A stay-at-home mother of three, Paula Hiatt has many stories to tell, although she’s only written one book so far. In her debut novel, Secrets of the Apple—“An exceptional first effort that captures the harmony of two beating hearts,” according to our Indie starred review—Hiatt develops a captivating love story between Kate, an idealistic young American, and Ryoki, a successful Japanese businessman.

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Hiatt, an American who lives abroad in China with her family, also runs a board-game company with her husband. Here, she shares her worldwide sources of inspiration and the passion for observation that fuels her writing.

How long was Secrets of the Apple in the works and what inspired it?

Four years. I was driven by my desire to pay tribute to my own mother who serves as the basis for Kate’s mother, and whom I had lost to cancer a few years earlier. She was a stay-at-home mom with six daughters, who really did cook the lettuce onto the tacos, just like in the book.

But when she died, the church filled to the back with the overflow, and all these years later people are still coming up to tell me what a difference she made. The novel grew to encompass other themes, but in the beginning I felt that someone needed to speak for women like my mother who understood that a woman’s value is intrinsic, having nothing to do with worldly plaudits.

You’ve said there are things about Kate that are based on your experience, but that she is “far cooler” than you are. Is she your or even the ideal woman?

Actually, I’m my ideal woman because I’m real, even if I am addicted to M&Ms.

Shoehorning all women into some mythical, ideal mold would be like bringing back corsets and the 16-inch waist. Kate is who she is, and I like her, mostly, though I don’t think she appreciates M&Ms enough to be my bosom friend. She’s an archetype, a melding of the 19th- and 21st-century woman who illustrates that we carry the DNA of our predecessors. We got our big mouths and strong opinions from somewhere.

Is or was there someone in your life on whom the character Ryoki was based, or was he completely made up?

Ryoki is a hand from here and an eyeball from there. I would have loved to base him on my husband, but no one would have believed a character with that much energy. To write from the perspective of a man, let alone a Japanese man, was one of the biggest challenges of the novel. But to adequately address the process of discovery, I needed two people who couldn’t rely on cultural shorthand to fill in the gaps. Discovery is key in this novel, and two Americans would have allowed too many details to slide under the rug.

You seem to have an intimate knowledge of the dynamics of Japanese family and culture. Where did you get this?

Research, research, research. Japanese anime fascinated me because I didn’t understand it. There were the universals, of course, but often the characters reacted in ways that made absolutely no sense to me. So, I started studying Japanese culture, reading everything I could get my hands on. After a while I started to joke that I owned more Japanese culture books than the public library.

You’ve previously lived in Brazil, and you’re currently living abroad in mainland China with your husband and three children. What role does this play in enriching your writing?

In Brazil I waded through homeless children every day on my way to work. In Europe I finally got the flavor of historical sites I had read about since I was a child. In Nepal I watched bodies burn in an outdoor crematorium. In India I toured a goldmine, descending a mile underground in a tiny elevator crowded with gas cans, and held a gold bar so fresh it was still warm from the smelting pot.

But mainland China is truly a life without seat-belts. A single thoughtless moment, and I will get run down by a car in a land where it is cheaper for the driver to kill than to maim. I can’t afford not to pay attention. Consequently, I can’t help but collect acorns that grow into trees in my imagination. Though my experiences enlarge my perspective, I never forget that the richest writing is not about exotic locations, but about noticing.