Kate T. Williamson’s previous book A Year in Japan was a treasure box: carefully selected annotations and beautiful watercolors, as though Maria Kalman and Kenneth Koch’s lovechild took a semester abroad (we recognize this is a ludicrous thing to say, though perfectly true—ed.). Her new book, At a Crossroads: Between a Rock and My Parents’ Place, is perfect for the new graduate in all of us, finding Williamson back in her hometown in Pennsylvania, running into old high school friends, going to a Hall & Oates concert with her mother, and trying to figure out what happens next.
Williamson is the author of A Year in Japan, Hello Kitty Through the Seasons!, Hello Kitty Hello Sparkle!, and Hello Kitty Everywhere! She grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, and now lives in New York City.
What brought you home after your time in Japan?
I was actually planning on staying in Japan to design socks (I had a job offer in Osaka and had left my futon, lamp, and soy sauce in storage). My original plan was to come home, see my family, and work on an illustrated book about Japan for three months. Obviously, this wasn’t enough time to do much, and I kept pushing back the date of my return until I decided that I wasn’t sure I wanted to return.
Coming back, were the people in Pennsylvania any less odd than the sumo wrestlers going to the ATM?
Well, since I grew up in Pennsylvania, the people still seemed familiar, but I was struck with how large everything was (the people, the cartons of milk in the refrigerator, the refrigerator itself). I also left for Japan on Sept. 17, 2001 (a very strange time to leave), and there were American flags everywhere when I returned. Those were the two major things I noticed: large sizes and large patriotism.
Facing the folks back home, it ain’t easy. Is the book true to life?
Yes, very true to life! Pretty much every exchange is quoted verbatim. That is my childhood bedroom, those are my parents—I really did try to learn the choreography to Madonna Live: The Virgin Tour. I did keep a journal and started imagining this book and writing ideas and conversations down, even drawing sketches of pages, while I was living in Pennsylvania. I think it was sort of a coping mechanism.
Are you planning on attending your 10-year high school reunion?
I already did. It was a lot better now that I wasn’t still living with my parents. My five-year high school reunion actually took place not long after I moved back home, and I really wasn’t planning on going to that one. (The jury was still out the evening of the reunion, and I went because a friend twisted my arm—it ended up being both fun and funny.)
What’s the feedback been like to A Year in Japan?
People seem to like it. Judging from the people who have emailed me, I think it appeals to people who have spent some time in Japan or have always wanted to go to Japan or who just like illustrated books. It makes me especially happy when someone says that the book brought back something of his or her own experience in Japan. It also seems to have inspired some people to make their own travel journals, which also makes me happy.
You’ve since moved to New York City. Is it any easier there finding your way?
Hmm. I think New York can be difficult and exhausting, but I love living here. It’s very exciting to be surrounded by so much art and inspiration (and such inspiring and interesting people) and have so many good movie theaters, and I guess after three years here I am starting to figure out my way a bit (I am at least not both a personal assistant and a hostess at the moment). Now that I’m no longer in Pennsylvania, of course, I appreciate it more. I don’t always think about it in New York, but as soon as I get off the bus in Pennsylvania I am so happy to see the stars and breathe such fresh air! Living in New York and visiting Pennsylvania seems to be the best of both worlds.