Author Interview: J.B. Cheaney on My Friend The Enemy

My Friend The Enemy by J.B. Cheaney (Knopf, 2005). From the catalog copy: “Hating the Japanese was simple before she met Sogoji. Pearl Harbor was bombed on Hazel Anderson’s birthday and she’s been on the lookout for enemies ever since. She scours the skies above Mount Hood with her binoculars, hoping to make some crucial observation, or uncover the hideout of enemy spies. But what she discovers instead is a 15-year-old orphan, hiding out, trying to avoid being sent to an internment camp. Sogoji was born in America. He’s eager to help Hazel with the war effort. Is this lonely boy really the enemy? Hazel must decide what it means to be a true American, and a true friend.” Ages 9-up. Read an excerpt.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

There were three main factors, I think. The first is our experience living where the book is set, in the Pacific Northwest. For a little over four years we made our home in Vancouver, Washington, just across the river from Portland and sixty miles west of Hood River, where the story of My Friend the Enemy takes place. The mountains, rivers, apple blossoms, and evergreens of the region soaked into my bones with the clear summer sunshine and persistent winter drizzle. I haven’t seen quite all of the United States, but the Pacific Northwest is probably the most beutiful part.

The second factor has to do with my son, who at the age of 21 received a job offer to cut silhouettes at Disneyland–in Tokyo. Since Disneyland is an American theme park the management desired about 10% westerners in park personnel. Being footloose at the time my son decided to go for a year, where he learned to speak the language functionally if not fluently and met lots of girls! That was the upside for him; the upside for me was that I got to go and visit for two weeks. That was enough to become fascinated with Japanese culture and character and wonder what makes it tick.

The third factor was 9/11. Within 24 hours of the planes hitting those buildings, most Americans knew we were at war, but we didn’t know the nature of that conflict or what would happen next. The most constant comparison was to Pearl Harbor: then as now, we were taken by surprise by an enemy who looked and thought differently from us. What would they do next? What was our response? As my thoughts turned back to that time, the story started taking shape: a Northwestern setting, a Japanese character, a lonely, dreamy girl (a little like myself at that age). And an improbable friendship beset with inner and outer conflict.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I began the manuscript in 2003 while my editor was reviewing another manuscript I’d submitted. That novel, described by me as a “time-travel romance,” was also set in the Northwest. I had high hopes for it, but unfortunately my editor just couldn’t get enthusiastic about it. When she reluctantly passed on it, I told her about the World War II story I’d finished. That one she liked (whew!) but after careful consideration she had some major changes to suggest (argggh!). The original manuscript was written in third person but she felt the voice and character would come through more clearly in first.

More importantly, she felt the Japanese character, Sogoji, didn’t really “work.” I’d first conceived him as a grown man, who felt cut off from his community because he was somewhat simple-minded. His childlikeness makes him a match for Hazel, who feels smarter and more capable than Sogoji, but later finds that the man has unsuspected gifts. Without realizing it at first, I’d modeled the story on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and told my editor so. Her reply: “I’ve never read Huckleberry Finn.”

It took a while to wrap my mind around such significant changes, but once into it I had to admit her suggestions were for the best. The manuscript was substantially finished in the summer of 2004, and appeared a year later.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The main challenge was in changing the secondary character so drastically. Sogoji as he now appears is a boy of 15, though he still feels cut off from his community for various reasons. He was a difficult character to bring to life, but that’s only to be expected because he’s not that comfortable with himself. He’s not only an enemy alien in his own country but also in between cultures–not quite American, and not quite Japanese. Hazel, as I mentioned, is somewhat like me and therefore not so much of a challenge to imagine. But her difficulty is in relating to this boy. She can use a friend, and they share some interests and characteristics in common. But he’s also profoundly different in outlook and upbringing–showing the thorniness of their relationship proved to be the most difficult aspect of the writing.

Cynsational News & Links

The folks at are giving away ten copies of Rosemary Graham’s Thou Shalt Not Dump the Skater Dude (and other commandments I have broken)(Viking, 2005). See for details.

A review of My Friend The Enemy from the Asian Review of Books on the Web.

Hot Off The Press from CBC Magazine.

Wendy Mass: Super Non-Fiction Writer for Young People by Sue Reichard from