Debut Spotlight: Clarissa Goenawan by Shannon Kirk
By Shannon Kirk
I was recently fortunate to interview Clarissa Goenawan about writing in general, her excellent debut, RAINBIRDS, and … other things. Clarissa proves, in suffering through my inane questions and giving thoughtful and interesting answers, she can hang. She is, no doubt, a good sport. And obviously a talented writer. Here we go….
Tell the readers what RAINBIRDS is about?
RAINBIRDS follows a young man’s path to self-discovery as he struggles with his sister’s unsolved murder. It’s a literary mystery with elements of magical realism set in Japan.
I checked out your website (LOVE IT) and I read through all the crazy-amazing reviews you’re getting for RAINBIRDS. I want to ask you about a couple of them. A few reviews compare RAINBIRDS with the style of Murakami. I mean, if someone said this about something I wrote, I’d basically lose my mind in a flood of joyous endorphins. But what about you? What do you think? Do you think the comparison is accurate? Do you have any literary heroes? If so, who, why, how do they influence you?
Extremely flattered, of course, but also feeling an incredible amount of pressure. Haruki Murakami is one of the biggest contemporary authors right now.
Personally, I do think that there are similarities–for instance in terms of genre and setting–so readers who love Murakami’s works will probably enjoy RAINBIRDS too. That being said, if someone is expecting another Murakami book, they might end up being disappointed.
There are a lot of great authors I admire. I like J. M. Coetzee for his clean and lean prose, Deborah Levy for her brilliant writing, Haruki Murakami (yes!) for his whimsical story, Banana Yoshimoto for her atmospheric narrative, and Stephen King for his discipline and dedication to the writing life.
Huffington Post had this to say: “Elegantly [combines] a suspenseful mystery with an eloquent meditation on love and loss.” I really love this review because I love books that explore love and loss. Several other reviews note that RAINBIRDS is about grief and letting go. That the narrator is haunted and regretful. Without getting too personal (unless you want to), what did you do as a writer to draw on such deep emotions in order to convey them on the page?
When it comes to writing, I always believe in letting my characters take the lead. I spend a lot of time to get to know them, often through multiple drafts over the years and even stories (and on at least one occasion, a novella) that will never see the light of day. I need to know what kind of person they really are. What are their stories, their needs, their secrets, and their feelings…
Often, what I find in the end isn’t what I predicted. And as a writer, my role is to transcribe these stories in the most truthful manner.
Okay, a starred review from Library Journal, wow! Congrats! This is what they had to say: “In a genre-bending novel about family and loss that shifts from a murder mystery to magical realism, Goenawan infuses her postmodern tale with enough complexity, suspense, and emotional connection to make it memorable and haunting.”
Let’s focus on “genre-bending.” I’ve noticed that some of the greater movies and books lately are noted as being “genre-bending.” I like that. Don’t you like that? Aren’t we all craving to throw everything all in a pot, mix it up, and break out of old story patterns? Have you seen or read Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer? Personally, I loved the movie. I thought it was one of the best I’d ever seen, and I’m in my forties. So.
I’d say Annihilation is a genre-bender and it was an absolutely refreshing experience to experience something surprising and unique. Tell me about your thoughts on your review from Library Journal and specifically your thoughts on genre-bending.
When I started RAINBIRDS, I didn’t really give much thought to how the novel would fit into the market. I simply had a story I really wanted to tell. It was only after several drafts that I realized RAINBIRDS had different elements from various genres, and the book does not fit into one particular category.
Yes, there is a murder and the murder is definitely mysterious, but it’s not exactly a murder mystery. There are also coming-of-age elements, and not just for the main character. RAINBIRDS is not a romance novel, but love and relationships form a strong core of the story. I’ve seen the book being classified as everything from mystery to suspense to crime to thriller to psychological to speculative fiction to literary fiction, which I thought is really interesting.
The cover for RAINBIRDS is glorious. Absolutely beautiful, vividly striking. Who came up with this? Did you get a say? What was your reaction when you first saw it? I’d buy your book based on cover alone without even reading the description, which is super awesome, by the way, anyway.
As a lover of beautiful books, I do judge a book by its cover.
In the early stages, my editor asked if I had an idea of what kind of cover might be suitable. I came up with an embarrassingly long and detailed answer that spanned a couple of pages. But in the end, I did write something along the lines of, “You know what, just surprise me.”
Indeed, the cover wasn’t like anything I had in mind—but it’s stunning! I totally love the colors. They’re so gorgeous and vibrant. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is the kind of book I would buy just because it looks so pretty.”
Do you have a day job or are you writing full time? If you do have a day job, what do you do and does it inform your writing any? How?
I’m a full-time writer 🙂 I have to add the smiling face, because this is really a childhood dream come true for me.
Tell us what’s next for you in writing?
I’m currently working on my second and third novels. Both are literary mysteries (though genre wise, that might still be debatable). And just like RAINBIRDS, they’re set in Japan.
Fun fact: All of my novels are interrelated. They’re standalones—they have different stories and different main characters—but they’re set in the same universe. You’ll find characters in RAINBIRDS making appearances in the next novels. For those who’ve read RAINBIRDS, I hope you’ll have fun guessing which characters will become the main characters.
Please describe your writing environment.
Anywhere is fine—at home, at the coffee shops, at the libraries—as long as I’ve got my laptop. I’m using a MacBook Air so it’s pretty mobile. Right now, I’m typing this answer on a wooden bench in a local college.
I also have some sort of a work/study area at home, but I’m sharing it with my husband and daughters. First come first served, but usually I’m not the fastest.
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