When a crack opens in the bottom of a swimming pool in Julie Otsuka’s new, inventive novel, “The Swimmers,” the people who rely on it for their daily laps find their lives unmoored and changed. This is the award-winning writer’s third novel. Her debut, “When the Emperor Was Divine,” drew on her family’s experience during WW II and her second, “The Buddha in the Attic,” traced the lives of Japanese women who come to San Francisco to marry. The native of California is a longtime resident of New York City.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
OTSUKA: I just finished Katie Kitamura’s “Intimacies.” It’s fabulous. The main character is a translator at The Hague in a war crimes trial. The book casts a spell in the same way Marguerite Duras’s “The Lover” does.
BOOKS: What was your last best read before that?
OTSUKA: I reread Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy during the pandemic. She’s pushing the boundary of what story is. I could live inside of her head.
BOOKS: Do you typically read fiction?
OTSUKA: I also read a lot of nonfiction for research. For my new novel, I read books about swimming, dementia, and the business of nursing homes. I also like essays but fiction is where my head likes to be best.
BOOKS: What would you recommend from your research for “The Swimmers”?
OTSUKA: Charles Sprawson’s “Haunts of the Black Masseur.” It’s about the history of swimming and what writers in the past thought about swimming. The Romantics were nuts about swimming. It’s a one-of-a-kind book.
BOOKS: What would you recommend from your research on Japanese American internment during WW II?
OTSUKA: There’s a great graphic novel, Miné Okubo’s “Citizen 13660.” She was sent to Topaz, Utah, during the war, which is where my mother went. It’s a good overview of what happened to Japanese Americans. It’s also very funny in a heartbreaking way. I especially recommend it for people who are teaching about the Japanese American internment.
BOOKS: Which authors do you read for essays?
OTSUKA: Cathy Park Hong’s “Minor Feelings,” which is about racism and what it is like to be an Asian female. She says a lot of things that a lot of Asian people feel but don’t give voice to. Sallie Tisdale’s collected essays in “Violation” are great.
BOOKS: How would you describe your taste in fiction?
OTSUKA: I don’t care that much about a good story though I just started reading “The Anomaly” by Hervé Le Tellier. It could be a Netflix series. It’s about a plane flight from Paris to New York and how the passengers find themselves on the same plane. It’s very plot driven but very fun. Typically, I’m most interested in language.
BOOKS: What kind of reader were you as a kid?
OTSUKA: I liked science fiction, which surprises me because I don’t now. I read Ray Bradbury, and in high school I got into Carlos Castaneda. It’s so embarrassing! Before I started writing, when I was a painter, I didn’t read much but when I stopped painting I began to read contemporary short stories for the first time. I was depressed about giving up on art and needed something to take me out of my head. I’d hang out at the Strand Book Store for hours. I pulled Lydia Davis’s collection off the bookshelf there. I had no idea who she was.
BOOKS: What will you read next?
OTSUKA: I want to read Deborah Levy’s “Real Estate,” the third book in her living memoir trilogy. I’m reading Nicole Chung’s “All You Can Ever Know,” her memoir about being a Korean adoptee. I’m most interested in reading Rachel Cusk’s novel “Second Place,” which is a very different book for her. She writes in the voice of a historical figure, the art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan. I’ve been saving that.
BOOKS: What are you saving it for?
OTSUKA: With my novel coming out it’s been hard to carve out space for my own writing and reading. I have piles of papers in my apartment, which are driving me nuts. I need to clear out space for the books I want to get, but that means I need to get rid of some, which I’m loath to do. I have not been able to get into a groove, which is bad for my mind. Reading is something that really settles me down.