Monday, October 12, 2020

Jenny Has Five Questions for Shannon Takaoka

From Jenny: I’ll read books from any section of the bookstore, but I’m drawn to two genres in particular, and they are wildly different. Anything from the YA fiction shelf and what I call medical science sleuthing nonfiction are my absolute favorites. When Daniel gave me a five-hundred page book on the elegance of the human immune system, I read it like a fast-paced thriller (ed note: An Elegant Defense, by Matt Richtel.) A book about the race to find new antibiotics to take on superbugs? Fascinating. And please send all YA books my way that feature a complexity of emotions, swoony kisses, and cleverly written, laugh-out-loud banter. Add in self discovery or non-stop bickering/simmering passion, and I will be totally hooked.

Everything I Thought I Knew is a mash-up of my two favorite genres, and I’m thrilled to welcome author Shannon Takaoka to the Boswellians Blog today to chat with me about writing, self-discovery, and so much more.

JENNY CHOU: Hi Shannon, and congratulations on the publication of your debut novel. I’m so glad you’re here to tell blog readers about Everything I Thought I Knew. Your main character, Chloe, collapses during cross-country practice during her senior year of high school, which leads to a heart transplant. Recovering from something like that would be challenging enough, but she’s got a lot more going on. Can you fill us in on what she’s experiencing? 

SHANNON TAKAOKA: Thank you, and I’d love to fill you in. When we first encounter Chloe about six months post-transplant, she’s doing okay physically, but at the same time, she’s not feeling exactly like she thinks she should. She’s finding it difficult to settle back into her usual routines and relationships (especially now that she’s stuck in summer school to make up for the time she missed when she was recovering) 

and ambivalent about academics and college planning – both things she used to care a lot about before. She’s also experiencing unsettling nightmares, and, most troubling of all, strange gaps in her memory, where she keeps getting flashes of places, events and even people she’s sure she must know but that she can’t quite remember. But she doesn’t tell her doctor or parents about any of this because she doesn't want any more hospital appointments – especially when she’d rather forget about her heart transplant and focus instead on her newfound obsession: surfing. 

JC: You write with such care and empathy for Chloe and the difficulties she’s facing. What inspired you to tell her story? Do you have a medical background, or are you like me, a book-loving English major with a sort of weird but endless fascination with physiology?  

ST: I’m definitely more like you. I have no formal medical background, but I’m for sure interested in all things science-related, from some of the strange multiverse theories that have been spawned by quantum mechanics – even if I don’t really understand the math involved! – to medicine, biology, environmental science and more. When I was in high school, Anatomy & Physiology was one of my favorite classes (outside of English Lit, of course). Learning about all the bodily systems that keep us alive was both fascinating and a little terrifying to me at the same time. It’s so wild to envision everything that’s going on under our skin to keep us moving and breathing and talking and thinking, but it’s also a reminder of how mortal we all are, because while our bodies are incredibly complex and amazing, there are so many ways that they are vulnerable too. Anyway, we went on some cool field trips for that class, and one was to a research hospital to view an open heart surgery. I think it was a triple bypass. I still have a vivid memory of it.

Organ transplants especially have always fascinated me. The fact that humans have figured out how to transplant a heart or a kidney or a lung, successfully, from one person to another is such an extraordinary achievement, and the history and science behind it all is so interesting. (If you like medical science non-fiction, I highly recommend When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon by Joshua D. Mezrich and The Man Who Touched His Own Heart: True Tales of Science, Surgery, and Mystery by Rob Dunn.) But I’ve also thought a lot about the emotional side of transplants: What does it feel like to know that a part of you – a part essential to keeping you alive – once belonged to someone else? I read and listened to a number of stories about transplant recipients and was struck by how some of them reported feeling deep connections to their donors – to the point of picking up some of their likes, dislikes, and habits. So all of this, in different ways, inspired the book.

JC: What do you hope readers, and especially teens, take away from Everything I Thought I Knew?

ST: Well, first, I hope they just enjoy it as a story. And while I love imagining what readers might take away from it, I’m guessing that it depends on the individual. When I was writing it, one of the ideas I was trying to explore was the question a lot of people – and especially teens – ask themselves: “Who am I, really?” And I think that it’s okay to not always be sure. You don’t have to have everything figured out at age 17. Personally, I feel like the question of who we are is one we ask and answer again and again throughout our lives. We are always learning and hopefully evolving, and being shaped by our experiences.

I also wanted to look at what it really means to live. While there’s nothing wrong with having goals and plans, I think we can also get so wrapped up in what comes next that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that life is lived in the present. In Chloe’s case, she’s faced with this question in a rather extreme way – she almost dies and then her new life is a constant reminder of not just her “second chance,” but also of someone else’s loss. So how does she choose to live her life after coming so close to losing it, and with the knowledge that her existence will always be connected to her donor?

And finally, I think there’s something I was trying to get at about the tension between attempting to control our destiny and accepting the reality of fate and chance. No matter how much we learn and discover about life and death, there will always be things we don’t understand. For a scientific mind like Chloe’s, this can be frustrating, but I also think there’s something beautiful in recognizing that the universe is too vast, magical and mysterious to be fully explained.

JC: Where do you do your best writing? In a hip coffee shop, six feet away from other writers? The kitchen table? Anywhere you can find a few precious moments of quiet? And do you plan everything out in advance with a neat outline or do you wake up every morning eager to tell yourself the story to see what happens next?

ST: It depends on my mood. Sometimes, I want some energy around me, with people and conversations buzzing in the background, and coffee shops are great for that. I really missed my local indie – Book Passage in Corte Madera, California – during all the weeks of shelter in place. I wrote a lot of Everything I Thought I Knew in their café. Other times, when I really need quiet and focus, I go to a library. There are several great libraries near where I live. The closest to me is in a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and it’s got this retro-futuristic vibe that I like. (In fact, scenes from the 90s sci-fi movie Gattaca were filmed there!) There’s another library I love a few towns over from me that’s nestled in a grove of redwoods. It’s my favorite place to go when it’s raining. Redwood groves look especially beautiful when the weather is damp and everything gets all mossy and green.

In terms of pantsing vs. plotting, I’m more of a pantser – at least I was for this book. I find outlining challenging because I need to write for a bit to discover who my characters are and what the story is all about. I’m trying to get a little better at plotting with my next WIP, however. For me, that means having few key moments to aim for so that I can keep the momentum going and avoid writing myself into too many corners!

JC: Wouldn’t I just love to ask you all about your brilliant plot twist and a gasp-out-loud ending! But the Boswellians do not believe in spoilers. So I’ll just say that I found Chloe’s journey of self-discovery impossible to put down until I turned the last page, and instead of chatting about how you rocked that ending, let’s imagine you get to be an Indie bookseller for a day! What new or upcoming titles would you recommend to readers? 

ST: I’m glad we are on the same page about spoilers! And I would LOVE to provide some recommendations! I have LOTS. Are you ready? There are so many great books out this year, but I’ll keep this list to YA:

The Lucky Ones by Liz Lawson, Three Things I Know Are True by Betty Culley (Also one of Jenny’s favorites!) and Accidental by Alex Richards are three books about the aftermath of gun violence that are all fantastic – beautifully written, heartbreaking, but also hopeful as well. I loved The Edge of Anything by Nora Shalaway Carpenter. It deals with mental illness and an unexpected friendship between a volleyball player and budding photographer. A lovely, lovely book. I also just finished This is My America by Kim Johnson and it’s a powerful, important story about racial injustice set in a town with long running secrets. Coming up in November, Jennifer Moffett’s Those Who Prey is a thoroughly engrossing and unsettling story of a college freshman who gets caught up in a cult. I could keep going – that’s what happens when you get to connect with a lot of amazing writers during your debut year! – so I’m just going to list others that I read this year and recommend (while noting that I also have a TBR that’s quite long, so there are many 2020 releases I still have to read!):

·  Together We Caught Fire, Eva Gibson
·  Private Lessons, Cynthia Salaysay
·  The Perfect Escape, Suzanne Park
·  If You Only Knew, Prerna Pickett
·  True or False, A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News, Cindy Otis
·  The Sound of Stars, Alechia Dow
·  Jane Anonymous, Laurie Faria Stolarz
·  These Violent Delights, Chloe Gong
·  The Best Laid Plans, Cameron Lund
·  Diamond City, Francesca Flores
·  Glitch Kingdom, Sheena Boekweg
·  The Gravity of Us, Phil Stamper

Thank you so much Jenny for giving me the opportunity to chat with you about my book!

JC: Thank you, Shannon, for joining me on the Boswellians Blog! For all of her latest publishing news, follow Shannon on Instagram @shannontakaokawrites and Twitter @shannontakaoka

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