Wouldn’t You Like to Know . . . Valynne E. Maetani

Stacey Hayman

Valynne Maetani, photo credit Dustin H. Heuston

Valynne E. Maetani was inspired to write her first–but not her last!–novel as a birthday present to her younger sister, making readers everywhere the lucky beneficiaries of this novel gift! Growing up in Utah and traveling to the opposite coast to obtain her Bachelor’s degree in German Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, Maetani returned home to join a non-profit company that developed a wide range of educational software as the project manager on a program focused on children with learning disabilities. Winner of the New Visions Award 2013, a Junior Library Guild 2015 selection, and chosen to be part of the We Need Diverse Books team, our current author is also a proud stage and soccer mom–when she’s not writing. Maetani, her husband, and their three girls are happily creating new stories to share with us, right this very minute.

SH: When I was a teenager, people would describe me as a: (jock, band geek, popular, goth, other, none?)

VM: In high school, people would describe me as a popular jock. But since I went to a small private school, it wasn’t very hard to be either one of those.

SH: The best/worst thing that happened to you in high school?

VM: At the end of my sophomore year of high school, my mom became very sick. My dad took her to the emergency room, and we were all convinced she had appendicitis. But it turned out she was two months pregnant. I have no idea how she didn’t know, but my sister, Ashley, was one of the best things that happened to me in high school, and thanks to her, Ink and Ashes was written.

SH: Favorite childhood book? Favorite food? Favorite band or album? Favorite television show?

VM: Book: To Kill a Mockingbird

Food: almost anything with eggplant (yeah, I know I’m weird) or sushi

Band or album (high school): I guess it’s not a band, but I listened to the Original Les Miserables London Cast recording and the Chess Original Broadway Cast recording non-stop. I’m an admitted showtunes junkie.

Television show (high school): Saturday Night Live

SH: Is there a story from your childhood that is told most often, either by you *or* about you?

VM: There aren’t a lot of people of color in Utah, but on my first day of kindergarten, I came home very excited because there was another Japanese girl in my class. When my parents asked her name, I answered, “Michelle Gonzales!”

SH: Was there any class in high school you regret paying too little, or too much, attention? If you could add one class to high schools across the country, what would be the topic?

VM: I wish I had paid a lot more attention in every class I took in high school. If I had applied myself better, I think I would have had more self-discipline and better study habits when I went to college. Some schools already teach this, but one class I think every high school would benefit from is psychology. Understanding how humans operate on an emotional and biological level can be a good thing.

SH: If you could be a character from any book ever written, including your own, who would you want to be? Why?

VM: Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series. She’s intelligent and seems to know something about everything. She’s brave, sensitive, confident, and a loyal friend. But the best part about being Hermione is I would get to cast spells and use a magic wand. Oh, and dragons. Who wouldn’t love seeing dragons?

SH: Is there a book, besides your own, of course, that you think everyone should be reading?

VM: I have such a huge list, but I’ll limit it to three. There were two books I read in high school that really spoke to me. One was Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and the other was Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. My favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, so that’s a must-read.

SH: Do you have any favorite family traditions that might need some explanation to outsiders looking in? Do you remember how they started?

VM: Every winter when my kids go on break for Christmas vacation, we choose a TV series to watch on Netflix. Every night, we all sleep in the family room in front of the TV and watch as long as we possibly can into the wee hours of the night. I can’t remember how it started, but I’m sure it had something to do with the opportunity to be couch potatoes and the fact that we are night owls.

SH:If you had an important secret or story to share, who would be the first person you’d turn to?

VM: My best friend . . . which could be a variety of people, depending on the day.

SH: What’s your biggest pet peeve?

VM: Unfortunately, I have a lot, but for now, I’ll go with people who put the toilet paper in the holder the wrong way. Toilet paper should be pulled from the top, not the bottom. It’s clearly stated in both the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

SH: Is there one moment in your life you’d love to live again? To either change it or to enjoy?

VM: One moment I wish I could live again is winning the New Visions Award. I think I was so shell-shocked that I made an absolute fool of myself. Do over, please.

SH: If you could have any superpower, what would you choose?

VM: I think it would be teleportation because it would mean I could sleep longer, go wherever I wanted, and spend more time wherever I wanted because I wouldn’t have to worry about travel time.

SH: You get three wishes, what are they? (Yes, you can wish for more wishes but are you *that* person?)


  1. I wish my house would clean itself.
  2. I wish I didn’t need to sleep.
  3. I wish someone would potty train my toddler.

SH: What three words would you use to describe yourself? What three words do you think other people would use to describe you?

VM: I would describe myself as unconventional, stubborn (in the best way), and resilient. My kids describe me as funny, kind-hearted, and fun. (I may or may not have paid them to say that.)

SH: You are sitting down to dinner with five people, living or dead, who you find fascinating. Who is at the table and what are you eating?

VM: Harper Lee, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Twain, Jennifer Coolidge, and Kyle Beckerman, and we are eating Thai food.

SH: Who was the first person who told you should be a writer?

VM: The first person was my mother. I was standing at the top of the stairs, looking at all the artwork around the house done by my brothers and sisters. All of the kids had something hanging on the wall, except me. There was even a painting my sister had done when she was five! So, I asked my mom why she never hung any of my artwork up, and she said, “Um . . . you were always the writer of the family.”

SH: Do you have a phrase or motto that inspires you?

VM: Pay it forward. I’ve been very fortunate when it comes to mentors, and I don’t know if there is a better children’s writing community than the one that exists in Utah. Of course, there is no bias here. Because I feel so many have supported me with advice and encouragement, I try to pay it forward when possible.

SH: What one thing makes you feel happiest? What makes you sad? What scares you? What makes you laugh?

VM: I feel happiest when I am spending time with my kids because they are hilarious, so I guess this is also the thing that makes me laugh. It makes me sad when bad things happen to good or innocent people, especially children. Horror movies, clowns, demons, abandoned buildings, and too many other things scare me.

SH: When you sit down to write, what do you need around you? Do you prefer a certain time of day or is it more spontaneous? How do you approach the creative process?

VM: I usually have a notebook and write whenever I get an idea, so the time of day can be pretty unpredictable. Because my life is so crazy, I write whenever I get the chance. Sometimes I’m writing in my notebook on the sidelines of a soccer game or on the set of a photo/film shoot. On rare occasions, I actually get to use my laptop at my desk.

With time so limited, I think about scenes a lot before I actually sit down and write them. I don’t have the luxury of just seating myself at the computer and staring at the monitor, so I focus on whatever scene I’m most excited about at the moment. The scene might be at the beginning or the end, so at some point I have to go through all the scenes, figure out which order they go in, and weave them together.

SH: A series of choices: Comedy or drama? Introvert or extrovert? Board games, card games, or online games? Five star hotel or rustic camping? Morning or night? Movie, music, or theater? Phone call, hand written letter, or email?

VM: Comedy. Extrovert—most of the time. Games—all of them. Five star hotel. Night person. Musical theater (Is that cheating?) Email.

SH: Is there a question you wish someone would finally think to ask?

VM: “Would you like me to give you a million dollars?”

No one ever asks me this.  I don’t know why.

Ink and Ashes


SH: How did you decide which clues would lead Claire and the boys to her father’s true past? Have you ever seen any authentic yakuza tattoos? Do you think they’re still used now? Where did you first learn about the yakuza?

VM: In deciding which clues to use, I wanted to make sure they were things that were somehow tied to the Japanese culture, whether it was traditions or superstitions.

It’s hard to say whether or not I’ve seen yakuza tattoos. I’ve seen some that could have been, but I didn’t dare ask because they are most definitely still used today. It’s hard to say when I actually learned about the yakuza. We watched movies with my grandpa growing up, and there was talk about them. While most of the yakuza is based in Japan, they began to infiltrate the United States in the 1980s, starting in Hawaii where my grandparents lived.

SH: When you started this book, were you planning to have three families represent the Axis powers of the Second World War? Or did that just sort of become an unexpected surprise as you wrote the story?

VM: This was not part of the plan. I wanted a way to distinguish all the boys from one another and made the Russo boys Italian with dark hair and eyes. I gave Forrest a German heritage with lighter hair and eyes. But when I actually wrote the countries down on paper, it seemed to be a funny coincidence, and I added it because I thought it would help keep everyone straight. I also thought it gave insight into Nicholas and Parker and their way of thinking because calling the group the Axis powers ultimately made no sense whatsoever.

SH: How did you decide which aspects of the Japanese culture would be familiar to the teens, like the tune “Sukiyaki” or just accepted without understanding, like why you shouldn’t pass food with a chopsticks?

VM: The decision was made based on what I had grown up with, from the Japanese words used to the traditions practiced. I grew up knowing it was bad manners to pass food from my chopsticks to someone else’s chopsticks, but I had no idea why. My mom had no idea why. My cousins had no idea why. Over generations, the traditions remained, but the meanings behind them had been lost. Writing this book allowed me to find answers and learn why we did some of the things we did.

SH: Are you as dedicated to improving your martial arts and self-defense skills as Claire? Or now that your first book is done, is this the next challenge you’re planning for yourself? Where did you learn so much about karate and jujutsu?

VM: I would love to learn something like this, but there never seems to be enough time. Both my brothers were black belts in Kenpo karate, so I grew up going to many tournaments and watching their classes. However, most of what Claire knows are just basic self-defense moves.

SH: What do you think Claire, Forrest, Parker, Nicholas, Avery, and Fed might be up to a year after this story ends? What do you think they might be doing five years after that?

VM: Hmmm. This is difficult to answer because I hope to be working on the sequel to Ink and Ashes soon, and I don’t want to give too much away. What I can promise is that Claire will continue to get into trouble, there will still be secrets to be uncovered, and moments where lives are in peril.


SH: Do you have any favorite family dishes that you love to make, or have your Mom make for you? Any foods you wish you could find more often while dining out?

VM: My kids love my spaghetti, ribs, and grilled cheese sandwiches. As for me, I love it when anyone else is willing to cook and make dinner for me, but I love when my mom makes sukiyaki or spicy eggplant.

Utah could use a lot more diverse restaurants overall, but I wish we had a lot more really good Korean restaurants.

SH: If they made a movie from your book, what actors would you want to play Claire and Forrest? Would you want your book made into a graphic novel? Who would you want to be the illustrator?

VM: Kimiko Miyashima has always been the actress I’ve pictured as Claire. She’s like a little sister to me and is currently living in L.A., waiting for her big break. As for Forrest, I envision someone like Dylan Sprayberry, but maybe a little older.

Having my book made into a graphic novel would be incredible. I’m not sure which artist I would choose, but I would definitely want an anime feel to the illustrations.

SH: What did you buy with your first paycheck as An Author? Was it a planned or an impulse purchase?

VM: Just recently, I received a check in the mail, which was amazing because I had totally forgotten I was supposed to be receiving a check. Naturally, the obvious choice was to go online immediately and buy an orange leather jacket.

SH: Was there any unexpected cultural tradition(s) or superstition(s) you discovered while you were doing research for the book? Will any of them be in your next book?

VM: The traditions and superstitions weren’t surprising, but the reasoning or meaning behind the beliefs was often surprising. When I was growing up, it never occurred to me to ask why we did some of the things we did. Some of these will most certainly be in the next book because I feel learning about the traditions is part of the mystery.

SH: Would you be willing to give any hints about your next project?

VM: My current project is a collaboration with Courtney Alameda , author of Shutter (Feiwel and Friends, 2015), on a young adult Japanese horror/thriller titled Seven Dead Gods (working title) which is a retelling of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Our main characters will be plagued by Japanese monsters and ghosts and require the help of shinigami (death gods) for protection. And then after that, as I said, I hope to be working on the sequel to Ink and Ashes!

Books by Valynne E. Maetani

Ink and Ashes. Tu, 2015. 368p. $19.95. 978-1-620-14211-0.

Valynne E. Maetani on the Internet

Official site: http://www.valynne.com/

We Need Diverse Books: http://weneeddiversebooks.org/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/valynnemaetani

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/valynne

Tumblr: http://valynnemaetani.tumblr.com/

Stacey's PhotoStacey Hayman is … Wha…? Oh, hey there. Um, could you please not bother me right now? I’m reading -Thanks!

More young adult author interviews by Stacey Hayman