Set in late 19th-century Japan, The Teahouse Fire (see review, p. 36), follows Aurelia, an American orphan who is taken in—as both servant and sister—by Yukako, the daughter of Japan's most important teacher of the ancient art of tea ceremony.
You studied Japanese tea ceremony for five years. How did you first get involved with it?
A college friend was living and teaching ESL in Japan and invited me to come visit. While I was there, a woman at the pension where I was staying suggested I attend a tea ceremony. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. There's a Japanese tea school in New York, in a carriage house that used to be Mark Rothko's studio. They've built a Japanese garden inside, surrounded by four tearooms. Studying there for five years felt like being in a museum where you could touch everything. Then I found out about a program for foreigners to study tea in Kyoto. I was there for five weeks; they had me up at 5:30 a.m. to put on my kimono, and I was going until 10:30 p.m..
Is there a historical basis for the events of the novel?
There was a real woman from the most important tea family in Kyoto who got tea ceremony put into the curriculum of the newly formed girls' schools in 1880.
What role did tea ceremony play in Japan at that time?
It had the same social role that golf has in middle- or upper-class society in this country. People had a passion for it, even a religious feeling, but it was also a way to make connections and circulate power.
You wrote this book side by side with your partner, Sharon Marcus, who was writing a critical book about Victorian women. Did her work affect your book?
My book is about someone who begins life as a Victorian and ends as a modernist. Sharon's book describes a convention in Victorian biographies—the subject's closest intimates would write them; this is especially true of Victorian lesbian biographies. The writer would never mention herself, but put in details that only a lover would know. In that sense, my book is a Victorian biography of Yukako by Aurelia. At that time, the conventions of heterosexual femininity required elaborate protestations of affection between women. Aurelia thinks that she has this romantic bond with Yukako, but what she has is a bond of feudal loyalty, and that's what she has to realize, by dint of heartbreak.