Emily Itami, FAULT LINES

Emily Itami, FAULT LINES

Debut novelist Emily Itami joins Zibby to talk about her book, Fault Lines, which was inspired in part by her own alternating perceptions of motherhood in Tokyo and London. The two discuss the way women’s identities seem to change almost immediately after having children, what it was like for Emily to publish her first novel during the pandemic, and why her husband likes to remind everyone that this story is a work of fiction.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Emily. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Fault Lines.

Emily Itami: Thank you so much for having me. I’m very happy to be here.

Zibby: I loved your novel. It was so great. There are so many things I liked about it; in fact, so many of the things that I, in the back of my head, say are the things you should do to make a novel really good. Every opening sentence of a chapter was completely attention-grabbing. The chapters weren’t too long. You get totally invested in the characters. It has a strong sense of place. Check, check, check. It checked all the boxes. It was great. Just wanted you to know that.

Emily: Thank you very much. That’s really kind of you. That makes me really happy.

Zibby: Why don’t you tell listeners a bit about what Fault Lines is about? Then what inspired you to write it?

Emily: Fault Lines is the story of Mizuki, who is a Japanese housewife living in Tokyo. She appears to have a really lovely, perfect life. She’s got a good-looking husband who works really hard and two beautiful kids and everything. She is strangely dissatisfied despite this wonderful setup. She finds herself falling into a friendship with a restaurateur that she meets. It’s the unfolding of that relationship and how she finds herself thinking about her identity and her life through this series of events that occur because she meets that man. The reason that I decided to write it was, obviously, there — maybe not necessarily obviously. There wasn’t actually a moment when I thought, I know what I must do, I must write this book. It kind of came in increments. I was brought up in Tokyo. I went back to live in Tokyo when my kids were really little. I found that my life had changed, obviously, enormously in the moment that you have children. I found that my identity was totally different. I found it totally weird, the way that the world saw me as a fundamentally different person even though I kind of felt the same. I’m me, but I have a baby.

I feel like it kind of starts in hospital when people start referring to you as Mom instead of calling you by your name. That was the beginning of finding that very strange. To move to Tokyo — Japan is a really traditional society in lots of ways. There, the difference between a woman without children and a mother was really pronounced. Finding myself living in that environment was really fascinating and made me ask a lot of questions about identity in general and female identity and how to be a mother but still keep your sense of being yourself. I also was really loving living back in Tokyo again because that’s where I grew up, and then I came back to London. Going back there, in a way, it really felt like coming home. In another way, I was discovering the city and the country in a completely different way because of my position of being an adult and being a mother. I really wanted to write about Japan. I really wanted to write about motherhood. It seemed like a really good opportunity to be able to marry those things and talk about all those things I really wanted to talk about.

Zibby: Wait, so give me the timeline again. You were born in Tokyo.

Emily: No, I was born in England, but I moved to Tokyo when we were eight weeks — when I was eight weeks old.

Zibby: Do you have a twin, or you just refer to yourself as we?

Emily: Yeah, that was a weird moment where I thought I was the English queen or something. I just referred to myself as we. I meant my family.

Zibby: That’s okay. I get it, your family. Okay, so you were a baby. Then you lived in Tokyo until you were how old?

Emily: I lived in Tokyo until I was eleven. Then I moved back to England. Then I was back and forth, Tokyo and England, as in just going there for summers or for a year when I was eighteen and things like that, but fundamentally based in London. Then it was only when my kids were born that I then moved back into Tokyo again for a few years.

Zibby: I’m fascinated with why families go certain places and your whole background. Then were either of your parents originally from Tokyo?

Emily: Yeah, my mom is Japanese. She’s not from Tokyo. She’s from a small town in Japan. My parents met in Tokyo. I grew up in Tokyo and stuff.

Zibby: Got it. Amazing. Then when and where did you decide or know that you loved to write?

Emily: I think that it was really when I was pretty small. I was really bossy as a kid. I was always making up plays and stuff and making other poor children be in them. I guess that was probably when it first started, torturing everyone with my amazing creativity. Then I kept diaries all the time when I was a teenager, which is really terrible because I just found them recently, and that was a horrific experience, but fascinating. I feel like it’s always, always been a thing. A lot of my work when I first left university was to do with writing and stuff. It was either in journalism or I was working in publishing and things like that. I guess it’s always been part of what I do.

Zibby: Excellent. What’d you do in those jobs? We are going to talk about your book. I’m giving you a job interview. I’m sorry.

Emily: No, no. As in the jobs that I had after university?

Zibby: Yeah. Did you major in English?

Emily: No, I actually did theology, which I really loved and was fascinating. I had such a good time doing it. Then I worked for the Rough Guide for a little while, so I got to travel and write, which is just the best thing. I had a job working in the foreign rights department of a literary agency. I was just at very, very beginning of that and got offered this job to go traveling. I was still in the period where you can leave or not the leave the job. I feel like I have to say that because of the job interview feeling. I felt like I had to justify my decision to go travel.

Zibby: That’s okay. It’s okay. You’re still in the running.

Emily: Then I got offered to go write about Italy. That was the first job that I got offered for the Rough Guide. I was like, wow, so I could be sitting in Sicily writing about that instead of being in an office. I decided to go and do that. It was amazing. It was really, really good. I also worked quite a lot for magazines doing lifestyle interviews and stuff and interviewing people, which is my favorite thing. Maybe this is not how you see it, but I was like, I just get to ask questions and be nosey, and then that’s my job. This is amazing.

Zibby: Yeah, don’t tell anyone. That’s exactly what I do. It’s really fun. Then when did you start this novel? Is this the first attempt at a novel? Do you have three in a drawer? Tell me how that —

Emily: — I have a failed novel or two in a drawer. I wouldn’t even say they were failed. They were just the early attempts.

Zibby: Practice runs.

Emily: Yeah, exactly. Then this one, I actually started it after we got back to the UK from living in Japan. For me anyway, I feel like I have a clear, or maybe it’s not entirely accurate, but easier-to-write-about picture of a place when I’m not in it. Always being between Tokyo and London, I have strong feelings about the place that I’m not in rather than the one that I’m living in at the time. When I got back, then I wanted to write about Tokyo, so I started it then.

Zibby: How old are your kids? Then I promise we will talk about this book.

Emily: No, this is good. My kids are nine and seven right now.

Zibby: Excellent. I have almost nine and almost seven with my little guys. Then I have twins who are almost fifteen. Well, not almost, fourteen and a half. Let’s talk about your characters and the motherhood malaise that plagues — how do you pronounce her name again?

Emily: Mizuki.

Zibby: Mizuki. A few lines that jumped right out at me. You said, “Maybe this was when it began, on the Tuesday night when I was thinking of jumping off the balcony while Tatsuya checked work emails on his phone.” I mean, what a great line. I’m sorry for Mizuki. “The tears were another sign that things in my marriage were somewhat awry.” Always a good sign. “Is it normal to fluctuate so quickly between feeling tender toward your husband and fervently wishing him a violent death?” Another great one. Then to sum up the crux of many of her feelings, you said, after you’re describing her — why should she be upset? She’s got this beautiful apartment. Everything’s going well. She said, “I know it, and I know how lucky I am. I know that any kind of whining is one major first-world sulk. From now on, I’m going to be happy, shut up about all my demons, and make everyone around me smile. I’m going to devote my whole life, all my energy to it because it’s the only acceptable thing under the circumstances, but of course, it’s easier said than done.” This whole notion of, on the outside, things looking fine but, on the inside, having a lot of unhappiness or dissatisfaction or whatever is so common. I feel like people beat themselves up so much about it when they think, I have no right to feel this way. How could I? That doesn’t stop it. Just take me into that frame of mind and how she’s really thinking and feeling about it.

Emily: Again, I think that the Japan thing was a catalyst for what her character was like. In Japan, Tokyo in particular, it looks so perfect. It looks so perfect. Everyone is so immaculately dressed. Everything functions so beautifully. Everywhere that you go is so gorgeous to look at. I feel like it’s a really heightened version of — I wouldn’t quite say it was like living in social media the whole time, but that kind of thing. It looks insanely gorgeous. I suppose that in that instance, I was looking at those women who looked so amazing and so well-put together and whose children appeared never to scream and everything and playing really neatly in the sandbox, and my children would be doing average kid things, throwing themselves around and being covered in food and stuff like that, and me thinking, I can’t really believe that people, that the insides of their heads could be so different from the insides of what we know people, just from all our friends . I started thinking about that. I was imagining what Mizuki might be like as I was looking at all these very perfect people around me. I think that Mizuki herself, she has a particular disconnect because she’s gone off to the States for a little while. She’s kind of aware that there is another way of doing things. I think that that’s always a difficulty to some degree.

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I’m saying that Japanese society is so closed and it’s much better to do it in a different way and women are unhappy there. That’s not the case at all. It’s just that it’s such a different way of doing things. Once she sees that in the West, there’s another way — I think that whatever way it is that you’re doing, if you’re aware that there’s another option, it boggles your mind more. Not that it’s a bad thing, necessarily, but it can make you massively question all the things that are going on in your life that before, you might have taken for granted. There is, without a doubt, a value in people having their place. That’s kind of the way that the whole Japanese society functions . As women who work, I think that we’re probably aware — I constantly think, I need a really good wife, someone who really takes care of stuff and cooks everything, loves me, and makes sure all the — there’s a reason why it was a good idea to have a wife. It just doesn’t work out so well if the only thing that you can do, maybe, is be the wife and that’s not what you want to do.

Zibby: My mother calls my stepfather her wife.

Emily: She has it very well, then.

Zibby: He’s so chill. He’s just always like, whatever. The wifely responsibilities, it shouldn’t have anything, really, to do with marriage, these roles. It’s actually a job when you think about it.

Emily: Such a job. If you were a nanny or a housekeeper, you’d be getting paid for it.

Zibby: An assistant. It’s like ten jobs in one, to be honest.

Emily: It really is. It’s extraordinary.

Zibby: Just because you’re married doesn’t mean you’re well-suited to those jobs at all.

Emily: No, exactly. I always think about a Victorian household where you have like twenty-five people doing them. Suddenly, you’re meant to split them between two of you. It’s insane.

Zibby: That’s true. I don’t even think about it like that, but now I will, the sweeping, long skirts and the parasols. That’s a nice way to look at life as opposed to the chaos in my kitchen with my dishes in the sink this morning and trying to get everything done. That does sound lovely. Mizuki says in the book, this whole role of housewife, which has its own characters which you show, it’s a thing. Does she want it? Does she not want it? What do you do when you just somehow inherent it against, perhaps, your will? What then? What happens then?

Emily: And if you can’t get out of it. That’s the thing that’s more difficult in a society that is generally more traditional. I believe, probably, that if, in the States or in the UK, you just didn’t want to do that anymore, you could do something. You could retrain. You could get a job. You could change your circumstances, not necessarily easily. I just feel that it would be a lot more difficult in more traditional societies.

Zibby: Not to mention that Mizuki says she should be judged harshly by other moms. She feels like a bad mom all the time and is showing up with her kid naked and doing all these crazy things. If anybody’s going to rationally evaluate her, she feels not so great about it anyway, so even more fodder for perhaps not. Also, the way you depict her husband, it’s with a sense of humor at the time. You’re poking so much fun at this man who’s sort of the prototype of a busy working dad. It’s like you’ve taken your camera focus and made it extra sharp on him right now. Tell me a little bit about developing his character.

Emily: I feel like I would need to point out that I didn’t intend to paint him as the villain. I wanted to write a book where everything that happens is not anyone’s fault. It’s just the situation. I suppose it’s the society that’s contributed to it, but it just is the situation. He is certainly not a bad father. He’s not a bad husband. He’s a neglectful husband, but not because he intends to be. It’s just because the situation he’s in had made him that way. He works completely crazy hours. He just doesn’t have any time left for his wife. I think he has a little bit more for his kids because he’s making such an effort. It’s really unsurprising that their relationship is the thing to fall by the wayside. It’s totally unsurprising. I think that that period of time as well, when children are very small, no one slept. Everyone is dealing with domestic admin and toilet training the whole time.

It’s not very conducive to having a beautiful, romantic relationship with the best of times anyway. Then those are always the times as well, that period of your life, when people are trying to — that’s when your career has to take off. It’s crazy. If only we could figure out how to either put our careers off until we were fifty or have children at that age. At least, we could just stagger them in some way. Instead, we’ve got these couple of decades where everything has to happen at once. Everyone’s so insanely squeezed. I think Tatsuya is just a product of that situation. Mizuki is well-aware that he’s not a bad person and that they had a really good relationship. She misses him so much. I feel like maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if she hadn’t actually really quite liked him to start with. She just wishes that he was there again and that they could have the relationship that they had before and that someone would see her so that she wasn’t just an invisible taker-carer of all the things that need to be looked after in the house and nothing else.

Zibby: Are you married still to the father of your kids?

Emily: I am still married to someone who is not like Tatsuya, yes.

Zibby: I was just wondering how your husband feels when you’re writing novels about jumping off of a building and wanting to murder your husband. He’s like, oh, this is good, honey.

Emily: Every social situation we go to now, he’s like, “So let’s start off by you telling everyone that the book wasn’t about us.” I’m like, okay. Poor guy. I’m putting him through it. Thankfully, he can deal with it, I hope.

Zibby: Obviously, you finished this book a little bit ago because now it’s come out and blah, blah, blah. Have you written anything in the interim? Do you have another book coming out? What are you up to now? What have you been up to since?

Emily: Yes, I’m doing some more writing. I’m working on another book, which I really am happy to be doing because that’s always a really super fun thing. I think the beginning stages of it are always tricky because, for me, it feels like you’re feeling around in the dark a little bit still until it becomes clearer. It’s all different phases of it. I’ve been doing that. I’m a teacher as well, so I’m also teaching and doing all that jazz. Just like all the women, as you’ve heard — not just the women. All people are very busy.

Zibby: Yes. Have you ever written a memoir? Have you thought about writing a memoir?

Emily: No. Not yet. Let’s hope for more and more exciting things. Maybe when I’m eighty-five I’ll think about it.

Zibby: What do you like to read when you’re not writing?

Emily: Oh, everything, so many good things. It’s been a really good year, actually, hasn’t it? There are loads of American authors that I really love, actually. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of them. This year, what have I read? I’ve read some Katherine Heiny, Early Morning Riser.

Zibby: I have to read that book. I’ve had so many people recommend it to me.

Emily: Have you? It’s so good.

Zibby: I have to read it. I have to write this down.

Emily: Yeah, write it down. It’s just such a warm, generous book. I think that’s my absolute favorite thing about books, when it depicts things with just so much empathy for characters. I love it. Also, Lily King, I feel like she has the same kind of empathetic touch. I’ve really enjoyed reading Writers & Lovers, I read recently. Naoise Dolan, have you read Exciting Times?

Zibby: Yes, I read that too.

Emily: Isn’t that great?

Zibby: I was saying Writers & Lovers is one of my favorite books. Yes, I’ve read Exciting Times. I interviewed her. She’s great. Actually, my brother has a production company called Black Bear Pictures. They’re making that into a movie.

Emily: Really? How awesome. That is really cool. Her interview, I’ve got to listen that. That’ll be really good. Did I say her name right? Is it Naoise? Is it -na?

Zibby: I don’t know. I try not to say it.

Emily: Yeah, that’s much better. So that book. We’ll just talk about the title, Exciting Times. It was great. That was amazing. It really made me laugh so much. It was really good. You were just saying that you really like Writers & Lovers. Has that been out for a while in the States?

Zibby: It has. I just had this anthology I put together called Moms Don’t Have Time to Have Kids. Lily King wrote an essay in the book about her own daughter. It was really pretty.

Emily: I will be picking that up, then, and reading it. It’s going to be really good.

Zibby: I’m not surprised by the authors you like because I feel like your books falls in that same sort of category. The way that Lily King writes, it’s literary, but it’s not off-putting. It’s not too heavy-handed. The writing is fantastic, as is yours, but you don’t get distracted by the sentences. The end result ends up being this great, intimate story and look into relationships and a person with a slight sense of humor. I see a lot of parallels.

Emily: That’s the best compliment ever, so thanks.

Zibby: You’re so welcome. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Emily: Oh, my goodness, I feel like I’m too green to give advice. If I were to give it, I would keep going. Just keep going. I think that is the thing that I found probably the most difficult and definitely the most useful. I feel like you just get kicked back. You feel like it’s not going to work. That happens over and over and over again. For me, the only thing that I can do is just decide that it’s — if it’s what you want to do, you just keep going regardless of what you think the outcome might be or whatever. If you love it, you just do it. I think that’s all you can do, and not worry about anything else.

Zibby: Very true. How was your experience from the publishing side? Was it what you expected? What do you think worked really well when you were doing the marketing, getting the word out about your book? What was that all like?

Emily: I’ve been really lucky because the people I worked with are just amazing. It’s been really, really amazing. It was also pretty crazy because it all happened during the pandemic. I actually got my agent just before the pandemic. Then she was sending it out to publishers at the very beginning of the pandemic when it was kind of unclear what was going to happen with publishing. There was quite a lot of talk that they were going to have to halt debuts and stuff because they were waiting until maybe things could open up again. It didn’t look very good. To be honest, there was a period of time where we were both like, oh, coronavirus probably just killed this book. It’s probably not going to happen. It was the most amazing thing when it did. It was quite weird because I’ve only met my publisher in person a few times. The whole thing’s been such a Zoom relationship, but it’s been amazing. Being able to have a few events now in person here has just been the best thing. When you talk to people and go to a literary festival or something, there is nothing better. I literally was on the high of my life being able to do that. It’s amazing.

Zibby: Wow, that’s great. That’s so awesome. Great. Emily, it was so nice to meet you. Thanks for surviving this job interview, interrogation. I’m sorry. This isn’t normally the form my podcasts take. I don’t know what’s up with me this morning. I really enjoyed getting to know you. I’m very impressed and can’t wait to see what’s coming next for you. I hope we cross paths.

Emily: Thank you so much for having me. It was such a pleasure to talk to you.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Emily: You too. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Emily Itami, FAULT LINES

FAULT LINES by Emily Itami

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