The Importance of Interviews

Monday, January 5, 2015

In November I had the privilege of interviewing a Japanese American couple who were incarcerated (separately) by the U.S. government during World War II. I wanted to write about it then but was waiting for permission to use a photograph of Chiyo’s family taken by a Time Life photographer at the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center. Unfortunately, I never received a response to my e-mail. So the photograph at the head of this post shows a family I don’t know and is included merely for ambiance.
As I researched my middle-grade historical novel about the Japanese American incarceration, I read a number of memoirs and spoke very briefly with one or two people who had been in the camps, but I did not have the opportunity to interview anyone in depth. Then, while we were on a research trip actually visiting the sites in my book, our local newspaper published an article about a Korean War veteran who was willing to serve his country even though he had been incarcerated as a teenager. Friends helped me connect with him, and I discovered that Ken’s wife had also been incarcerated, but in a different camp. (They met after their release.)
I talked to Ken for a short time but spent most of the day with Chiyo.
In the book, my protagonist is incarcerated at Topaz in Utah. Ken was at Gila River in Arizona, and Chiyo was at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. But even though the settings were different, the experiences were similar. Well, not completely. As with anything, personality colors experience.

Ken’s passion was cars, and the only vehicles at Gila River were the trucks owned by the administration. He was in high school but didn’t get involved in sports or other activities. So except for the summer he spent riding around with the garbage men, he felt that his stay at Gila River was wasted time.
Chiyo had a different experience. She has an outgoing personality and enjoyed the dances and other activities at Heart Mountain. She also loved ice-skating, and Heart Mountain had long winters. So Chiyo enjoyed her time there.
In many ways, the interview simply confirmed what I had already learned from other sources. But it was invaluable because it gave me a stronger sense of the people involved. Not that I didn’t get some of that from the memoirs I read, but there is nothing like sitting across from a living person and listening to his or her stories.
It isn’t always possible for a writer to interview people who have been through the events depicted in a historical novel, especially if everyone is long dead. But if you have the opportunity, take it.
Because your story will be better if you do.

The photograph at the head of this post shows the Shikano family and was taken at the Central Utah War Relocation Center (Topaz) on January 3, 1945. Charles E. Mace took the picture as part of his official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.

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