Zibby is joined by narrative nonfiction author Daniel James Brown to talk about his latest book which has already hit the New York Times bestseller list, Facing the Mountain, which looks at the story of a Japanese-American combat unit fighting at the height of World War II. Daniel shares how his wife helped him conduct over five years of research for the book, what he uncovered when studying first-hand accounts of life in Japanese incarceration camps, and why it was just as important to feature the soldiers’ stories as well as those of their families back home.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Daniel. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II.

Daniel James Brown: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: I was such a big fan, I’m sure you hear this all the time, of The Boys in the Boat and was thrilled that you had a new book out. Oh, my gosh, it pulls you in from the very first second. I just love the way you write and how you paint a picture of how everything’s going on. You’re immediately invested in the characters. It’s really amazing how you bring history to life.

Daniel: Cool. That’s what I’m all about. I’m not trying to write comprehensive histories of my topics. I’m trying to just connect people on a personal level with the individuals I write about. I think that’s the way we really learn history, is when we get engaged with real people who lived through interesting slices of history. That’s really what, in many ways, Boys in the Boat was about. That’s what this book is about too.

Zibby: It’s so true. You can read it in a textbook or you can look at source documents or whatever. It’s not the same as the boy who wakes up in bed and is headed down to check out the two cute girls at the church service. It’s completely different, just the emotional engagement. Of course, history, it could be happening today. We just missed it. To make it feel as vibrant is such an art.

Daniel: It’s real people living real experiences. For the most part, those experiences, many of them, are going to be things we can relate to if we’re given a chance to. Going to church partly because you want to meet these cute, new girls from the Hawaiian Islands, especially if you’re a young man, that’s something you can relate to. That’s what it’s all about.

Zibby: What initially led you to this topic, especially after your last book? Obviously, it’s ripe for investigation. I’m embarrassed to say I did not even know that this type of stuff was going on in America. I had no idea. Now I feel terrible. I feel like I’m pretty well-educated, but I somehow missed this real atrocity that happened right here in America. Tell me about it.

Daniel: You’re not alone. Let me just explain. This book arose out of — I met, about five years ago, a guy named Tom Ikeda in Seattle. Tom has, for twenty-five years, been collecting and videotaping the oral histories of Japanese Americans, mostly who lived through the World War II years, so first-generation, second-generation Japanese Americans. I met Tom. He talked about what he did. I went home and I started listening to these recorded stories that these people were telling about their own lives. I just was by some of the stories. They were all about Japanese Americans, but they were also the kinds of stories that I tend to be drawn to about ordinary Americans confronting really difficult situations, pulling together in order to overcome them. In this case, the thing that had to be overcome was, particularly draft-age young men, Japanese American young men right after Pearl Harbor faced this real dilemma.

Their families were being incarcerated in these camps around the American West. They had to walk away from their businesses, from the homes they owned, from their beloved pets, from the schools they were enrolled in. Their lives were completely taken away from them. They were forced into these camps. At the same time, some of these young men, like other young American men at the beginning of the war, really wanted to serve their country. They wanted to enlist. Many of them tried to. Because their ancestry was Japanese, they were not allowed to enlist until about a year later when the Roosevelt administration reversed course. They created an all-Japanese American segregated army until called the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The course some of these young men took was to join the 442nd. Other young men thought the right thing to do was to resist with every fiber of their being, the incarceration of their families and the government that was incarcerating them. There was this complex set of interactions. The book traces the paths that these four young men and their families took during the war.

Zibby: Wow. It’s hard to imagine that families like that were just whisked off. You have a very interesting note at the start about even your choice of language of how you described it and how in history if you kind of couch the terms nicely and say, I can’t remember what the words were, but something like a — not detention center. That would sound bad. They kept people in a certain place, but really, they were concentration camps, not to be confused with Auschwitz or Dachau or whatever. The way history has recorded it has made it sound much better, has couched it in these gentler terms. Tell me about the laying it bare and saying it like it is.

Daniel: I thought that was important. It wasn’t just the camps. First of all, I just want to be really clear. When I use the term concentration camps, I’m in no way equating them with the death camps and the slave labor camps of the Nazis. Those were an entirely different thing. When the government began to round up and incarcerate Japanese Americans, American citizens and their parents, in these camps, they used a lot of really soft language to describe what was happening, euphemistic language. The first place most of these people were taken were to fairgrounds and horse stables around the western part of the country where they were, in some cases, made literally to live in horse stalls. They called those places assembly centers. Then they were sent to these bleak camps out in the various deserts of the American West, really miserable places, and surrounded by barbed wire. They called those relocation centers. There was this whole set of — even the word internment, which is still the term most people use for what happened, is sort of like, what exactly does that mean? It’s kind of a vague, soft term. They were actually incarcerating people. I have a little note at the beginning of the book that I think it’s important, if you’re going to tell an honest story, to use honest language. I try to resist using the language that the government was using at the time to describe what was happening and, as I say, use this more honest language even though I realize that — I hope people don’t start assuming that I’m equating these camps with death camps.

Zibby: What was the rationale, then, for the government putting all Japanese Americans in their own regiment?

Daniel: I’m not sure exactly why they decided to go with the segregated regiment. My suspicion is that they felt that incorporating Japanese Americans into other regiments, other divisions, other army units would cause too much friction. There was so much anger directed at Japan as a nation, the Japanese Imperial Army in particular, that I think they just were concerned there’d be too much friction and that it would be disruptive to the fighting capabilities of other units. Also, I think perhaps they felt that the Japanese Americans fighting together not only would have less friction, but might have a certain sense of comradeship. I’m not sure exactly what their rationale was, but I think basically it was that. The 442nd, I should say, although it was all Japanese American, many of the officers, particularly at the higher levels, were in fact white. They were not Japanese Americans. The command structure remained Caucasian.

Zibby: You obviously have this talent for observation, even in the scene when you talk about the now ninety-somethings who are eating lunch together. You talked about one running around and making sure the other doesn’t fall and making sure he had his cane. You said that in that one gesture it summed up their whole relationship. You notice all these little things. You noticed them in your last book in just the way people relate to each other. How did that become part of who you were? Were you shy? Tell me about that.

Daniel: I have no idea, actually. It’s deliberate and it’s conscious. When I know I’m going to be writing about something, I sort of turn on video-recorder mode in my head. I try to notice the little things because it’s the little things that actually tell us who a person is. The scene you’re describing is long after the war when I met these guys. They were old men. They’ve been so closely knit for the seventy-five years since they fought in Europe that they just love each other. They take care of each other so lovingly. It is really humbling to watch these old men, how affectionate they were with one another and how they treated one another. I think that’s the kind of little detail, one old man helping another old man out of a chair tells you a lot about their relationship and what they’ve been through together. When I know I’m writing about something, I try to see all those small things.

Zibby: If someone were writing about you, let’s say this last day or two even, what little thing did you do that would reveal a lot about who you were?

Daniel: I spent a lot of time sitting in front of my computer doing podcasts and radio interviews and not getting very much sleep, mostly. Other than that, I don’t know. I don’t really pay attention to myself when I’m in this mode. Just drinking a lot of coffee. Coffee is probably the iconic thing.

Zibby: How did you get started in your whole career? How did you end up in a place where you could write these big, epic, historical narratives that change the way we see events and history?

Daniel: I didn’t really become a writer until quite late in life. I was in my mid-fifties when I started writing. I was a college English teacher in California for many years. When I got married, I started working for software companies as a technical writer, technical editor. It was really only when — I’d been working at that for many decades — I started looking towards retirement that I started fiddling around with writing basically as a hobby. I wrote my first book without having an agent or a publisher or anything. To my great surprise, it got published on a very small level. That sort of opened the doors for me. By the time I had written my second book, I was able to make a career of it. I stopped doing what I was doing and just became a full-time writer building each book, trying to build it at a higher level than the previous book in terms of how ambitious it was and on what level I was trying to get it published, and a lot of hard work and, I’m sure, some lucky breaks along the way.

Zibby: What’s your process like? Obviously, a lot of it is in person meeting with primary sources and everything. When you decide to tackle a topic, what are the things you weigh in your mind? How do you then go get the information you need?

Daniel: It takes a lot of work to write a book like this. This book actually has probably been five years that I’ve been working on this book. It’s just an enormous amount of wading through primary materials. In this case, the biggest single case was all these video-recorded oral histories that Tom Ikeda has collected at Densho, just listening to hundreds of hours of these folks talking about their experiences, both the four people that I wound up focusing on, but also other people that were at the same place at the same time so I could pull their details in as well. So tons of listening, meeting the family members of folks that I could find family members for, a lot of just boring, traditional library research, reading books about Pearl Harbor and about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Asian American history, and a lot of library work. It takes a long time to accumulate all that background material. Then as you suggested, the hard part is selecting what you’re actually going to use. Then as I said earlier, in this case, I just decided to focus on this one thing, young, draft-age Japanese American men at the beginning of the war — this situation’s happening; what do you do? — and make that the focus of the book.

Zibby: Did you think about calling it The Boys in the War?

Daniel: No, I didn’t. I’m terrible with titles. My wife came up with this title. One way of looking at it is title’s sort of a metaphor for this mountain of trouble that these young men and their families — one day, they’re just going along with their lives as immigrant families trying to make their way in America. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, there’s this mountain of difficulties suddenly looming in their path. They have to figure out a way around it or over it. It seemed like an apt metaphor. It’s also just a fact that fits in neatly that when these guys were fighting in Europe, they were always fighting their way up the side of some mountain or another. The Germans always had the high ground. They were always having to fight uphill to take the hill or the mountain away from the Germans.

Zibby: I didn’t mean to disparage the title in any way. It’s a good, strong title. I like it.

Daniel: I’m not trying to defend it. I’m just explaining it. As I say, it’s one of my wife’s many contributions to this book.

Zibby: Does she get really involved in your research? I would imagine as you get so singularly focused on a topic for years that it’s hard not to have everyone in your orbit kind of get involved.

Daniel: Yeah, and this one kind of became overwhelming. There was so much material that Sharon, a couple years into my work, just started working side by side with me helping me sort through materials. I went a number of times to different archives, actually, particularly at the University of Hawaii. There’s worse places to have to go to do research than Hawaii. Our trips to Hawaii were mostly spent inside a windowless building on the University of Hawaii campus pouring over old letters and things. She helped me with a lot of research and edited drafts much more than any of my previous books. She’s been a huge help with this one.

Zibby: You should’ve put her on the podcast.

Daniel: We should. She’s pretty shy. She probably would not.

Zibby: See, that’s how you can get past the coffee consumption. You just have to outsource your podcasts from now on.

Daniel: I’d love to see her do that. That would be fun.

Zibby: What lessons should we really take away? You mentioned in your book about how many Japanese then saw, when the events of 9/11 were happening, the same sort of discrimination and widespread unfair targeting of people. Now of course, there’s more Asian targeting again with coronavirus and all these other things. This is something that America is not particularly good at getting out of its system. What can we do about this?

Daniel: It’s a big problem, obviously. I don’t expect my book is going to cure it. My hope is that, I think if readers read a book like this, if they really get to know not just these young men, but their parents, particularly their mothers who are actually very important in this story, their sisters, their aunties, if they read these stories and get to know these folks on a very individual, personal level and understand what they went through to become Americans, what they sacrificed for this country in various ways, particularly during the World War II era but also later, I think that will help build appreciation and awareness. This is just four young men and their families. I think it’ll build more awareness for the role that Asian Americans in general have played in American history, in making this country what it is. I’m an optimistic enough person that I think it’ll open some hearts. I’m sure, as I say, it’s not going to cause all the problems we have. I do think that a book like this can open some hearts and also just teach — it taught me a lot about the history, in this case, particularly of Japanese Americans, but also of Asian Americans in general. I thought I knew much more than it turns out I actually did know when I started the research about the history not just of these guys, but the broader history of Asian American participation in the building of this country. I learned a lot. I hope my readers will learn a lot but also just take it to heart on a personal level.

Zibby: Do you have your mind set on your next topic yet? Is this it, or what?

Daniel: Oh, I don’t know. It may be it. These things take a long time. As I say, it took five years to write and will probably occupy me for the next year doing publicity for it, talking about it with readers. If something really grabs me during that time or after that, I might dive into another one of these. It’s a really big commitment. I’m going to be seventy next year. Five years, it’s a long timeframe for me.

Zibby: You have to just do it based on where Sharon wants to go on vacation.

Daniel: Yeah, maybe another Hawaii story. We did squeeze a few trips to the beach in during those research trips. That, of course, was fun. I was honored to go on a tour of — these guys all fought in Europe. I went on a tour on some of the battlefields where they fought with the sons and daughters of these 442nd veterans. Sharon went with me on that. We traipsed all over Italy climbing up to the tops of mountains to see these places where these guys had done some pretty extraordinary things. It was really fun having her along. I knew she really, really enjoyed that. When it came time to editing the book, having had her there was really useful that she had seen some of the same places I had seen.

Zibby: That’s great. Is this going to be a movie?

Daniel: We’re actually talking to a young director about turning it into a series, an HBO-style limited series. I don’t know how many episodes, multiple episodes, multiple hours. That way, we can trace the families really beginning with their roots in Japan and the experience of the immigrants coming to Hawaii and to the West Coast of the mainland, which is really an essential part of the story to understand where they came from. We’re hoping to develop a series of episodes that unveil the story and get you to know these guys on a personal basis and unfold it in that way.

Zibby: Excellent. I can’t wait to watch that. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Daniel: Part of me wants to say start before your mid-fifties because I kind of wish I had forty more years to be a writer. I really enjoy it. It’s great work. It’s fun. It’s rewarding. I don’t think I actually would say that. I think one should start writing whenever one feels like starting to write, whenever one feels ready for it. The main thing is, I would just say do it. The hardest thing is to overcome the initial blank-page syndrome and to just get something down on paper or on your computer screen. Once you do that, that first step is the hardest step in a lot of ways. There’s plenty of hard steps along the way. Get started. Do it. Then keep at it. Expect a fair amount of rejection. I have upstairs in my office, a shoebox full of rejection letters, probably dozens of them, from my first book. It took a lot of just hanging in there and continuing to try before that first book got published. Once it did, it led to another book. Then that led to The Boys in the Boat and so on, so perseverance.

Zibby: And pick up some shoeboxes.

Daniel: Keep some shoeboxes around for your rejection letters. It’s a badge of honor. It shows you’ve been doing your work if you’ve got some rejection letters to show.

Zibby: Excellent. I could pull mine out and start flinging them. There’s a lot. Anyway, Daniel, thank you so much. Thanks for chatting. I know this book will be an immense success. It’s a pleasure talking to you early in its journey. Thank you.

Daniel: Thanks so much for having me.

Zibby: Good luck. Buh-bye.

Daniel: Bye-bye.


FACING THE MOUNTAIN by Daniel James Brown

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