Pen Name: I use my given name Dwight Okita.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m third-generation Japanese American and I live in Chicago. If I could reincarnate as an animal, I’d probably come back as a cat. Cat’s purr when they’re happy which is cool. I also design websites and do therapeutic cuddling. I see a few new movies each month. I’ve learned a lot about story structure from Disney cartoon features.
How do you feel that your career, educational background and overall life experience contribute to your writing?
I’ve studied acting, music, massage, English lit, computers and more. I started out writing poems but wanted to write bigger stories, so I turned to novel writing. The acting helps me be a better public speaker when I read from my novels. Sometimes I use music for underscoring when I read at book events.
Some life experiences that shape my writing include: the irrational optimism I inherited from my mother, the mood disorders I inherited from the family tree, the fact that I live in a city like Chicago in which beauty and violence co-exist, being a gay man, becoming Nichiren Buddhist and learning the non-value of blaming others for my problems, falling in and out of love. Being single makes me more romantic but also more empathetic to others who are singular. I try to capture in my novels the wonder and brutality of life.
Where is your favorite place in the world to live and why?
Chicago. It’s all I’ve known and when I’ve traveled to other places, they make me appreciate my city even more. We have real neighborhoods you can walk through. I’ve had experiences and friendships here that will always belong to me.
Where is your favorite place in the world to visit? Why?
Since I’m Japanese American, I do plan to visit Japan one day.
What is the funniest thing about your personality that fans would love to know? What are your quirks?
I have a short attention span. That has its ups and downs. It means if a book/movie/conversation is really not going anywhere intriguing — I’m out of there. Sometimes it surprises me that I can write novels which require tons of attention. On the plus side, I aspire to write books that won’t bore a reader but rather engage them.
What drew you to writing?
I started writing poems in first grade because I couldn’t write compositions. My mind didn’t think in straight lines. I liked capturing images in words. My novels are sometimes described as poetic and I always think I will be a poet, even if I’m not writing poems.
Do you have anything special, a habit, that you do that gets you into the mood of writing? Favorite object, desk, pen? Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what do you listen to?
I love to go to different coffeehouses to write and listen to my playlists. Author Roz Morris calls it your “undercover soundtrack.” The music could range from pop to country to Gregorian chants to electronica. I enjoy the feeling of being surrounded by life, by people, but also being in my own little world. It’s like a secret passageway that I can pass through at any time.
Do you have a special place you like to go to write? Do you do a retreat?
See above. I’ve gone to a retreat in the middle of nature but found I couldn’t write a thing without the sounds of the city buzzing in my ears. Some coffeehouses in Chicago that I like: Chicago Grind, Two-Hearted Queen, Metropolis, Taste of Heaven, and Klein’s Bakery & Café.
Does your life experience influence your writing?
Whenever I make a mistake in life, I try to learn a lesson from it. I think that’s part of evolution. The hero in a book is also on a journey toward transformation and enlightenment. In Buddhism, I’ve learned that everything that happens is a result of my past thoughts, words and deeds: my karma. So it doesn’t make sense to blame others. When I became Buddhist, the first thing I threw out the window was blame. Americans love to point fingers. I think that’s why we’re slow to learn.
There are two things that inspired me to write this book. 1. Once on the radio I heard a politician misspeak and say, “We have to install hope in young people.” I thought it was both funny and futuristic. 2. The other thing was when I saw a TV show about a morbidly obese man. They opened up his skull to stimulate different parts of his brain and found they could permanently trick him into not overeating. That fascinated me. Likewise in my book, Kazu discovers a way to trick the brain into creating more dopamine in the brain which leads to enhanced hope levels.
If you use a pseudonym, why? What are the pros and cons of using a pen name?
I like using my name.
What is your biggest writing challenge?
Sometimes I think my biggest writing challenge is time. Like many writers, I dream of the point when I can write all day long and not have a day job. Writing novels is time-consuming. It took me seven years to write my first novel. Five years to write my second. Being part of an online writing group helps keep me honest. I’d like to eventually be able to write one book a year and to work on novels concurrently.
Are you easily distracted when trying to write? Or are you very focused? If you are easily distracted, what are some of the things that distract you?
Many of my friends say I’m one of the most focused people they know. One thing that helps me focus is I ask myself if my life was ending, would this be the novel I’d most like to leave the world? It helps create urgency.
Did you study any other authors before you embarked on your first novel?
I clearly remember reading Alice Sebold’s THE LOVELY BONES and being drawn into the voice of a dead girl narrating from heaven. It made me think, “I could do something like that. It might even be fun.” Trippy premises always draw me into the books of authors and into writing books of my own. CATCHER IN THE RYE was probably the first novel I loved, though it was naturalistic.
Who influences you now?
Re-reading Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE as a grownup was very inspiring to me. I loved how he freely moved between the past, present and future. How the book was funny and heartbreaking. Currently I’m reading Ruth Ozeki’s A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING.
What is your favorite genre to read?
I like magic realism, speculative, soft sci-fi, trippy stuff. I also like fiction that has a philosophical axe to grind but does so in a dramatic way.
Do you have any favorite authors? What is it about their writing that really grabs you and pulls you in?
Some authors I like — Joe Meno, Amy Tan, Mark Haddon, Sandra Cisneros. What grabbed me about Karen Thompson Walker’s THE AGE OF MIRACLES? She made me believe in a world where time stood still and caused a lot of trouble for everyone. I’m a big fan of DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY. Scary movies are my guilty pleasure though I don’t feel drawn to writing scary stuff, nor Young Adult. Maybe if I had kids I’d feel different. More than anything else, I think a writer’s voice grabs me most. Is this a voice I’d like to spend a few weeks with?
What do you love about writing?
I love coming up with catchy titles for books. I love thinking about the beginning and endings of stories. I love when I finish a book, which seems made up of so many random pieces, that a reader can read the book and experience the story as I intended it. That’s always a miracle to me. And books are like footprints. They are what we leave behind after we’re gone.
What do you hate about writing?
I wish overall that writers were more fairly compensated for their work. Ultimately the reading public decides that. I used to have a terrible time maintaining faith in my book ideas. I’d ask ten people if my book premise was good or not. My writing friend Anne V. McGravie told me she’s never had such worries. She just starts writing about subjects that interest her and hopes that others will share her interest. And if they don’t, that’s okay too.
Do you have a good support network around you? Do you find that people understand how writers work? Or do you encounter people who just don’t get it, the process we go through, the way we see the world, the way we think, the way we need to be inside our heads so much of the time?
I have the members of my online writing group Ouija Board who keep me writing and keep me honest. I have the love of various friends in Chicago and elsewhere that keep me grounded and happy. I think most non-writers are surprised at how long it takes to write a book. I don’t think they always grasp how complicated the process can be.
What did your family think when you told them that you wanted to write a book?
I think my brother said, “Whatever you do, don’t put me in your book or I’ll sue you.” My father said, “Write the Great American Novel but make sure you have something to fall back on.” Sometimes I’d show a chapter to my mother and think it went right over her head. But then she’d say, “This chapter…it’s really sad isn’t it? I like how said it is, but maybe it needs something. A little…joy maybe?”
Was there anything about the industry that surprised you?
In a way I’m surprised how society and the industry have gradually come to accept self-publishing as a valid choice. The fact that Publishers Weekly now has a regular section for indie books called “Booklife.” The fact that indie books are now eligible for Pulitzers and that big books get picked up by traditional publishers.
What did you most learn about yourself through the writing process?
That whatever project I start, I tend to finish. I know that’s not true for everyone.
Do you have a favorite fan reaction that you can share with us?
One fan of The Hope Store said that I was really writing about the two big themes: hope and suicide. He said that in spite of the potentially heavy topic, I wrote with such a light gentle touch that it didn’t feel heavy. “Isn’t that what the best fiction does for us? In the story’s darkest moments, we can still laugh at its turns of phrase and wonderful insights and observations, even as we consider one of life’s most basic questions.”
How did it affect you when you first began to realize that people responded well to what you present as an author?
I was surprised that another person could feel my book the way I felt when writing it. I love when readers say you kept me turning pages. Or when they quote excerpts that move them. When I read books, I put stars and hearts in the margins. Stars are for what is important to remember and hearts are for what moved me.
How has being an Independent Author affected you? Has it been positive? What are the down-sides of being an Indie Author?
One of the challenges is how to keep a book’s sales growing after the launch phase is over. Someone said the best thing you can do is write another book, because readers like a body of work to choose from. I now have two published novels, a poetry book, and a few plays.
Where do you think publishing is going? Some have predicted that readers are waning and that in years to come, few people will read anymore. Do you believe that?
I think as long as there are stories, there will be readers who will read them. Though I could see a day when hardcover books are no longer printed. Remember when new books came out first in hardcover only and you’d have to wait a year for the paperback? I envision a time when new books first come out only in paperback and you wait a year for the ebook. That seems to be one way that authors might be able to making a livable income. But it would require authors and publishers to agree on it.
How do you think technology is affecting writers? Both good and bad?
I like self-publishing. I even like marketing. And I enjoy the physical act of putting a book together: working with a graphic designer, with editors, with beta readers. I think technology has opened more doors than closed them.
What do you love most in life?
As I am now fifty-something, I’ve come to realize how much I cherish my friendships. And how they require work from both people. I love working in the creative arts. I love kindness which is really just another word for love.
What is the best advice you would give a new author?
Don’t go into writing to become rich. Go into writing to enrich the world. Throw your voice out there and wait for it to come boomeranging back to you.
What advice would you give an author about negative reviews?
I was toughened up by having my stage plays reviewed by the local papers. It was wonderful when the reviews were great and awful when they were not. But the thing about book reviews is that people find reviews in such a range of places — online publications, blogs, Facebook, pape magazines, Goodreads, Amazon. If I get panned in an Amazon review, it doesn’t sting as much because it’s not like we all click on our computers and read the review communally. With negative reviews, pay attention to what rings true and useful. Throw away the rest.
If you could, what would you do to change the world?
I would make the world less violent and more kind. I would uninvent guns and weapons. I would insist from grade school up through college that people had to take courses in conflict resolution, yoga, therapeutic cuddling, anger management, Empathy 101, and self-care. My current work-in-progress is about love, reincarnation and gun control. It’s called EVERY TIME WE SAY GOODBYE. And there’s another book down the road about insomnia and dream migration and professional cuddlers called SLUMBER PARTIES FOR GROWNUPS.
Is there anything more you would like to add?
I’m very grateful BIB Awards named me an “Author To Watch.” I’m very proud of my speculative novel THE HOPE STORE. I’ve seen in my own life how the ability or inability to hope has such a powerful impact on one’s ability to lead a meaningful life. I hope each reader gets an extra dose of hope just by reading my novel. My website is: www.DwightOkita.com. I have a manager in LA who tries to turn my books into movies. I would love that. I’m a big movie-goer.