Interview With Author Loren Greene

# Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!

My name is Loren Greene (pronounced lo-REN), and I’m originally from St John’s, Newfoundland, on the east coast of Canada. I’ve been writing creatively since I was very young, but only began publishing last year. I blogged and did travel writing as a hobby before I launched my first book, Meet You By Hachiko, and much of my fiction incorporates travel elements, such as living abroad, cultural exchange, and discovering new things. I speak Japanese and lived in Japan during the writing of my first book, so the two I have currently published are Young Adult Contemporary with a Japan focus. With the launch of the second book, which is connected but not a proper sequel, they’ve been collected into a series called Sakura+Maple.

# What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?

They say write what you know, and I’m no exception there. I lived abroad, taught English, volunteered with exchange students, was a bit of a wallflower in high school, and I love hot springs—and all of these elements have found their way into my writing. I definitely find that I can add a richness and authentic feeling when I write about characters who are in situations similar to ones I’ve experienced or seen up close. Plus, you can share a situation in much more detail when you’ve lived it! For example, in my first novel, Meet You By Hachiko, the main character loses her wallet while traveling in Tokyo. This is something that happened to me, years ago, while I was visiting the capital to renew my passport—I jumped up when I realized we’d already reached the station where I needed to change lines, and rushed off without realizing I was missing at least one of the items I’d been carrying at the beginning of the day. Of course it had to be my purse, with my laptop, wallet, train card, passport and all the filled and signed documents for its renewal, as well as every single piece of identification I owned!

The stationmaster quickly realized my dilemma, but for some reason, I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. I would have been sunk if it hadn’t been for the fact that my cell phone was still in my hand and not in my purse, who-knows-where by that point, so I called the friend I was on my way to visit. She spoke to the stationmaster who asked her questions, then he’d hand the phone back so my friend could translate from formal Japanese (keigo) into simpler Japanese. When I asked him to speak more simply so that I could understand him, because he could plainly see I was operating at a third-grade language level, the stationmaster replied that he couldn’t do that—and my friend later backed him up, as we drove two hours in her car to Takasaki City to pick up my lost purse, which was, miraculously, waiting for me there at the terminal station. Both the rigidity of the stationmaster and the safe journey of the purse were exactly the kinds of situations where I’d already learned to shake my head and say, “Ah, yeah, that’s Japan.” No matter how long you live abroad, even when you think you understand the rules well enough, sometimes you still get completely blindsided, and these are the kinds of details I love incorporating into my writing.

Funnily enough, I wrote the scene of the main character in Hachiko losing her wallet before that experience actually happened to me, but when it did, I had the chance to go back and revise to make it more true to life. Unfortunately, for some reason whenever I travel to Japan with someone these days, they either lose their passport or their wallet (this has happened on two separate occasions since), so it could just be that things I’ve written are destined to come true. Or I’m cursed.

# What inspires/inspired your creativity?

As you’ve probably already guessed, I gain a great deal of inspiration from travel. I enjoy immersing myself in a new place, learning about it, and taking in all the small details. I love to read up on local urban history and architecture, and write about how a particular place makes me feel when I’m there. Because I lived in Asia for quite a while, it’s an obvious topic right now (write what you know, as I said!), but there are other destinations I’d love to write about in the future. Best of all, when I’ve used a place as inspiration by writing about it in a book, it’s memorialized; captured in a snapshot of time. Even though my books are considered contemporary right now, the first was set in 2008, and the places, fashions and technology depicted in it have already fallen out of date. I don’t consider that a detriment; rather, it has simply become recent historical fiction that will hopefully give readers an accurate glimpse into what Tokyo was really like in the early 2000s.

# How do you deal with creative block?

Creative block can be a tough one, because it usually hits when you’re in the middle of a manuscript and dealing with the less interesting aspects of the story. The ending may seem like a long way away, and you’ve probably gotten too excited and written out all the things you were inspired by.

I skip ahead to write the next scene that I am excited about, or I try to take a break from my own work and become a reader for a little while. Ideally, I can come up with something that gets me enthusiastic about the genre, or a book/show that inspired a character or a plot point, to help me remember the feeling I was trying to capture when I started the project. For example, if I was writing a book about magic, and the character was a sassy, smart, capable witch, I would probably reread Harry Potter or another book with strong, capable witches, to help me get back to thinking, Ah, this is great, this is why I wanted to write about magic! Reading manga about high school baseball helped get me through a creative block I was having during Edokko, because suddenly the two baseball-playing characters in that book sprang to life, even though they were supporting characters and I never once depicted them in an actual baseball game. Even if the media I check out doesn’t have anything in common with my project’s genre, getting excited about someone else’s story and characters always makes me want to write, too.

# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

Oh, this is a complicated question. It’s a fact of life for an author—you can’t expect everyone to like everything you write, and I unfortunately don’t have a thick skin at all. I feel lucky Hachiko had a quiet, soft launch to good reception while I was still puzzling out my path as an author. I’ll be the first to admit that that book isn’t without its flaws—what first novel isn’t?—but early readers didn’t point them out, boosting my confidence.

I thought of Hachiko as the learning experience to raise the bar for revisions I was doing on my next project, Edokko, which I’d similarly written a decade before. I had a great editor and positive feedback from a crowd of diverse beta readers, so I felt confident when it was ready for the pre-release stage and would do just as well or better, because it had a broader appeal. Main character Lily was a more typical 21st-century girl, cultivating her Instagram image and trying to put a little distance between herself and her helicopter mom. She wasn’t the kind of character who was at all easy to write, either—I had as much trouble with her as she had with her parents! A few beta readers told me, “I had trouble sympathizing with her at first, but I started to warm up to her.” Pleased, I thought their comments proof that I had written a satisfactory character arc for Lily, with genuine change for her from beginning to end.

Once the book went from beta readers to advance copy (ARC) readers, though, I received a negative review straightaway. The reader disliked my writing style, finding it simplistic and unpolished, and my descriptions cliché. Her comment hit me hard, because I couldn’t brush that off as “she didn’t like my story/characters/plot.” What she didn’t like was me, and she’d said so publicly. I was embarrassed and discouraged, certain my author career would never go anywhere. I’d never be good enough to be anything but below-average, and I’d have to deal with the critics for as long as I kept on publishing.

I took a few days off, even though it should have been the busiest time for promotion, less than a week before launch. Friends picked up on my mood, and when I explained what was going on, I received some good advice: That I didn’t have an obligation to meet Shakespearean levels when it came to prose, because criticism of style is subjective. That reviewer mentioned she hated my dialogue, when multiple beta readers had left feedback about finding dialogue in Edokko authentic and engaging. Both groups are entitled to an opinion. My friend assured me that what one person considers simplistic, another might consider light reading and easy to visualize. It’s not necessarily a drawback for a writer who aspires to appeal to the middle grade and early teen audience. If I wanted to change my writing style to be more complicated, I could of course work on that, but there were other readers who enjoyed the way I wrote and found my style refreshing. Why not continue writing for those readers, rather than the ones who I would never be able to please?

It was good advice, and got me going again a few days later—until Edokko’s launch day, when it appeared. An advance reviewer who’d received a copy for free left a one-star review on Amazon, and that was the only Amazon review on the book for the first full day it was on the market.

The subject of criticism was at least an area I was more prepared to deal with mentally—she didn’t care for the main character’s personality, and felt as a woman in her twenties, she couldn’t level with my whiny teenage protagonist, so she stopped reading. Yikes! I’m a big fan of YA myself and well out of my twenties, but I know what I’m getting into when I read realistic YA contemporary, particularly in a high school setting. If a character is too teenager-y for my adult self, well, I’m not the actual target market, so why leave a negative review that could scare off readers who are the target market? And as a storyteller, what’s most important is for me to be authentic, and when you’re writing about teens, messy emotions, self-doubt, overconfidence and yes, even whininess and selfishness can be expected. Not every heroine necessarily has to be a good person at the start, I thought, and if she reminds you of someone you didn’t like in high school, then all the better.

With this review, though, I was certain Edokko had just been sunk. Someone hated it to the point where they would torpedo a brand new, just-came-out-that-day book, almost guaranteeing zero buys. After uncountable hours of effort, an overall rating of 1-star could end any chance I had of making sales during the launch. Panicked, I reached out to some of the other ARC reviewers on Goodreads who’d responded positively, and asked them to consider coming over to leave an Amazon review, and two of them did so right away. This was a great assist, partially because it shifted the one-star ranking, but also because both messaged me back to tell me how appalled they were at seeing the negative comments!

That was the boost I needed to pick myself up that day and remind myself that these were the readers I was writing for.

I’ve tried to treat both as learning experiences, once I had time to reflect and think about how to handle ones that come my way in the future. I decided it’s fine to feel disappointed and even a little indignant, and then to consider, next, how to grow from opinions I might disagree with. What I took from the Amazon review was that no matter how authentic we as authors try to depict a character’s flaws, when they’re the main character, we must move quickly to give the reader reasons to root for them. Once I’d put some time between reading that review and thinking more about how it could benefit my writing, I realized I could learn from it.

If I had to give one piece of advice, though, it’d probably be to avoid looking at criticism once you’re past the point of no return for the release. If I’d had those reviews in my inbox two months before, I could have addressed some of the issues—in fact, a beta reader’s suggestion about Lily’s negative traits caused me to snip out an entire scene of her playing pranks on her host family, six hours before the manuscript’s submission deadline. (ARC readers, including the one mentioned above, would have still had the scene.) Once the manuscript was in, though, negative comments could only mean a loss of enthusiasm for promoting the book and have a direct impact on my mood, self-image and motivation at a very busy time. I decided to avoid reading reviews altogether until I could sit down someday a month or so after the release, go through each comment one by one and make notes for myself about what readers liked and disliked. By taking them in all at once and deciding how each comment can improve my craft, even negative reviews can serve a purpose.

# Where do your story ideas come from?

For me, I usually start with a single-line concept, that often either comes from a dream I wake up in the middle of, or what-if thinking that occurs when I’m out and about. For example, I believe the original concept for Hachiko was that I wanted to write about a non-Japanese character in Japan who had to spend the night outdoors. On my very first visit to Shibuya, we’d exited the station from the wrong door and couldn’t find the Hachiko statue (I depicted these events in the novel as well), and while wandering around, saw the large homeless encampment under the highway bridge. It’s no longer there, but I remember thinking at the time, “What would I do if I were homeless here? It’s all men under the bridge. I’d have to find a place to hide from everyone else before I’d be able to sleep.” After that, every time I went to Tokyo, my eyes kept looking for spots where I could hide out if I ever missed my train or ran out of money and ended up outside for the night. A little random, right? Yet it brewed in the back of my mind, until I decided to write a Japan-set novel for National Novel Writing Month and used that concept. Everything else was extrapolated from the original “looking for a place to sleep outside” random thought. Why would my character – whoever she was – be sleeping outside? She must not have access to money or a hotel for some reason. Why is she in Tokyo all by herself with no one to ask for help? If she lived here, she’d be able to call on someone. I guess she must have come here on her own. But why would she do so unprepared? If she were going on a trip, she would have had a lot more options, and a cell phone, too. She must have left in a hurry to meet a specific goal. And what goal would cause you to sneak off and fly out of the country without telling anyone? Of course, there must be emotional distress involved, and she’d need to be motivated by something or someone very important. If it were me, it’d have to be over something drastic. Someone she needs to see right away, even if going there puts everything at risk. Not a boyfriend. A family member, or perhaps a close friend.

The characters evolved to meet the end goal, once I’d gotten that far. Two girls, one of whom causes the other enough worry to warrant a trip across the Pacific. How would they meet each other, especially, if one didn’t know the other well enough to simply call her parents? I thought back to my own school days and the friends I had online through forums, webrings and chat rooms. Of course they’d meet on the Internet, over something too obscure for other people around them to easily get. And what’s a unique, obscure hobby that doesn’t take up a lot of time and crosses borders, that a heavy Tumblr user like Grace Ryan and a normal-on-the-outside hyper-stressed-on-the-inside Tokyo prep school girl like Kana Momokawa might connect over? Oh yes—a “dress like the person you want to be, set yourself apart from the masses” interest like street fashion, slightly out of date on the Jingu Bridge scene in 2008 but still very much alive in Harajuku and in print in the form of FRUiTS magazine, Egg, Popteen and others. Tokyo street fashion is all about reinvention, and that’s the theme that runs throughout the novel.

Somehow, from that one “I wonder what it would be like to sleep outside here in Shibuya?” musing, I ended up with a novel about two friends a world apart who connect over fashion magazines.

A lot of my work develops in a similar way; a sudden flash of inspiration comes that I note down, and I think about how I can adapt that concept to settings I know and characters that complement it. I have a whole folder full of these random ideas, one liners, that have struck me at one point or another. Eventually, more of them will hopefully turn into stories.

# How has your creation process improved over time?

My creation process has typically been all over the place, to be honest. I used to be what they call a pantser in writing terms—that is, I sat down without anything but the vaguest idea in my head (see above) and just wrote whatever came to mind without consideration for how it might progress or how it might end. Characters just sort of appeared and developed on their own. I enjoyed this style more than I do the more plotted style, but it doesn’t work as well for standard novels as it does for, say, a short story or a National Novel Writing Month project. Once you reach an impasse, it can be a lot harder to get out of it if you don’t know where the plot is eventually supposed to go. I feel like when I start a novel as part of a National Novel Writing Month project, which I try to do every year or two, I don’t have time to plot in detail, and everything I’ve already written is very fresh in mind with a deadline hanging over my head. I can enjoy the process of pantsing and then go back later to make sure the story beats happen at the right places. It’s writing unfettered, with feeling. However, on a normal long-term novel project, pantsing does not work as well for me. Too much time passes in between the writing of scenes, and my editor has pointed out that I often repeat details (sometimes on the same page) because I didn’t take stock of the fact that I already established that detail. I started plotting as a result, using beat sheets to help with the timing of major events. I never expected to be this kind of writer, but when I’m facing writer’s block, or I’ve reached a point where I really want to speed through to the next interesting scene and skip over the boring one that I’m in the middle of, having a pre-planned plot can really help. I may not have thought too long and hard about how the characters would get from point A to point B, but if I know they have to get to point B, having a mapped out version of the story will help me get them there without glossing too much over the details.

# Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

I definitely think there needs to be a balance between serving your readership and satisfying yourself as an author. You can’t go too far in either direction. I personally would never write a book that I felt deviated so strongly that I didn’t enjoy working on it at all—what kind of dedication is that? However, your readers are the ones with the book in their hands at the end of the day. You sometimes have to adapt.

For example, with Edokko, I originally didn’t think it necessary for the main character to date anyone while on her student exchange in Japan. Not because she didn’t have time or interest, but because I didn’t want a hackneyed love plot clogging up the intended direction I was going in, which was focusing on the friendship between Lily and her sister. I thought adding a love interest would not only overly complicate things, but also come off as a little bit trite, because it wasn’t an element that was important to me as a writer—I don’t identify as aromantic like Grace, the main Hachiko character does, but I’d grown tired of shoehorned romantic subplots in other YA novels, and I’d intended to leave such things out of my books when I felt a love interest wasn’t necessary for the story. As a young reader, I also distinctly remembered being annoyed at all the crushes in books I was reading, because I just wasn’t into it at the time. At sixteen, my friends and I were more about adventures and Nintendo than we were romance. As a result, the very first version of Edokko went out to the original beta readers with almost no romantic elements whatsoever.

My first beta reader quickly came back to me and pointed out that she thought it was improbable for Lily not to date at all during her year in Japan, and if I went in that direction, I was hitting more of a middle grade audience than YA. There was an expectation for a teen novel that you had to be openly interested, or openly disinterested in dating, one way or the other. You couldn’t just avoid the topic. I had to begrudgingly agree that it was a market expectation, and because I did want it to resonate with teen readers and be authentic, I added in the character of Tamaki as a little crush for Lily that wouldn’t detract too much from the main storyline. The addition actually helped her get on track for the character arc I had planned in the end.

I thought I had seen the end of it by that point, after adding in little sprinkles of other boys she might be interested in, like Katano, the president of the English club, and Nakabayashi, one of the rough and tumble boys in her class who was a bit of a leader among their classmates. Katano was very interested in Lily’s sister, and I intended for them to get together by the novel’s end, but Lily remained too hung up on her rejection to pursue any other boys herself.

When I sent it through another beta reading circuit, though, the new readers were bothered that the threads of potential interest between Lily and her other suitors were not pursued! I ended up having to go back again and draw two of them even closer together. The early readership won out here over what I as an author wanted to do—I didn’t want to have to write a romance into Edokko just because it’s “expected” in a teen novel, but my beta readers twisted my arm, and the story is better for it. Lily’s character benefited greatly from her crushes, to my surprise, without changing the scope too much. In fact, I have a sequel in the works for Edokko that revisits Lily and one of the boys five years later—and this time, she’s much more certain about how things are going to go. (Keep an eye out for that sometime next year!)

Of course, with only two published novels under my belt, I don’t have the pressure other authors face to please their established readership. In a series where readers have invested a lot of time and emotional effort into the story, not only are you not going to please everyone, but as time goes on, some readers are going to feel that they could write your story better than you could. (And sometimes they do! Ah, fanfiction!) I’ve observed as a reader and a fan how divided fanbases can become over what does or doesn’t happen in an ongoing series, and I think it’s fine to give the reader more of what they want, as long as it’s within the scope of your plot and keeps you as an author happy with the end result. I would, however, draw the line at changing a long-planned major arc or plot point away from how I intended it to go. If the author’s vision was for a character to live or die, or two characters to end up together at the end of a series (just look to Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or any of the other famous YA love triangles that bitterly divided fans), I can’t advocate a switch based on fan expectation. Balance between your readers’ desires and your own is key. You can’t please everyone, no matter what you choose!

# What are your plans for future books?

I have a lot going on, and at least five projects in varying stages. Currently, I’ve drawn up an outline for a long fantasy series called Foreign Thorn, my first foray into fantasy as a writer. Because I’m new to the genre, I plan to release it free as a serial first, starting on Royal Road, but you may eventually spot it elsewhere! I’m hoping that by working in a serial format, I can use the feedback from readers to navigate a genre I have read but never written in.

The story is that of Jian, newly sixteen and the only girl in her village who hasn’t received her enlightenment on what her life path is to be. She’s begun to see a familiar face in her dreams, a face she knows from somewhere, but she isn’t certain where, and leaves home, believing finding this boy will lead her to her Path. Unbeknownst to Jian, she actually has met him already, and the memory surfacing will change both their fates in ways they never would have expected. Foreign Thorn will be available on Royal Road in June 2021.

I’m also working on the new Sakura+Maple story I mentioned above, as well as editing the first in a set of middle-grade dystopian adventure books written with a partner, expected late 2021. I’m playing with the idea of writing other serials if Foreign Thorn turns out to be a good way of working for me—it’s been many years since I tried it, since I haven’t written a serial since my university days, but I remember it being more fun than the solitary work of writing a novel on one’s own. After half a year of revising Edokko for publication and launching it, I’m not ready yet to dive into a 40-hour workweek of novelling from scratch.

Who knows? Serials might be my thing; I know that if Kindle Vella becomes available to Canadian authors, I’ll be giving it a try, too!

# Tell us some quirky facts about yourself

I love nostalgia properties, and not just when it comes to things I loved when I was younger. I usually find myself getting into a book, game, television show or movie long after everyone else has seen it—I just saw the Terminator movies for the first time, I’m in the middle of watching the first season of That 70s Show right now, and I didn’t play Final Fantasy VII until 2017. I’m usually late to the party!

I’m guilty of overuse of both exclamation points and em dashes all the time, in my writing and everyday emails, chats, even this interview—yikes!

I recently bought roller skates, but it remains to be seen whether it’s yet another athletic activity I’ll be terrible at, or this will be the one I’ll end up actually liking.

I curate a Bookstagram account on Instagram, where I post reviews, photos of my shelves and reads. My feed isn’t as pretty as some of the ones out there who are completely devoted to the medium, but I find it really fun, and I’ve come across great new books after seeing them on Bookstagram!

I own a heated kotatsu table (two, actually) that I brought back from Japan when I lived there, and I use it as my working desk 80% of the time.

I have a snuggly black cat who likes to hang out in my office while I write, and often stands in my lap for the first ten minutes after I sit down at my desk to nuzzle my face. Or he lays on the kotatsu itself, when he can get away with it. He’s too cute!

Always keep reading!

Links: http://links.lorengreene.com/