Abigail Friedman, US diplomat and author of The Haiku Apprentice

Interview by Bridget Boylan

separating wheat from chaff

Abigail Friedman

Abigail Friedman joined the Foreign Service in 1988 and served her country in DC, Paris, Tokyo, the Azores, and most recently as US Consul General in Quebec City. She is a member of the Haiku Society of America and Haiku Canada, and a founding member of the bilingual Quebec Haiku Group in Quebec City. The Haiku Apprentice was a finalist for the 2007 Kiriyama Book Prize for nonfiction.

WaterBridge Review: The Haiku Apprentice is your first book. I imagine you may not previously have considered yourself “a writer,” though you have undoubtedly done a lot of writing in your work as a diplomat in the US Foreign Service. How did you come to think about creating a book out of your experiences in Japan?

Abigail Friedman: I had joined a haiku group and had been attending for about six or eight months when I started writing a book about my experience. I would come home after every haiku group meeting and interrupt whatever my husband was doing to say, “You know, this haiku group is amazing.” And then I would tell him at great length all that I was learning about haiku and about the people in my group. He would listen for a while and then tell me I ought to write a book about it. Perhaps this was his way of trying to get back to his reading, who knows? But I began to think about writing down my haiku experiences. I had a strong sense that if I didn’t write down what my Japanese haiku friends were telling me, no one in the West would ever know what haiku meant to contemporary Japanese. My haiku master, Momoko Kuroda, speaks no English and has never even visited the US. If I didn’t write down what she was teaching me, who in the West would know about it? So I started writing this book because I felt it was my responsibility to do so.

WBR: Did what you had in mind at the beginning change in any way over the course of the writing?

AF: In my first draft, there was very little about me, nothing about my family, nothing about my work, and almost nothing about my reflections on Japan. I wrote the book initially pretty much as a straight narrative about others. The first time I showed the manuscript to someone in the publishing field, she was complimentary about my writing, but said that I needed to put more about myself in the book. I remember thinking “Why would I do that? That’s not what my book is about.” Then I sent my manuscript off to Stone Bridge Press, and Peter Goodman, the publisher, also was very encouraging but he, too, urged me to put more of myself into the book. This time I listened. It took me nearly a year to make the change. The funny thing is that I did not spend that year writing or rewriting, but rather it took me about a year to get my mind around the idea that I would be writing about myself, revealing myself to readers. This is when I discovered that it takes courage to write a book. I spent a year developing that courage. Once I did, once I felt I could write about myself, the rewriting came quickly and went pretty smoothly.

I erred on the side of saying less about myself than I might have if my goal had been to write a book about me. My goal in writing this book was for the reader to gain insights into how haiku is viewed in Japan.

WBR: How were you able to recall in so much detail the people you met and the conversations and events of that time?

AF: As I mentioned earlier, I started writing The Haiku Apprentice a few months after joining the haiku group. So for the first few chapters of the book, I was writing about events that had already happened. But after that, I was writing about events as they happened. When doing an interview, I would bring a tape recorder, but of course not all of the chapters are based on straight interviews. For example, I would be taking the train with Professor Kotani, and then know that I had a chapter to write based upon that train ride with her. Or, as my book writing was moving along, I’d think to myself, “I wonder what that man who wrote the kidney haiku has to say about haiku?” So I tracked him down, got together with him, and then I knew that I had another chapter to write.

WBR: Writers out there would probably like to hear more about your writing process for the book.

AF: One of the questions I am asked most often is how long it took me to write the book. This question perplexes me as I never reached a point where I felt I had finished writing the book. I never said to myself, “Okay, I’m done.” What happens is that one day, the publisher tells you the book is going to the printer, and that, I suppose, is when I reluctantly accepted that I had finished writing the book. Even now, when I re-read parts of my book, I am tempted to edit, correct, add, or smooth sections here and there.

When I embarked on this writing project I set three rules for myself: (1) Write for five hours a week; (2) Never say to my children, “Mom’s busy working on her book, so don’t interrupt”; and (3) Don’t quit. These three rules were essential to my bringing this project to completion. The first rule was basically a reasonable quota. Early on, I was talking to a friend of mine in academia who has published books about my fear that I might not have the time to write a book. She said, “Oh, that’s easy. If you just write five hours a week, after a certain period of time, you’ll have a book. It may be a bad book, but you will have a book.” That was a revelation to me! I knew I could find five hours a week.

Because my children were young at the time, I could not commit to a specific time of the day. You never know when there is going to be a last-minute school project, a crisis, or whatever. So I had a rubber stamp and a calendar, and every time I completed an hour, I would stamp the calendar. If by Friday I had only put in two hours, well, I knew I had to find three hours over the weekend to write. One thing that I felt I sacrificed when I was writing this book was personal reading time. There were books that I would have loved to read but I just didn’t have the time.

I had some other “corollaries” to my rules, for example, not carrying over hours from one week to the next. You can imagine where that would have gotten me! I’d still be owing myself hours today. Also, I am not an early riser. I tried getting up once at five a.m. to write, as I had heard that this is what Anthony Trollope did. But I swore I would never do that again. I was in a rotten mood all day.

The rule about never saying to my children, “Don’t bother me, I’m writing,” was important to me, as I already had a full-time job. I didn’t want my writing to take more time out of my being a parent. I remember one time I was at my laptop writing (I like to write at the dining room table, where I am still in the middle of the family action) and my youngest came up to me and asked if I would play Monopoly with him. This was a test of my commitment to my rules (especially as I can’t stand playing Monopoly). I was relieved to hear myself saying, “Sure! I’d love to.”

WBR: Once you finished writing, how did you find your publisher, Stone Bridge Press?

AF: I found my publisher by word of mouth. Everyone I spoke with in Japan who knew something about the publishing world had good things to say about Stone Bridge Press, and about the publisher, Peter Goodman, in particular. I never had an agent, and I never sent my manuscript out to big publishing houses. I was looking for a publishing house I would feel “at home” with, one with a good reputation, and that might be interested in the subject matter I was writing about.

WBR: How was your experience working with them?

AF: I enjoyed working with a small publishing house. At critical stages, it was like having a family doctor who still pays house calls. For example, I had met Elizabeth Floyd when I was in Japan and I asked Stone Bridge if she might be involved in the editing process. They agreed, as they had worked with her before. Or when it came time to decide on a title. Originally, I had a different title and cover picture for the book. The publisher himself called me up and we discussed other titles. Frankly, he’s the expert, so while I offered some thoughts, I figured Stone Bridge was best placed to make these kinds of decisions. When they showed me the cover they wanted to use, I was delighted with it.

WBR: This seems like a good place to give readers a taste of your poetry. Would you share with us a current favorite haiku of your own and explain a bit about the inspiration behind it?


end of summer –
in my son’s room
I try on his shoes

This is a deeply personal haiku, and I am not sure how well I can capture the feeling in prose (that’s why it came out as a haiku, I suppose). I wrote this last summer. My son, my oldest child, was 19 years old at the time, and he had just gone back to college for his third year. I had gone up to his room to check if he had left anything behind, to dust the room, change the sheets, etc. In the closet, he had left a pair of shoes. Men’s shoes, not sneakers. I don’t know why, but I just slipped my feet into them, and at that moment I understood how my life, my role, my identity had changed forever. The past was not going to come back. My feet swam in the space of his big shoes. Men’s shoes. Shoes he left behind, forgotten.

WBR: That’s a lovely image. What other writing are you doing now? Do you have another book in the works?

AF: I’ve got a collection of my haiku in French and in English that I am working on (I live in Quebec City and these days I’ve been writing haiku mainly in French).

I’ve always wanted to write a book about foreign policy. After all, I’ve been working in the field for nearly 20 years—you would think I’d have something to say about it, wouldn’t you agree? I thought that having written one book, it would be easier for me to write a second and a third and so on. It is true that I no longer worry about whether I can write, nor about whether I might have the time. But I do still have a very basic fear of writing, which I can’t explain other than to say that, for me at least, it takes courage to write, and I don’t yet seem to have mustered the courage to write the next book I’d like to write. I know that when I start to panic, when I have that sense that I have nowhere to hide from myself, that all excuses have been exhausted and that I can’t, I mean really can’t abide myself for another day of not writing, that’s when I’ll start writing that next book. And I won’t quit until the publisher says it’s going to the printer.

WBR: Have you been able to get back to Japan since your diplomatic tour there ended?

AF: Unfortunately, I haven’t been back to Japan since publishing my book. But I know I will get there some day. I stay in touch through correspondence with several haiku poets in my group, but it takes me time to write a letter in Japanese, so I am not in contact with them as frequently as I would like to be. I am in e-mail contact with some members, but sometimes there seem to be encoding problems with e-mails in Japanese, so I am never quite sure if an e-mail I send in Japanese has been received. Momoko Kuroda sends me faxes and I always get a kick out of that—the challenge of deciphering hastily written Japanese script in a fuzzy fax. All in all, even with modern technology, it is not as easy to stay in touch as I might wish.

On the other hand, as a result of publishing this book I’ve made many new friends, Japanese and non-Japanese, who straddle both the Japanese and Western haiku worlds. That has been very rewarding.

WBR: And finally, what books do you currently have on your bedside table?

AF: I am a most eclectic reader. Do you really want to know what I have on my night table right now? All right, here’s what I have and I am in the process of reading all of them.

Poems of the Masters: China’s Classic Anthology of T’ang and Sung Dynasty Verse by Red Pine. Red Pine’s translation of the works of Cold Mountain is also excellent.

Sarinagara by Philippe Forest is a novel in French that spins wonderful reflections, using poets Issa and Soseki and the photographer Yamahata Yosuke as its starting point.

The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. I am telling you, it is a page-turner. Don’t let the size of the book scare you off—it is extremely well written and a must-read.

Histoire d’un rêve brisé: les Canadiens français aux Etats-Unis by Yves Roby. It’s a slim book, about French-Canadian migration to New England.

China’s Rise in Asia: Promises, Prospects and Implications for the United States by Robert Sutter. I downloaded this as a print-out from somewhere, published in February 2005. Also worth reading.

Bones of the Barbary Coast by Daniel Hecht. I am not usually a fiction reader, but I always make the time to read fiction by my friends who write. I’ve only just started this book but the first few pages are great.

Haiku Friends, volume 2. Alain Kervern sent me this excellent little book of contemporary haiku. Kervern is a Breton haiku poet, who writes in Breton, French, and English and probably a few other languages I am not aware of.

Santoka, a bilingual Japanese/English book on Taneda Santoka, the famous haiku poet. The translations are excellent and should put to rest the wrong-headed idea that “real” haiku are 5-7-5 syllables and “about nature.”

Bridget Boylan is a librarian with the San Francisco Public Library.

Read a selection of haiku from The Heron’s Nest and check out our home page for more reviews.