Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Iris Yamashita: “Weekends and holidays are writing days as well.”

Iris Yamashita is a screenwriter and author who grew up in Missouri, Hawaii, Guam, California, and Japan. Although she studied engineering at UC San Diego and UC Berkeley, her true passion has always been fiction writing.

Her career began when she submitted a screenplay to a competition and was discovered by an agent at the Creative Artists Agency. Her breakthrough moment came when she wrote the script for Letters From Iwo Jima, directed by Clint Eastwood, which won numerous awards including a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.

Iris has also published a debut mystery novel, City Under One Roof, set in a small Alaskan town where everyone lives in a single high-rise building. Additionally, she has written a musical for a Japanese theme park with Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori.

In addition to her writing, Iris has taught screenwriting at the University of California, Los Angeles and the American Film Institute, and continues to work in Hollywood developing film and streaming media projects.

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Hi Iris, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind your debut novel, City Under One Roof?

The inspiration for the novel was the real city of Whittier, Alaska where most of the residents live in a single high-rise building and the only way to access the town by land is through a 2.5 mile tunnel through a mountain. It seemed like a perfect setting for a locked city type of mystery. Going through the narrow tunnel, I also couldn’t help but get the sense that I was falling down a rabbit hole and would end up in a Wonderland full of odd characters. 

The main character in City Under One Roof, Cara Kennedy, is a detective with her own motives for investigating the possible murder. What influenced your decision to create a protagonist with such complexity and depth?

As a writer, I’ve been conditioned to always think about stakes and motivations, and to me it’s always more interesting if the person involved in a murder mystery has some personal reason for why they are there rather than just being a hired sleuth. I think it’s also the goal of any writer to create multi-faceted characters, so I’m so glad that the protagonist came off as multidimensional. 

The town of Point Mettier is described as a place where everyone has something to hide. How did you approach crafting the various characters in the novel, and how did you decide what secrets to give each of them?

In my mind, I thought that the people who would choose to live in such a sequestered city might have things to hide, which of course, is perfect for a murder mystery. I didn’t know right off the bat, however, what each character’s secret was. It was more of an evolutionary process where ideas came while writing them. A tip I learned from screenwriting and used to pass on to students is the dialogue test. If you can pull a line of dialogue from anywhere in the story and know which character is speaking, that’s a sign of a well-developed character.

What was your experience like transitioning from screenwriting to novel writing? Did you encounter any particular challenges?

I had always wanted to write books, long before I started writing screenplays, so it probably wasn’t as hard to make the transition as it would have been for someone who had never dabbled in writing prose fiction before. However, having written many screenplays, I had gotten used to minimal physical descriptions, especially of characters, because you don’t know who is going to get cast, so the focus is more on their personality. For the novel, I had to go back in and throw in some physical descriptions of my protagonist after realizing that I hadn’t described the way she looked. 

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As a successful screenwriter, you’ve worked on a variety of film and streaming media projects. Can you tell us a bit about your process for developing stories for different mediums, and how it compares to writing a novel?

I think the basic tenets of storytelling are the same. You want to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and you want your characters to go on a journey whether it’s emotional or physical, with something changed or resolved by the time you conclude. The main difference is that your role as screenwriter is being just one piece in a huge machine.

You are often working off of someone else’s idea or IP (intellectual property) and it takes many people and much money to realize a finished product. To write a novel, an author is largely responsible for the finished product—you are the director, the cinematographer, the casting director, the set director and everything else. You are also writing original material without constraints on budget, cast or shooting locations, so I find writing novels to be very liberating.

How did it feel to have your screenplay for Letters From Iwo Jima receive such critical acclaim and recognition, including a Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film and nominations for 4 Oscars?

That was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It couldn’t have been any more Cinderella-like–an unproduced screenwriter getting to work with one of the biggest names in Hollywood. It was supposed to be a “companion film” to Flags of our Fathers and wasn’t initially meant to be a contender for awards. Originally, a Japanese director was supposed to direct the film, but once Clint Eastwood decided to direct the movie, it snowballed into something much bigger.

You’ve also taught screenwriting at the University of California, Los Angeles and the American Film Institute. What advice do you typically give to aspiring screenwriters, and how does that advice apply to other forms of writing like novel writing?

I tell my aspiring screenwriting students to keep their day jobs and this would apply to novel writing as well. I also have told my screenwriting students that it’s important to know how to address notes. Generally, the students who have become successful have heeded that advice. The students who choose to completely ignore notes don’t usually make it in Hollywood because it’s part of the business to have to address notes, whether you agree with them or not.

You will get notes and you will need to figure out how to deal with them. With writing novels, there will also be notes to address, but maybe less acrobatics are involved to figure out how to make fixes because they generally don’t have to do with budgeting, casting or trying to rewrite the story to someone else’s vision.

Can you tell us about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?

I’m not very structured with my writing schedule. Each day seems to be different depending on meetings, appointments and talks. I am also juggling several projects, working on screenplays, while also writing books. I tend to work on weekly “to do” schedules to keep me on track, so some days may have minimal writing time and other days I can spend the whole day writing. Weekends and holidays are writing days as well. To meet the deadline of my second book, I worked backwards, figuring out how many chapters I would have to write a week to get at least 3 drafts in and meet the deadline. That seemed to work well for me.

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

I would love to find out what Haruki Murakami’s routine is and where he gets his wildly creative ideas from. His stories also have global appeal so it would be interesting to hear how he’s able to cross cultures and what his influences are.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favourite recent reads?

Right now I am reading The Hunger by Alma Katsu. The Donner Party story has always been a fascinating one to me, especially after having visited the memorial park in Truckee, California, so Alma’s fictionalized horror story is a great read for me. Oddly, I haven’t read many mystery genre books, so I’m trying to catch up on those books. I have many, many books on my “to read” list, but the ones I have recently read are The Other Mrs. by Mary Kubica, Open Season by C.J. Box and Love You More by Lisa Gardner. I have enjoyed all three and will definitely be reading more books by these mystery authors.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

My desk used to be much messier, but since I may be moving soon, I’m trying to “Marie Kondify” everything. I just got an iMac but I kept my old monitor and hooked that up so now I have two big screens. I love having two screens and would recommend it for anyone who multi-tasks or does research. I also have an ergonomic keyboard and a Wacom tablet.

When I worked a full-time job, a couple of people had gotten carpal tunnel’s syndrome at the office, so I made an effort to have an ergonomic workspace. Now I’m so used to my set-up that I can’t go back to a regular mouse and I generally don’t like working at a café. 

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