Local author Karin Tanabe managed to turn her insider status into a best-selling book, The List, about her experiences as a journalist at Politico. Since then, Tanabe has written two other books, her latest The Gilded Years on the first African American woman to attend Vassar College. We chatted with Tanabe about her writing process, how journalism influences her, and where she likes to hang in DC.
What is your writing process like? KARIN TANABE: I outline, then write, and then start working with readers and editors who I trust to help me revise. I don’t like to write and immediately stop to edit. I think people can get bogged down in finding le mot juste, and then the book takes years and years to write. You can always crack the thesaurus later but you can’t anguish over a word if the word isn’t there!
How did your experience as a journalist shape you to become a fiction writer? KT: Working as a journalist was an unbelievable help to me as a fiction writer because it taught me not to be precious with my writing. In journalism, articles get trimmed, edited, and sometimes just cut entirely. And you can’t be sensitive about it, because you don’t have time and there will be more to write the next day. That attitude really helps me keep my books tight because I’m not afraid to delete passages or chapters that aren’t working at all. For my third book, I deleted more than half the book—about the length of The Catcher in the Rye. Painful, but less painful because I knew it would make the book stronger.
Can you tell us about your latest novel, The Gilded Years? KT: The Gilded Years is my first historical fiction book and is based on the life of Anita Hemmings, the first African-American student to attend Vassar College. She was in the class of 1897 and passed as white for most of her time as a student. When I came across her story, I was surprised that it wasn’t more well known and thought she would be a perfect candidate for historical fiction. As I also went to Vassar, it was a labor of love.
How has living in DC affected your work? KT: Washington is a town full of people working very hard and, as sappy as this may sound, that’s really inspirational. Since having a baby last fall, I’ve changed my work hours and now write mostly in the evening and into the wee hours. I love knowing that most of the town is burning the midnight oil, or crashing because they burned the morning oil.
Which writers inspire you and why? KT: ZZ Packer for her humor, Kazuo Ishiguro for the beauty of his words, Haruki Murakami for his creativity, Joyce Carol Oates for being so darn prolific, Jhumpa Lahiri for being a master storyteller, Paula McLain for her deft historical fiction, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie because yes, we should all be feminists.
Where do you like to eat, drink, and hang out in DC? KT: Lately I’ve been tippling a lot of rosé at Chez Billy Sud Le Bar à Vin, as well as the Columbia Room in Shaw. As for food, Rasika remains a perennial favorite and I love Izakaya Seki, too. But if it’s early in the morning and I just need a carb, you can find me knee deep in cream cheese and lox at Bagels Etc. on P Street—the best bagels in the city!