Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel Harmless Like You has, in the months since its initial UK release last August, quietly become a critical hit - with publication in several countries; a New York Times editor’s choice spot; glowing reviews in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Literary Review, and elsewhere; and appearances on numerous awards shortlists.
Harmless Like You tells two interconnected stories. We open in New York City in the late 1960s with Yuki, a teenage girl who decides to stay in New York and pursue her dream of becoming an artist after her parents return to their home in Japan. In modern times, we follow Yuki’s son Jay as he travels to find his absent mother after the birth of his own child.
I know Buchanan through mutual friends, so I was beyond excited to read her book when a reader’s copy appeared at the BUST office - and of course, I had to take the chance to talk with her about it. We caught up over coffee at the DUMBO art space/coffeeshop Usagi NY earlier this month, and talked about her inspiration for the novel, reviews, and her character Jay’s bald cat.
I always wonder how long books take to get written - I feel like there’s a whole range, from “it took 15 years” to “I write three books a year.”
It probably took almost three years until it was in the hands of my editor, and then another year to get her edits and get it ready; so about three and a half years from start to publication. It feels less long now that it’s been published, but about three years in, it felt very long!
And it sounds like there are a couple different places where it came from?
I had been writing a different book - and I realized that although it made sense, there was absolutely no heart in it. I was in grad school, so I thought, if I’m ever going to write a novel, I’m going to write a novel now.
And my mom had had this really terrifying health scare. I was in New York visiting my grandma, and my mom was in London, and I got a call from home saying, “Your mom doesn’t know where she is, she doesn’t know what’s going on.” She seemed very happy and relaxed, but of course, no one else was happy and relaxed. They took her to the hospital, and I couldn’t help in any way, so I canceled everything I was doing for two days and sat in the apartment being really, really worried.
And I just started thinking, who would I be without my mother? And it’s especially important to me, as someone who is mixed race [Buchanan’s mother is half Japanese, half Chinese, and her father is white], because I think, what if she wasn't there to help me navigate my identity? But I know that many women do end up separating from their children - and they're not evil women or bad mothers. After I found out my mother was actually okay - she had transient global amnesia, which has stroke-like symptoms, but doesn’t have the negative repercussions of a stroke - that thought - who would I be without my mother? - was still in me.
And then this character came to me, this Japanese girl in New York in the ‘70s, which is roughly the time my mom grew up. Like everybody, I grew up with stories about my family’s lives. And New York in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s is hugely in popular media, but the main representation of Asian Americans at that time is yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s - which is so bad that when I watched it, I didn’t even know it was yellowface, I just thought, this is a weird0looking man. I wanted to not write my family, but a family like mine, in that time and that place. And there’s also a bald cat in it.
I always thought bald cats were kind of gross, but your book made me really want to pet one. Did you do any bald cat research?
I did a lot of therapy animal research. I don’t know of any bald cat therapy animals, but there’s no need to rule them out. And I remember when I was young, I had some family friends, and the daughter really, really wanted a cat. But the mom was allergic, so she would always tell them, "Well, fine you can get a bald cat," and they’d go, "Ew, no way." And I remember thinking Sphinx cats were kind of cute. My dad is also allergic to cats, and I really wanted a cat when I was a kid. I was like, “We can even get this bald cat!”
Did you do a lot of research about New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
I started off with these family stories, and things I knew, and then built out from there; like I went to New York photo archives to see how things looked. There are some really, really beautiful photographs of Chinatown; I remember this one photograph of young women, they’re all dressed in very 1950s style with white gloves and perfectly permed hair, and they’re clearly so proud of how they look.
Another stage of research is when you have an assumption. I had to go, okay, when did Japanese food make it to New York? And actually, Japanese food got there quite early, but I have them in a diner at some point, and I have my character eating penne. I just wanted a boring pasta and said penne, but no, penne was a fancy Italian restaurant pasta, it was not a diner pasta. So I changed it to macaroni. It’s small things like that.
The “Napalm Girl” photo is very important in the book; was that something that had always stuck with you?
I think I saw that photo first when I was very, very young; and because I grew up in the UK, I didn’t really learn about the Vietnam War for a long time in any official capacity. When you’re a child and you see that photo of the child in pain, you have a particular reaction. There are people who are very naturally worried about the young American men, and people who are very naturally worried about the Vietnamese children. And as an Asian-American person, how do you understand that war? I felt like it was something my character had to work through.
Do you feel like there’s one of the characters, either Jay or Yuki, that readers tell you they relate to more?
People definitely tell me they relate to one or the other more. It doesn’t follow gender lines, but people often passionately like one character more than the other. I never know if I should be pleased that it means that their voices feel significantly different from each other, or mad at myself for writing a book with two protagonists. I think Jay is snarkier, so snarky people tend to like Jay. And Yuki is more sincere. I want to say it’s a character test, but I haven’t actually come up with any conclusions about what it says.
Writing a book is a pretty solitary activity - what’s it like now to go out there and do a book tour and interviews and panels and everything?
It is terrifying. But the thing is when you’ve been working on something for years, it feels really strange that you would abandon it at the last post. And it’s really amazing to meet readers. At a book fair, I had these two young women in high school come up to me and say, "We’re going to cover about you for our class project," and they said it was because I’m a young, not-100%-white-woman, and they felt excited about that, and that felt wonderful.
Has the process of writing your second book been different?
I have started the second one; right now it’s a very, very messy draft. I started it after I finished writing the first one and it was being sent out, and I was like, "Well, if nothing happens, then the first book is my practice book.” My first short story was about dragons, and I drew dragons all around the corners of the page because I was very small. And it was not very good, but later I wrote other short stories, and they were better. So I thought, if my first novel doesn't get published, that’s what I'm going to tell myself. It’s been a good way of not getting too neurotic about publication things, and I'm really glad I started it before I got any reviews in.
About reviews, do you read all of them, or only the big ones, or do you have someone tell you which ones to read?
I do read my reviews; I skim-read them. Most of my reviews have been very kind, because people have the option to just not review them; I’m not Jonathan Franzen, who needs to be covered.
Mostly because I'm lazy, I’ve never done Yelp reviews. My local train station has a Google star rating, I mean, it’s a train station! But my parents’ friends or my friends will be like, "‘Oh, I saw this great review," and then you’re very aware that people read your reviews. Like, I don’t know how good of lawyers my lawyer friends are; I assume they’re fine!
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