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The Responsibility to Get It Right: An Interview with Cheryl A. Ossola, author of The Wild Impossibility 

Cheryl A. Ossola author photo

“Quantum Entanglement” might sound like an episode of The Big Bang Theory, but in Cheryl A. Ossola’s novel The Wild Impossibility, it’s the key to a complicated and emotional narrative that connects lives through space and time. Ossola’s novel surprises the reader throughout, combining a personal story of grief in the current era with the trauma of Japanese-American internment during World War II. 

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Ossola recently shared her thoughts with Cease, Cows.  

Chuck Augello: Tell us about Kira, the main character in your new novel The Wild Impossibility. When the novel opens, she’s dealing with some serious grief. 

Cheryl Ossola: She sure is! She’s damaged after enduring two terrible losses, which have left her not only grieving but doubting her own ability to love. Naturally grief takes a toll on her marriage, but she makes things worse by withdrawing from her husband, Dan, and questioning whether she can ever give to him in the way he gives to her, and even whether she is worthy of being loved. This emotional turmoil pushes her into such a fragile state that she begins to experience bizarre visions, which she comes to believe are her grandmother’s memories. 

CA: There is a strong historical aspect to the novel, which alternates between chapters set in 2011 and 1945. What drew your interest in writing about the past? 

CO: I’m fascinated by history and memory and the interaction of the two. So much of what we take as fact derives from people’s memories, so what’s documented can be far more subjective than objective. Part of my interest in history comes from my pride in being Italian American (if any country has a dramatic history, it’s Italy!) and part from the fact that I know almost nothing about my Italian ancestors beyond my grandparents. As for memory, maybe it intrigues me because my own isn’t so hot. This book began with an idea—what if someone experienced the memories of someone she didn’t know?—and it seemed natural, perhaps because of my own limited knowledge of my family history, to make that person be Kira’s grandmother. So that meant jumping back in time two generations.

CA: Another important character is Maddalena. What should readers know about her?  

CO: Maddalena is Kira’s grandmother, but we come to know her as a teenager, one with a lot of self-awareness. She’s independent and a bit impulsive, and though she has a romantic streak, she’s also grounded and practical. As a foil for Kira, Maddalena is clearheaded and confident, whereas Kira is confused and filled with self-doubt. So basically, through the experience of shared memory, a 16-year-old serves as a role model for a woman in her 30s.

CA: The novel explores the concept of quantum entanglement. Tell us about it, and how did you become interested in this idea?  

CO: I’m always careful to say that while Kira does learn about quantum entanglement, she realizes it’s not an explanation for what she’s going through. Still, learning about this principle of physics, which states that all things are connected on a molecular level, helps her to believe that she could really be having a strange, perhaps metaphysical connection to her grandmother.

I learned about quantum entanglement myself while listening to a podcast talking about new research into the manifestation of quantum entanglement in humans—specifically whether it could help to explain why some people are very strongly connected emotionally. This was in the very early stages of the book, when I was doubting whether the story’s premise would hold up (even though it does leave open the possibility that Kira is mentally ill). Hearing that quantum entanglement could factor into human relationships gave me the confidence to go ahead and write about the kind of strange link I’d imagined for Kira and Maddalena. 

CA: The novel moves skillfully between the two storylines and time periods. How did you approach the challenge of blending these separate narrative arcs? 

CO: The shifts from one timeframe to the other seemed very clear to me as I wrote the book; I could “hear” when the voice needed to change. That’s probably because I’m not a big plotter; I write more organically, following my characters’ leads as the story unfolds. For that reason, writing the 2011 and 1945 stories separately first and then weaving them together would have been an unnatural process for me—the two timelines were never separate in my mind, though each has its own chronological flow. So I wrote the book pretty much sequentially, as it is now. 

CA: The idea of cultural appropriation has received a lot of attention in the literary world over the past few years. Did you have any hesitancy to write about characters in a Japanese-American internment camp? What obligations, if any, does a writer have when writing about other cultures?   

CO: To say I was hesitant would be an understatement. In the early days of shaping The Wild Impossibility, I knew that Maddalena’s love experience had to be extreme, otherwise it wouldn’t be transformative for Kira. Maddalena needed to take risks, to be willing to sacrifice everything for the person she loved. I had learned about the imprisonment of the Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II only a few years before starting to write the book, and I was outraged—not only that it had happened, but that my East Coast schools didn’t teach it. I decided to have Maddalena fall in love with a boy at Manzanar partly because I was horrified by this chapter of U.S. history and partly because it was the kind of extreme circumstance I was looking for. My fears of cultural appropriation were (very slightly) mitigated by the fact that as an Italian American, I share this history with the Japanese to some extent because Italian Americans were also targeted and interned (though their experiences were fewer and far less horrific). 

So the burden was on me to be as accurate and truthful as possible; I believe writers who step outside of their known cultural experience have that responsibility, and it’s a fearsome one. Sure, you can take liberties with history in writing fiction, but I think the key is to avoid misrepresenting or changing a known experience in ways that do it an injustice. That’s why it was tremendously important for me to “get it right”—to make the experiences of my Japanese characters as authentic as possible. Along with doing hundreds of hours of research, some of it at Manzanar, I drew on the experiences and mindset of a Japanese American man I know intimately. Among my early readers was a Japanese American woman, so she was my first hurdle. The next was getting a thumbs-up from a complete stranger who had deep knowledge of the Japanese internment. I was lucky that the screenwriter for the documentary film The Manzanar Fishing Club, whose grandparents had been interned at the camp, agreed to read the book, and I was tremendously relieved when he said I got it right. 

Also, writers can misrepresent a culture by falling back on stereotypes. When characters are individual and complex and flawed and real, they are less likely to do or say something that would be insensitive or counter to the truth of the cultural experience they supposedly have. So I worked very hard to make my characters real. I would say character development was the most challenging part of writing this book.

CA: On your website you mention that you are an American expat living in Italy. How has the experience of living in a country where a different language is spoken affected your writing? 

CO: That’s an interesting question, and the answer will probably change over time as I become more proficient in Italian. The biggest different between English and Italian is syntax, I think. Often, you can translate English quite literally into Italian and people will understand you, but it’s not how they would actually speak. I do occasionally (and unintentionally) incorporate some Italian syntax into my spoken English, but so far it hasn’t infiltrated my writing. 

CA: If you were given the front page of the New York Times Book Review to promote an author whose work deserves greater attention, who would you pick and why?    

CO: I love the work of Italian author Francesca Marciano, particularly her novel Casa Rossa, a family saga set in Rome and Puglia. I wouldn’t say she flies under the publicity radar, but as often as I’ve recommended her work, no one I’ve spoken to has heard of her. Besides Italy she has lived in Africa and the U.S. (she writes, beautifully, in English), and her novels and short stories reflect a sensitive perspective on women’s experiences in various parts of the world. Naturally, I’m partial to the stories set in Italy. 

CA: Finally, there’s no shortage of ways to spend one’s time. Why do you choose to write fiction? 

CO: Cliché as it sounds, for me writing is a drive; characters or ideas pop into my head and refuse to be ignored. But it’s also fun. I love language—playing with it, figuring out how to use it best, whether in dialogue or narrative, imagery or style. The act of creating a sentence and then reworking it until it feels right is incredibly satisfying. That’s the micro aspect of writing; the macro is the novel as a whole, exploring the possible ways to tell a story. On both levels, it’s like piecing together a puzzle, and I love that.

Chuck Augello (Contributing Editor) lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, two cats, and several cows that refuse to cease. His work has appeared in One StoryJukedHobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other fine places. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut and contributes interviews to The Review Review. He’s currently at work on a novel.