Thursday, June 23, 2016

Writing Outside Your Culture: The Importance of Interviews

As I researched Desert Jewels, I read a number of memoirs about the Japanese American incarceration and spoke very briefly with one or two people who had been in the camps, but I did not have the opportunity to interview anyone in depth. Then, while we were on a research trip actually visiting the sites in my book, our local newspaper published an article about a Korean War veteran who was willing to serve his country even though he had been incarcerated as a teenager. Friends helped me connect with him, and I discovered that Ken’s wife had been incarcerated in a different camp. (They met after their release.)

I talked to Ken for a short time but spent most of the day with Chiyo.

In the book, my protagonist is incarcerated at Topaz in Utah. Ken was at Gila River in Arizona, and Chiyo was at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. But even though the settings were different, the experiences were similar. Well, not completely. As with anything, personality colors experience.

Ken’s passion was cars, and the only vehicles at Gila River were the trucks owned by the administration. He was in high school but didn’t get involved in sports or other activities. So except for the summer he spent riding around with the garbage men, he felt that his stay at Gila River was wasted time.

Chiyo had a different experience. She has an outgoing personality and attended dances and other activities at Heart Mountain. She also loved ice-skating, and Heart Mountain had long winters. So Chiyo actually enjoyed her time there.

In many ways, the interview simply confirmed what I had already learned from other sources. Even so, it was invaluable because it gave me a stronger sense of the people involved. Not that I didn’t get some of that from the memoirs I read, but there is nothing like sitting across from a living person and listening to his or her stories.

It isn’t always possible for a writer to interview people who have been through the events depicted in a historical novel, especially if everyone is long dead. But if you have the opportunity, take it.

Your story will be better if you do.


A Time Life photographer took a picture of Chiyo’s family at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, but that photo is under copyright and Time Life did not respond to my request for permission to use it. The picture at the head of this post shows the Shikano family and was taken at the Central Utah War Relocation Center (Topaz) on January 3, 1945. Charles E. Mace took the picture as part of his official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain. I don’t know anything about the Shikano family and have include the photograph merely for ambiance.


Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at


  1. This is an interesting topic and one that was an eye-opener for me about the Japanese incarceration camps when I read a couple of novels, first of all Chery Blossoms in the Storm by Bob and Gail Kaku. Personal interviews lend so much.

  2. You're right, Mary. There is nothing like an interview to get the personal side of a story.

  3. Thank you, Kathryn, for some helpful advice. I'll admit most of my writing is more contemporary than historical, but I can see how interviews would help in contemporary fiction as well, especially interviewing people who are employed doing what you have characters do. I remembered interviewing an athletic trainer at University of Indianapolis for a novel I was writing at the time.

  4. I agree, Jeff. Interviews can be helpful even in contemporary fiction, especially of you have characters doing things outside of your experience.