Book Talk: Evolution of An Author

by Virginia Coyne

Karin Tanabe on research, writing and swear words.

Author Karin Tanabe. Photograph by Tony Powell.

The path from chick lit to historical fiction was a natural one says Karin Tanabe, author of “The Diplomat’s Daughter” (Atria Books, 2017), set at a Texas internment camp and in the Pacific theater during World War II. “I missed research,” explains the formal journalist, and writing the book provided her the opportunity to do a lot of it.

Her debut novel, “The List,” a self-admitted roman à clef about her time as a young reporter at Politico, required no studying of history and little imagination. “I knew it, I lived it,” she says of the story, published in 2013, which People Magazine called, “A biting, hilarious send-up of the Washington elite.”

Tanabe, a former managing editor of Washington Life, subsequently wrote “The Price of Inheritance” (2014), a suspenseful take on the New York art world, in which she had never worked, and in 2016 released “The Gilded Years,” a critically acclaimed historical novel about the first African-American woman to attend Vassar College. The writing was research-heavy, but as she had attended the same school, and a fellow alumna assisted in the fact-finding, there was a certain comfort that she was getting it right. The book went on to become her best selling work and Tanabe’s publisher suggested she stick with the genre.

The idea for her newest tome came after seeing the Broadway musical “Allegiance,” which was inspired by star George Takei’s own experience at an internment camp as a young child. Following the show, a conversation with her husband Craig Fischer, who is of German descent, led Tanabe to discover Germans had also been interned during the war. An idea for a mixed-race love story centered around the daughter of a Japanese diplomat and the son of a German-American steel baron, both sent to the same relocation facility in Texas, started to percolate.

The author began her research, which she did entirely on her own, by talking to her Japanese-born father, Francis Tanabe, a former editor and art director at the Washington Post, whose earliest memory was living through the United States’ firebombing of Tokyo. She also interviewed people who had been interned, or whose family members were, and read “pretty much every contemporary historical fiction book about the war that did well.”

“The terrifying thing is everyone knows a lot about World War II,” says Tanabe on the pressure of writing about a topic that has been so widely explored. “Even though it’s historical fiction, people want accuracy. They really do.”

Aside from ensuring historical events were characterized correctly, how did she put herself in the mind of three young adults, two of them boys? (The story is ultimately a love triangle.) “I definitely ran it by men,” she admits. Her husband’s critique: too much talking in the foxhole during a battle scene. Tanabe took the criticism to heart and fixed the dialogue.

Her father’s advice didn’t fare nearly as well. “He always wants me to take out the sex and swear words,” she says with a laugh.

This article appeared in the October 2017 issue of Washington Life.

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