Bringing Heart To Issues With Storyteller Holly Thompson

Cross-Cultural Life Lessons Told In Books For All Ages

By Kathryn Wortley
April 27, 2020
Careers, Savvy Spotlight

With more than 20 years spent working and raising a family in Japan, Massachusetts-born Holly Thompson brings her cross-cultural experiences to life in literature for all ages. Savvy Tokyo caught up with the award-winning author to find out her inspiration and what she hopes to convey in her books. 

A prolific writer, Holly has penned novels, short stories, and poems for children, teens, and adults. In addition to exploring emotions and challenges experienced by bicultural individuals, she tackles difficult and often-ignored issues such as bullying, loss, and displacement. 

Her works have been praised for their relevance to young people today. The Wakame Gatherers, a novel about a bicultural girl who comes to understand the challenges faced by her Japanese and American grandmothers at her age, is listed as a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People by the United States’ National Council for the Social Studies. Another book, Orchards, which tells the story of a Japanese American girl coping with the loss of a classmate, won the Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature in the Young Adult Literature Category in 2012.

Holly also teaches creative writing in Japan and the United States, thereby acting as both a writer and educator.

Bringing Heart To Issues With Storyteller Holly Thompson

How did you get interested in writing?

I started writing poetry when I was about 12. One of my goofy poems “The Night the Bathtub Overflowed” was performed as a dark comedy on a PBS TV show, and that spurred me to keep writing poems and stories, even though I was a slow reader. During college, creative writing courses were a refreshing break from biology and chemistry labs. 

What made you decide to make it your career?

I loved science, especially wildlife biology, and though I majored in biology in college, I felt driven to write. With biology, I felt pressured to narrow my focus of study further and further, whereas, with writing, I felt like I could broaden my attention to the world. During my first two years after college, I taught middle/high school science and English, then spent three years teaching English in Kanagawa high schools. By that time, I was determined to study creative writing in graduate school, which I did at New York University. From then on, I’ve combined a writing career with a career in teaching writing—mostly at the university level—plus editing and consulting.  

[…] with writing, I felt like I could broaden my attention to the world

Where do you get your inspiration from?

People, places, events, interactions… There are so many story seeds on any given day. I observe environments—I strive to “listen” keenly to my surroundings with all my senses. I like to run and take long walks in my Kamakura area. And seaside communities of farmers, wakame growers, and fishing families have always been an inspiration to me. Satoyama environments (the area between mountain foothills and arable flat land), where humans and wildlife coexist in an ecological balance, infuse me with curiosity and an eagerness to learn from locals about communities and places that may weave through my stories.  

How has your time in Japan impacted your writing?

I’ve lived in Japan for over 20 years—first in the early 80s, then from 1998 until now. My values, my sense of self, the way I use language, the way I’ve parented, how I interact with people, the way I perceive space, time and sound, my way of viewing the world, and of course my writing have all been shaped by living most of my adult life in Japan. I aim to write stories that dive into issues of living with two cultures and languages, and the fluid positions of insider and outsider. 

Bringing Heart To Issues With Storyteller Holly Thompson

You’ve written a lot about experiences that traverse cultures. What message do you hope to convey by doing so?

I hope that readers will have open minds and take time to try to understand diverse vantage points and voices. I hope that intercultural interactions and understandings may somehow be enabled by discussions that follow from reading my novels, stories, essays, or poems. Issues of mental health and trauma are also often woven into my work, and my hope is that my books will start conversations and give readers the courage to find ways to move forward.

Your audiences include children, teenagers, and adults. What age range do you find most interesting to write for and why?

I write for all ages with equal enthusiasm—the age range depends on whatever the project calls for. That said, writing for young people feels more urgently important, and I take seriously my responsibility to create with compassion, love, and care for all young readers who may encounter my books. 

Bringing Heart To Issues With Storyteller Holly Thompson

What’s most rewarding and challenging about your work?

Because I teach in various situations and places throughout the year in Japan, the U.S., online and internationally, the greatest challenge is to block off uninterrupted time to create. The reward, when I do find that time, is the joy of sculpting something with words that might one day go out to meet a reader. 

Aside from writing, you work as a teacher and presenter. How do your roles complement each other?

Teaching writing, presenting about writing, reading for teaching, writing about teaching—all of these make me a stronger writer. As a writer, I know well the struggle of building a poem, essay, story, or novel—and I’m a more compassionate teacher for being an active, evolving writer. Presenting as an author in schools enables me to interact with young readers and hopefully inspire young writers to tell their stories and pay close attention to their worlds. I’ve also been active as Regional Advisor of the Japan chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for over fifteen years, leading and learning with children’s content authors, illustrators, translators, editors, agents, and librarians.

Teaching writing, presenting about writing, reading for teaching, writing about teaching—all of these make me a stronger writer

With such a busy schedule, how do you make time for yourself?

I maintain regular exercise and sleep routines. Those help me get through complicated days and weeks and allow me to totally focus on my writing when I do catch those few minutes to turn my attention to a story, essay, or poem. 

What do you do for fun?

I write! Or read, translate, explore rural areas, birdwatch, hike, spend time with family and friends, and support local wildlife, artists, fishers, and farmers, to the extent that I can. 

Bringing Heart To Issues With Storyteller Holly Thompson

If you want to know more about Holly Thompson, you can find her works on her website, as well as links to her blog and social networks.

Savvy Spotlight is a monthly feature introducing foreign and Japanese women at the frontline of what’s successful, contributing, cool, unique and interesting in the city. If you have anyone in mind you would like us to interview, leave us a comment below with your recommendations!

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