An Interview with Sequoia Nagamatsu


Congratulations on the recent publication of How High We Go in the Dark! I know you worked on this novel for over ten years (and edited it during a pandemic, no less). What’s most exciting to you about having your novel out in the world now?

I’m heartened that a lot of people seem to be receptive to the book as well as understanding of the overarching vision I’d intended. That’s difficult for any book at any time, but certainly for a book that has a plague element during a pandemic. There’s always going to be the worry that some people might not be ready for it, regardless of how well-written or how humanistic it might be. That’s something I acknowledge and empathize with. People react to grief and tragedy in different ways. Some people need that pure escape. I need to watch a romcom. And other people are ready to engage in a dialogue about grief and tragedy and reflect on what this moment means.

Did you worry that some readers might find the book too complex with its many characters and storylines?

Before my agent and I even went out with How High’s manuscript, we had a conversation in Spring 2020. We could wait to go on submission, but then we don’t know how long we’re going to wait. And if we do wait, we risk the possibility of somebody publishing another speculative novel with a plague element. Then I’d be sort of playing second fiddle to that—not that anybody who’s writing a plague novel isn’t already playing second fiddle to Station Eleven. Ultimately, my agent and I decided going out with it at the time was worth the risk.

I also tried to mitigate anything in the book that, by coincidence, paralleled COVID. I didn’t want readers to be pulled into the reality they’re already living in. My plague’s a much more devastating one, but it’s also otherworldly. But if there was any mention of face masks or social distancing or any of the vocabulary that we’re currently using, I took it out.

If I had written this after COVID, I think the desire and temptation to speak to the moment would be too great. I’d probably write a lot more about world and societal reactions. But because I wrote this before COVID, my interests were almost always going to be about the individual and individual relationships. So once the plague is introduced in the novel’s first chapter, it then kind of falls to the background. And we focus much more on each chapter’s narrator.

What research or discoveries helped you choose the nature of How High’s “Arctic plague”?

We keep seeing more and more articles about scientists discovering things in Arctic conditions. While a deadly virus is pretty unlikely, some scientists do treat it as something we should keep an eye out for. The possibility of some pathogen being unleashed really sparked my interest. Before that interest started, I had already written several stories of alternative funerary rituals and alternative ways of grieving. I’d also been living in Japan. I was very fascinated by Japan’s large elderly population and with things like funeral skyscrapers and very science fiction-y ways that people are dealing with the dead because of cost and space. I was also reeling from my own losses. All this was a big impetus for the novel’s conception. Once I got the plague idea, I started reading more on different instances of these types of discoveries and different locations where Arctic melt was occurring. The one that most interested me was this crater in Siberia, which is known as “The Gateway to Hell.”

How High is told through multiple perspectives on a grand scope of multiple timelines. How did you ultimately decide on this structure? Did you give yourself any strict limitations for it?

Writing How High is pretty parallel to my trajectory as a writer who is beginning to take their work seriously. The book’s oldest chapter is the “Melancholy Nights” chapter. It initially took place in an internet cafe, which seems really archaic now. Once I started writing more stories that all had this funerary grief thread (plus some emerging plague elements), I started treating the book like a linked collection. But my agent said it felt weird to call this a collection because of the scope of what I was trying to do. So I started planting little Easter eggs throughout the stories.

The first chapter was actually one of the last chapters I wrote. I didn’t yet have anything introducing the plague. And I needed to plant the seed that something might be otherworldly about it. I also really wanted to capture the setting of Siberia while not getting away from the humanistic core of the novel. It would be far too easy to have the opening basically be: here’s a plague, it’s unleashed. Spectacle can cause readers to lose sight of the relationships between people.

For a ten-year writing process, how did you keep yourself coming back to the page? What were challenges you encountered in that length of time?

In my first book, the story collection Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, I tried on a lot of different hats. Stylistically and otherwise. I knew I was always going to be a weird writer in terms of genre, but I don’t think I’m naturally a writer who is going to write a story in the form of, like, a donut. People might be surprised, but I love writers like Alice Munro. I love William Trevor. I love Charles D’Ambrosio. Deeply realistic domestic realism writers. Anthony Doerr, too. When these writers butt heads with my lifelong Star Trek nerd fandom, interesting things happen. For How High, I kept working partly out of ambition and partly out of a need to prove something to myself. There were stories that I genuinely wanted to tell because a lot of them were, honestly, very personal and thus somewhat autobiographical. This book was something I needed to get out.

How High has already been compared to such successes as Cloud Atlas and Station Eleven. I also sensed There There by Tommy Orange, Miracle Creek by Angie Kim, The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino, and World War Z by Max Brooks. What texts offered you inspiration for your novel’s structure, scope, or style?

The work of Kevin Brockmeier was highly influential. Obviously there’s The Brief History of the Dead where there’s a kind of plague. But I especially studied his novel in stories, The Illumination. He’s always a bit fabulous or speculative in nature. But he never loses sight of the core of human emotions. That was something I wanted to replicate. You mentioned Calvino—for me it was Calvino’s Cosmicomics that was very influential. Another writer I really love is Ramona Ausubel, especially No One Is Here Except All of Us. And there’s Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, which has always stayed with me in terms of the psychology of its characters and how to use a science fiction backdrop to unpack human behavior.

Many of your chapters show, in great detail, characters at work. By showing the world inside jobs, you clearly render people who belong to very different levels of class and privilege. As a result, work comes across as a means of deliverance, of finding coping mechanisms, of trauma recovery, and of survival. What is it about jobs that draws you to them as a subject?

I bounced around a lot in my twenties. When I was in college, I did a lot of environmental activism on a national scale. I coordinated part of the forest campaign for the Sierra Club. I helped organize the International Arts Festival in San Francisco. I was a wedding planner. I was a tour guide on a duck. Through all this, I met a lot of people who were weird and friendly and also held interesting jobs. Sometimes I would stay in hostels in the cities I lived in just to meet travelers. I would show them the city I knew and they would show me parts of the city I didn’t know.

One of my best and oldest friends is this kind of insane British woman. I met her under the Golden Gate Bridge. We were drinking forties in this pet cemetery in the middle of the night. Meeting different people and learning what they’re doing in their life planted the seed of my being interested in professions as a writer. Jobs are also a convenient tool because they can help you worldbuild while staying close to your characters. And it’s a way for me to evolve the plague over time as well as to evolve society as generations pass.

In addition, a lot of my ideas come at late hours from weird, weird Google searches. I was recently Googling the question of whether fighter pilots feel guilty. From the cockpit, they’re at such a distance from a target; are you shooting the human being down or are you shooting the enemy plane down? I want to know what makes certain jobs difficult for people and what allowances do people make to keep doing such jobs.

What went into the decision to represent many Japanese and Japanese-American characters as your narrators?

In my first book, most of the characters are Japanese because most of those stories are set in Japan. For How High, I still wanted to highlight Japanese characters, but without really highlighting them. I wanted them to be present as Asian or Asian-American without calling attention to their identity in a needless way. Whenever I was first reading books about people of color, the stories were often immigrant stories. Stories about first-generation folks, or war stories. This was never my own experience. A lot of those stories, as well-written and well-received as they were, can be very problematic from a 21st Century lens. They were Othering and they were seemingly written with a white audience in mind. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t falling into the same trap. After so many incidents of anti-Asian hate that occurred early in the pandemic, I really wanted to show Asian bodies and voices surviving—without calling attention to that fact, like, “Hey, I’m Asian, I’m waking up to the smell of miso soup and eating rice balls for lunch.” I wanted these people to exist because I felt it was important for other people to see them.

Thinking about the pandemic we’re still experiencing, did completing your novel shape or change your perspective on these COVID times? Did it give you a different understanding of our experiences of this particular plague and its effects on us?

I think any writer, regardless of whether they had a project during the pandemic, had a difficult time writing and reading. Even just existing. I spent a lot of the past two years in a fog and sleeping all day. Maybe I wasn’t going outside enough. When I started actively working on the novel, that dissipated because the novel gave me structure in my life. In some ways the pandemic really helped me adapt to this reality. Not only because of the structure of needing to write, but also because the novel gave me a space to reflect on the world in a deeper way than probably a lot of people would be comfortable with. Also, part of the novel stemmed from my father, whom I lost a year and a half ago. I think having a dialogue with my own writing in a world like this helped me process my emotions and make different decisions in editing How High. Even though I had a strange relationship with my father, the novel allowed me to decide to call him back into this world.