Cole Nagamatsu Q&A

Cole Nagamatsu delicately explores transitions in her fiction.

“I have vivid dreams regularly, and I try to remember the interesting ones. Some are just surreal images, and others are about mundane things — like being back in grade school and missing the bus. But I often have dreams that are fully narrative and fantastical. I used to share them with friends, and they’d joke that my subconscious was writing full novels for me while I was sleeping.”

I loved the metaphysical aspects of the book, such as the impossible lake and haunted forest, and how your characters addressed grief. Reminded me of Murakami. Who are authors you admire who work in the supernatural while staying rooted in reality? 

Those are themes that have always held appeal for me. There are common threads across my writing: grief, loss, and the way an otherwise realistic environment can transform into something surreal as it responds to character emotions. I’m very drawn to the idea that magic can bloom from a setting that is otherwise our own recognizable reality. As a reader of young adult, I really love Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap in, as well as the work of A.S. King. In adult, my favorites include work by Alice Hoffman, Catherynne M. Valente, Helen Oyeyemi, and Angela Carter, as well as Murakami.

One of your characters is asexual, which you introduce in a sensitive way, with Noemi negotiating the haunted forest, which can be seen as a form of male gaze. Did you know early on in that you were going to explore this territory?

I did know fairly early on I would be exploring Noemi’s asexuality, and that’s been true since the first draft. I don’t think the novel is about being ace first and foremost, but that element is integral to the story—a lot more than it might seem on the surface.

The book does explore navigating a male gaze, specifically as an asexual woman or girl. The major male characters are mostly Noemi’s friends, people she cares about, but people who definitely have different relationship goals in mind than she does.

The woods is, in a sense, another character who makes incorrect assumptions about what Noemi wants. The woods is also the most assertive in acting on those incorrect assumptions, so a big part of her journey through the book is not only understanding what she does and doesn’t want, but how to articulate that to others.

I knew the sort-of sex scene with Jonas near the end would be awkward to read. It’s a pretty awkward scene for everyone involved. Not all, but some aces do choose to have sex, for their own varied and personal reasons. I really wanted to show Noemi with a partner who—despite not being asexual or very knowledgeable about asexuality—tried to be aware of her comfort level and stopped when she wanted to.

When I was a teen, there were ace spaces online, but there weren’t many canonically asexual characters in stories. These days, there is actually ace representation to be found in media, but there could be more. Noemi’s experience is just one example. It’s good to see characters confident in their sexuality, whose stories aren’t about “wrestling” with identity, but Noemi is definitely not that type of character. She’s anxious and uncertain and feels the weight of societal heteronormative expectations. But I hoped her story might help people like her feel less alone when reading it.

I enjoyed the multiple points of view of the book and how you gradually wove them all together into a resolution. Is it fun to write in various points of view?

It does add an interesting element to writing. It’s nice to take a break from being in one character’s head by spending some time writing from another POV. Using different POVs allows me to come at the story from a few different directions. I do have a preference for writing with multiple POVs, but it can be tricky sometimes too. I often find there are some characters that take a little longer for me to get to know than others.

I found the texts that Noemi would receive from Link chilling in a Stephen King way. Were you ever tempted to tilt the book in an even scarier direction? 

I like horror, but I find it challenging to write scenes that I find legitimately scary, so I never planned to lean fully in the direction of making the book scarier. As a writer I usually aim to employ an eerie atmosphere, or to blend beautiful with grotesque or haunting imagery. As a reader, and viewer of film and TV, I respect when stories can create genuine scares and also develop complex themes and emotions. But I can’t always anticipate what others will find scary, so I haven’t delved into that territory in my own writing. It takes skill to evoke that kind of nervous adrenaline in readers with a scary story. Maybe someday I’ll try it with a different book, if I’m feeling daring.

I was fascinated with Noemi’s dream journals. I’ve never done one. Do you? Does it help inspire your writing life?

I don’t keep a journal as regularly as Noemi does, but I have written down dreams in the past. I have vivid dreams regularly, and I try to remember the interesting ones. Some are just surreal images, and others are about mundane things — like being back in grade school and missing the bus. But I often have dreams that are fully narrative and fantastical. I used to share them with friends, and they’d joke that my subconscious was writing full novels for me while I was sleeping. So I do think it likely inspires my writing life.

With We Were Restless Things, it was inspiring in a direct way. The first lines of the book I wrote were from Noemi’s first dream journal entry, where she dreams about her yard flooding and a seal-like creature appearing in her bathtub. I’d had the idea for the book already, and when I wrote down that dream, I started picturing the setting of my story. I then began writing what is now the first chapter, where Jonas arrives in the town of Shivery. Eventually I started dreaming about the characters as I was writing my book, just because I thought about them so often. Some of the dreams in the book were based on my own, while some where created. There were many more which were cut in revision. I’ve always been fascinated by dreams because of my weirdly vivid dream life, so it felt natural making them a big part of this book. They do get my creativity flowing. Everything I write is probably a little dreamlike.

You co-founded and edit Psychopomp Magazine, which is dedicated to examining passages and transitions, which you so wonderfully do in the book. Have you ever been tempted to write non-fiction?

I’ve actually never thought about it. For some reason, I’ve always just gravitated more toward fiction as a means of working through concepts I get stuck in my head—especially things that are really personal, like sexuality or anxiety. Even though the book is fiction and the characters are constructed, We Were RestlessThings still feels to me like an intimate novel, as though when people read it they are looking directly at me. A lot of writers probably relate to that feeling. I just know that in my real life, I’m not very good at being vulnerable and sharing personal things. I’m extremely introverted, so fiction feels much more accessible to me as an outlet. And I love that it allows me to write stories where anything can happen, no matter how surreal.

What’s next for you?

I have another YA upcoming from Sourcebooks, but it’s still a work-in-progress. That’s what I’m focusing on right now, though I have been finding it hard to write during the pandemic. While I don’t want to get ahead of myself, I also have an adult manuscript on submission with editors. One of those things may be the next project people will see from me. Hopefully!