About the book About the balloons Discussion questions How (and why) I wrote the book Reviews & Press Alaska Scrapbook Past events

(or, the story
behind the novel)
People usually interrupt me with two questions when I start telling them about this book. One, are the balloons real? That's easy; they are. The next question is tougher: when did you first learn about them?

The strange thing is that I don't ever remember not knowing about them. I'm a compulsive reader of footnotes and a cataloger of curiosities. Long before the internet, I followed old-fashioned hyperlinks through libraries and museums: a citation here would lead me to a source there and that source to another book or article, and then on to another one, and soon enough, the day was shot. I'd gone to the library to look up something on the Sierras, say, and emerged knowing something about the house where Grant died.

It must have been during one of those forays that I first came across the very strange story of WWII Japan's paper balloon bombs (also called fire balloons, or Fu-Go weapons). But I'm sure I didn't come across much of a story. Part of the reason the balloons remain such a secret today is that two entire nations were committed to keeping them a secret back then: Japan didn't want America to know where the balloons were coming from, and America didn't want Japan to know that their balloons were, in fact, reaching North America. The U.S. banned all news reports of balloons--you can read more about this in the site's "About the balloons" section--and though the censorship order was later rescinded, silence followed for decades.

There have been a few exceptions. In 1996, John McPhee published a New Yorker  article about forensic geology (the article is collected in his book, Irons in the Fire). One part of the article dealt with the balloons, or more specifically, with the sand the balloons used as ballast: by examining the unique makeup of this sand, US government geologists were able to determine the balloons' launch sites. And in the 1970s, Robert C. Mikesh, a retired Air Force officer and National Air and Space Museum curator, wrote a slim volume, Japan's World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America. It remains the most comprehensive history of this strange weapon.


Another question people ask is how I wrote the book. At first, I thought people were looking to me to provide a deep, thoughtful, soul-searching answer about what it was like to write a novel--this novel--in an age where communication has become both paramount and pedestrian.

But it turns out people just wanted to know if I wrote with a pen, did I listen to music while I wrote, how long did it take? All the important stuff. So:

Since elementary school, I've only written one piece with a pen. It was on the back of a bank envelope that I found in the glove compartment of our car while I was waiting to pick up my wife from a late class at business school. It wound up on the New York Times Op Ed page and was later anthologized.

Good omens, but the fact is, I can't stand drafting in longhand. I compose on the computer. Sometimes at home, but in order to escape the telephone and the scarring addiction that is web browsing, I often haul a laptop off to a nearby coffee shop/bakery that has an unbeatable freebie trifecta: free parking, free samples and free refills. (To my small regret, they've also introduced free wi-fi access--I've learned to leave my laptop's wi-fi card at home.) Despite the distractions of a public place, I find that writing there focuses me, in no small part because I'm so afraid someone will steal my laptop, I almost never leave my seat--which, as any writer will tell you, is the first step to getting any work done.

I do listen to music. When I was writing at home, I listened almost exclusively to Anchorage's KNBA to keep me in an Alaskan state of mind even when I wasn't in the state itself. I've kept listening after finishing the book, because I've decided that, for my money (which I mean literally; I donate), it's the coolest radio station in the country. (Outside of Washington, DC's WAMU, of course.) When I wrote away from home, I listened to one CD and one CD only. I have a habit of doing this during writing projects; I'm not sure why. The music melts into a kind of zen koan and I hardly even notice it's repeating. Senior year in college, I listened to Tanita Tikaram's Ancient Heart. For The Cloud Atlas, I listened to Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna, and for the novel that's following it, I've listened almost exclusively to Bossalingo's Reprise.

It took about two years to write. Or three years. I'm not really sure how long it took, or rather, I'm not sure how to measure it. I started working on the book in 2000, but every day since then was not spent on The Cloud Atlas. There were plenty of days, for example, more devoted to diapering, trips to the pediatrician for ear infections, trips to the pharmacy for antibiotics than they were to writing. And, of course, while I wish no ill on my daughters' middle ears, there were definitely days when I appreciated having a guilt-free reason to desert the novel. Well, mostly guilt-free.