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“Try it this way, that way, another way. I never give up. Everything is a mess when I start out. Anything can be made better.”

Julie Otsuka, Author⎜Schriftstellerin

What does a normal or ideal working day look like for you? Do you have regular working hours or do they vary from day to day?
I usually start around 9:30 in the morning and work into the late afternoon, with a short break for lunch. My hours vary—some days I go to the gym, or have an appointment, or meet up with a friend, but I try to schedule those things later in the day and preserve the morning hours for the writing. In the evenings, I usually read—sometimes for pleasure, sometimes for research.


How many hours per day do you work on average (writing, painting, practising)?
Actual writing, an hour or two at most. Most of my time is spent revising and researching.


How many hours do you add on average for ‘background work’ and everything else (research, office stuff, acquisition, website, social media)? How do you find the balance between all the tasks you have to keep track of as a free artist?
4-5 hours. Most of my time—especially in the earlier stages of a project—is spent on research. I’m not on social media, and website updates take up minimal time. Sometimes I’ll be asked to give a talk, and will have to put aside my own work for a few days to prepare. Or I’ll agree to write an article, which could take a few weeks or months. In terms of balance, I set aside the morning, when my mind is clearest, for writing/thinking, and the afternoon, when my brain is more tired, for ‘background work.’ But I have no hard and fast rules. If I’m on a roll, I can work on a piece of text all day long.


Are there weekends for you? What does free time mean?
I don’t take off weekends, every day is a writing day. But writing doesn’t feel like “work.” It’s what I love to do. Free time is the time when I can write, when I don’t have other obligations.


What is the biggest threat to your artistic work, what do you get distracted by?
The internet. The news, especially.


Do you have strategies to protect yourself from distractions?
Sometimes I use the “Freedom” program on my laptop, which keeps me offline.


What is your working environment like, what is essential for you? For example, do you need absolute silence – and if so, where and how do you find it?
Until the pandemic, I went every day to my neighborhood café to write—not a quiet place at all, but I enjoyed the clatter and din, the energy. Now I work at home in my apartment, where it’s pretty quiet, although it’s NYC, so there’s no such thing as absolute silence. There are city sounds in the distance outside my window: sirens, horns, traffic, which I rather like. Urban white noise. Coffee is important, too. As is my electric sit/stand desk. I like to alternate between sitting and standing—I couldn’t sit all day long.


When and where does the most important part of your work happen, where do you find the greatest inspiration? At work at your desk or by chance – reading, relaxing, travelling, interacting with other people?
I sometimes get ideas for scenes when I’m going for a walk or, oddly enough, at the gym. It’s when I’m not thinking about anything in particular—when my mind is wandering—that ideas unexpectedly come to me, or that the correct wording for a sentence I’ve been puzzling over for several days suddenly reveals itself. But reading is probably my greatest source of inspiration. I think inspiration is 1% of the writing process, and the other 99% is hard work, sitting at your desk, or at the café, or wherever, and putting in the hours to make your idea come to life.


How often or easily do you get into a creative ‘flow’, and what helps you most to reach this state?
I used to get into this state quite regularly at the café—it had something to do with the pleasant hum of human voices, being around other creative people, many of whom I knew, the smell of coffee, feeling simultaneously both deeply relaxed and highly focused—but now that I’m working at home, it doesn’t happen as often. At home, coffee helps, as does being by a window and having a view to look out on so my mind can wander while I’m thinking.


What do you do when nothing works out – when ideas or success fail to materialise, or when you don’t succeed in what you set out to do?
I keep on working. Try it a different way. Use a different voice. Rotate it, come at it from a different angle. Try it this way, that way, another way. I never give up. Everything is a mess when I start out. Anything can be made better.
Usually I’m able to see something through if I work hard enough. I’ve never not been able to finish a piece—but I’m very patient, my books take years to write.


What helps you when your self-confidence is down (e.g. because of bad reviews, financial downturn, bad mood, personal worries)?
If I start to feel panicky, the only thing that makes me feel better is to write. Once I’m immersed in the writing, then none of that other stuff matters.


Do you reward yourself when you have achieved something, reached a certain goal?


Do you rely on the advice of others or on advice literature? Are there any books that have helped you to find courage on your artistic path?
I’ve never read any advice books. What helps me most is being inspired by great literature.


How much does the recognition of your art by others mean to you? What is the best form of recognition?
I did a reading last summer in Rome, and afterwards a woman in the audience—the only Asian person I saw all evening, actually—came up to me and said, Everything you wrote, that happened to me. This is the best form of recognition, when a reader comes up to you and says, What you wrote feels true. Especially when what you wrote is fiction.


What are you afraid of?
Losing my mind. Not having enough money. Death.