Emiko Jean realized that although she had always been a voracious reader, she never believed that she could be a writer because she had never read a YA book written by a Japanese American like herself while she was growing up. Now, Emiko is only just beginning to tell the kinds of stories she wants to see more of in the world. Her latest book, Tokyo Ever After, features a protagonist descended from Japanese royalty and was written to be a lighthearted and joyful read.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Emi. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Tokyo Ever After.

Emiko Jean: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I had a feeling I was going to really enjoy this conversation because your book was funny and engaging and entertaining. I really enjoyed it. I always know that those are going to be nice conversations. Sometimes I’m wrong, but usually.

Emiko: I really wanted to write a fun story that felt really lighthearted. I had twins three and a half years ago. I started writing this when they were about a year old. I wanted to write something that felt joyful and that had a lot of heart and humor in it.

Zibby: I cannot believe — we were just discussing that I’m a twin mom. The idea that you could write this, A, so well ever, and B, while having one-year-old twins, oh, my gosh. I couldn’t even put a sentence together, I feel like. I’m even more impressed. That’s legit impressive.

Emiko: I’ve had a lot of help. I have a great partner and childcare. It’s worth everything. I had a great support system while writing this book.

Zibby: Would you mind telling listeners what your book is about?

Emiko: It’s about teenager Izumi Tanaka who lives in Northern California in a mostly white town, a very small, white town with her single mom. Izumi has always had a great relationship with her mom, but she does long to know who her father is and to connect more with her Japanese heritage. Through some fortunate incidents, Izumi and her best friend find a book that has the name or who they think has the name of her father in it. Spoiler alert, it does turn out to be her father. He is the Crown Prince of Japan. That kicks off Izumi’s journey to Japan to meet the father that she’s always wanted to know and the country that she’s always dreamed of.

Zibby: Can I just say that it would be really nice to have a neighbor be putting bottles of kombucha or whatever it is in front of my door as well in his random pajama pants or whatever he was wearing? Something quite kooky, I guess. I would love an admirer like that of sorts.

Emiko: That’s Jones, their kind of hippie neighbor. The town that Izumi lives in is Mount Shasta. I have cousins that live there, so I vacationed there over the summer with them growing up. Mount Shasta has a very large liberal population. They are home to the Rainbow Gatherers every year, who are a group of Grateful Dead followers. He was very much born from that.

Zibby: Got it. Even the way you describe, first of all, the friendships between — what’s the character’s name again? Sorry, say her name.

Emiko: Izumi.

Zibby: Izumi and her friend, when they’re looking through the books, are you going to try to find out about it? She’s convinced that her father is never going to write her back, or the friend of a friend. Next thing you know, it’s like a scene from a movie. Everybody’s descending. There’s secret service equivalents or whatever you want to call it on her house. Her mom’s not even ready. The book is so visual. Is this already going to be a movie, by the way? I should’ve probably researched this.

Emiko: It has been optioned. That’s all I can really say. I feel like writers always have little things they’re sitting on or little secrets that we keep. We like to tease out, it’s been optioned, but I can’t say any more. Unfortunately, I’m doing that now.

Zibby: You love it. You love having the secret. You’re so excited about it. It’s awesome. Keep it going. Even when it’s public, you can just keep telling people that that’s all you can say. Then Izumi all of a sudden being thrust into another world from the one that she has lived in — even her mother’s decision I found very interesting, that she felt like, okay, I did my job. You’ve grown up normal. I didn’t let anybody else in this. It’s just the two of us, just the way I wanted it. Now I feel like you can do it. If you want to go, you can go. You’re on your own. I’ve done my part, almost. Tell me about that relationship with the mother and the daughter and that feeling where it’s okay to send the daughter out.

Emiko: I always knew from the beginning that I wanted Izumi’s relationship with her mom to be really solid and very supportive. I don’t think Izumi would’ve been able to take such a big risk and go across the world to meet her father if she didn’t have that really solid home network to come back to. This is part of my mom point of view, too, watching my kids grow up. Being a parent is loving something and letting it go. I think that was her mom’s perspective. I raised you. I did what I thought I needed to do with you. Now it’s time for you to leave the nest.

Zibby: Is that what your relationship with your mom was like?

Emiko: Yeah, for the most part. I am the youngest of four kids. I think when I graduated, she was pretty ready for me to leave the nest, in a very good way. Yeah, I did, I have a pretty solid relationship with my mom.

Zibby: My youngest kid is still in kindergarten. My husband’s like, “So are we thinking boarding school for him? When could we do that?” I’m like, “No, we’re not going to do that.” It’s so funny. It’s like, time to go, we can hang out in LA. I’m like, no. Anyway, so what was it like writing this book? Did you structure the whole thing, outline it? How did you go about writing it? What was that whole writing process like for you?

Emiko: I had two novels previous to this one. You know the plots or pantser thing, if you write by the seat of your pants or you’re a plotter and you outline? I wrote by the seat of my pants for both of those. I ended up revising probably — I did twelve or fifteen drafts of those novels. With Tokyo Ever After, I was really committed to outlining and to cutting down that revising time, so I worked from a pretty solid outline. Actually, what ended up happening was there was too much content in this novel. When I turned it in to my editor, it was 95,000 words, which is really long for a young adult book. She was so gracious about it. She was like, “I think it needs to be around 75K.” A lot ended up on the cutting room floor. We cut characters and scenes. What ultimately happened was the novel was much tighter after that.

Zibby: I feel like it’s rare to edit something and have it not improve.

Emiko: That’s so very true. At the beginning of my career, I fought against revisions, but I really see them now as so necessary and so important to a book. Nothing is ever perfect from the beginning.

Zibby: That’s one of those good life lessons. How did you become a writer? What was the selling of your first novel process like and everything? How did it get started? How did you get started and all that?

Emiko: I was always a big reader. I loved reading. I actually never thought about writing until much later in life. Now that I go back and I reflect on it, I realize it was because I had never read, as an adolescent, a book by a Japanese American author. I had never read a book that featured a Japanese American protagonist. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, that was really formative. It closed a pathway for me. I always thought that being a writer wasn’t an option even though I loved books. What ended up happening was I graduated with a master’s degree in teaching. I couldn’t find a teaching job. I took a bunch of other jobs that I didn’t like. Writing became an outlet for me. The first book I wrote featured a white protagonist. It was a thriller. I ended up selling that as my debut. Then as I went on to future books, I thought about just including more Japanese American characters like myself. The next book was a Japanese fantasy.

Zibby: Why YA?

Emiko: That’s a good question. That’s what I was reading the most of at the time, and so it was where my tastes were at. It’s such an interesting time in someone’s life. I think it’s a time in someone’s life that you go back to as well. Even though I’m an adult now, I do think about my younger self a lot and what shaped me. I think it’s such a great opportunity now as a writer to be part of someone’s shaping, part of their young adult experience.

Zibby: It’s true. I feel like you’re also very open to advice, open to inputs. Your whole life is being unfolded. You don’t know which way to go. At least for me, reading books was a way of figuring out how to do life. Being able to give back is pretty awesome.

Emiko: I think it’s cyclic too. I do remember now, thinking about myself in my twenties and thirties — I just turned thirty-nine last week.

Zibby: Happy birthday.

Emiko: Yay, thank you. Maybe every decade or so, you kind of go through and you look at yourself and your identity. You’re like, who am I now? What am I doing? Where am I going? That starts as a young adult, but it continues as you grow too.

Zibby: Very true. Are you working on anything else now?

Emiko: Yeah, I just turned in — there’s going to be a second book in Tokyo Ever After called Tokyo Dreaming. Izumi’s journey continues. She’ll be in Tokyo still. I’m working on an adult novel now, a women’s fiction novel.

Zibby: That’s that one about? Maybe you can’t say.

Emiko: I can’t say, but it does explore motherhood themes. Since becoming a parent, I’m very interested in that. It’s been great to explore those pathways.

Zibby: Excellent. Do you feel like since becoming your mom, has your sleep not become a part of — I feel like once I had twins, my sleep has never gone back to normal. Do you feel like it’s affected your writing at all? Maybe your kids sleep. I don’t know.

Emiko: My kids are sleepers. They’re great sleepers. I’m going to knock on wood because I don’t want to jinx that. Those first two years in getting them sleep trained and everything was really difficult. I felt like my brain was mush the entire time. I need a solid ten hours of sleep at night. My husband can function on five or six, but I need a good ten hours of rest if I’m going to write and be functional. It has been a struggle.

Zibby: I don’t even know what I could do if I got ten hours of sleep. I could climb a mountain or something. That sounds like heaven. What types of books do you like to read? What are you reading now? Anything good?

Emiko: I’m kind of all over the map lately, just more young adult and more women’s fiction. I just finished Luck of Titanic by Stacey Lee, which is a young adult book. It’s so good. She’s such a beautiful writer. I’d recommend that one. As far as in the adult realm goes, I’ve been reading more romance. That’s kind of what has gotten me through the pandemic. Beach Read by Emily Henry was so good, and so light and so fun and also had a lot of heart. I remember devouring that and really enjoying it.

Zibby: Her new book just hit the best-seller list. Did you see that?

Emiko: I didn’t even know it was out. Now I know what I’m going to do after this.

Zibby: People I Meet on Vacation, that’s what it’s called.

Emiko: Perfect.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Emiko: I do. I have two little sticky notes that I keep on my desk that I wrote when I first started out. One is, fail, and fail better. I originally heard it from Margaret Atwood, but I think it’s a quote from a Samuel Beckett play. It reminds me there are successes in the failure. Even if you write something and it doesn’t lead to publication, there’s still success there in writing it. The other sticky note says, don’t give up, which just reminds you on a daily basis to keep going, to keep writing. Really, I believe with writing, the journey and the destination are both in getting words on paper. Publication is just icing on the cake.

Zibby: Some good icing, though.

Emiko: Yeah, it is.

Zibby: Awesome. Emi, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for your totally entertaining read. I can’t wait to see the movie. I know it will be made. I know my daughter and I will love it together, sort of in the same vein as the Anne Hathaway princess — what was that one? She went with Julie Andrews. Princess Diaries and all of that. It’s a new take. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Emiko: Thank you. Have a good day. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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