Conversation Corner with Alex Hurst, Author and Traveller

When I first ran across fantasy author Alex Hurst’s blog, I was immediately attracted by the quality of her writing (as evidenced in her Archetypes in Fiction series) and her beautiful photos. I soon found that Alex is also a wonderful person who is very supportive of her fellow bloggers. During the April A to Z Challenge, Alex wrote an excellent series of posts about her life in Japan. I asked her if she would like to come by DBW to speak about her experiences communicating in a different cultural environment. Here is our conversation about travelling, introversion, English teaching, and the perils of ferocious kanji.

On your About page, you talk about travelling around the U.S. while growing up “in the wilds of the south.” How did you go from being a local traveller to living in Japan? And did you find your experiences of moving around helped you at all as you made that transition?

Well, that’s a very long story, but I’ll try to keep it short and interesting. I was born close to a bayou in Louisiana, where I spent a lot of my formative years playing outside in the woods around our property. My father collected a lot of Asian art, as well, so when I wasn’t outside pretending I was on some grand adventure with my siblings, I was inside looking at Buddhas, thangkas, and giant calligraphy scrolls. This would become important later, naturally, as my interests shifted from living in the U.S. to studying Japanese, and eventually coming to live in Kyoto.

A few years after my family moved to California, when I was around twelve, my family decided to have a real grand adventure and circumambulate the United States in our car. For 10,000 miles, it was just my father and my three younger siblings, with my mother staying in San Francisco for work. Though there were hard days, I think that was when I caught the travel bug. I need to explore, to go to new places, and often, as with Japanese, I tend to choose things that I know I’m not inherently good at, in order to challenge myself. But yes, moving around so much as a child, and my home life, more than prepared me for the move. When I came to Japan, I didn’t experience any culture shock and settled in quite quickly. However, whenever I visit my U.S. home, I always find myself getting what’s known as reverse culture shock, and that’s a bit uncanny, given how long I lived there!

It’s funny how that happens sometimes. I think it’s wonderful that you challenged yourself to learn Japanese and experience a new culture. I’m curious – what are some of the key differences that you notice when you come back to the U.S.? And what do you like most about the Japanese culture?

If I were to go with the first thing that pops into my head: the noise. U.S. Americans, and Canadians, are just louder, in all things. When I lived stateside before, I never noticed, but in Japan, things are so quiet all the time. On the train or bus, no one talks to each other (it’s considered rude). In restaurants, conversations are carried on as quietly as possible. Even in parks, children are so quiet that you can still hear the small birds in the trees several meters away. My ears have become much more sensitive to sound while I’ve been here, so when I go home, I constantly find myself flinching to regular noises, as if someone is always yelling when they shouldn’t be.

Otherwise, I would say the openness of Westerners is much more pronounced once you’ve been in Asia for a time. People like to keep direct eye contact in the West, shake hands, even hug strangers. There is a certain willingness to bare yourself to another human being in even the most base of interactions. But in Japan, it can take years to get to that point, and not even family members hug one another. It’s actually one of the quickest ways to make a young Japanese person uncomfortable: hug them. However, every now and then I find an old lady who is more than eager to get a hug from the exotic foreigner.

That’s not to say that either extreme of the above two observations are bad. I love both cultures for those things, in different ways. I’m just generally more quiet and reserved, being a low-key introvert, and so coming to Japan and adjusting to their way of things was very easy. But I do miss big bear hugs and people’s general, every day excitement in the West.

Of course, there's excitement here too...

Of course, there’s excitement here too…

As an introvert, I can relate to enjoying the quiet. 🙂 You mentioned that it can take a while to get close to someone in Japan. How did you go about making connections with others? What kind of new communication approaches did you need to learn?

That one’s a bit tougher! To make connections with other people in Japan, I didn’t change much inherently about myself, or my approaches in meeting people. I can’t honestly say that I “cracked the cultural code” in my time here, either. I did have to learn that where Americans are often shown to pigeon hole their friends (golf friends, poker friends, shopping friends), the Japanese people I’ve met are even more intense in their separations. It feels, at times, that my friends will not discuss any family matters with me at all because I am not family, or will only discuss one subject consistently, and it’s usually the topic we met under (like traveling). The only exception to this has been in the relationships I’ve built with my adult students over the years. Because I can decide the topic, I’ve gotten to know so many of them very well through our English conversations in class.

My best example of this is actually also my best friend in Japan. We chatted weekly for about a year, going to various places around Kyoto together and talking all about cultural differences between America and Japan, before I even found out that he was married and had a daughter. A full year! When I asked him why he never talked about them, he said that it was his private life, and not something he shares. And he is the most open person I know!

I’m curious how this type of separation works for the Japanese in the age of social media, where everything ends up online. How are online social platforms used?

Actually, social media is not used in the same way it is used in America, I think. Most Japanese people use Twitter or mixi (the Japanese equivalent of Facebook), but they use it to share photos, mainly, or gush about various things they are interested in. I don’t have a mixi account, but the friends that do use Facebook use it like Instagram, taking photos of food (sometimes adding very detailed explanations of the daily bento they are making for their children every morning). I rarely see a post that discusses anything personal. In that respect, I think Japanese people are still a bit reserved about digital things. The use of credit cards is still quite low (you can’t use a credit card to pay for a lot of things over here – it’s a cash-based society), and I think the mistrust of digital presence is one of the reasons it hasn’t changed (much to the chagrin of international visitors).

I’d love to hear more about your experiences working with your adult (and child) students. Did you find there were aspects of English that were difficult to teach? What helped you?

English has proved a very difficult language to teach, once you move past the stage of simple vocabulary and grammar study. I’ve found that prepositions are the most difficult. Japanese only has a handful of prepositions (は、が、に、を、で、として), which can be combined to create a further meaning, similar to the combination “into” in English. However, as most people know, English has well over a hundred prepositions, and their meanings are quite distinctive. As a native speaker, these meanings are quite clear, but for a Japanese learner, where に [ni] can mean ten different things (screenshot attached!), the idea that prepositions aren’t flexible is a difficult hurdle to overcome.


The other thing that is hard to teach is stress in speech. Take the sentence “I never said she stole my money.” In writing, this is rather simple, and in certain contexts, the meaning is quite clear. But, change the stress on any word, and the meaning actually changes! So, teaching this is also difficult, since in Japanese, there are basically no stresses in a sentence until the very end. Their stresses denote questions, or confirmations, or invitations to respond. Ours are quite trickier, I think!

Teaching these things is difficult, but also fun. I find that doodling on the white board helps a lot, to show the difference between being “at” a place, and being “in” a place, or “on” a place. For intonation, I get my drama on, and exaggerate my delivery in speech, so students can understand the real meaning of a sentence based on how it is spoken.

Thanks so much for sharing your experiences in Japan with my readers. It’s been great having you here. One final question: Do you have a favourite kanji or Japanese expression that you’d like to pass along for those of us who may visit Japan someday?

Oh, yes, I do have a favorite kanji. It is not really practical, in the strictest sense, but that is what elevated it to “never forgotten” status in my mind.

The kanji is: 悪循環. It is read aku-jun-kan and means “vicious circle.”

Why is this my favorite kanji? Well, when I was in my third year of studying Japanese, the kanji understandably got way more difficult. And our teachers gave us a lot of kanji to study, many of which we would never need again, like “International Date Line” (don’t ask me why). But akujunkan became this sort of mantra in my class. The students would repeat it all the time, and even start using it as the reply-all to any complaints about the class. So, it’s very much an inside joke, but given the stressful course load and its compounding effects on mental health, it definitely fit.

Plus, it’s just fun to say. Akujunkan. Akujunkan. Akujunkan.

Thanks so much for the wonderful interview, Sue! I had a fabulous time! 🙂


Images courtesy of Alex Hurst

For more about Alex, I would encourage you to check out her blog or her latest illustrated novella, D.N.A.

Do you have a question for Alex, or a comment on our interview? Please leave your thoughts below – we’d love to continue the conversation with you!

Conversation Corner with Brenna Layne, YA Fantasy Writer

I discovered fantasy writer Brenna Layne through her lyrical and insightful blog posts. When Brenna writes, she puts her heart into every word. She also has a wonderful sense of humour that never fails to lift me up. Her posts are written so beautifully that I admit to suffering from bouts of envy.

Brenna Layne

On finding out that Brenna is a teacher and an ESL tutor as well as a writer, I wanted to know about her thoughts on writing and communication. I asked her if she would share her experiences with DBW readers. To my delight, she said yes! Here is our conversation about writing, teaching, connections, and the importance of dragons.

I love your About page, and how you describe your transition from teaching eighth graders to reviving your own eighth grade dream of writing a novel. How did your teaching experiences trigger your desire to write?

As I translated Beowulf by lantern light during a power outage in the middle of a freezing Illinois winter, I kept feeling a disconnect—not with the literature itself, but with the idea of myself in a PhD program. I’m sort of a perpetual student, so it was hard to set my PhD dreams aside, but I realized as a teaching assistant that I enjoyed live students better than dead languages.

In a serendipitous moment, a friend told me that the independent school near my hometown in Virginia where he taught needed an English teacher. I interviewed and ended up teaching eighth grade lit, high school lit, and an intensive creative writing workshop. There were three students in that class; they’d been clamoring for a creative writing course for years, and somebody figured that the new teacher might as well do it. Those three students were amazing—they were committed yet playful, studious yet wildly creative, and so deeply passionate about writing that they inspired me to pick up the novel I’d laid aside years ago. It felt hypocritical to ask them to write if I wasn’t writing.

Their enthusiasm was a powerful reminder of another reason I became a PhD dropout—because I was so in love with the stories I read that I couldn’t be truly scholarly about them. I didn’t want to analyze Beowulf, I wanted to inhabit it, to flop down in it like a kid in the snow and play with it. I’ve always loved writing, but being around those three students was the catalyst that transformed me from a wannabe writer to an actual one—and I think it has everything to do with play, with that intense kind of absorption in imagination that we’re capable of when we’re young.

It’s wonderful being around imaginative kids. And I know what you mean about wanting to inhabit the story rather than analyze it. That’s one of the reasons I decided not to pursue my own PhD in English. I also found that academia tended to dismiss the value of genre fiction, which I loved. What attracts you to the fantasy genre? What do you see as its purpose?

My gut reaction to this question is to say: DRAGONS. IT IS ALL ABOUT THE DRAGONS.

However, it is astonishingly not, in fact, only about the dragons. I remember walking on the beach at the Outer Banks with my artist sister when we were in college. When we were kids, I wrote stories about dragons. She wrote Star Wars fanfiction before fanfic was even a “thing.” We started talking about fantasy and sci-fi and the connections and differences between them. We had this huge, geeky mutual epiphany when we realized that science fiction is about what it means to be human, while fantasy is about what it means to be an individual. By those criteria, we decided that Star Wars is actually fantasy with the trappings of science fiction.

And then, just a few months ago, I had a conversation with my writer brother (yeah, my siblings and I are not super-practical in our career choices) about how neither one of us can seem to write anything without incorporating a magical element. We had a joint nerdpiphany in which we realized that we need that magic, that it helps us to explain the world as it is, with all its mystery and terrible beauty. For both of us, magic is a lens that makes sense, because it captures something about reality that is otherwise inexpressible.

I think that for me, fantasy resonates because there is so much more to the human experience than what’s visible and even comprehensible. Possibly the earliest emotion I can recall is this beyond-verbal sense of yearning, this sense of feeling impelled toward something to which I couldn’t put a name. I was drawn to writers like C. S. Lewis and Tolkien whose works came closer than anything else to naming that unnameable something. For me, the best fantasy uses the trappings of the unbelievable, the impossible, in an attempt to articulate the unspeakable, to make sense of the unknowable. That’s the philosophical purpose, I think, which writers like Ursula K. LeGuin accomplish so brilliantly and profoundly.

Then, of course, fantasy is just plain fun. It’s an escape in a way that realistic literature can never be. As humans, we’re hardwired to strive beyond the limits of the possible, so it makes sense that we’d enjoy stories of impossible things.

That “sense of yearning” you describe perfectly captures my feelings as a child reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for the first time. I think a lot of young people are attracted to the fantasy genre because it provides a sense of purpose and meaning that they have not yet grasped in the real world. You write for young adults—how do you reach out and provide them with what they are looking for? What kinds of things do you grapple with when writing for this audience?

I’m not sure that I think really consciously about writing for young adults. I just write the characters whose voices speak in my head. They happen to usually be adults. I tried my hand at drafting an adult fantasy novel last November during National Novel Writing Month, and it felt incredibly surreal. I realized that I wasn’t entirely sure how to write adult main characters because I still don’t feel like an adult. I just turned 38, and I feel like for the first time in my life, I have a sense of who I am. I’ve had time to percolate all my young adult experiences and I understand them better now. I don’t understand my adult experiences yet; I’m so much in the thick of them.

I think YA resonates with adults as well as young adults because young adults are so fiercely involved in the process of becoming. We all are, constantly, but during our formative years that metamorphosis happens so quickly, like a surging tide, that it’s immediately recognizable. It’s dramatic and unmistakable, and we’re filled with all these messy yearnings and emotions that at least on some level, society allows and even encourages. We encourage young adults to “find themselves,” to figure themselves out, in a way that we don’t with adults. But we are all always becoming, and so I think when we read stories about this time in our lives, it resonates deeply with us. We see ourselves in them—our younger selves, the selves we can observe from a sort of affectionate distance.

So I don’t think I necessarily write with young adults in mind as an audience. I write the stories I need to tell, and write them as well as I can. I think some writers have a tendency to “write down” to young adults, and I really appreciate the ones who don’t. Maggie Stiefvater comes to mind—her prose is intelligent, her vocabulary poetic. Lia Francesca Block crafts this gorgeous, archetypal-feeling prose that reads like magical realism, like the kind of literature that stuffy grownup people describe as “serious.” I think the way to write for young adults is to read books for young adults and immerse yourself in all the ways it can be done. The thing not to do is to write down to them, to stereotype them, to discount their experiences as somehow trivial or juvenile. They’re not. When we’re children and teens, we’re doing some of the most vital work of our lives. For me, writing YA is a way to honor that.

This makes me think of the Harry Potter series, which had substantial adult readership even though it was marketed as children’s fiction. I’ve never understood people who think that fantasy stories are only for the young. I think it’s great that you’re writing YA fiction for a broad audience. What are you working on currently?

I used to be a very monogamous kind of writer—I would write ONE THING until it was completely finished—if anything really ever is finished. But I’ve morphed into this crazy scattered kind of writer who’s got about a zillion irons in the fire. So right now, I’ve got several different things going on.

I almost finished drafting a new novel in November, during National Novel Writing Month. It’s a fantasy strongly inspired by my love of medieval women’s writing. I’ve been reading Julian of Norwich and the letters of Abelard and Heloise, and imagining a world in which anchorites have magical powers. The story itself is about a girl who has been raised to become an anchorite who serves a monastic group of wizards. When their home is attacked and burned, she’s the lone survivor, and has to choose whether to give up or to go out into the world by herself and try to reinvent herself outside the security of the cloister walls. Of course she leaves (because it wouldn’t be much of a story if she just laid down and died), and it’s not until she’s beyond the boundaries of everything known and safe that she begins to discover her own power—and why it’s been hidden from her all her life.

I’ve also been working on getting feedback on a novel I wrote a few years ago. This one’s about a girl raised as a boy who’s trained to become a warrior. She’s been a fun character to hang out with; she has a very literal fight-or-flight response. When she’s upset, she either runs until she’s exhausted, or punches someone in the face. Not my typical main character, so it’s been interesting getting inside her head. As research for this one, I took a broadsword class last spring. It was so awesome that for Mother’s Day, I asked my guys to build me a pell—a sort of practice dummy—and I’m getting some sparring gear for Christmas. So writing definitely bleeds over into my “real” life in some amusing ways.

I’m also percolating some story ideas, and I have a full manuscript out on request to an agent. So basically that means that I have no fingernails and I check my email about a million times a day. It’s funny how much the submissions process brings me back to high school. The whole process of trying to impress an agent makes me feel like I’m sixteen again, desperately hoping that someone will ask me to the prom. At least I don’t have to buy a fluffy dress for this. But in high school, I didn’t have to write anybody a one-page letter explaining why I would be the best prom date ever.

I took a set of fencing classes once and had to give it up because it was killing my knees. Working with the broadsword sounds like more fun. I can think of a few things I’d like to pretend I’m hacking at while practicing, including writing critics. Is it just me, or is it harder to write a short piece selling your work than to write an entire novel? How do you tackle writing that one-page letter?

YES. The query letter nearly KILLED me. I got very grouchy during the months it took me to hone the darned thing. My husband could probably tell you how much time I spent slouching around the house, mumbling things like, “If I could have summed the whole thing up in a page, I wouldn’t have written the flipping novel in the first place, now would I??” It’s so, so difficult to take an entire book you’ve spent months or even years crafting and polishing and then condense the whole thing down into a glorified paragraph.

And then there’s that pesky bio paragraph. As an unpublished writer, I don’t have any creds to speak of, so that paragraph was at least mercifully short. The contemporary YA fantasy I have out on submission now is a retelling of an old Scottish ballad. I’ve set it in the rural South, and so it seemed relevant to mention that I grew up in the rural South. I also mentioned that I spent three years as a dorm parent for fifty teenage girls at a boarding school, since that gave me a lot of insight into the teenage psyche (as if my own teen years were not awkwardly vivid enough still).

But really, the hard part of the letter is that summary/teaser bit. It has to grab the agent’s attention, sum the plot up neatly, and offer a sample of your best writing. That’s a tall order for a one page letter, and I think a lot of writers spend more time honing and perfecting that letter than they might on an entire chapter of a book. Of course, it’s possible I’m doing it all wrong……

It sounds like a great approach to me. I wish you all the best in getting a positive response to your carefully crafted work of art! Before we wrap up our interview, I wanted to ask you about one of your other hats: your job as an ESL tutor. Can you tell me a little about how you became a tutor? What kinds of challenges do your ESL students face, and how do you help them?

I taught English at an independent school for three years. In the third year, I gave birth to my first son. I finished up the school year and decided to stay home with him. Not long after, I began tutoring at the same school part time. With a growing international student boarding population, there were a lot of ESL students of varying skill levels. Some needed extra help with reading and writing.

At first, tutoring was a way to maintain a sense of professional connection, and to supplement my family’s income while getting out into the real world a bit. I quickly grew to love it even more than teaching—it’s all the bits of teaching I love (helping students, engaging with ideas) and none of the bits I didn’t (classroom management, grading, paperwork). I also love the close connections I forge with students. I think they teach me much, much more than I teach them, though I try to be useful. 🙂

I’ve worked with students on everything from research skills to college applications to time management, but most of my students are teens from Korea and China who struggle with English as a second (or third) language. I find that the first thing I need to do is to connect—to find something that lights them up.

With one student, it was food. As soon as I asked her about missing Chinese food, this otherwise quiet kid poured out a torrent of praise for her mom’s cooking. We ended up going grocery shopping and then cooked a huge Chinese meal. In the process, she got to navigate the labels in the grocery store, and order me around as her sous-chef—all of which pushed her English skills.

With another student, it was animals. She asked me to bring my dog to our session one day because she missed her dog at home. So my dog has some tutoring experience on her resume now, too.

I think that connection is the most important thing—to show my students that I care about who they are, and then to engage them with that. With students from Korea and China, the tutoring dynamic is interesting because often those students’ educational experiences back home were very different from the Western system. They spend incredibly long hours in school and on homework, and much of the time they’re being lectured to and memorizing facts. It’s a big transition for many of them to come to the States, where teachers emphasize active participation and discussion. Helping my students navigate the American educational system, with its foreign (to them) emphases on citation and participation, is another huge part of what I do.

I could keep talking about this, I’m realizing. For me, the most important part of tutoring has been how it has changed me. I’m in awe of these young teens who travel across the world to a completely foreign culture to study. They’re incredibly brave. I can’t imagine doing that as a fourteen or fifteen-year-old. The kids I work with are a constant reminder that growth only happens when we push the boundaries of our own comfort—a lesson I’m constantly learning with my writing as well.

I think your students are incredibly brave, too. It’s amazing how much we can learn from the experiences of others. I know I learned a lot from my students in my days as a piano teacher.

And I have certainly learned a lot from you. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with DBW readers today!


For more about Brenna, I encourage you to read her blog.

(Photo of Brenna courtesy of Brenna Layne)

To all my valued readers: This is my first interview on Doorway Between Worlds, and I welcome your feedback. Would you like to read more interviews? Or not? What types of topics would you like me to cover in any future conversations?