Conversations

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

Manzanar Street Scene

Manzanar Street Scene, 1943
by Ansel Adams

WaterBridge Review: The San Francisco Chronicle listed your bestselling book, Farewell to Manzanar, as “one of the twentieth century’s 100 best nonfiction books from west of the Rockies.” It was a book on which you collaborated together. What was the experience like?

James D. Houston: For one thing, it brought us closer together. Jeanne and I had been married a dozen years and had three kids, but this part of her was unknown to me. She’d never talked about it. As we started to think together about her family’s experience during World War Two, I gradually came to see how Manzanar was the formative event of her life, psychologically, emotionally, bearing upon her sense of self, ethnicity, and community—and also how coming to terms with this particular history was the source of her extraordinary inner strength.

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston: As Jim has said, writing Farewell to Manzanar together was another "surprise" in the complex realm of marriage, especially in an interracial one where cultural backgrounds can be camouflaged by the desire to be "American" (Anglo-American). I pretty much knew Jim’s history, but his roles as "interviewer" and subsequently as "healer" were new. It was a life-changing experience, cathartic and empowering. I re-entered the writing world.

WBR: In your latest books, Snow Mountain Passage and The Legend of Fire Horse Woman, you’ve each written stories that explore a difficult episode in America ‘s history. Is there something about reaching back in history that gives definition to your life today?

JDH: I have to say, first of all, that I didn’t set out to write a historical novel. It was a situation where I didn’t choose the material—the material chose me. We live in this old Victorian here in Santa Cruz, which was once the home of Patty Reed, the younger daughter of the fellow who organized the Donner Party out of Springfield, Illinois. I’m not exaggerating when I say that one day a few years back Patty Reed began talking to me. After that, one thing led to another, led to Snow Mountain Passage. If writing the story of her family has given any kind of definition to my life today, I think it’s a renewed appreciation for the mysterious karma of choices you make along the way.

JWH: I believe we can be at the mercy of memory—even genetic memory—acting and reacting as a result of the past. In a way, our past gives meaning to the present if one is compelled to explore one’s own history. Reaching back to historical events absolutely gave definition to my life today.

WBR: How do you structure your writing lives? Do you each have your own office where you write every day? At the end of the day, do you talk about your work in progress?

JDH: People sometimes ask how two writers can get along living in the same household. The short answer is, we have a big house. My office is upstairs in the attic. Jeanne’s is downstairs. So we never get in each other’s way. As far as hours go, it’s a lot like any regular job, except no one is watching. No one but Jeanne, that is. Sooner or later she wants to know how things are going. So, yes, we do talk a lot.

JWH: I’m a "project" writer, not a disciplined, organized writer like Jim. I have my own office with all my equipment, shrines, memorabilia, and fetishes cluttering up a large converted closet. (Victorian houses have closets the size of most modern-day kitchens.) Usually at dinner we discuss the day’s work, and we always read early versions of our manuscripts. I depend on Jim’s view of my writing and lectures.

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