21 Questions

‘Read widely in the genre that you want to write’: 21 Questions with Misa Sugiura

The author of Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind on secretly wanting to be a rock star, inviting Murasaki Shikibu over for dinner, and her ideal writing scenario.

Misa Sugiura’s ancestors include a poet, a priestess, a samurai, and a stowaway – so it’s not surprising that she has delved into a magical and adventure-filled realm for her debut children’s book.

Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind follows 12-year-old Momo who wishes more than anything that she could be ordinary. At home, she takes care of her mother whilst, at school, she is teased mercilessly by her peers for mixing up reality with the fantastical stories her mother used to tell her. But when she is attacked by a death hag straight out of those childhood stories, Momo learns that her mum is a Shinto goddess who used to protect the gate to Yomi, the land of the dead…

To celebrate the release of her book, we caught up with Misa to ask her our 21 questions about life and literature. Below she shares her love for water polo, becoming a part of Asian American literature, and how for a short time she was a mattress tester.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

I admire lots of different authors for so many reasons, but today I’ll choose Stacey Lee. She’s written award-winning young adult historical fiction, an enchanting fabulist novel about a girl who has magical abilities with perfume, and a super fun middle-grade fantasy adventure, and it’s all terrific.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

In first grade, I was obsessed with Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wanted to be Laura in the book.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

This is going to sound so old-fashioned and odd, but I loved All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. Probably a lot of your older UK readers know this book, but for those who don’t, it’s about a young veterinarian who gets a job with an eccentric veterinarian’s clinic in a tiny little town in Yorkshire. I think I must have liked it because it was so calming – it took me away from all the stress I was feeling in my life at the time.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

My junior term paper advisor in college suggested I read The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (it had just come out). It opened my eyes to a whole category of literature that I hadn’t realized existed: Asian American literature. It had never occurred to me people like me could be in their own books, and that there was a long (by American standards) history of books by and about Asians in America. The fact that I am now part of it is so thrilling and humbling.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside of being an author?

'The fact that I am now part of Asian American literature is so thrilling and humbling.'

I once got paid $200 (£165) to test mattresses. The mattress company would deliver a different mattress to my apartment every week for four weeks, and I would sleep on that mattress all week. At the end of the week, I went to a "sleep lab" where I would sleep on the same type of mattress and they would measure my sleep quality. It was terrible science, but easy money!

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Read widely in the genre that you want to write, and study how the authors do what they do.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

I don’t usually re-read books anymore, except to study them. Books I’ve re-read to study lately are the first two books in the Pandava series by Roshani Chokshi and the first two books in the Nevermoor series by Jessica Townsend, for their character development and plot structure.

What’s the one popular children’s book you’ve never got round to reading?

I’ve never read any books from the Captain Underpants books (no shade, I hear they’re great!) or the Warriors series about the magical cats.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

Realistically, I’d be a teacher and/or a stay-at-home parent. In my dreams, I’d be a rock star or a movie star. (Can I sing or act? No. No, I cannot.)

What makes you happiest?

I am happiest when my family are all together and having fun.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn that I love to play water polo.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

Someplace quiet and cosy and relatively isolated: a cabin in the woods? A cottage on the beach? — with plenty of hot drinks if the weather is cold and lemonade if the weather is warm.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author experience?

I once ran into Rick Riordan at a book conference and I wanted to tell him that I loved the Percy Jackson series, but when I opened my mouth to say it, I said, 'I love your Rick Riordan books!'

Just kidding, I’ve never met Rick Riordan. But that is something I would do.

'I'd serve Murasaki Shikibu nachos wih lots of cheese and guacamole.'

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

I would invite Murasaki Shikibu, the 11th-century court lady and author of The Tale of Genji, which is what many believe to be the world’s first novel. I’d serve nachos with lots of cheese and guacamole, or possibly deep-dish pizza.

What’s your biggest fear?

I am horribly afraid that my sons will fall off a cliff or a tall building. Also, I have nightmares about losing all of my work to a random tech catastrophe.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

The power to instantly create a delicious meal out of thin air.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

Best adult book: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Best kids’ book: Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

Absolutely yes! Why wouldn’t you?

Which do you prefer: chocolate or crisps?

Crisps. Chocolate is overrated.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

This question is unfair! But I’ll say Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston’s language is just so beautiful and the main character, Janie, is an inspiration.

What inspired you to write your new book?

My kids.

Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind by Misa Sugiura is out now.

Image at top: Flynn Shore for Penguin

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