I’m excited to share the September interview in the Debut-to-Debut Series! I’ve been talking to a fantastic group of debut young adult novelists this year, and that will continue throughout the rest of 2017, 2018, and 2019—the year leading up to, during, and following my own debut. I’m so excited to share these books, and insights into these authors’ experiences, with you. You can find all the interviews in the series collected right here.
I recently corresponded with Akemi Dawn Bowman about her debut young adult novel Starfish (S&S/Simon Pulse, September 2017).
From the jacket:
Kiko Himura has always had a hard time saying exactly what she’s thinking. With a mother who makes her feel unremarkable and a half-Japanese heritage she doesn’t quite understand, Kiko prefers to keep her head down, certain that once she makes it into her dream art school, Prism, her real life will begin.
But then Kiko doesn’t get into Prism, at the same time her abusive uncle moves back in with her family. So when she receives an invitation from her childhood friend to leave her small town and tour art schools on the west coast, Kiko jumps at the opportunity in spite of the anxieties and fears that attempt to hold her back. And now that she is finally free to be her own person outside the constricting walls of her home life, Kiko learns life-changing truths about herself, her past, and how to be brave.
From debut author Akemi Dawn Bowman comes a luminous, heartbreaking story of identity, family, and the beauty that emerges when we embrace our true selves.
KIT FRICK: Recent high school graduate Kiko Himura is a visual artist. Throughout the novel, the reader gains access to her drawings via the brief descriptions that conclude most chapters. I found this to be an extremely effective narrative strategy for giving us insight into how Kiko is processing the chapter’s events both artistically and emotionally. Can you tell us a bit about how you landed on this recurring narrative element and how you yourself imagined Kiko’s art so that the reader could, in turn, connect with Kiko on this level?
AKEMI DAWN BOWMAN: Kiko often struggles to say exactly what she wants to, even when the words for what she’s feeling are already in her head. I wanted to give her an outlet for her feelings, and art just felt like a natural progression. Because with art, she doesn’t have to speak—she can simply release her feelings onto a page or canvas, and I think there’s a real freedom there that Kiko doesn’t get anywhere else. I imagined Kiko’s art to be emotional, surreal, and inspired by elements like stars, animals, and nature, but they’re intentionally short in their descriptions so that the reader can come up with their own ideas of what her paintings and drawings look like. (Also, I’m not going to lie, it was always a big dream of mine to have a book that might inspire readers to create fanart. I will probably pass out with excitement if it ever actually happens!)
KIT: Tell us about the process of developing the adults in Kiko’s life, who range from the wildly insensitive (her mom) to the oblivious (her dad) to the despicable (her uncle) to the wonderfully supportive (the artist Hiroshi). Did their roles evolve organically as you created Kiko’s world, or did you have a specific plan for how this adult cast might function to both challenge and facilitate Kiko’s path toward identity formation and bravery?
AKEMI: I knew early on who these adults would be, and the role they’d play in Kiko’s journey. But out of the four of them, I think Kiko’s dad evolved in a really important way over the course of writing and revising. He was less present in the first draft, but I have an incredible editor who knew which strings to tug to weave him further into Kiko’s story. And I’m really grateful she did, because the scenes with Kiko’s dad are some of the most insightful when it comes to Kiko’s struggle with her identity.
KIT: Tell us something about Starfish that isn’t apparent from the book cover or flap copy. We want the inside scoop!
AKEMI: It seems so strange now, but in the original draft, Emery didn’t exist at all! Kiko didn’t have a single friend, so on top of her home life and the anxieties she was battling through, she was also struggling with a horrible sense of loneliness. I ended up getting some generous feedback from an editor a little while later suggesting Kiko’s life was almost too bleak for a reader to connect with, so I gave her a friend. I love Emery and I’m so glad she’s a part of this story and Kiko’s life. I do think loneliness and not having friends at school is something that is very real, and I’d love to address that in a future novel. It just wasn’t right for Starfish!
KIT: What gives you the most joy about your life as a YA writer right now? What’s bringing you satisfaction at this moment in time?
AKEMI: Starfish releases soon, and that gives me so much joy but also so much anxiety. At the moment, I’m so wrapped up in promotion and edits for Book 2 that it’s a bit of a whirlwind, to be honest. But I try to remember to take a moment to feel accomplished now and then, instead of constantly worrying about all the potential failures to come. It’s hard to do when reviews are trickling in and the release date is getting closer, but I think it’s important. Writers hear “no” so many times throughout this process, and I think sometimes you have to counter that by celebrating all the good news. I’m not always good about that part, but I’m trying!
KIT: The publishing journey is unique for every author, but it’s safe to say that the road to book publication is filled with surprises, twists, and turns for all of us. What has surprised you most about the process of putting a first book into the world?
AKEMI: Definitely how quiet it can be during the months between “deal announcement” and “publication.” There’s a lot of waiting, which is why patience is an absolute must! There’s such an explosion of excitement after you get a book deal, and I think the extreme quiet that follows can be a bit terrifying for first-time authors. Chocolate and staying focused on writing helps!
I was also hugely surprised by how unbelievably kind and enthusiastic complete strangers on the internet can be. I never in a million years imagined people would be talking about Starfish the way they have and connecting with Kiko’s story on such a deep level. It’s meant the absolute world, and to have people actually reaching out to share their reactions with me—I’m just incredibly grateful and honored.
KIT: Drawing from your own unique experience, what advice would you to give to future young adult debut authors, or debut novelists in general?
AKEMI: Take deep breaths, remember it’s not a race, and always be working on the next book. So much of this industry and what happens with your book will be out of your control. But the one thing you can control? When your next book gets finished. So, stay focused and do what you do best: write.
Akemi Dawn Bowman is the author of Starfish. She’s a proud Ravenclaw and Star Wars enthusiast, who served in the US Navy for five years and has a BA in social sciences from UNLV. Originally from Las Vegas, she currently lives in England with her husband, two children, and their Pekingese mix. Starfish is out now (9/26/17, Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster), with Summer Bird Blue, a second YA contemporary, to follow in Fall 2018. She is represented by Penny Moore of Empire Literary.
Kit Frick is a novelist, poet, and MacDowell Colony fellow. Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, she studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA from Syracuse University. When she isn’t putting complicated characters in impossible situations, Kit edits poetry and literary fiction for a small press, edits for private clients, and mentors emerging writers through Pitch Wars. Her debut young adult novel is See All the Stars (Simon & Schuster / Margaret K. McElderry Books, summer 2018), and her debut full-length poetry collection is A Small Rising Up in the Lungs (New American Press, fall 2018).
Starfish is out now and is available wherever books are sold. Allow me to recommend your local indie, in addition to Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
Stop back soon for future posts in the Debut-to-Debut Interview Series. I’ll be talking to Nic Stone, Amy Giles, and more fantastic authors throughout the fall, winter, and beyond!