Sequoia Nagamatsu Inteview
by Bleah B. Patterson and Sequoia Nagamatsu
Sequoia Nagamatsu will be visiting SHSU on March 2, 2023. Ahead of his visit, TR staff interviewer Bleah Patterson interviewed Sequoia about his latest book, his writing themes, thoughts on genre distinctions, and forthcoming work.
Sequoia Nagamatsu is the author of the National Bestselling novel, How High We Go in the Dark (2022) and the forthcoming Girl Zero (William Morrow/HarperCollins and Bloomsbury UK), as well as the story collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone (Black Lawrence Press). He has been shortlisted for the Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize, The Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, and the Ursula K. Le Guin Prize. His short fiction has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, the Southern Review, ZYZZYVA, Tin House, Iowa Review, Lightspeed Magazine, and One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories. He was educated at Grinnell College (BA) and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (MFA), and he teaches creative writing at St. Olaf College and the Rainier Writing Workshop Low-Residency MFA program. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, the writer Cole Nagamatsu, their cat Kalahira, their real dog Fenris, and a robot dog named Calvino.
Bleah (Blay-uh) B. Patterson (she/her) was born and raised in Texas. Former evangelical, former homeschooler, former journalist, she believes in honoring every iteration of herself. She is a poet exploring generational and religious trauma and a current MFA candidate at Sam Houston State University. Her work has been published in the Brazos River Review, the Texas Review, the tide rises, the tide falls, and the Bayou Review, among others.
Bleah Patterson: In another interview you mentioned that How High We Go in the Dark began as a messy draft during your MFA program. Knowing what you now know, that it would eventually become part of a book, I was wondering if you would have done anything differently during your time at the MFA, such as reprioritized your time? Or do you think that the organic way this book came together was necessary?
Sequoia Nagamatsu: I’ve seen enough time travel movies to say that I wouldn’t change anything. Everything needed to happen in the exact same messy and nonlinear way or else How High We Go in the Dark, or my first story collection, or really anything I have written, might not have come to pass. I needed those failed experiments. I needed to teach in Idaho for two years. I needed to have a long-distance relationship with my now-wife. And I think most of all I needed to write and publish a story collection before realizing that How High We Go in the Dark was supposed to be something else. That collection also helped lead me to the people who would become pivotal in the journey of the book, like my agent.
BP: While reading your book I forgot that I was reading “writing.” That is to say, the voice felt natural and authentic throughout. How do you think authenticity is created during the writing process?
SN: I think a writer needs to be writing toward the hearts of their characters rather than some predetermined notion of theme or message. If you know your characters well and have a deep understanding of how they might navigate their world and their life, then I think you’re taking a step toward the authentic. I spend a lot of time thinking about who my characters are and maybe 20% makes it to the page, but I don’t think that’s wasted time. Far from it.
BP: Your book seems to grapple with the notion of continuing to fight for progress and improvement even after all hope seems to be lost. It oftentimes fights against nihilism by exposing nihilistic people as sympathetic and more nuanced and complicated than they seemed at first glance. Do you think this is representative of how you feel about society today, or is it more of a fantasy or ideal?
SN: I’m not sure if it’s how I feel about our own world, but it’s how I’d like to feel on better days. To be honest, how humanity has behaved over the past few years has really lowered my esteem of modern society, and if we’re even capable of saving ourselves when put to the test. All that said, what’s the point in moving on if you’ve lost all hope? I try to hold onto a glimmer of it just as I gave a glimmer to my characters in their darkest moments.
BP: A lot of your themes revolve around grief, attempting closure, and moving on, so I was curious, with reference to the “stages of grief,” do you think the commonly known stages of grief are accurate to the human experiences in your novel?
SN: I don’t really believe in categorizing or scheduling human emotions or psychology. I think there is utility in that if you’re recovering. Goal posts can be important. People want to have some vehicle for articulating their experience and feeling less alone. But for a novel? For crafting a story? I don’t think in those terms, really, and part of that is just acknowledging the messiness and nonlinear nature of life.
BP: How do you see the speculative themes of your novel fitting in the greater tradition of literary works, and specifically your thoughts on where the place that literary and genre fiction overlap is going, if anywhere?
SN: I mean speculative genres have always been integral with what we see as literary canon. The first stories humanity told, some of the great novels ever written were skirting with fantasy and horror and science fiction. I feel like categories and genre labels are at once somewhat useful and also completely useless (and kind of toxic) to be perfectly honest. Sure, writers need to be mindful of traditions and need to know which writers they are in dialogue with, but I think academics and book critics helped to create a genre wall based on snobbery and disciplinary turf-keeping that was in turn bolstered by audiences who grew up with a particular vision of what a certain label should be, what good literature should be. Anyway, this is a bitter subject for me as you might surmise. The overlap has always been happening. Literature isn’t a binary proposition of this vs. that. What we often view as a genre writer or a literary writer, for instance, is often less about content and more about the communities a writer rose in.
BP: Are you working on anything new currently?
SN: I’m working on a novel called Girl Zero for the same publishers and in the early stages of another. At some point I’ll return to my first love of short stories for a spell.
BP: Would you be willing to share perhaps the last sentence you wrote that you really liked?
SN: I’ll just give you a recent sentence. I’m still in the midst of drafting, so I don’t really like anything even if I will later. This is the process.
“The final body drifted toward the precipice, no longer a girl, no longer anything at all.”