The telling gift of insight Author: Baltimore's Sujata Massey writes around the rules, because she knows a good story when she sees it.

October 20, 1997|By Janice D'Arcy | Janice D'Arcy,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

At first glance, it looks as if Sujata Massey shamelessly spurned the time-tested writing advice to "write what you know."

First, the British-born Baltimorean set her new mystery, "The Salaryman's Wife" (HarperCollins, $5.99), in modern-day Japan. Second, Massey, whose mother is German and father is Indian, created a heroine who struggles with her Japanese-American cultural identity. And, in the ultimate affront to the traditional method, she wrote in the first person.

"No, I didn't really follow that advice," Massey admits, sipping tea in her fastidiously decorated Roland Park home during a rare break from a cross-country promotional tour of her first, warmly received book.

"But I did write a very personal book. A few things sprang from the computer while I was writing. I'd stop and say, 'Where did that come from?' It was something really personal that I hadn't intended to write."

On the surface, Rei Shimura, a gutsy, Japanese-American 27-year-old whose quest to solve a murder is chronicled in Massey's paperback, seems to have little in common with the 33-year-old author. But when Massey recounts her life of moving among three countries and four cultures, similarities between author and character emerge.

Born in Sussex, England, in 1964, Massey emigrated to the United States with her parents when she was 5 years old. She has childhood memories of racial attacks against her father in England, and the tacit disapproval of an interracial couple in St. Paul, Minn., where the family settled. With her small frame and dark skin, she said she was often on the receiving end of slurs in school.

"I see myself in Rei at certain points. She wants so badly to be accepted in Japan. She memorizes all the manners, but she keeps making mistakes. She is never seen as an insider," Massey says.

Then, after a pause: "It is tough when I can't identify myself easily. I can't say, 'I'm an American.' "

One of the scenes that Massey says she never intended to write has Rei recalling a childhood memory -- one of the author's own:

I closed my eyes feeling the uncanny connection again. Only it wasn't just a little girl in an exquisite kimono enjoying a way of life soon coming to an end, it was myself in the first grade, panicked over what crayon to use when drawing my skin color.

"I tried to create characters who were struggling with their cultural identities. I guess that was a theme I really wanted to write about," Massey says.

Judging from the critical response, she's succeeded.

A favorable review in the Romantic Times noted the book's "fascinating cross-cultural edge." Paige Rose, an owner of the Mystery Loves Company bookstore in Fells Point, recommends the book to her customers because "it's more cerebral than many of the new titles."

Arthur Golden, author of the newly released "Memoirs of Geisha," has gotten similar praise for his first-person account of a Japanese geisha. He agrees that his success, and that of others like Massey who traverse foreign lands, comes from an understanding of their characters' inner lives.

"That 'writing what you know' business is absolute nonsense," he says. "But you should write what you know emotionally."

"The Salaryman's Wife" also has garnered attention for its description of Japanese life. A Japan Times review said Massey had "a nearly pitch-perfect voice in modern-day Japan Massey seems to have developed a keen understanding of Japan that most short-time visitors don't attain."

Massey attributes this to her reporter's sense for detail. After graduating high school, she moved to Baltimore to study writing, first at Goucher College, then at Johns Hopkins University. Upon graduation from the Hopkins' Writing Seminars, she took a staff job at the Evening Sun. "I didn't think it was realistic that I would support myself writing books," she says.

In 1992, then-Sujata Banerjee married Tony Massey, whom she had met at Hopkins.

Tony Massey was obligated to serve two years in the Navy. He and his new wife had their choice of places to live. She told him: "If it can't be Baltimore, I want to go somewhere far away and exciting.

"I didn't want to go to some podunk town," she says now. "I wanted to do something brave -- something new and totally different."

She left the Evening Sun on a year's leave of absence that later became permanent. She set off for Japan determined to make use of her time there.

"Once young women in Japan get married, their career is almost always over. I didn't want to feel that way. I thought, 'Now is the time to write a book.' "

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