Friday, April 28, 2023

Constance Hays Matsumoto Interview - Of White Ashes

Photo Content from Constance Hays Matsumoto

Constance Hays Matsumoto  A native Marylander, Connie empty-nests in Greenville, Delaware with her husband, Kent, and their adorable Westie. She is a former corporate and interior design devotee who later embraced the art and rigor of creative writing. Inspired by Shakespeare’s “What’s past is prologue,” Connie writes stories and poetry intended to influence positive change in our world.

Connie earned her B.A. from Notre Dame of Maryland University and M.S. in Business from Johns Hopkins University. She is a member of the Authors Guild, Eastern Shore Writers' Association, Historical Novel Society, and Women's National Book Association, and served on the Board of Directors of the Maryland Writers' Association as Communications Chair and as President of the Baltimore Chapter.


What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
For over twenty years, I was distracted by the notion that someone else would author Of White Ashes.

Since meeting my husband, Kent Matsumoto, and then growing to know and love his parents (Hisao and Reiko), I believed a book was waiting to be written, but I never imagined authoring the story. Soon after our marriage, Kent and I tried several paths to capture Hisao and Reiko’s stories. We hired an accomplished non-fiction author who was excited about the project and met with our family. Hisao and Reiko offered the author nothing but a cold shoulder. Next, we arranged to introduce Hisao and Reiko to a documentary filmmaker who assembled a small crew that was scheduled to travel across the country to meet with them and record their stories. They soundly rejected the plan.

The years ticked by. Reiko passed away. Six years ago, while Hisao struggled with dementia, a shift in my thinking occurred. And then I acted, taking the lead in co-authoring Of White Ashes with Kent.

What chapter was the most memorable to write and why?
That’s like asking a parent to choose their favorite child! Each chapter holds special memories—some from having walked where the characters walked; others from the enormity of writing difficult material. But if I had to choose one, it would be the ‘California or Bust’ chapter. Why? Because the argument in this chapter was tremendously fun to brainstorm and write.

Feeling a bit stuck, I enlisted the creative mind of my writer friend, Katie. On my backyard patio, we talked through the goal of the chapter. Then, the role play began, with Katie role-playing a central character while I role-played another. It didn’t take long for us to be in the sweet flow of imagination. The argument drifted to unexpected places I probably would not have imagined on my own. I smile every time I read this scene in the chapter.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
Storytelling affords people the opportunity to feel what other people may have felt as well as comprehend the events they experienced.

With Of White Ashes, Kent and I aspire to engage our readers’ curiosity, expand their knowledge, generate empathy for other races and cultures, and remind them of the fragility of our world. Maybe telling these stories will manifest into a more peaceful future where people focus on appreciating differences and on what unites, rather than divides. Maybe, just maybe … one story and one reader at a time.

Can you tell us when you started OF WHITE ASHES, how that came about?
See my response under the question, “What’s the best date you ever had?”

What were your feelings when your first novel was accepted/when you first saw the cover of the finished product?
Pure joy! I’m not a crier. But this book has brought me to tears—twice. First when I typed “The End,” and later when I received this email:

“Thank you for submitting your work, Of White Ashes, to Apprentice House Press. We have reviewed your manuscript and feel it is a great fit for our press. Is the manuscript still available for publication? If so, we will prepare and share a contract for your review.”

After reading the email, I thought, “What?” I read it again. The words soaked in and the tears flowed. Regrettably, Kent wasn’t home, and the handyman who had just arrived to fix something probably wondered what was wrong with me as I sobbed and laughed simultaneously!

What were your inspirations for the character development?
The central characters in Of White Ashes were inspired by deep love and respect for two ordinary people who experienced extraordinary circumstances and personified the spirit of gaman—Japanese for enduring the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience. Ruby Ishimaru’s character is based on my mother-in-law, Reiko, who suffered greatly as a child and spent her early teenage years incarcerated in the Japanese American camps during WWII. The other central character is Koji Matsuo. His character is based on my father-in-law, Hisao, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima.

  • “Fear and rage burned in Ruby’s heart as she picked up her mother’s now-fractured tray—split down the middle. Just like her.”
  • “With his mind full of rifle-making images and factory chatter, an irony gelled. He would be making rifles for Japanese soldiers to shoot the enemy. And he was the enemy.”
  • “Ruby rubbed her arms, jumped around to get warm, and recalled her lessons on what the distinct colors of the flag represented—white for purity and innocence, red for valor, blue for perseverance, vigilance, and justice. She jumped at the startling clang of the gate slamming behind them, and her sudden realization the guards were there to keep them in, locked behind barbed wire fencing under freedom’s flag. Standing in a line that stretched beyond her field of vision, she asked for bravery from any higher power who might hear her, and struggled to breathe the air that accentuated the flag’s merciless taunts of freedom.”
  • “His heart beat faster. Surrounded by dragonflies moving like ballet dancers on gauzy wings, he kissed her, ever so gently.”
  • “Each footstep trampled a fresh imprint over the footprints of the hundreds of people she followed toward the waiting buses and trains. Their slushy imprints would melt, but the marks of human suffering would remain.”
  • “The irony. A single American citizen of Japanese descent. Raised in Japan by a nation that believed the Emperor was divine and Americans were the enemy. He was but a small speck with a foot in each country on opposite sides of the globe, one of billions of inhabitants spinning on the infinitely flawed planet.”
  • “Ruby salivated at the memory of sprinkling sugar on the cream skimmed off the top of a fresh milk bottle—one of her last memories of freedom in Waimea. She peeked outside to the cheerless filth of reality. Ankle-deep in mud, people navigated ridges of slush that would refreeze overnight and form a new rut of uncertainty.”
What is the first job you have had? 
Scooping ice cream at Class’s Ice Cream in northeast Baltimore.
Best date you've ever had? My first date with my husband and co-author, Kent Matsumoto, in 1996. We attended the Dale Chihuly blown glassworks exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art and were unexpectedly greeted by a Dorothea Lange precursor exhibit. I was instantly stirred by Lange’s sensitive and provocative photographs of destitution and hardship. I was quietly absorbing a photograph of Japanese American children wearing their best clothes and waiting for a bus to transport them into confinement following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when Kent whispered, “This photograph captures my mother's story.” Paradoxically, the enormity of scale and vibrancy of the Chihuly exhibit paled in contrast to Lange’s small, black and white photograph. And the rest is history; pun intended.

What is the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning? 

What's your most missed memory? 
Decorating the Christmas tree with my Dad.

What do you usually think about right before falling asleep? 
Absolutely nothing.

If you had to go back in time and change one thing, if you HAD to, even if you had “no regrets” what would it be? 
I would have found a way to attend college after high school, rather than attending later in life while balancing my fulltime job and raising my children.

If you could go back in time to one point in your life, where would you go? 
I’d return to my 16-year-old self and share one last special moment with my Dad before his sudden death.

What was your favorite subject when you were in school? 
Gregg Shorthand. I used to practice increasing my shorthand speed to Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album. I still use it today for quick notes and private messages to myself.

What decade during the last century would you have chosen to be a kid? 
My romanticized version of the roaring twenties: Art Deco, the 19th Amendment, flapper attitude and fashion, and willful violation of Prohibition.

Any Camp stories you would like to share? 
I’ll share the lesson rather than the story: Never eat campfire stew and retire in your tent for the night with the tent buttons buttoned AND the tent zippered shut. P.S. I don’t camp anymore!

At a movie theater which arm rest is yours? 
The right.

What is one unique thing are you afraid of? 
Steep escalators!

When was the last time you told someone you loved them? 
Last night.

What were you doing the last time you really had a good laugh? 
Watching SNL Weekend Update!

Most horrifying dream you have ever had? 
During a deep sleep, I felt like I was dying and beginning the journey from life to something else. Darkness was freckled with light as I felt my soul leaving my body. It felt so exquisitely peaceful that I wanted to relax into it and let go. But my brain kicked in and told me it wasn’t time to die and pulled me out of it. To this day, I don’t know if it was a dream or reality, so I find comfort in embracing the experience as a dream.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor propels America into WWII and two Japanese Americans into chaos. Separated by the Pacific, each embarks on a tumultuous path to survive childhood and live the American dream. Ruby Ishimaru loses her liberty and uproots from her Hawaii home to incarceration camps on the mainland. Koji Matsuo strains under the menacing clouds of the Japanese war machine and atomic bombing while concealing a dangerous secret-one that threatens his family's safety.

When destiny brings Ruby and Koji together in California, their chemistry is magnetic, but wounds of trauma run deep and threaten their love as another casualty of war.

Inspired by the true stories of the authors' family, Of White Ashes crosses oceans and cultures, illuminating the remarkable lives of ordinary people who endure seemingly unbearable hardship with dignity and patience. Their experiences compel us to reflect on the resilience of humanity and the risk of history repeating.

You can purchase Of White Ashes at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you CONSTANCE HAYS MATSUMOTO for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of Of White Ashes by Constance Hays Matsumoto.

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