INTERVIEW: Sarah Jio Talks About Her New Novel, The Bungalow

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If I had to pick a favorite book from 2011, it would be The Violets of March by Sarah Jio. So when I saw that she released her second novel, The Bungalow right after Christmas, it was the first book I downloaded on my Kindle Fire... and I blew right through it. It was a mixture of romance, mystery, war and history all tied together with phenomenal writing; I just couldn’t put it down. So imagine how tickled I was when Sarah agreed to an interview for our BlogHer readers!

The Bungalow is an intriguing story set in World War II. For those who are about to say, “But I don’t like historical fiction,” I want to let you know that this novel didn’t push any of my historical fiction whine buttons. Maybe it’s because I find war stories interesting, but I think it’s because Sarah wrote this book in such a way that the story flows with the history instead of the history bogging down the story. It simply works.

I was delighted to ask Sarah a series of questions about this book, her writing, her characters and poke her a little bit for writing advice for our readers who have a book bumping around in their head -- or heart.


JH: The Bungalow is set in World War II. I noticed in your acknowledgements that your family shared your Great Uncle Michael Handgraaf's journal with you. Was that before or after your idea for this novel? Is any of this story part of his story? Was the journal an inspiration to write this book or an additional help?

SJ: I have a funny quirk of coming up with titles for novels before I know what they're actually going to be about, so, in this case, the words "The Bungalow" hit me first. I had been on my honeymoon in Tahiti and Moorea in 2001, where my husband and I stayed in a thatched roof, nearly open-air beach bungalow. With those memories, I had the place in mind, and my fascination with the 1940s led me to the characters that composed the book -- a nurse and a young soldier. Around the time that I was beginning to write the book, my mom told me about my great uncle Mike's wartime journal. He kept it while he was stationed in the South Pacific islands during the war, and it's filled with fascinating tales of fighting, malaria, French girls (ooh la la) and other amazing stories. My grandfather's own tales of life in the South Pacific during the war informed some of my writing, also. And while these family stories and remembrances did inform some of the details of the book, the story is it's own.

JH: You visited Tahiti on your honeymoon in 2001 (not 2011 as is printed!) which is the backdrop for much of the book. I honestly felt like I was there through your words. Did you enjoy going mentally back there to write this book?

SJ: Yes, I promise, all of my children were born after the wedding and honeymoon (but it does make a funny typo and I would have loved them and have been proud of them had they been born first, of course -- ha!). But, I do love your question because the answer is YES! I have three young boys (all 5 and under) so taking a eight-hour plane ride to Bora Bora is, well, out of the question right now (for obvious reasons), so I loved getting to "visit" the South Pacific again in my imagination. I'm currently considering a new idea for my fifth novel (my third and fourth novels have already been sold to Penguin and will be published in the months to come), that is set in Paris, so I'm hoping that a research trip can be planned (and that the kids cooperate!).

JH: I have to tell you that, as a birth mother, the "surprise" adoption theme in the book really caught me off guard. However, I thought you handled it remarkably well -- better than most fiction writers nowadays. You captured the inevitable "change" in her, as Westry said, and later had her explain that she felt "frozen" after the birth and relinquishment of her child. Most people don't "get" those concepts. How did you?

SJ:: Thank you, Jenna. I'm relieved to hear that I captured emotions that rang true for you. The subject was a heart-wrenching one for me to write about, as a mother and as a woman. I remember shedding more than I few tears as I wrote the scene where my character delivers the child (yes, I cry when I write -- often!). I tried to put my feet in my characters' shoes. She had to give up a child in a time when unwed mothers had few rights or options, nor did she have a strong support network so far away from home. Giving her child away was the best choice for her, but I still wanted to show her love for her baby -- that unbreakable mother-child bond that begins to form in those small, but profound, moments after birth. Becoming "frozen" ended up being my character's survival mechanism, her way of protecting her heart from further pain.

I think the subject of adoption offers so many valuable channels of discussion in fiction, and I'm eager to write more about it in future books.

JH: Are you more like Anne, level-headed and loyal to a fault, or are your more like Kitty, spontaneous to a fault and a bit flighty? They both presented characteristics that, in moderation, are great, but each took them a little too far. Where do you fit in?

SJ: I think I'm a bit of both of them, actually! I'm a perfectionist and a planner, like Anne. I get grumpy when the house is a mess, don't often stay up past my bedtime, and am fiercely loyal to the people I love. But I'm also a little like Kitty, too, (who's spirited personality reminds me a bit of what my late grandmother, Cecelia, might have been like in her youth). Above all, I'm a romantic at heart -- so I could relate to bits of each of their stories (but not all of their decisions! After all, they have minds of their own, my characters!).

JH:: You have three sons (bless you). Would you rather them be the romantic, gallant Westry or the loyal, steadfast Gerard?

SJ: I suppose there's benefits to both types of characteristics. The world needs Gerards just as much as it needs Westrys. My five year old told me, the other day, that when he grows up, he doesn't want to "work" like his daddy does; he just wants to write books like mommy. I thought this was very sweet, and I'd be honored if he chose the artistic, writerly path, as I have. But, mostly, I just want my boys -- all three of them -- to be who they were born to be, whatever that is. I will adore them to pieces if they become garbage truck drivers or great novelists -- or anything in between. I just want them to visit and call their dear old mom once in a while.

JH: Of course, a mandatory question: Did you marry your Westry or your Gerard?

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