Katie Kitamura On Writing ‘A Separation’

The acclaimed author will come to Cincinnati as part of the University of Cincinnati's Fiction Festival.

Apr 15, 2019 at 1:58 pm
click to enlarge Katie Kitamura, author of "A Separation" - Martha Reta
Martha Reta
Katie Kitamura, author of "A Separation"

Katie Kitamura’s third and most recent novel, 2017’s well-received A Separation, centers on a mystery that is never fully resolved. The oblique narrative follows a woman whose estranged husband, a London-based author, has gone missing in Greece while doing research for his next book. The woman, a book translator whose name is pointedly never revealed, spends the bulk of the novel interacting with the hotel staff and other locals where her husband was staying in a small seaside town.

Driven by Kitamura’s spare prose and uncommon powers of perception, A Separation is a fascinating and often vexing slow-burn novel that refuses to tie things up neatly in a bow. CityBeat recently connected with Kitamura to discuss her process and predilections as a writer.

CityBeat: Your work as a novelist often delves into how our point of view and biases undoubtedly color how we perceive things. Why are you interested in investigating that so thoroughly?

Katie Kitamura: Absolutely. I think it’s an overarching theme of the book I’m writing right now as well. Something that I’m really interested in as a novelist is the idea that we don’t really have any objectivity. Everything is subjective. Everything is colored by your own experience or your own perception or your own prejudices. One of the funny things about being a writer is that you have this pretense of authority, as if you have some kind of absolute knowledge. Complicating what that impartiality looks like is really interesting to me because I think it’s very hard to be impartial in any situation. I think some of the most dangerous situations are the ones where you cling to the pretense of impartiality but in fact you are infecting the situation with all of your own perceptions and prejudices and layers of interpretation, including where they’re wrong. 

CB: A Separation is not a plot-driven novel. As such, do you have any idea of where the narrative is going before you start writing?

KK: I’m somebody who always writes with an outline. It’s not a big outline. It usually fits on a simple piece of paper and I keep annotating that piece of paper over the couple years I’m working on a book. I’m not a confident enough writer to sally forth without any sense of where I’m going. It’s just not my process. A lot of really wonderful writers, a lot of writers that I’m friends with, that’s how they work: They write and they figure out what will happen next and then they go from there. For me, having a roadmap is really useful because I find the hardest part of writing a novel is holding your nerve over the years that it takes to complete it. 

CB: A Separation concludes without the story’s central question being fully answered. Why did you want to keep things unresolved and open-ended?

KK: I wrote it shortly after my father died, so a lot of the book is about grieving and about how often we’re told that the narratives in our lives follow a tidy linear narrative and you have closure at the end. In my experience, particularly of grieving and losing somebody that I love very much, it’s completely not linear and there is no kind of moment that you have recovered from that loss. I wanted to find a way to put that into a novel, and part of that meant trying to sustain a narrative form that was open. A novel does have a beginning, middle and end, and so it’s a kind of paradox trying to write something that feels open-ended that captures the sense that maybe the situation isn’t going to be resolved. If anything, it’s more unresolved at the end of the novel than at the beginning. So that was one of the interesting tensions to think about when I was working on it.

CB: You grew up in California, but your parents are Japanese natives. How has your Japanese-American heritage impacted what you do as a novelist?

KK: I haven’t written a novel that’s set in America, and I think that’s significant. I don’t really have the distance from my work to be able to specifically analyze the relationship between my own family history and the work I produce. But the sense of being an outsider makes it possible for me to write fiction. I’m always most at home writing a character who is newly arrived in a place or who is not of the culture and is trying to navigate and understand that culture. It’s the same in the book I’m writing now, and it’s certainly the same in A Separation

Katie Kitamura appears April 17-19 at UC’s Fiction Festival in Langsam Library’s Elliston Poetry Room. For more info, click here