SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"Harmless Like You" is a multigenerational story about the ways in which hurts can be inherited and inflict pain but also wisdom on innocent descendants. It is Rowan Hisayo Buchanan's very first book. She joins us now from Norwich in the United Kingdom. Thank you very much for being with us.
ROWAN HISAYO BUCHANAN: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Please tell us about your central character, if we could, Yuki. She's a teenager living in New York in the late '60s. And her parents leave to go back to Japan, and she decides she doesn't want to leave New York. Does she leave them, too?
BUCHANAN: I don't think that she would see it that way. I think she doesn't realize how long it will be before she ever sees them again because, at that time, it would have been harder for her to travel. And she is trying to figure out herself in the city, and she doesn't want them to see her until she's figured it out. And the figuring out takes a lot longer than she thinks it's going to. To answer your question another way, at least in my experience, I think children rarely realize how much their parents need them.
SIMON: She ends up with a guy I don't like at all, Lou. Without giving anything away, he's the only one in the novel I think is guilty of anything really serious.
BUCHANAN: I'm sure somebody could write a novel about a man like Lou where you would understand exactly his history and exactly where he was coming from. But in my novel, he hurts Yuki both physically and emotionally, I think. And she is not completely able to understand why.
SIMON: So Lou hurts Yuki, and Yuki winds up, years later, getting married, having a little boy named Jay and hurting her husband and, more to the point, her little boy when she leaves them. Is that the bank shot of life?
BUCHANAN: That we just pass on hurt and pain?
BUCHANAN: I hope not. I think it can be. We do pass on pain to the people around us, but I think another way of looking at that is that the people who hurt us are rarely evil. Most people are trying their best with the pain that they've been given. And I think both main characters in my book are trying to figure out what that best is. So I don't want to sort of describe in too much detail why she leaves her son, but I think at the time that she does it, she thinks it's not only the best thing for herself, but, more importantly, she thinks it's the best thing for him.
SIMON: It must be hard to write a novel and ask people to identify with a mother who would do that.
BUCHANAN: Yes, but I think also one of the great gifts of fiction is that it asks us to stretch our empathy. And I find that often when people talk about motherhood, there is - you hold up this ideal. And if someone doesn't meet that ideal, they must be terrible and an evil person. And I knew from the get-go that my protagonist was not an evil person. And so a lot of the endeavor of the book for me as a writer was finding out - well, why would this person leave her child?
SIMON: Do you mind if I ask about your mother?
BUCHANAN: Sure. Go ahead. Ask my mother.
SIMON: She suffers from a pretty rare disorder, and it relates to your literature, at least in the mind of this reader.
BUCHANAN: I wouldn't say that she suffers permanently. She suffered. Hopefully, it will not return. And what had happened was she didn't know when in time she was, and she didn't know where she was. And it wasn't clear whether she recognized the people around her. So they rushed off to a hospital, but I was in a different city. I was really, really far away, so there was nothing I could do to be useful. So I was just sitting, freaking out. And I was thinking - who would I be without this person who has loved me so much if she wasn't that? - because despite the fact that she's loved me so much, there were many other things she wanted to do with her life other than be my mother. And so there were many things she could have left me for, but she didn't. And thinking that set of thoughts - thinking about what it would mean if my mother wasn't there - is one of the things that sparked the book for me. That was probably where the seed came from for the book.
SIMON: Yeah. Do you mind if I ask you a publishing industry question?
BUCHANAN: Of course.
SIMON: First novel, and it set off a bidding war. What happened? That kind of thing isn't supposed to happen these days.
BUCHANAN: Something happened that I am deeply superstitious about, which is that I was editing the sort of final, final draft of the novel to send out before publishers, and it was night time. And suddenly my vision went white, and I had this incredible pain in my face. And it turned out what had happened was that lightning had hit the barn we were staying in, and it had gone through all of the electrical boxes. And it went up through my computer and through my headphones that were plugged in, into the side of my face. And that was not great, but it did save the document 'cause I think I grounded the electricity. Anyway...
BUCHANAN: Well, all of this to say that I'm very, very superstitious about this, and I believe that the lightning gave me good luck with the book.
SIMON: Yeah (laughter).
BUCHANAN: So when we sent it out, I got - all these publishers came back. It was lightning-blessed.
SIMON: Oh, my word. I've never heard of - I've - I mean, (laughter) I've never heard a story quite like that.
BUCHANAN: So, yeah, just get hit by lightning, then you'll get a book deal (laughter).
SIMON: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan - her widely anticipated first novel, "Harmless Like You." Thanks so much for being with us.
BUCHANAN: Thank you. It was an honor to be on the show.
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