Leza Lowitz is an award-winning poet, translator, essayist, screenwriter, and novelist, among other things. Her many books include Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By, the short story collection Green Tea to Go, and Beautiful Japan: A Souvenir. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Huffington Post, Yoga Journal, the anthology Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering, and many other publications. In addition to writing, she runs a popular yoga studio in Tokyo. Fellow She Writer Suzanne Kamata, whose most recent novel is Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible--a story about a biracial teen with cerebral palsy who aspires to be a manga artist--recently caught up with her to ask a few questions. Here, she finds out how Leza succeeded in selling book and film rights without an agent, what writing with her husband is like, and the story on the inspiration behind her latest work.
Suzanne Kamata: What is your latest book, Jet Black and the Ninja Wind, about?
Leza Lowitz: I love Japan. But I got tired of reading about girls in kimonos trailing behind boys. Where were the female warriors? They were hidden. They were ninja.
After Memoirs of A Geisha came out, we decided that we wanted to tell a story about a strong Asian heroine, so it’s an action-adventure tale about the last living female ninja.
You might imagine the ninja as B-Grade black-clad assassins of Hollywood, but they were more than that--they were tribal people who developed secret arts to protect themselves against invading forces. Women were skilled fighters, too. I was interested in that history; Shogo loved Native American culture. We connected Japanese tribal lore with the story of some special modern warriors--the Navajo Code Talkers.
So while Jet Black and the Ninja Wind is about a girl coming into her own power and skills, it's also about Japan's indigenous Emishi tribes and their fight to save their land.
The Navajo and Emishi tribes come together to save an ancient treasure and keep the past alive, with lots of spin-kicking ninja adventure along the way. It’s Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger crossed with Indiana Jones and The Da Vinci Code. Of course there’s a steamy love story, environmental concerns, and a dog-lovers’ bonus: a ninja Akita helps save the day.
Through Jet’s multicultural adventure, we hope readers will learn more about America’s Navajo heroes while discovering the real face of the ninja.
Suzanne Kamata: You co-wrote this book with your Japanese husband, Shogo Oketani. What was your writing process?
Leza Lowitz: Shogo did all the hard work--conceiving of the book, then writing, researching and translating his initial Japanese draft into English. I did the relatively fun part--helping him shape and edit the book and later, finding a publisher.
We’ve worked together on a lot of different projects over the past twenty years. He has the patience of a saint. Me? Not so much. So he does the deep dives and I go for the fast and furious stuff.
Suzanne Kamata: I know that you’ve been working on this book for a very long time, proving that persistence pays off! How many years did you spend, exactly, and how many drafts did the book go through?
Leza Lowitz: So many I can’t even count! It’s been a fifteen-year process, and we’ve gone through at least that many drafts. The book was initially 650 pages, now it's 320, so that should tell you something. Of course, in between the time we started writing Jet and its publication, we moved to a different continent, started a family, opened a business, and wrote and published a few other books--not to mention kept on top of the laundry and worked for a living!
The good thing is that when we first started this book, no one was interested in female action heroines. Now, with the Hunger Games, Brave, and City of Bones (among others), that has changed. So it was actually a good thing that it took so long. Fortunately, Book Two of the Jet trilogy won't take nearly as long--it’s set to come out in the fall of 2014.
Suzanne Kamata: Amazingly, you managed to sell Jet Black and the Ninja Wind as a book and sell the film rights for the story--something that many of us dream of--and you did it all without an agent! Could you talk a little about how you landed these deals?
Leza Lowitz: If you knock on enough doors enough times, one is bound to open, right? We learned that Tuttle, a long-time publisher of literature from Japan with whom I’d published two prior books, had just started a YA list. So we queried them and heard back within hours. After accepting Book One, Tuttle bought Books Two and Three based on the summaries and synopses.
The film option came about when the producer came to Tokyo to research another movie. At the introduction of friends, he came to my yoga studio to practice yoga. We went out for sushi after class, and he told me he was looking for a good story to film in Japan. I told him about Jet Black. He requested that we send him the manuscript and a synopsis. We did, and he bought the option. That spurred us on to keep going for Book Two.
Leza Lowitz: I’m working on a memoir about adopting a Japanese boy, and I’m also working on a verse novel about the 2011 Japan quake and tsunami, which I experienced. I'm also writing a semi-autobiographical YA novel about racial tensions in Berkeley in the 1970s centered around the friendship between two girls--one black, one white. Beyond that, my perennial project is keeping up with the laundry. Maybe I’ll be reborn as a ninja with magical housekeeping skills.