Steph Post: So many of the stories featured in Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone feature monsters, ghosts and other mythical creatures. Where did your interest in the “otherworldly” come from?
Sequoia Nagamatsu: I’ve always been fascinated with mythology and folklore, probably starting early on with watching the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts on TNT and flipping through a used copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology that I bought at a garage sale. It was the prospect of explaining the world through the fantastic and strange that drew me. In a similar way, the comics I read as a kid helped me consider (even though I couldn’t articulate it at the time) how the unreal and otherworldly can be ways of illuminating aspects of identity and social issues. I identified with the misfits and the outcasts because I was one myself (bookish, goth for a time, generally pretty weird). Super heroes (and villains) and monsters and creatures of magic live on the periphery of society because of their extraordinary abilities. And it is because of this unique vantage point that they can dig into the architecture of society and the human condition. As a writer, I use magic and monsters to understand humanity, and I think the fantastic is needed more than ever as a lens to view a world that is increasingly complex and chaotic.
SP: As much as magic and other mythical and mystical elements are present in your collection, many of the stories also include references to science- particularly as concerns how you structured your stories. I’m thinking, for example, of the opening story, “The Return to Monsterland.” In your mind, how do science and magic go together and work together?
SN: I think magic and science are essentially the same thing, but just several steps of understanding removed from each other. With magic, there’s the belief and expectation that something fantastic will happen. It simply is because that is the way the world works. No questions. With science, we take that faith and put it under a microscope and try to unlock the secrets of wonder. We ask questions. Of course, life doesn’t like neat compartmentalizations, and I think a fully realized life embraces the mingling of all aspects of ourselves and worldviews. We can look at love as a chemical reaction, but we generally prefer to think of it in grander terms.
In "Return to Monsterland," our narrator is trying to understand how his wife lived and what she saw in Godzilla and the other Kaiju. At its heart, his quest is to find the connections between his field notes and scientific work and the realm of immeasurable beauty and awe.
SP: In, perhaps, sharp contrast to the scientific elements in your stories, there is also clearly a poetic voice bubbling beneath the surface. Are you a poet? Do you have a background in poetry?
SN: I wouldn’t describe myself as a poet at present, but I started my first forays into creative writing with poetry and definitely still appreciate and strive for writing that not only reads true to a character or situation, but sounds true to my ears.
SP: As I expressed in my review of Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone for Small PressBook Review, much of the delight in your collection comes from its weirdness. I mean, the Placenta Bloody Mary? The advice section for the dead? I’m wondering if you ever felt that you pushed the weirdness too far. Were you ever concerned that your readers wouldn’t “get” what was behind your stories?
SN: I don’t think that was ever really a concern that I had, but that might say more about me as a person and a writer than anything. Fundamentally, these stories are all about very recognizable experiences and emotions, so I felt that was more than enough of an anchor to provide a foothold for readers. The humanity and emotional resonance is there if you allow yourself to enter the strange.
SP: Finally, many of the stories in your collection, and the collection as a whole really, could be described as experimental. Both in content and in structure. Is there a place, or space, for experimental fiction or poetry in the mainstream literary arena?
SN: I don’t think the mainstream literary arena (if we’re thinking really traditionally here) really provides a lot space for innovative literature, but we’ve made some strides in recent years. For one thing, what the mainstream literary arena comprises is changing. Certain small presses are no longer all that small and major literary awards are tapping writers and publishers based in the Midwest and west coast. And a not insignificant number of writers who found their voice and niche online like Blake Butler and Amelia Gray could certainly be called experimental and have found a wider audience. So, I’m hopeful that challenging and innovative writing is finding more readers these days, but I’m not sure if the number of readers who truly appreciate the innovative has changed all that much. But one arena where we might close the gap as far as reaching other readers is in the world of games and VR. It is here where gamers are often engaging with experimental narratives without even realizing it.