It seems like most fiction writers are eventually asked, "How autobiographical is your story?" Or "Which character is you?" From what I've read, most fiction writers don't claim much, if any, of their story is autobiographical, or claim any of their characters are purely themselves. And that's the answer I have to give for Oh!
However, the main character, Zack Hara, and I do share a few things. We are Americans of Japanese ancestry (me on my dad's side, Zack on both). We are technical writers (well, I was one). Our grandfathers were born in Japan and, after immigrating, worked as farmers and then as landscapers (mine in Colorado, Zack's in California). Our sense of humor is dry. We like Mexican food and beer, and watch way too much TV. We taught English in Japan and write mediocre poetry. Zack's 29 and I'm, well, I was 29.
The similarities pretty much end there. In particular, Zack has a problem which I don't have, at least not to his degree. Zack suffers from perpetual emotional numbness, to the point of calling himself an emotional eunuch. Sure, I, we, have days when we feel nothing of any consequence: no great love, hate, sadness, passion. But Zack exists in that world every day. Of course, any writing advice will tell you to start off with a character in trouble, with an interesting problem. So far so good.
At this point, I should say I'm mostly a self-taught writer. I took only one creative writing class, taught by a well-meaning but uninspiring professor teaching his last few courses before retiring. (I actually got an A in the class, I think, because one of my stories was about a man nearing retirement contemplating his worth in the world.) I took one college-level lit class, which I enjoyed, but barely eked out a B-minus.
I have read several writers' advice books (John Gardner's The Art of Fiction is my favorite.) and learned helpful techniques from them. The books also gave some unhelpful advice and some downright damaging advice, in my opinion. By self-taught, I mean I've learned to read critically, written a lot, sought and received feedback, and learned to self-reflect. I'm not recommending my path to getting published, as opposed to the MFA path, for example. As someone said, there is no royal road to writing.
One thing the advice books tell you: start off with a hook. Grab the reader from the first paragraph, the first sentence. Easier said than done, and I'm not really sure how to put that advice into practice. It seems like the harder you try to do that, the more stilted it becomes. Several readers of Oh! told me the first paragraph really drew them into the story, which surprises me since I sort of tacked it on after I'd written several chapters. It's not a start-with-a-bang kind of paragraph. We don't directly learn of Zack's problem, and style-wise I repeat a phrase four times, probably violating some rule. The paragraph does say something about Zack and sets the tone of the story. Well, judge for yourself:
I inherited a 1968 three-quarter ton Chevy pickup from my grandfather who mowed lawns and trimmed shrubbery in suburban Los Angeles until he was eighty-seven. He hired undocumented Mexican workers because his three sons and a daughter didn't want to mow lawns and trim shrubbery for a living. Very few people want to mow lawns and trim shrubbery for a living. When I was a teenager I worked for him one summer. After that I didn't want to mow lawns and trim shrubbery for a living either. I never told him but I'm sure he knew.
Inheriting his grandfather's truck should have been a great moment of emotional awareness for Zack. Instead he merely expresses surprise. In another early pivotal scene, Zack attends a cherry blossom viewing party (in Japanese, a hanami). At the end of the long day of eating and drinking and singing, Zack walks back through the cherry trees when a windstorm rips away all the blossoms and envelops Zack in a fragrant blizzard. Another main character, Professor Imai, a scientist and poet, will later tell Zack his cherry blossom experience is a classic mono no aware moment. As with his inheritance, Zack admits he felt no great emotional awareness. The professor offers to help Zack achieve an understanding of mono no aware. The search leads Zack down a mysterious and ultimately dangerous path.
More on the mystery elements of Oh! tomorrow. Thanks for reading.