Interview with Belle Brett, Author of Gina and the Floating World

Belle Brett’s gripping, sensuous debut novel Gina and the Floating World follows twenty-something American expatriate Dorothy Falwell’s unplanned reinvention from bank intern to bar hostess in 1980’s Tokyo. A graduate of Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program, Brett drew on personal experience to portray a world of unorthodox Zen instruction, erotic art, and high-octane sex. According to Kirkus Review, “Brett’s engaging and compulsively readable debut traces one woman’s erotic coming-of-age in a frank, intelligent manner…A sharply observed and unforgettable debut.”

Gina in the Floating World is part of a “blog tour” in which book bloggers are posting about Brett’s novel during the month of September. A Goodreads Giveaway is under way until September 18.

What drew you to this material, and how did the story take shape?

In my 20s, I traveled for a year, spending most of my time in Asia. After my original plans to go to Australia went awry because of a typhoon, I found a cheap ticket that would take me back to the US with stopovers of in various Asian cities, including Osaka and Tokyo. I planned to spend only a few weeks in Japan as I was low on money, but through a connection I’d made earlier in the trip, I took a job as a bar hostess for a few months. It was one of the most eye-opening and challenging experiences of my life. Years later, when I became interested in screenwriting, I drew on those experiences in Japan as the basis for a screenplay. I novelized it shortly thereafter, abandoned the project for a while, and then attended a novel writing workshop in Tucson in 2006. The workshop leader loved the premise and thought it was highly marketable but encouraged me to ramp up the stakes, the drama, and the sex.  And, so I did!

This part of the revision process involved doing extensive research on a variety of subjects, including Japanese nightlife and sexual culture, Zen, the yakuza (Japanese gangsters), and Japanese arts, among others. At this stage, I found myself moving further away from my own experiences as I restructured the plot. Although I always told the story as a first-person narrative, my protagonist is very different from me in background, personality, and goals. I think those differences freed me up to allow her to venture into some dark territory. At some point, maybe after the third draft, I began to see the parallels in my story with the Wizard of Oz, and I made a deliberate decision to take advantage of those parallels. They aren’t crucial to one’s appreciation of the novel, but they do add another layer.

Gina’s goals evolve quite a lot during the book’s opening chapters. Can you describe what she wants when she arrives in Japan, and how her objectives change?

In the beginning, the goals of my protagonist (whose real name is Dorothy, but who is named Gina by the owner of the bar where she works) are instrumental – she wants to be accepted into a prestigious international MBA program to pursue a career in business. In doing so, she hopes to show her somewhat distant parents her worth, even though her ultimate goal is to have a life that’s different from the restricted one she knows. But first, she needs experience in another culture. She’s in Tokyo to complete a banking internship, which she discovers is unpaid.

Her purpose in taking the job as a bar hostess is strictly financial. She doesn’t see its potential for learning until she meets Mr. Tambuki, who becomes her mentor and helps her to open herself up to a new range of experiences. For a long while, her objective is just to absorb as much as she can. In doing so, she learns more about herself but also becomes confused in this complex new world to the point where she loses her sense of self and selling her sexual services feels normal. She is unmoored–truly in a “floating world.” (The title of the novel refers to the pleasure-seeking quarters of old Tokyo although, clearly, it is a metaphor for Dorothy’s state of being.) Without giving away the plot, I will say that things work out differently for her than she planned.

The concept of Zen recurs frequently during Gina’s exchange with her patron, Mr. Tambuki. “I am pleased you are able to put what happened behind you. That, you see, is very Zen. So, you have already learned one important lesson.” What does Zen mean to him, and to Gina?

Mr. Tambuki is worldly but proud of being Japanese. He is aware that through her work in the bar, Gina is seeing some baser elements of the culture, and I believe he wants her to understand some of its purer and more sophisticated aspects, especially the arts and the way of Zen. He’s very into his teaching role with her, but because of her naivete, the potential for abuse of that role is there.  I will leave it to the reader to decide how his motives evolve in relation to Gina. For Gina/Dorothy, Zen becomes a new way of dealing with her experiences and her environment. A key principle of Zen, as I understand it, is to focus one’s attention on the present, the here and now, through mindfulness—not to dwell on the past or focus too far ahead into the future. Her attempts to embody this principle have both positive and negative effects on her and the choices she makes.

You’ve populated your novel with an appealing cast of secondary characters – Berta, Baby Elvis, and Hiro, to name a few. Do you have a favorite? What advice can you share with fellow writers on how to render support characters successfully?

I love developing these characters, and I’m always sad when I have to delegate some of them to the cutting room floor. My favorite in this novel is probably Berta, an American expat in her mid-thirties who works alongside Gina in the bar—she’s loud, profane, and xenophobic, frequently putting down Japan, the country she’s lived in for all her adult life. But she looks out for Gina in a motherly way, perhaps with more tenderness than she shows her own 15-year-old daughter. She’s unlike anyone Gina has ever met in her sheltered life, but Gina trusts her and sees the good in her, and in her own way, Berta grounds Gina.  Of course, I love Hiro, too—his combination of gentleness and strength, his sincerity and enthusiasm.

In order to write secondary characters successfully, you have to flesh them out so that you could picture them starring in their own stories. They should be distinguishable by their voices, their looks, their mannerisms. I’m often surprised when I read novels by well-respected authors, and their characters all sound alike. Writing detailed character sketches, including backstories, and rewriting some scenes from a secondary character’s point of view can help you understand them better. Basing parts of your secondary characters on people you know can bring them alive. In my novel, Berta, Hiro, and Penny (Berta’s daughter) were inspired by my memories of specific people I met while in Japan. But I mix and match traits and appearance from different people, too, in this creation process.

“Gina in the Floating World” is set in the 1980’s, but themes of sexual harassment resonate in the #MeToo era we are living through now. What can we learn about today’s tangled sexual politics from life in Tokyo during the 1980’s?

Prior to my trip to Asia, I’d been deeply involved with what is referred to as the second wave of feminism. Our focus had been more on equal opportunity in careers and work, gender equity in pay, and role-sharing at home than on sexual harassment per se, although we certainly talked about the objectification of women. With these foci, coupled with the much greater sexual freedom we enjoyed compared to that of our older sisters, I think many women of my generation tolerated what we now see as sexual harassment and the misuse of sexual power by men. It was a double-edged sword. We were trying to have it all, and perhaps we saw putting up with that behavior as part of the price for the gains we were making.  Or perhaps it was a matter of priorities at that time. There were so many battles to fight.

As I think about Dorothy/Gina’s story (and the ways it was informed by my own experiences), I see several different levels, each of which has parallels in our own society. First, there is the layer of sanctioned behavior that while offensive may not be physically threatening. Initially, I was shocked by the crude behavior of the drunken male customers at the bar where I worked in Japan —the coarse language, the attention to women’s body parts, the attempts at touching.  It was so opposite of the generally polite demeanor I experienced outside of the bar and what we tend to associate with Japanese culture.  Like Gina, I got used to this behavior within the circumscribed context of the bar where such behavior was permissible and tried not to take it personally. Gina’s friend Suki tells her to pretend she’s acting, and I think I did that. As unpleasant as it was, the behavior wasn’t particularly threatening as it might have seemed on the street at night at home in the States. And Tokyo was extraordinarily safe, day and night, even with some inappropriate touching on a crowded train. But is such behavior and objectification of women harmless even when there is no follow-up? In Gina’s case, did she internalize this constant barrage of commentary so that she began to see herself and her body as a commodity?

The second level is exemplified by Gina’s relationship with Mr. Tambuki, and Suki’s with her “patron.” Though consensual in both cases, these were not relationships of equality, and each man had expectations of their female partners that were demeaning at the same time they showed evidence of caring. Thus, the signals were mixed. Was each woman truly free to leave the relationship at any time?  What would be the consequences?

The third level comes when Gina broadens her clientele. She has made this choice and reaps some of the financial benefits of that choice, but now she is operating outside of the established rules and the safety net of the odd range of sexual venues that make up what are referred to as the “water trades.”  Does that mean she is asking for whatever will be dished out?

In American society, we have norms rather than rules (although we have laws). But norms, especially those related to these issues of sexual transgressions, often operate without safety nets and consequences as they would in the Japanese society of the time in which the book is set.  The kind of behavior permissible in the bar was not permissible on the street. “No” means “no” during an unasked-for attempt at sex. (Of course, one can question whether these behaviors should be permissible in the first place, even if the consequences are clear.) In the past, in exchange for greater opportunity and freedom, American women put up with the unspoken norms and abuses of male power. Now, in the #MeToo movement, women are standing up and saying that we should not need to compromise ourselves. We want new rules, with consequences for men who transgress at all levels, whether at the level of a Harvey Weinstein or at the level of the person whose crude joking makes a woman feel uncomfortable. And we want to feel safe.

I don’t have all the answers, but I hope that my novel will spark conversation on this all-important and very current topic.

Building upon the previous question, where do you think relations between the sexes stand in present-day Japan?

I am much less familiar with current day Japan, but I know that gender roles are less rigid then they once were. Nevertheless, my understanding is that rules are still very important and that hostess bars, which are tied to the business culture, and some of these other “water trades,” still exist. From the more recent accounts I’ve read, it seems similar to what I experienced. I’d be interested in knowing more about how young people are changing this culture. My husband and I hope to visit Japan in the next couple of years, so maybe we’ll find out.

Can you talk about the process of taking this book through successive drafts toward a finished manuscript? What role did Grub Street’s Novel Incubator play in that evolution? What about your editor at She Writes Press?

“Gina” went through many, many drafts. The most significant changes happened between the first draft and the fourth draft, and then again, after I participated in Grub Street’s Novel Incubator (NI) program in 2011-12. Over the years, I received a lot of feedback from various people, including my ongoing writers’ group that came from a Novel in Progress class I took at Grub Street in 2006-07. In between writing the middle and last drafts of “Gina,” I wrote several drafts of a very different kind of novel–the one I used in the Novel Incubator. That one went through some major changes during and after the program. After I shopped it around without much success, I returned to “Gina,” which my husband (one of my favorite editors!) believed was the more marketable of the two.  Prior to the Incubator, I thought “Gina” was in pretty good shape, but with my new critical eye, I saw that it needed some serious editing—starting the story much later, eliminating extraneous scenes and characters, and tightening it up at the sentence level.

She Writes Press (SWP) works differently from most traditional publishers. It’s a “hybrid” press, and the vetting process they use to decide whether to publish your book assigns your book to one of three tracks, two of which require extensive editing. I was thrilled when “Gina” was accepted into the first track, which meant that it would receive only a light copy-edit/proofread. Only a tiny percentage of SWP books qualify for the first track.  I credit much of that success to what I learned in the Novel Incubator program about what constitutes good writing.

What goals do you and She Writes Press have for the launch? How do you plan to promote the book?

Early on, SWP asks its authors to complete extensive questionnaires about their goals. Although SWP has a sales distribution team and a supportive community, the actual work of promotion and marketing is up to the authors and the publicists they hire. These days, that’s the case for most authors, whether with traditional publishing houses, small presses, or self-published. Many SWP authors, including myself, work with a publicity group that has close ties to SWP (BookSparks, in this case) and knows how to position SWP books for optimum exposure. Part of my “homework” for my publicist was to write several “essays” related to my book, but not about my book, which they then place, usually in on-line magazines. In addition, I’ve written several posts for “Dead Darlings” and maintain a blog on my writing website (www.bellebrett.com).

My publicist has also landed me interviews with a local online journal (WickedLocalSomerville), which came out recently, and a podcast.  Gina in the Floating Worldhas been selected for their “Fall Reading Challenge” and will be part of a “blog tour” in which book bloggers will post about my novel during the month of September. I’ve been reviewed by Kirkus Reviews.  I set-up author pages on Amazon, Goodreads, and BookBub, and my books is available on these online markets. I was excited to discover that many of the international Amazon sites, including Japan, Germany, the UK, and Australia, all have “Gina” listed.

Both SWP and our publicists encourage us to be active on social media, especially Facebook (through our author’s page), Instagram (my favorite), and Twitter, and I’ve taken several webinars for authors about using these platforms. As for a book tour, I decided that I would focus on New England. I’m excited about my launch at Porter Square Books, my local indie bookstore, on October 2.  I am planning to do house-party readings, and am particularly interested in doing book clubs (by Skype). I believe that “Gina” raises many relevant issues for today’s women (and men!), and I’ve included a list of possible discussion questions in the back of the novel.

I’ve also been part of the active Novel Incubator graduate community to help me promote “Gina” through their own social media networks and reviews. My SWP sisters are also part of my personal promotion team. In particular, I have a “publication buddy,” Cheryl Suchors, whose beautiful memoir, 48 Peaks, Hiking and Healing in the White Mountains, comes out two weeks before mine and launches at Porter Square Books on September 13.

Finally, as an artist, I am creating a series of artworks, mostly collages, inspired by my novel. I call it my “Japan Series.” Currently, I am looking for an exhibit venue, where I hope also to do a reading.  I love combining these two areas of my creative life. The marketing side of publishing is somewhat overwhelming, and the art provides some respite from this intense activity. So, overall, I hope that “Gina” will catch on and sell well, but truthfully, the real triumph is just in getting it published.

What works of fiction do you turn to, year in and year out, for inspiration and instruction?

I love books that represent my own favorite writing theme—coming-of-age across the lifespan. Several books I read as an adolescent have stayed meaningful to me because of their portrayal of growing up. An all-time favorite, for its extraordinary voice is Catcher in the Rye(JD Salinger), which I first read in the 9thgrade and reread every couple of years. As I’ve aged, I’ve seen Holden in a different light. From that same period of my life, To Kill a Mockingbird(Harper Lee), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn(Betty Smith), and A Separate Peace(John Knowles) have remained constants in my life. As an adult, I’ve read and admired Jane Austin—her wit, her insights into human nature, her young women who yearn for something more. Other authors I admire include Tom Perrotta and Ann Tyler, both of whom do an excellent job of character development. Memoirs of a Geisha(Arthur Golden) was an inspiration for “Gina.” In recent years, I’ve made a point of reading all the books produced by Novel Incubator graduates, and now appreciate much more than I did before the craft of writing and revision. I just finished Louise Miller’s delightful The Late Bloomer’s Club. I like the coziness of her stories, her feeling for place, and the wonderful job she does of using all her senses, especially the one we often overlook, the sense of taste. What else would one expect from a pastry chef?

What’s next?

I have another completed novel under my belt—one I worked on during the Novel Incubator program: How to Write a Best Seller.  As a novel of midlife with a lot of humor in it, it’s quite different from “Gina.” I created the original screenplay with a close friend, who gave me permission to novelize it and keep all the rights. So, I will try to find some way to get that out into the world. I’m one of the older Novel Incubator graduates, so I don’t know how many more novels I have in me, but I do have a goal of writing something, whether a short-story or a novella, about each decade in the lifespan. I have a partial manuscript about adolescence and an idea for a story about a man in his 50s. At this stage of my life, my primary goal is to enjoy the journey!

2 comments

  1. Congratulations, Brett and nice to meet a writing neighbor. I’ve been following Grub Street for years but haven’t yet taken any courses. Thank you for sharing your story and background. It’s so essential for aspiring writers to get a realistic “behind-the-scenes” look at the long winding road to publication. We need to hear more stories of “late bloomers”, too. I’m working on a novel set in 1984 Boston about a young woman working as an exotic dancer in the former Combat Zone area. Lots of research for me, too. Really looking forward to reading your book.

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