to give it the precision, sensitivity, and depth it deserves. The Far East and the Midwest are both on trial as Sleeper investigates the past and present of Japanese-American relations through a haunting, unforgettable story of love lost. Sleeper’s prose is full of natural poetry as she explores all the different shades of heartbreak where personal and political intersect.”

— Porochista Khakpour, author most recently of Brown Album

What inspired you to write this book?
The novel is loosely based on my four years in Okinawa, Japan. Some of the events in the book did happen to me, but my protagonist, Lucy is definitely not me. She’s younger and more provincial, searching for answers. The story is fiction, but set in today’s Japan, so contains plenty of true data and historical information. It was quite interesting to be a foreigner in Okinawa, obviously “other” from the majority of people there. So, that presented an interesting backdrop for a powerful story.


Excerpt from Gaijin:
A person or a memory can sit inside you and you might have no choice about it. You don’t have to think about a person for him to be part of you. That’s what my best friend Rose told me years ago, in a moment when she saw me more clearly than I saw myself, a moment when I was restless and heartsick and about to board a plane to Japan.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “You’re going to hunt down Owen.”

I scoffed and lied, said I never thought of him.

Now years later, I know Rose was right, that you don’t get to decide what sticks and what doesn’t, who gets in and who gets blocked. You like to think you control your destiny and choose your path, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes you’re propelled forward in the most unexpected way when something or someone takes hold of you and doesn’t let go.


What exciting story are you working on next?
I’m working on a book of short stories, with subjects ranging from an obsessed tennis player to an ethically challenged journalist. I really enjoy short fiction and novels equally.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
That’s all I ever wanted to be! When I graduated from college, I took the first writing job I could find, in Japan, as a reporter. Since then, my writing has taken many different forms—business writing, creative nonfiction, poetry and so on—but I’ve always stayed focused on writing as my number-one passion.

Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I’ve been a full-time writer for almost thirty years! I’ve never taken another day job, and have been lucky to have a successful freelance career. Now that I’ve shifted from journalism and business writing to literature and poetry, I’m so happy. It was a great decision to get an MFA from Fairfield University and surround myself with literary peers. That helped me create a new version of my writing life.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I love to write on my bed desk. I have a great office and library with a nice big writing desk, but I love the coziness of my bedroom, so often find myself there. Especially during the pandemic, it’s a very comforting place to work.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A writer!

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Well, I have two very important things I’d like to share. First, I’m BTS ARMY! I’m a dedicated fan of the Korean band and have seen them live four times. My daughter, Vivian, and I go to the concerts together and it’s like being transported into a magical world of beauty, music and art. And the second thing I’d like to share is that being a writer who sits behind a desk doesn’t mean you can’t also love exercise. I’ve been a certified group exercise instructor for thirty years. I started teaching at gyms when I was in college and still love it today. I’m a gym rat!

Thanks for joining me today, Sarah.

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