Asha Lemmie finds links to the present by exploring the past in Fifty Words For Rain

Asha Lemmie‘s historical fiction Fifty Words For Rain is an expansive exploration into a woman’s coming of age in post-World War II Japan. She takes readers into a world and lets them play there while mistakes are made, secrets are revealed, and desires are tempted. The book itself is like a sibling to Lemmie. She started it in high school and grew up with it. There was no MFA or workshops. Just a decade of perseverance chasing a teenage dream.

I spoke with Lemmie about how playing dress up honed her writing skills and why teachers played a pivotal role in her becoming an author.

Your book came out in earlier in September.  I usually talk to debut authors before their book’s release so let me ask a simple question: how are you doing?

Great, but also completely terrified. The more good things that happen [with the book] the more the expectations grow.

A lot of good things happened so far! Good Morning America picked your book as their book club pick. What was that like for you?

I freaked out. I immediately wondering if it was an elaborate practical joke.

I love seeing debut authors getting this recognition.

It’s been very surreal. 

While everything is a whirlwind now, I want to go back to who you were before all of this. Was this a path you always saw yourself on?

I always knew I wanted to be a writer. Even as a kid, I was a bookworm and mainly interested in Victorian midwifery and not playing with kids on the playground. I always new my path was going to be a little different.

Were you writing stories, telling stories, and just doing a lot of pretend play as a kid?

Yes, I did a lot of pretending. I had a little costume kit and dress up in clothes from a lot of historical eras and have little arguments with myself in the mirror. I was a weird kid. People always told me I was an old soul.

Did you realize you were building storytelling skills during your dress up time?

No, not really. I didn’t really put that together. I wrote stories beginning in kindergarten. We had an assignment to write something and I wrote an allegory about bunny rabbits and castles and how come bunny rabbits can’t live in castles. It wasn’t the assignment my any means but it’s what I wrote.

That’s the mark of a good writer: taking the assignment and pushing the envelope.

I’m lucky I had good and patient teachers because they found it amusing.

As you got older, did you keep writing consistently?

I was always writing. I would write little short stories and read them for my family or friends. I had a really nice English teacher who used to let me read stories every other Tuesday in class and it was really exciting. 

By that age, what were you writing about?

Mainly still history But those stories I shared were about my experiences at school and I would change everyone’s names. It was very thinly veiled. I was surprised they let me get away with it.

Flash forward to your book now, it’s a historical novel about a woman in Japan. Now I understand you really do love history. What is it about exploring the past that excites you?

I love that there are so many links to the present. I also realized that more people listen when you’re talking about the past.

That’s fair. I find myself drawn to familiar stories from the past. There’s a sense of comfort to it. It allows me to escape the current climate and landscape of 2020.

That’s my favorite part. When I’m researching, it’s like falling into another world. I still find things familiar to me now because human nature is human nature.

What drew you to this time period in Japan?

I knew I wanted to tell a story about a family undergoing a massive amount of turmoil and change. World War II was a time that felt perfect to set that in. The War changed the world permanently. World War I, a lot of the old institutions started to crumble. Monarchy’s went from the norm to being the exception. The idea of divine right started dying and when World War II came along, it was the final nail in the coffin for that ideology. I’ve always been fascinated by how the world changed in that time period. People moved away from thinking what you were born as is what you should always be.

I gravitated toward Japan because it’s a lesser known setting in historical fiction. At least you’ll find less of it in the States. I also had a personal connection growing up. I have family friends who are Japanese immigrants and that gave me admiration to the culture and language.

The book is expansive in time, setting, and characters. It follows one woman’s journey as she comes of age. When did she become fully realized for you?

She was the first piece of the puzzle. I was in high school when I started writing her and I felt fairly isolated then. I wanted to write about a girl who didn’t fit in. Then I remembered my love of Japan. Then my love of history. When I put those three things together, Nori was born.

She’s such an interesting character. She grows so much, but you weren’t afraid to knock her down and let her make mistakes. Did you know where she was going to end up?

I knew where she was going to end. I call my method of writing a sandwich. I’ll have my beginning and I’ll have my end. They’re my slices of bread. The question is always what am I going to put in the middle.

Is that a lot of trial and error?

It’s a lot of trial and error. Maybe I need a new method.

Well, it works! How did you know when paths you went down were wrong for the book?

When everyone rejected them. But really when it didn’t feel authentic. Even though I knew the ending, I wanted it to feel real. You know when you’re watching a show and something feels wrong but then you find they shoehorned it in to fit their ending? That’s what I didn’t want. I didn’t care if people were happy with the ending. I just wanted it to feel like a natural ending to her story.

Most of the times a story doesn’t need a happy ending.

I totally get why people like them. It’s escapism and you want everything to be tied up in a neat little bow. I get it. When I watch Disney movies, I want that happy ending, too. This book isn’t a Disney movie. I wanted a genuine ending even if it wasn’t happy.

I think, like most things in life, it’s about perspective. Perspective is the most powerful force in existence. Everything depends on how you look at things. My ending, to me isn’t sad. It really depends on how you look at it. It’s sad, but to me it’s triumphant. 

How close is this ending to the ending you had in your head at the beginning?

It’s pretty much spot on. It was even more bleak before. I eased up a little on it.

How long had you had this ending in your mind?

Once my story time in English class ended in middle school, this was the next thing. This is really the only complete work I created. This was 10 years.

Did you think this was going to be a novel or was this something else you were doing for fun?

I started it because I was supposed to be paying attention in physics class and I was not, but I needed to look busy so I started writing this. I later submitted it in my senior year as my senior thesis for my English class. I got called in and I thought I was in trouble but my teacher made me promise I would finish this.

How did you grow as a writer during the decade you wrote it?

This novel is really personal to me because not only did I grow up as a writer with it, but I also grew up as a person. I went from a teenager to the woman I am today. I feel like I wouldn’t be the person I am without this book because trying to get this book to where it is now taught me resilience, discipline, and courage. The book is my sibling in a way.

Please subscribe to Debutiful’s podcast, which releases once a month with an in-depth interview with one debut author.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Asha Lemmie at her website and follow her on Twitter.

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