Interview with Nina Coomes: “I want to preserve that spark inside me that drives creativity.”

Nina Li Coomes is a Japanese and American writer. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The AtlanticGuernica  and Catapult, among other places. In 2018 she was an Aspen Summer Words Fellow in Memoir, in 2019 a Tin House Scholar, and in 2022 was awarded a residency at Hedgebrook.  

Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, a Chicago Review of Books Award, and was listed as a Notable Mention in Best American Travel Writing 2020.  In 2022, her essay on ramen and silent dining was included by Sohla El-Waylly in Best American Food Writing. She is represented by Annie Hwang at Ayesha Pande Literary, and has an MFA + MA in nonfiction from the Litowitz Program at Northwestern University. 

Hi Nina, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! As someone who was born in Nagoya and now resides in Chicago, how has your background and multicultural upbringing influenced your writing?

Hello! I’d say my background and multicultural upbringing has influenced my writing deeply, insofar as it is likely the catalyst for why I write. I grew up trying to translate different contexts and cultures and making meaning from whatever happened (or was lost) in between. That to me is still the basic project of what I’m trying to do as a writer. 

Your article “The Strange Comfort of Jet Lag” for The New York Times is a beautiful reflection on your experience of travelling between your two homes in Japan and the United States. How did the idea for this piece come about, and what inspired you to write it?

The idea for this piece was many years in the making, and had actually been pitched many times unsuccessfully, even once to the New York Times. The idea came about because I wanted to describe a thing I love which a lot of people hate — jet lag. I was also really moved by Jazmine Hughes writing about pothos plants in the same column. I wanted to do what she was doing, but for something from my life. 

You describe feeling both anxiety and comfort in the experience of jet lag, which is something many people can relate to. Can you tell us more about how you navigate these conflicting emotions, and what helps you find comfort in the familiarity of jet lag?

I don’t navigate them very much anymore, I just let those feelings happen. There’s not much finding or searching to be done in the experience of jet lag for me. It’s a moment of embodiment, a time to just be and let the experience wash over me.

In the article, you write about the small, precious moments that jet lag affords you, such as eating at a 24-hour Japanese diner or taking a walk with your husband. How do these moments help you feel more grounded and connected to your homes in Japan and the United States?

Again, it is less that the moments help me and more that these are the moments of grounding and connection I experience even while being disoriented or physically uncomfortable. Usually my writing is trying to describe something about lived experience with as much precision as possible first. The meaning making happens later, either through my own processing on the page, or through the processing of the reader. 

You have written for several publications, including The Atlantic and Guernica, and your work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Can you talk about how you approach your writing, and what themes or topics you are most drawn to?

I approach my writing from a place of incessant curiosity as well as a sincere desire to always be making something. Whether it’s a review or an essay or a poem or a novella, even if I fail at the actual production of the thing, I want to preserve that spark inside me that drives creativity.

As for themes and topics I’m most drawn to: women and their relationships to other women, folk wisdom, whales and whaling, film and television, borders and borderlessness, portrayals of Japan, U.S-Japan relations, food and foodways, climate fiction, classical music, ghost stories (of all kinds).

Like I said, it’s pretty wide ranging but if there’s a central way I approach all of these topics it is to notice something about the given topic and then ask: how did it come to be this way? and what does this thing say about us as a whole? 

In addition to your writing, you have worked as a television news producer for a major Japanese news network and as a research assistant at the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at Harvard University. How have these experiences influenced your writing and storytelling, if at all?

On a thematic level, both of these jobs allowed me to be in contact with topics I am interested in as a writer. But more importantly, these were the first places I learned how to be a working writer. My work happens in the margins of a 9-5, squished by the need to pay my bills.

What I mean to say is I am very aware of the dearness and direness of writing because it is so hard won in the context of the work day. The knowledge that, despite exhaustion and a million projects at once, I will still be daydreaming about finishing an essay, has been an instructive one that’s kept me going. 

It also means I’m always going to be a writer who is aware of the value of the dollar. I was complaining the other day to one of my dearest friends who was then a union organiser about how I wished I had a rich sponsor or some other source of income so I could spend everyday making things.

She said something then to me which I come back to a lot: that in her opinion, it’s valuable to have art made by people who know what it means to work. I still wish I could spend more time making things and less time making money but I carry those words of hers with me. This work life is a seasoning, a sort of salt for my writing.

You were awarded a residency at Hedgebrook in 2022. What are you hoping to accomplish during your time there, and how do you think this residency will support your writing goals?

While at Hedgebrook, I worked on a book proposal and I also started hashing out a novel. I am still very much at work on both of those things now. The greatest support Hedgebrook offered me was the opportunity to be in community with other women writers. I felt in awe every day when we shared our meals together. I’m just going to shout them out: it was a gift to learn from and share space with Nicole Shawan Junior, Crystal Wilkinson and Piper Lane. I let go of a lot of fear thanks to their presence. 

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

A few years ago I would have said I don’t have much of a routine, but in the last year I became my family’s main breadwinner which has necessitated becoming more regimented. Right now, I try to write for an hour or more after work, usually from 7-8 PM CST. That’s when my husband cleans the dinner dishes and also when my favourite radio program is on — Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin.

The program airs on 98.7 WFMT, Chicago’s local classical station, and is an hour of various pieces interspersed with Bill’s gentle, crackly voice explaining some or another element of what we’ve just heard. Usually I have it turned very low, almost a murmur, so I can concentrate on what I’m writing but I find the music and conversation really gets me into a mode. I feel like I’m making something in a large wooden hall where other people are making and have made things too. I like the feeling of making art and writing communally.

Other bits and bobs: If I have edits for a piece that needs turning around, I tend to wake up early and knock those out before my work day begins. Large scale structural edits are for the weekend. If I’m really in a spell of avoiding writing, I turn to other mediums, mostly painting. Also, for the last month I’ve found another friend who is my neighbour and is also a morning person. We’ve been meeting every Friday at 7 at our local coffee shop to write for an hour and a half before our work day. I hope that continues — it’s been such a treasure.

Big caveat: I write all this with the knowledge that I’m mere days away from hopefully welcoming our infant daughter into the world. I am not sure what my routine will look like after that, but if my life thus far has been any indication, time becoming scarce and more precious has been a constructive parameter in my writing life. I hope it continues that way. (I also look to the examples of writers like Victor LaValle and Sharon Horgan who have both candidly talked about how the experience of new parenthood forced them into being strict with themselves around writing, which allowed them to write better. I want to follow in those footsteps.) 

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

Toni Morrison. Someone who had children and a job and friends and politics and on top of it all managed not to just be a writer but to be the best American writer of the last century. I’m also curious to know what Elena Ferrante’s writing life is like, how secrecy has been or isn’t important to her career.

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

I recently re-read Mary Karr’s Lit which felt just as generous and straightforward as it did the first time. I read Alexander Chee’s How to Write An Autobiographical Novel every year. It is my North Star. In new-to-me books, I finished Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future which I found illuminating in terms of form, terrifying and hopeful in terms of substance.

I also read We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson. The first chapter is a masterclass in how to build tension. The new translation of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Kappa by Lisa Hoffman-Kuroda and Allison Markin Powell was both a delight and gave me a lot to think about, as did Nishanth Injam’s The Best Possible Experience. I keep an annual list of books with notation on what I particularly enjoyed — you can find other recommendations throughout the years here.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers, especially those who are looking to explore their own personal experiences and identities in their writing?

Get a library card and read books for free. Also, publishing is not writing. I am still learning this one myself, but especially as essayists who deal with stories of the self, I want to warn writers (and myself) against selling our own pain and pleasure before it has settled and become something we understand enough to write well about.

Finally, rejections from editors are not personal. They are doing you a favour by not letting you embarrass yourself in public — not to mention rejections are a badge that say you put yourself out there and tried. Go out there and fall! Don’t let yourself be the person who says no to you. Let someone else do the honours.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

Radio for WFMT; yoga ball for pregnant writer; second work laptop that is shut because day job hours are over; water for hydration; paintings I did to illustrate the essays in my book proposal when I went through a dry spell where I couldn’t edit them or even really look at them; my writing table dreamt up by me and hand made by my dad — I wanted something that would be long enough to accommodate multiple types of work at once. 

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