Our Friend is Here! An Interview with Clarissa Goenawan, Author of In The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida – On Trusting the Writing Process, Grief, and Mental Health

Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.

Our Friend is Here: Asian and Pasifika Heritage Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond during the month of May, where Asian and Pasifika authors are invited to celebrate being Asian and Pasifika work and literature! Find the introduction post for Asian and Pasifika Heritage Month here.

The minute I heard about Clarissa Goenawan’s Rainbirds, it went on my TBR as one of my most anticipated books of 2018. The relationship between mental health, mystery, and a quiet slice of life intrigued me immediately. Rainbirds and her next release, The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida, exist within the same community of people, and give a sense of closeness, but also vastness, considering the tone and subject matter. While reading both, I loved the feeling of intimacy gazing upon these characters’ lives, but also the broad philosophical questions woven into the story.

I am so excited to have the honor of interviewing Clarissa for the Pond. In our interview, we talked about her next release, Watersong, grief, anime, manga, and “the little things” about life that we see in stories. I was shocked and awed when I heard that she had written novels during NaNoWriMo… Lord knows I don’t have that kind of drive! If you haven’t picked up her works, I am sure that you will love them, especially on a rainy day with maybe a pastry and tea, and some ASMR playing. She visits us today as a bunny with a hot cup of tea, wearing an adorable peach sweater.

The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan

University sophomore Miwako Sumida has hanged herself, leaving those closest to her reeling. In the months before her suicide, she was hiding away in a remote mountainside village, but what, or whom, was she running from?

Ryusei, a fellow student at Waseda who harbored unrequited feelings for Miwako, begs her best friend Chie to bring him to the remote village where she spent her final days. While they are away, his older sister, Fumi, who took Miwako on as an apprentice in her art studio, receives an unexpected guest at her apartment in Tokyo, distracting her from her fear that Miwako’s death may ruin what is left of her brother’s life.

Expanding on the beautifully crafted world of Rainbirds, Clarissa Goenawan gradually pierces through a young woman’s careful façade, unmasking her most painful secrets.

Find The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida:
Goodreads | Amazon | Indiebound | Book Depository | Bookshop

Author Interview: Clarissa Goenawan

Joce: Hi Clarissa, and a warm welcome to the Pond! Can you please tell our friends a little about yourself? 

Clarissa: Hello. I’m Clarissa. Some people call me Claire. I’m an Indonesian-born Singaporean writer and occasional translator (Bahasa Indonesia to English). I write literary mysteries set in Japan. Rainbirds, my debut novel, came out in 2018 has been published in eleven different languages. My second novel, The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida, was published in March 2020 (yes, during the start of the pandemic) I love eating, traveling (a thing of the past), rainy days, pretty books, and green tea. You can find me on Twitter (@ClaireClaire05) and Instagram (@ClarissaGoenawan)

Joce: I read that NaNoWriMo was the kick start to beginning both of your already published novels. What do you like about this condensed writing timeline, and are you planning on continuing this with future novels?

Clarissa: I’m a subscriber of writing the first draft fast to keep the momentum, perhaps because I’m the type of writer who discovers my characters and their story as I write them. I also love the sense of camaraderie from the NaNoWriMo community. I think I’ll continue this tradition as long as it’s working well for me.

Joce: As an author of literary mysteries, what is your writing process like around the mystery plotline elements – do you know how it is going to end when you start and work your way backwards, or do you start from the beginning, or something else?

Clarissa: One thing for sure is I’m not a plotter. I tried a few times but it never works for me. Rather, I usually have a sense of beginning, somewhat of an ending (though, most of the time, it changes), and a few key scenes in-between but nothing coherent. I just write whatever comes into mind as the story develops, hoping that eventually it’ll turn into something. I’m a believer in trusting your characters and letting them lead you to unexpected places. That being said, I spend a lot of time editing and this tends to become a very lengthy process.

Joce: As an Indonesian-born Singaporean author, what has your experience been with the reception of your novels in your country of residence versus overseas, both in terms of publishers and readers?

Clarissa: We don’t have that many publishers in Singapore and they’re generally easy to reach out to, hence you don’t need an agent to publish locally. The publishing circle is not very big. Everyone knows everyone. Most people in the industry tend to be nice and friendly. 

Singaporean readers, including me, are generally supportive towards local authors though perhaps more reserved compared to overseas readers. We exchange book recommendations with book lover friends and attend our favourite authors’ events and book club discussions, but a big display of affection is still pretty uncommon.

Overseas readers, on the other hand, can be very vocal about the books and authors they love. I’ve had readers tell me they flew from another city or took an overnight bus just to attend my events. A few brought personalised gifts or asked to take photographs together. Their willingness to go to great lengths to show their support really blew my mind. In contrast, when I had the opportunity to meet one of my favourite writers, I was too shy to start a conversation.

Joce: I read that you are a fan of anime and manga, and I feel like your novels read a bit like the “slice of life” genre, with some fabulist elements, in that it’s the small details that matter, and not big flashy scenes. What are some small details that are special to you in your novels that readers may not know from just their synopses?

Clarissa: You’re right about this! Japanese comics are my not-so-guilty pleasure, and I do enjoy slice-of-life manga as well as mystery and psychological. I’m easily amused by tiny details and seemingly unimportant gestures, like a certain character’s habit whenever they feel anxious or the worn out soles of their shoes. I also fancy a light touch of magical elements in stories.

One thing about my novels is that they feature my favourite things. Classic books, delicious Japanese comfort food, desserts and chocolates, beautiful cars from the nineties, jazz songs and classical music, my favourite season, and also, small everyday moments that dazzle me. By turning them into words, I hope to capture these precious memories forever. In a way, my novels are my time capsules.

Joce: In Rainbirds, grief is a prominent theme, and it is experienced in a variety of quiet ways throughout the book. How did you intertwine the grief process with the mystery plot line unfolding?

Clarissa: Using grief as a prominent theme wasn’t a deliberate decision, but rather what came out subconsciously as I wrote the book. If I were asked to specifically write about a certain emotion, this could be challenging. But because the emotion simply surfaced from the characters as I fleshed them out, they became a natural part of the story.

Joce: In The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida, mental health is at the forefront of the plot and character constructs. How did you incorporate the very realistic aspects of mental health challenges and trauma with the fabulist elements?

Clarissa: Mental health is an issue that I feel passionate about, as it is something I’ve been struggling with all my life, and I tend to write about things that affect me. To put it another way, it would be hard for me not to write about mental health, since it’s been constantly weighing on my mind. I also believe that life has its blend of little magic in various forms—sometimes it’s crystal clear, sometimes it’s muddy and confusing. This fascination probably explains why fabulist elements frequently come up in my writing.

Joce: I am SO excited for Watersong, which comes out in 2022! What can you tell us about the book?

Clarissa: I’m so glad to hear that! I hope the book will live up to your expectations.

Watersong follows Shouji and his girlfriend, Youko, who provide confidential services to rich clients. Breaking company rules, he befriends an elegant customer and tries to help her by exposing her influential husband’s misdeeds. The plan backfires. What follows is a long journey where destiny is challenged, faith is questioned, and love is lost and found in equal measure.

Another fun fact: Watersong is set in the same universe as Rainbirds and The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida, so you’ll meet a few familiar characters.

Joce: Lastly, what are some similar books you recommend for readers who enjoy your novels?

Clarissa: This is a very interesting question because usually it’s the other way around—people would say you should read Clarissa’s books if you enjoyed this title or that author.

Anyway, I’m partial towards Japanese literary novels written by female authors. I would recommend Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Megan Backus), Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell) and a short story collection, The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya (translated by Asa Yoneda). I’m including the names of the translators to acknowledge their importance in bringing these wonderful books to a wider audience. 

About the Author

Clarissa Goenawan is an Indonesian-born Singaporean writer. Her award-winning short fiction has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in Singapore, Australia, Japan, Indonesia, the UK, and the US. Rainbirds, her first novel, has been published in eleven different languages.

Clarissa is represented by Pontas Agency.

Find Clarissa on: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | Goodreads

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