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Vivienne Schiffer Q & A

Vivienne Schiffer Q & A

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Vivienne Schiffer, author of Camp Nine: A Novel, is a novelist and screenwriter who grew up in Desha County, Arkansas, and has practiced law in Houston for many years.

Vivienne Schiffer, author of Camp Nine: A Novel, is a novelist and screenwriter who grew up in Desha County, Arkansas, and has practiced law in Houston for many years.


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Published by: University of Arkansas Press on Sep 13, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Q. What inspired you to write
Camp Nine
?A. I would never have thought I’d write a novel about this subject, but I think the adage”write what you know‘ is so true. The idea that became
Camp Nine
came out of aconversation with Valerie West, my professor of screenwriting at UCLA. I learned thatone of her friends was interested in the Japanese American internment experience, and Ioff-handedly mentioned to Valerie that a Japanese American internment camp had beenon my family’s farm in Arkansas. Like most people, she was surprised to learn that therewere camps in the Deep South.As our conversation progressed to include how my mother, an Italian American widow, became the keeper of memories of people who had been in the Arkansas camps, sheinsisted I needed to write a screenplay based on the story. I realized she was right – thestory was too remarkable not to be heard. But once I started on it, it became a novelrather than a film.Q. How much of 
Camp Nine
is fiction, and how much is fact?A. I think most writers of historical fiction try to blend the facts in with the story. But Ialso believe that, sometimes, the truth is more completely understood through fiction thanthrough the recitation of facts. It was important to me that I not distort the facts of whathad occurred during this chapter in history, so I tried to be true to the real timeline of events, and I incorporated many real incidents into the fictional story. Some examples arethe visit to the camp by the soldiers from Hawaii and the suicide of a resident by lyingacross the railroad tracks. Both of these incidents really spoke to me as important detailsof the Japanese American experience in Arkansas. I also wanted to include some factsabout the beautiful art that came out of all of the camps, the
and the
.On the other hand,
Camp Nine
is meant to be an expression of an idea – the idea beingthat one can never know one’s home until she sees it through the eyes of strangers. Andthat idea was so personal to me, I needed the freedom of creating an entirely new place,one that was similar to Rohwer, Arkansas, but wasn’t really Rohwer, Arkansas. And thecharacters that tell this story may be similar in some ways, certainly in an amalgamatedway, to people I’ve known in my life, but they aren’t real people. They exist only on the page, and hopefully, if I’ve done a good job with
Camp Nine
, they will exist vividly inthe imaginations of the readers. And one constraint of fiction is that the writer must focuson characters and events that propel the story forward. So I wasn’t able to createcharacters that represented all the wonderful people of the Delta – only those that servedthe purpose of story, some good people and some bad people.Q. How much of the Chess Morton character is based on you?A. Actually, surprisingly little, although I, too, had a badly rendered pageboy haircut anda dark Mediterranean complexion, and I was a bit of a bookworm. My father died when Iwas a small child, and my mother was, and is, stunningly beautiful. We lived at Rohwer,
a tiny town of 86, and my grandparents lived next door to us. Both my grandfather andmy mother were farmers.But there are so many differences. I was born in the late fifties, so I never knew ruralwartime Arkansas. During my childhood, we had television and frozen dinners, theBritish invasion and the man on the moon and the Cold War. It was an exciting time todream of the great future ahead for America.Speaking of the British invasion, I was crazy for all things British back in those days outat Rohwer, and later as a young teenager in McGehee. And one of the ironies I learnedafter I grew up is that the British musicians that I idolized were crazy for all things Delta.They borrowed heavily from the cultural influences of the very place where I had grownup. That was really fascinating to me after I had left the Delta, and it was the basis for theWillie Monroe storyline and for David Matsui having become a blues musician after having spent time in DeSoto County.Other ways in which Camp Nine differs from reality is that I was not an only child. Ihave two brothers, Clayton and Mitch Gould. And my grandmother, Grace MortonGould, although she had a regal exterior and wore furs, was a wonderful woman wholiked to hunt and play golf. I still have her fox stole and I wish I still had her to talk to.As in
Camp Nine
, our relationships with our African American neighbors were strictlydictated by custom, and the Civil Rights movement was just beginning. But it was peaceful, and although it took a long time, black people and white people in the Deltanow interact as friends, neighbors and equals. I’m so grateful to have lived during thetime in which that change occurred – it wouldn’t have happened during the time
Camp Nine
takes place. The story Chess tells about going into the ”colored‘ bathroom happenedto me in Gould, Arkansas when I was about five years old. I will never forget it.Oh, and Carrie Morton was the name of my paternal great grandmother. I never met her, but I understand she was a firecracker. It was in Carrie Morton’s house in Rohwer thatwe lived. I still have her portrait.Q. Why did you begin and end the story in 1965?A. By the 1960’s, the past that had been the Rohwer relocation experience, for those of usleft in Desha County, Arkansas, was so distant as to not be remembered at all. But for those Japanese Americans who had had their lives destroyed by relocation, it was still afresh and painful wound that in some cases never healed. We tend to think of theexperience as lasting for three years, between 1942, when the Japanese Americans wereforcibly removed from their homes on the West Coast, and 1945, when the camps closed.Just looking at a timeline can be misleading that way. But the truth is that, while Americamoved on and steamed ahead into the optimistic fifties and sixties, many of the peoplewho had suffered through relocation struggled to go on with their lives. Some JapaneseAmericans have expressed that they believe the experience changed the JapaneseAmerican community forever. I wanted to show that, while everyone else forgot, some

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