Emiko Jean, MIKA IN REAL LIFE: A Novel

Emiko Jean, MIKA IN REAL LIFE: A Novel

Guest host Alisha Fernandez Miranda is joined by New York Times bestselling author and repeat MDHTTRB guest Emiko Jean to discuss Mika in Real Life, a hilarious and utterly heartwarming novel about motherhood, intergenerational trauma, and second chances. Mika discusses tackling adult fiction for the first time and the evolution of her writing process (from pantser to plotter!). She also talks about how cathartic and empowering it is to put parts of herself in her Japanese-American characters.


Alisha Miranda: Hi, everybody. Welcome back to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I am here with Emiko Jean, the author of Mika in Real Life. Actually, I just want to talk to you about your Twilight fan fiction. That’s what we’re here, really, to talk about today.

Emiko Jean: You’re not the first to bring it up. It still exists on the internet.

Alisha: I did a cursory google, and I did not find it.

Emiko: It’s buried under an anonymous name. It will stay anonymous. It’s not unheard of for a lot of writers to start in fan fiction or replicating the stories that they were really drawn to. I think I read in Stephen King’s book that he even started when he was very young, taking the comics or the books that he was reading and making up stories based off of those.

Alisha: That’s so awesome. I have never thought to do that. Now I’m thinking there’s, maybe, a whole world of Gilmore Girls fan fiction out there that I could be writing right now.

Emiko: Or reading.

Alisha: Okay, we’re not really here to talk about your Twilight fan fiction. Although, maybe after this call is over, you can send me some of the pieces. We are here to talk about the brilliant Mika in Real Life, which is a book I enjoyed. I know I’m not the only one because I’ve seen it all over the place. It’s been a book club darling for the past little bit of time. It’s very, very exciting. Congratulations on it.

Emiko: Thank you.

Alisha: Why don’t you start by telling our listeners what the book is about?

Emiko: Mika in Real Life is all about Mika Suzuki, whose life is a mess. For example, her last relationship ended in flames. Her roommate/best friend might be a hoarder. She’s a perpetual disappointment to her very traditional Japanese parents. Most recently, she’s been fired from her latest dead-end job. She’s at this point, her lowest point, when she receives a phone call from Penny, the daughter that she placed for adoption sixteen years prior. Penny is young and enthusiastic and really wants to forge a relationship with her biological mother. Mika really wants to as well, but faced with her own inadequacies, Mika tells a teeny-tiny white lie about her life where she is far more put together than she actually is. It slowly snowballs from there. Things take a turn when Penny decides to surprise Mika with an in-person visit. Mika is forced to take this life that she’s created on the phone with Penny and make it into something real.

Alisha: It’s such a fantastic premise. It’s got so many twists and turns that I think people will not expect from it. Where did the idea for this book come from? I think that you were working on this book when you did your last interview with Zibby on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” for your previous book. The idea’s been there for a while. Where did it come from?

Emiko: It’s always hard to pinpoint the exact moment where inspiration takes root. I remember I was promoting Tokyo Ever After, which is the book that I was on the podcast for last, and I had to take some pictures for social media. This was right when the pandemic was starting. I have twins. My partner was out of town. I need to take these photographs very, very quickly, within twenty minutes. Of course, they were also throwing tantrums. It was all a mess. I lured them into a side room with a snack and television, let them watch a show.

Alisha: Of course. The greatest parenting tool known to mankind.

Emiko: I did my hair, but I only curled the front. I painted the nails on one hand because that’s all that would show on the photo. I had this moment of, why am I doing this? The world was falling apart. I felt like I was falling apart. Why did I feel so much pressure to present myself in a certain way? I think that was really the moment where that question started. Why would someone fake a life? What would drive them to do that? For Mika, it was very clear. She had this abundance of love for her daughter, but she also wanted her daughter to be proud of her, and so she reconstructed her life.

Alisha: It’s so funny that that’s one of the seeds of where this came from. A lot of the fiction that she constructs about her life is to do with these Instagram posts that she had because they’ve been seen by her daughter. She has to go back and see what she posted and then be like, oh, wow. Okay, this is the exact life that I need to construct. When you think, actually, about how much people do put together what it is that ends up on social media, especially on Instagram, which is so visual, you can really see that realistically happening to someone.

Emiko: When I look back at that time, I was also a relatively new mom, and I did my fair share of mom Instagram scrolling. I saw a lot of really perfect relationships of mothers with their children. I remember feeling bad that I didn’t have that same experience. I was stuck up in a whirlwind of hormones and all that kind of stuff. Now that I have had some separation from it and that I could kind of synthesize it all, that’s, of course, not what’s really going on. There’s a lot more going on behind the photographs. This book kind of uncovers that.

Alisha: I think it does. We were talking before about our shared experience of having twins. I am so grateful that I was not on Instagram when my twins were babies, actually, because it would’ve been terrible. Also, I’m sure I would’ve put the one really cute picture that was the outtake of the forty-five pictures of someone screaming at me to do something at some point, which still, honestly, happens. This is your first adult fiction book that’s out. Is that correct?

Emiko: That is correct.

Alisha: Tokyo Ever After was YA. I was wondering a bit about the difference in your process writing an adult fiction book and also if you ever thought about this being a YA book with Penny as the narrative point of view or if this was always a book about Mika and her experience or her at the center of it.

Emiko: It’s so funny. Once I had drafted the book, I realized that Penny probably could’ve been her own character, the lead in a YA book, with her struggle with adoption and trying to figure out who she is. This book was always adult. I think it was because the themes that I wanted to explore, like intergenerational trauma and motherhood, those are far more suited for an adult book. I also wanted to incorporate different points of view. You can’t necessarily always do that with a young adult book. Usually, it’s very centrally focused on who the protagonist is. I always knew that Mika in Real Life would be better suited for an adult book.

Alisha: Was your process any different? I can see behind you. This is not a video podcast, of course. There are some beautiful grids behind you with different colored post-its. Maybe you’re working on something. Did your process change in the writing of this book? You’ve now written multiple books. What is your process? How has it evolved over time?

Emiko: It’s definitely an evolution. With my first book, which was a young adult thriller, I wrote by the seat of my pants. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the pantser term where you just write and draft a whole book. It was a mess. I had to revise probably a couple dozen times before I got it in shape and ready for it to be submitted. After that book, I started to work from an outline. Since then, my outlines have gotten much tighter in terms of not only what’s happening in each scene and plot-wise, but character arc and thematically. I’m much more intentional now with knowing where the character’s going to start and where I want them to end up, not only the main character, but all of the side characters and figuring out how their journeys influence each other and especially with what thematics I want to explore. I’m really passionate these days about exploring what it means to be a yellow body in the United States. There’s a lot of material there. There’s really no right way or expression of that. I’ve been able to mine that in several books. The grid behind me actually is for another adult book. I have found with adult books, I need to create more timelines and history around them, especially when I dig into the character’s past. Much of what happens to us as young people influences how we are as older people. I’ve had to do more work around past life events and also what’s happened historically in their lives too. That’s what that is. It’s a big timeline.

Alisha: Do you get up and write in the morning? Do you write for a certain amount of time every day? Are you really diligent about your schedule, or do you just go when inspiration strikes?

Emiko: Pre-kids, I loved to be a nighttime writer. The nighttime was the right time. It was so quiet. I loved it. I have since adjusted, I think as many people do when you have children. My life now revolves around their lives. I wake up. I get ready. I write from eight to four if I’m drafting. Then I have a very delineated turn-off switch. I turn it off at four. Then I go back the next day.

Alisha: That’s very good. You mentioned this theme. I definitely picked this idea up of — Tokyo Ever After and Mika in Real Life, you’ve got these young and older Japanese women who are growing up in predominantly white communities in the US. You’ve got these brilliant details and these very cheeky observations about the West Coast specifically and maybe Portland specifically. I want to read you two of my favorites from the book. The first was a scene where Mika is in church with her parents. The church is being described. It says, “Behind her was a specially commissioned Asian Jesus. The woodworker used only fallen logs found on non-tribal lands and plastic pieces harvested from the floating garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean.” That has really stuck with me. Then we’ve got, “It’s tepid apple kombucha. I got it from the goat yoga studio across the street.” If there was ever a West Coast — I’m an East Coaster by birth. Now I live in the UK. This is what I think of when I think of Portland and Washington and the Pacific Northwest. Tell me a little bit about that sense of place and also particularly about creating these women who are, as you described, yellow bodies in America.

Emiko: I grew up in Portland. I grew up on the West Coast. It’s very much alive inside of me. I really try to make any sort of setting a character within a book. Of course, some things are exaggerated. What you just read actually wasn’t exaggerated. It’s a thing that exists in Portland. The church that Mika goes to is inspired by a church that I attended as a young person that was an all-Japanese congregation in Southeast Portland. A lot of the experiences that Mika and also Izumi in Tokyo Ever After go through are mirrors of my own experiences growing up in the Pacific Northwest in a majority-white community and what happened to me. I grew up in a time where it wasn’t polite to talk about race. When I was confronted with my race when someone would make a remark about it, I was told just to ignore it. In that way, I was really erased. I really didn’t know how to handle my own identity. I didn’t know what my identity was until much later in life. I remember when I was younger, wanting to be blond and to be white because that was the standard of beauty at the time and not being celebrated for who I was and my Japanese American identity. I’ve taken a lot of those struggles and put them on the page.

Alisha: Does it feel cathartic to do that, to be able to go back and create these fictional characters who are maybe better equipped or more able to deal with that than you were when you were younger?

Emiko: Yeah. In many way, sometimes I reinvent what happened to me. For example, if I have a character that’s facing a microaggression, maybe they’re more equipped to say something in that moment where, as a young person, I would remain silent. I give them the journey that I wish that I had had. When I did Tokyo Ever After, Izumi really comes to know herself and her identity much sooner than I did as a young person. Mika, although she has trouble accepting herself, she’s pretty strongly rooted in her Japanese American identity. She’s just never felt like enough as a woman. I feel like we all feel that way as women sometimes.

Alisha: Totally. This book, it seems like it’s been very well-received. I know it’s been GMA book club, Marie Claire book club. Are you happy with the reception? Do you feel like you’ve really hit your stride now? This is going the way you want it to go?

Emiko: Yeah, I’m really happy. When I write a book, it starts with myself. What do I want to write about? How is this going to be fulfilling for me? Then you worry later on about how it’s going to be received. You hope that people will like it and be welcoming of it. Sometimes it can very much feel like a shout into the void, especially when you’re alone and writing something because you’re not sure if people are going to connect with it. I’ve been fortunate to have these connections made, and connections made in big ways, and have women reach out to me and say they’ve felt this way at one time in their life and the Japanese American community reaching out about the book and some of the things in it. It’s been really neat.

Alisha: That’s so awesome. What’s next for you? You’ve got this fiction project you’re plotting behind you. Is that where you’re focusing most of your time right now?

Emiko: Yeah. I’m developing another young adult novel. I am writing another fiction novel. Us writers are kind of secretive about our projects. That’s all I can share right now. I hope to share more soon.

Alisha: That’s exciting. I am working on a novel right now. I spend most of the time just being like, I think this is terrible.

Emiko: That’s the process.

Alisha: It feels good when other people tell me they feel like that too. I’m like, oh, thank god. I know. That’s the process. I host a podcast called “Quit Your Day Job.” I’m very fascinated by people’s careers and their career paths. Your is very unique. You’ve got it in your bio. You’ve got candlemaker, florist, entomologist. Entomologist?

Emiko: Entomologist, yes.

Alisha: Bug person. How did you find all those jobs? What led you to writing?

Emiko: Good question. I always loved reading and I always loved writing as a young person. The majority of what I read and consumed was by white authors and had white characters. I guess subconsciously, I got the message that I could enjoy these things, but I could never really be a part of them, that I could never actually be published or a writer. I just moved on. I was really lost during a lot of my twenties. I was just trying new jobs. If you look at them, aside from entomologist, which I loved — I love bugs still. A lot of them were creative pursuits. I was a very creative person. I was really looking for an outlet. I’ve always liked making things. I even love, as weird as it sounds — I don’t know if this is necessarily within the creative umbrella. I even love cleaning or vacuuming because you can see something that you’ve done. I like making things. I think that’s what I was doing. I just hadn’t quite found the right path.

I was working a job. I won’t say what. I’ll tell you why. I was deeply unhappy at it. I was kind of a token hire. I was hired to run this diversity program. I was the only person of color on the staff. I was so unhappy. While I was supposed to be working, I began writing my first novel on the job. I would pretend to be typing emails, and I would be writing chapters of this book into drafts of emails. I realized how happy it made me. It was at a time where I was financially secure enough, which makes a big difference, that I decided to quit that job and give myself a certain amount of time to finish this book and pursue it. I did. That’s where everything took off for me. You know what’s great, though? I don’t think I would choose any other path because I’ve used all of that in novels now that I’ve written. One of the novels that I’m developing now has an entomologist in it. I wouldn’t have that string to pull from if I hadn’t worked all of this and come to writing later in life.

Alisha: If you weren’t writing, what else would you be doing professionally?

Emiko: That’s a good question. It’s so hard to imagine. I have a teaching degree. I would probably be teaching and reading a lot and probably putting a lot of that into the classroom, that passion for reading.

Alisha: That’s amazing. Teaching kids? Little kids?

Emiko: Yeah.

Alisha: That’s always amazing. Actually, when I do meet people who have young kids that are teaching kids, I’m always really, really amazed that you would want to pursue a career that involved having children around you all the time. I say this as a mother that really loves my children, but I also really love when they go to school with the real teachers.

Emiko: This is a side note, mom stuff. My kids are poised for kindergarten next year. I’m very much looking forward to kindergarten and having them out of the house and having that space to myself too. I totally understand.

Alisha: That’s amazing. You gave some great advice on your last time on this podcast. We always like to finish up with advice to aspiring writers. You can give your same advice again, if that’s your tried-and-true advice, or new advice if you have it. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Emiko: I would say that it doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s something that I’ve learned throughout this process. Your writing is probably never going to be perfect. Even when you get something published, you’re going to go back and be like, I wish I had done this differently. It doesn’t have to be perfect. I want to encourage people to write authentically. I’ve gone through the experience of writing — with my debut novel, I wrote a white character. I kind of wrote outside of myself because I was trying to get published. I’ve had far more success and fulfilment writing authentically, so really mining things that are important to me and things that I care about.

Alisha: That’s such good advice. I think if you care about it, other people are going to care about it too. It’s going to shine through. This has been such a wonderful chat. Where can listeners find you online for more information about what you’re up to?

Emiko: I’m on Instagram. That’s usually where I post if I have something exciting going on. I believe my handle is @EmikoJeanBooks on Instagram.

Alisha: I think that’s right.

Emiko: Okay. Thank you.

Alisha: Sorry for stalking you online. I was doing my prep.

Emiko: I love it.

Alisha: Emiko, this has been amazing. Thank you so much for joining the podcast today.

Emiko: Thank you for having me.

MIKA IN REAL LIFE: A Novel by Emiko Jean,

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