Author Clara Kumagai was kind enough to answer 10 Questions from one of our Toppsta reviewers, Elleanore (aged 15) about Catfish Rolling. Read on to find the answers to Elleanore's burning questions!
1. (Elleanore) Catfish Rolling truly is a one-of-a-kind book which will stay in my mind for a very long time. What inspired you to write this book?
(Clara) I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it! The inspiration came from a few different places—firstly, the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and its aftermath. The Japanese myth of the catfish is of course a big inspiration, and is very connected to earthquakes. I’ve always loved myth and folklore, and how lots of old fairy tales convey messages or ideas that relate to real life.
2. I love science fiction and have not come across Japanese mythology before, so your accomplished blend of mythical science fiction is something I hope to read more of! What Japanese mythology stories would you recommend to teenagers and what is your favourite mythology story?
I recommend Japanese-inspired fantasy such as Traci Chee’s A Thousand Steps Into the Night, Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor, and The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi. A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, edited by Ellen Oh and Elise Chapmanis also a wonderful anthology of Asian-inspired stories (not just Japanese). Also Shigeru Mizuki, who wrote a lot of manga (which was also adapted to an anime) about yokai, which is fun.
I think one of my favourite legends is a story that is told in both Japan and Ireland. In Japan it’s called Urashima Tarō and in Ireland it’s called Oisin in Tí na nÓg. Both of them are about a man who goes to another land, and finds that hundreds of years have passed in the real world… I guess that really reflects my interest in time! But what I loved was discovering that, although there are a lot of different details, such similar stories are told in places so far away from each other.
3. The Japanese culture references being laced throughout the book ensured that this is one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read. The characters are well crafted, and I could truly feel Sora’s feelings throughout the book, making it hard to part with Sora as she felt like a real person. Were your characters inspired by real life people?
This is always a difficult question to answer! I didn’t base any character on a real person I know, but there are probably elements of many people I know in all the characters. I find that my characters are often built piece by piece—they grow and develop themselves as I continue writing. So in that sense characters might end up with personalities or traits that are quite different from what I initially imagined or wrote.
4. Where did your idea of this alternative reality of fractured time come from? I have interpreted the blend of the catfish myth and modern science as you metaphorically adding a subliminal space of shifts in time, occurring particularly in Sora’s most distressed moments. For someone who loves definitive endings, I was pleasantly surprised with the fact I enjoyed pondering over a number of issues raised in the book, in particular the concept of parallel time zones. Did the idea of time zones come from mythology, or a fantasy take on time zones due to the Earth rotating and being spherical, or is it symbolic or something completely different?
The idea of time breakage came when I learned that the 2011 earthquake was so big that it shifted the earth on its axis so that it spins faster—and as a result our day is a tiny bit shorter. (1.8 microseconds, to be exact.) It also caused Honshu (the main island of Japan) to actually move more than 6ft east, closer to the North American continent. That actually seems like science fiction to me, even though it’s real. So my idea of time breaking came from there, and on a bigger level it also fit in with being caught in the past or painful events that Sora can’t help but relive.
5. With the constant flashbacks, which part of the book was the most fun to write and which part was the most difficult for you to finalise?
I liked writing scenes with Sora and her mother—her mother of course doesn’t appear much, so it felt like each scene with her was important and really had to add something to her character or Sora’s experiences. I also think any scene in the time zones were fun to write because they were often a little spooky or uncanny, and that was where some of the folklore could be seen with the kitsune or the tanuki. There’s a climactic scene towards the end of the book where Sora gets sort of stuck (I don’t want to give spoilers!) that was hard for me to work out because I needed to balance action and emotion.
6. What was your writing process for this book? Did you create the plot around the two calendars in order to have beautifully poignant chapters marked by Kanji, or did you find later on in the writing process that the book naturally fitted into Sora’s character progression arc?
Actually, the kanji was added after the book was finished! But it turned out that the two calendars (sekki and kō) fit very nicely with the timeline. Springtime in Japan is sort of special because it’s the time when school ends and begins, as well as things like jobs, so it felt right for both the plot and Sora’s own character development. A lot of the time in the book (particularly in the different time zones) is measured or marked by natural events or seasonal changes, just like the sekki and kō calendars, because clocks aren’t reliable, and are in fact sort of arbitrary. So I guess thematically this fits in with Sora’s journey—she’s not ready for the next step in her life just because school ended; she has to change and grow at her own pace.
7. One of the key points I have taken away from your book is that our perception of time shifts during uncertainty in our lives – do you agree and are there any other key messages you would like readers to gain from this book? What links between the book and the prevalent theme of climate change do you hope to convey?
Yes, I think that in different situations our perception of time changes—sometimes moments drag by or time flies past. But also when there are difficult or traumatic experiences or memories it can be difficult to break out of that; we might feel like we are living that moment over and over again.
As for nature and climate change—yes, I think that measuring time by our environment is becoming more and more difficult, as year by year global warming is adversely affecting the world. It’s hard sometimes for us to see the connection between our everyday actions and something big like snow falling in spring, or insects dying because of a heatwave. Sora pays a lot of attention to the natural world, and I think that would be useful for us all to do, because it’s important for everybody to see how connected we are to the natural world.
8. What advice would you give to Sora throughout the book if you could speak to her?
Hmmm… I think I would tell her to try and trust people more—but the thing about that is that you can’t just tell someone to do that! Trust needs to be built up, which is what happens with Sora and characters like Naomi and Maya. But maybe I would encourage her to try and be more open with people.
9. I loved the book illustrations, and the fact that the fore-edge of the book was printed, continuing on the unique, front cover design. Did you have any input into Andrew Davis’s design?
Yes, I love the cover design and sprayed edges, too! I think Andrew Davis did a marvellous job (and I love the covers he’s done for other books, too!). I did get two covers to choose from, which was a little difficult because the other design was also beautiful. But I decided on this cover because I loved the feeling of cyclical motion. The suggestions I had were mostly for the patterns on the catfish itself—I gave some kimono patterns as examples. I wear kimono so I know some patterns and what they represent, and those were used as some inspiration for the flowers and plants on the catfish.
10. I loved your style of writing and the concept of time being fractured so this question is particularly burning – will there be a sequel or more stories in this parallel “Time fractured” universe?
Right now, I don’t have any plans to write a sequel in this universe—even though I do like the world a lot! I am working on a second book, though, which is mainly set in Japan but is more of a ghost story.