YA Guy: You’ve published widely as a journalist, a picture story book author, poetry and more. What made you decide to publish a novel for Young Adults?
Christine Kohler: I’ve always written in multiple genres and markets. Some professors criticized me for not focusing on just one. Today experts call that “building a platform.” But editors published my work in those different genres and markets, so that encouraged me not to limit myself. I was an editor and copy editor for a Hearst daily for several years when I started writing novels. I think I did so for a couple of reasons. One, there were stories I wanted to tell that could only be told as fiction, and in the longer form. Two, it was a challenge to write and publish novels. I needed to keep challenging myself as a writer.
YAG: No Surrender Soldier is a historical novel, based on the true story of a Japanese soldier, Shoichi Yokoi, who spent nearly three decades hiding in the jungles of Guam. What drew you to this story?
CK: I worked as a political reporter and foreign correspondent for Gannet, covering the West Pacific. I had lived in Japan, Guam and Hawaii for nearly a decade. While living and traveling throughout Pacific-Asia I was able to visit WWII battle sites and study aspects of the war in the Pacific Theatre firsthand. The courage of people on all sides in the face of horrendous atrocities and deprivation moved me deeply. Researching and writing No Surrender Soldier came out of my effort to try to understand why people do what they do under extreme circumstances.
YAG: How much time did it take you to do the research for No Surrender Soldier?
CK: It’s hard to put a time on my research. When I was a journalist in the Pacific I never thought about writing a novel. Studying WWII just came from a reverence for the people who fought and my natural curiosity. (When I was growing up, my dad took me to Civil War battle sites and told me stories about that war. On my blog I also wrote about how my dad read to me war literature as a child. My dad had served in the US Navy during WWII when he was only 16 years old.) I had brought a Guam high school history book back to the U.S. Mainland when I moved back, and years later I picked it up and read it, along with other books about Shoichi Yokoi and WWII on Guam.
YAG: One of the things I loved about No Surrender Soldier was the relationship between the narrator, 15-year-old Kiko, and two men from the World War II era: his grandfather and the stranded Japanese soldier. Tell us something about those relationships. Why were they important to you? Why are they important to Kiko?
CK: When I wrote the first draft of No Surrender Soldier, the relationship between Kiko and his grandfather is as it stands now in the finished book. It never changed. I’m really not sure where Tatan bihu San Nicolas (Kiko’s grandfather) sprang from. But I do know why I understood his personality and dementia. When I was in graduate school, I did media relations for a long term care community that has one of the best Alzheimer’s units in the country. When I wrote my story I was just telling a story. But in hindsight, I guess it was the best choice to give Kiko a close relationship with a man--his tatan--who went through hell trying to protect his family--and failed--during the Japanese occupation of Guam.
All three men are stuck. The grandfather tests Kiko in a rite of passage, with his father’s blessing. However, because of the dementia worsening, there is also a changing of roles, from protector to dependent and from dependent to protector. Isamu Seto, the WWII soldier, is also stuck emotionally, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. That’s all I can say without giving away spoilers. But those who read No Surrender Soldier will be able to see why it is a classic coming-of-age novel and why the Kirkus reviewer wrote, “Both characters form new understandings when they encounter one another.”
YAG: Another thing I loved about your book was how seriously and respectfully you treated the beliefs of the Chamorro people of Guam--both indigenous beliefs and Christian beliefs. Can you tell us some more about your approach to faith in this novel?
CK: Ninety-eight percent of Guamanians are Roman Catholic. As you can tell from my story, Old World Catholicism is part of their everyday life, from celebrating village patron saints in processions and fiestas to coming-of-age rites. I can’t imagine anyone writing a book, fiction or nonfiction, about Guam--Chamorros in particular--and not including how Catholicism plays a part in their lives.
I would also like to add that Isamu Seto is a devout Buddhist with Shinto beliefs and practices. Seto’s faith is every bit as vibrant and crucial to his character, culture and survival as Kiko’s Christian faith is in No Surrender Soldier.
YAG: I’m always interested when female authors choose to write from a male POV (and vice versa). What was involved in the creation of the character of Kiko? How did you decide a teenage boy was the right person to tell this story?
CK: From the first draft, Kiko was the main character. I never hesitated or waffled on this. It is Kiko’s story I needed to tell. What was a difficult decision, though, was to finally switch his voice from third to first person. I knew I had to nail the male voice and the Chamorro pidgin English authentically. That was the only scary part.
In my defense of being a woman writing a nearly all male cast, and a strong coming-of-age male book, one, I grew up as my dad’s “boy.” I’m the eldest from my parents’ first marriages, and have four brothers, four to seven years younger than me, from my parents’ second marriages. I lived with my dad, not my mother. So I grew up working on cars, fishing, dredging the lake, helping with fixing plumbing and electrical and fiber-glassing the boat, and building in the workshop. It’s no wonder I didn’t think anything about going into a male-dominated profession like journalism.
Secondly, a lot of male authors write novels with female protagonists and a lot of women authors write novels with male protagonists. What is gender different, though, is that women who write books with male protagonists often hide their gender using initials. Had I known at the beginning of my writing career that I would end up writing middle grade and young adult novels with strong male protagonists and themes, then I possibly would have used my childhood nickname, Chris. But I couldn’t have known. I believe teen guys are smart enough to care more about the story than the gender of the storyteller. After all, it didn’t stop them from reading a certain male protagonist book written by a female author who went by her initials J.K.!