Hi guys! As a nerd who loves to learn more about the history (particularly the stories) behind the world, World War II has to be the time period that captivates me the most. It horrifies me to think how war-torn countries became and how much persecution was rampant, yet I get inspired by the stories of hope, survival, and perseverance that arose from the fight against evil. World War II is something I wish would never ever happen again, but I find myself fascinated by stories set during this period, from the Holocaust to the Pacific Front. However, there aren’t very many fictional stories that explore the viewpoints of civilians from Asian countries such as China, Japan, and the Philippines; yet I was able to meet online Kathleen Burkinshaw, author of The Last Cherry Blossom, an MG novel set in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb landed in the heart of the city. I am super excited to read this book, and I’m very honored to share this story with y’all by having Kathleen here on the blog to talk about it.
About the Book
Following the seventieth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, this is a new, very personal story to join Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.
Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden fom its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.
This is a story that offers young readers insight into how children lived during the war, while also introducing them to Japanese culture. Based loosely on author Kathleen Burkinshaw’s mother’s firsthand experience surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, The Last Cherry Blossom hopes to warn readers of the immense damage nuclear war can bring, while reminding them that the “enemy” in any war is often not so different from ourselves.
1. Why do you love writing? When did you first have a love for writing, and how was it formed?
Kester, thank you so very much for interviewing me for your blog! It’s an honor to be asked.
I loved to read any kind of book as a child. As an introvert, I loved writing because it took me to a different world where I participated in the story instead of being too shy. I especially love it now because it helps me to escape from my pain -at least lessen it for a little while. I started writing poems for birthday cards from the moment I could hold a pencil. Then as I got older, I loved doing book reports (I think I was in the minority at school). After I was asked to write a high school honor speech, I thought I could really enjoy doing this for a living. But life after college led me to writing business contracts instead. After being ill for a while, I happily rediscovered my love for creative writing.
2. What are your favorite books, genres, and authors? Which ones have impacted you and your writing style the most?
I love reading historical fiction, and mysteries. As a child I loved reading Nancy Drew Mysteries, and anything by Judy Blume. I was an adult when I read WEEDFLOWER by Cynthia Kadohata and it was the first time I read about a Japanese-American as a main character. So, she influenced me greatly. Also, local NC authors (state I live in): Joyce Moyer Hostetter (historical fiction), as well as Lisa Williams Kline (historical fiction and fiction).
3. What do you do when you’re not writing? Is writing a part-time or full-time job?
Well, 17 years ago I was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a debilitating chronic pain condition. I had to give up my health care administration career. So, I guess you could say, writing is probably less than part time. It depends on the daily pain. I do try to write in the morning if I can. I like to read or listen to audio books when I’m not able to write. I enjoy visiting schools and meeting students!
4. Your debut novel The Last Cherry Blossom follows a young girl who witnesses and survives the atomic bombing at Hiroshima during World War II, and the story is loosely based on your mother’s accounts of the tragedy. Would you like to share with us a bit about your mother’s experiences before, during, and after the bombing and how they shaped your story?
It’s interesting that my mother’s life events that I based the book on stalled my writing for a bit. I had to get past the actual timeline of events in her life since the book only took place during the last year of WWII. My mom was born in 1932, so she grew up with war in the background (the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931). She was very well off, but she saw the giving heart of her Papa. When she was five, she and her friend Machiko used to put on shows for the injured soldiers. She hated all the air raid drills, black out curtains, and being in the bomb shelter. However, she felt with her Papa she could endure anything. The chapters that deal with the day of the bombing-were exactly as she told me. These were the most difficult chapters to write, because I could see the tears in her eyes and hear the pain in her voice when she told me about that time. I can still hear her voice whenever I read these sections to students. In the months following the atomic bombing, her feelings of loneliness, guilt, and anger consumed her. It took her a long time to not feel guilty for surviving and feel that she was worth having happiness again. I’m so grateful that she did.
5. There are not too many World War II historical fiction novels that are set in the Pacific Front, let alone in Japan. (Most from my observations are set in Europe.) Why do you believe it is important to shed a light about WWII from the Japanese perspective, especially as a Japanese American living in the United States? Could you explain to us the meaning of this quote from your novel, “The enemy is not so different from ourselves?”
Aside from my emotional attachment to my Japanese family in Hiroshima and my mom surviving the atomic bomb, I wanted to show that we all have hearts and we all have emotions. I think that by writing about the “other side”, and showing their mindset of that time in history, as well as their culture; we see them as individuals, not under the umbrella of a label – “the enemy”. My goal was to show that the children in Japan, like my mom, all loved their family and friends, worried what might happen in an attack, and wished for peace. The Allied children worried about and wished for the same things. This segues into the meaning behind my quote. We can’t be too quick to judge people or make assumptions about people in whatever situation we are in. I believe that this is more important now than ever.
6. How has writing The Last Cherry Blossom helped you embrace your cultural heritage and your ancestry? How has the whole process—from listening to your mother’s real-life story to writing Yuriko’s fictional story—changed you as a person?
Because of the prejudice my mom faced when coming to the U.S., she wanted me to grow up “American”, so I only knew some Japanese fairy tales, and songs. So, when I researched the festivals/customs and heard my mother’s memories from her childhood; I just knew I had to incorporate them into my and my daughter’s life. Most of all, I grew to know my mom as the bravest woman I’ll ever know. Seeing the war through her eyes, knowing what she endured on August 6th and the aftermath-I couldn’t imagine being as strong as she was. I did my final edits 7 months after my mom passed away. I poured my pain of losing her into Yuriko’s emotions into the pages of TLCB.
7. In what ways do you want your readers to be impacted by your book, especially regarding issues such as war, tragedy, and nuclear weapons?
I hope that readers feel an emotional impact not found in a text book with a sentence or two. That they understand the atomic bomb dropped on families. Now that we know a fraction of the horror that nuclear weapons inflict, they should NEVER be used again. As the survivors are passing away, we cannot let people forget, because it can be all too easy to repeat.
8. As a historical fiction writer, could you describe to us your research process? How did you determine when to draw the line between fact and fiction? Did you ever had to sacrifice historical accuracy at certain points for the sake of the narrative?
Well, after interviewing my mom, I started a search for as many books and articles that I could find. Now, I admit, I am apt to lose hours looking for primary sources because I would learn something that would be great to include and would then start looking for sources about that subject. When I started writing TLCB, I looked for books in the library, and would look at their bibliography to find other sources. I also tried to find newspaper articles about events. It was difficult finding information of Japanese people’s lives during WWII that were written in English. I did have some success online finding and purchasing books that were weeded from libraries on this subject. I would write my research notes and then compare them with my mom’s experience. I don’t feel that I sacrificed historical accuracy in TLCB. The only history I manipulated, as I mentioned earlier would be the timeline of events in my mom’s life and some of the daily events and characters in the story.
9. What are your favorite aspects in the Japanese culture? Have you ever visited Japan, and if so, what are some of your fondest experiences from your travels and stays?
I love the festivals-and of course the food! I love the pride they take in their customs/traditions of their ancestors. When I was 8-years-old, my parents and I visited the woman I knew as my grandmother, in Tokyo. My mother couldn’t bring herself to go back to Hiroshima. However, my husband, daughter, and I went to Japan in July of 2015. We spent time in Hiroshima and honored my mother at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. Being able to walk some of the same paths she did as a child, and to see the beauty in her homeland made me feel so close to her. It was beyond heart-braking to be in Hiroshima National Peace Park and tour the museum, but I’m so glad I did. We loved being in Tokyo and any part of Japan we visited. There’s so much we haven’t seen so I definitely plan on going back!
10. For those who want to read more books set in Asian countries such as Japan, China, and the Philippines during World War II (me included), do you have any historical fiction or nonfiction recommendations?
Some of the books I used for resources were WARRIORS IN THE CROSSFIRE (historical fiction) by Nancy Bo Flood, A BOY CALLED H: A CHILDHOOD IN WARTIME JAPAN (historical fiction) by Kappa Senoh, and JAPAN AT WAR, AN ORAL HISTORY (nonfiction) by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore Failor Cook. Also, I haven’t personally read the following titles, but they are on my TBR list- WWII in Philippines: BAREFOOT IN FIRE-A WWII CHILDHOOD (auto biography) by Barbara Ann Gamboa-Lewis (my resource for this book was from a great website about history of the Philippines-www.thelearningbasket.com); WWII China: TWO SONS OF CHINA (historical fiction) by Andrew Lam. One new historical fiction coming out in October is GRENADE by Alan Gratz, which deals with WWII on the Island of Okinawa.
11. What could we expect from you in the future? Are there any secrets you would like to share?
More historical fiction set in Japan. One thing I’m working on is about Yuriko living in Tokyo during the Allied Occupation a few years after the end of WWII. It includes dealing with what we now know as PTSD and finding meaning to her life after losing so much. It takes me time to research while dealing with my chronic pain. I am still trying to find the balance of splitting my energy between talking about my mom and TLCB, and research/writing my next manuscript.
12. Before you go, would you like to share any advice you have to any aspiring authors or writers?
Read as much as you can in the genre you’re interested in writing. This helps to get a feel for style and word count. If you feel there is a story only you can tell, write it. You don’t always know where your idea might come from, and there will never be the “perfect” time to write. So, write that first sentence, first paragraph, and that first draft! It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to come from your heart.
Thank you so much, Kathleen, for this wonderful, thought-provoking interview. It is my honor as well to have you on my blog, and I’m very excited to start on The Last Cherry Blossom soon!
About the Author
Kathleen Burkinshaw is a Japanese American author residing in Charlotte, NC. She’s a wife, mom to a daughter in college, and owns a dog who is a kitchen ninja. Kathleen enjoyed a 10+ year career in HealthCare Management unfortunately cut short by the onset of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD). Writing gives her an outlet for her daily struggle with chronic pain. She has presented her mother’s experience in Hiroshima to middle and high schools, as well as at education conferences for the past 8 years. She has carried her mother’s story in her heart and feels privileged to now share it with the world. Writing historical fiction also satisfies her obsessive love of researching anything and everything.
“We do not need guns and bombs to bring peace, we need love and compassion.” — St. Mother Teresa
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