Anne: Hello and welcome to MG Book Village! I’m so glad to connect with you for a chat about your debut novel, The Lost Ryū. It came out this summer, and is a wonderfully imaginative story. Would you please give readers a super-brief summary of the action?
Emi: Thanks for having me! The Lost Ryū is set in Japan in 1965, and it follows ten-year-old Kohei and his new neighbor, Isolde, as they uncover the truth behind the giant dragons that fought in World War II. Their journey takes them through the Japanese countryside to a dragon-themed amusement park, and eventually to the underwater palace of Eastern dragons of myth.
Anne: Great. Thank you. I enjoyed immersing myself in the myths about dragons—the ryū—and the underwater palace known as Ryūgū-jō. For readers (like me) previously unfamiliar with Japanese mythology, could you give an example of a detail that you had fun adding—something that made your novel come alive, but that I’d never find in Japanese mythology of old?
Emi: Ryūgū-jō is a common feature of East Asian mythology, but in The Lost Ryū, Kohei and Isolde also walk through a theme park-ified version designed for tourists. It’s nothing like the mythical site they eventually visit, but as the author, I had so much fun making it up! Merry-go-rounds, chipped paint, funnel cake… “New Ryūgū-jō” symbolizes the clash between old and new, sacred and commercial, in the landscape of a nation struggling to shape its postwar identity. It was also just really amusing to imagine!
Anne: Very fun! A significant part of the story is the characters’ desire to breed an Eastern ryū with a Western one, while meanwhile Isolde (who has a Japanese-American mom and a Jewish-Polish dad) says this about herself: “…in America, race is everything. For some people, it’s all they understand… And I don’t fit. I can’t be both—I have to be either, which sort of means I’m neither.” Her words broke my heart, and my question is: how autobiographical is this novel? How much does Isolde’s lament reflect what life was like for you, growing up?
Emi: Isolde’s experiences definitely reflect my own, and some of the most meaningful comments I’ve gotten on this book have been from people who relate to her. Still, Isolde and I are polar opposites in a lot of ways. Personality-wise, I’m much more similar to Kohei, who is quiet and reserved. My specific experience is reversed, too; while Isolde moved from a predominantly non-Japanese area to Japan, I spent my early childhood in a community with many first-generation Japanese immigrants, only to later find myself in a city with few native Japanese speakers. I went from being the “least Japanese” person I knew, to a makeshift ambassador in my third grade classroom. It was so unnerving! My classmates would ask me to say things in Japanese, and I felt like such an impostor. I wanted to say, I’m sorry, I’m only HALF!
I know there are a lot of mixed-race kids out there who feel like they can only be “half-and-half,” not a unified whole. I hope The Lost Ryū resonates with them. That said, I also hope that readers from every cultural background will see a bit of themselves in Isolde. The best thing about books—MG books in particular—is that they show us how seemingly different life experiences can be similar deep down. I think we all have moments when we feel like we’re “only half,” when other people’s expectations make us feel as though we’re not enough. Isolde is enough, and I hope my readers know that they are, too.
Anne: Yes, it’s truly something, how similar we all are, deep down. I sensed that theme, woven through the story. Toward the end, Kohei remembers Papa saying, “There is a special beauty in things that are broken, then put back together.” The fractures in an object tell its story. Another lovely theme! When you started writing this book, did you plan to include these themes, or did they emerge later, during your writing process? What theme do you most want readers to take away from reading The Lost Ryū?
Emi: The theme of fractures and recovery definitely emerged later during the writing process. When I got started with this book, all I knew was that I wanted to feature both Eastern and Western dragons. The theme of “both-ness” has always been a major part of it, and that’s the one I hope will resonate with young readers. We are all intersections of multiple identities and backgrounds—even those of us who are dragons!
Anne: How long did it take you to write The Lost Ryū? Tell us a bit about your writing process.
Emi: That first draft was less than half the length of the final version (more like an oversized short story than a novel), so I got it on paper in less than a week. It was a total mess! Once I’d signed with my agent, we worked on solidifying the pacing and plot before going on sub. My writing process involves a lot of full rewrites—in the case of The Lost Ryū, there were at least three—but every time I started over, the result was a little bit better than the last. It’s a gratifying process.
Anne: Kohei’s mom says that hope is “remembering that there are stories we haven’t told yet.” I love that line! What stories have you not told yet? What are you working on now?
Emi: I’m currently in revisions for my next novel, Golemcrafters, which is slated for release in late 2023 with Levine Querido. It follows a brother-sister duo as they uncover their family history of golemcrafting: sculpting clay golems in the tradition of Jewish folklore. It’s a contemporary setting with a lot of Jewish humor, and I’m excited to share it with the world!
Anne: I look forward to reading it! Finally, please tell readers where they can go to learn more about you and your work.
Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such a unique story for middle-grade readers!
Emi: Thank you for your insightful questions! This was so much fun.
Emi Watanabe Cohen grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where she spent most of her time reading, writing, or pretending to do her homework while secretly continuing to read or write. The stories she tells are informed by her mixed Japanese/Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, as well as by her experiences growing up in a multilingual environment. She is a graduate of Brandeis University’s Creative Writing program. The Lost Ryū is her debut novel.
Anne (A.B.) Westrick is the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about Anne at the MG Book Village “About” page.