Former journalist releases debut novel set in Japan

Author Sarah Z. Sleeper

Drawing in part from personal experience, Rancho Santa Fe author Sarah Z. Sleeper is releasing her debut novel Aug. 6 about a young journalist who travels to Japan and embarks on a coming-of-age story.

The book’s title, “Gaijin,” is a Japanese term that means outsider, and it’s sometimes used as somewhat of a slur toward visitors.

“Some of my experiences drove parts of the plot,” Sleeper said.

Like the novel’s protagonist, Sleeper was a journalist. She worked in Japan for four years at an English-language magazine in the 1990s.

“I would want people to know that Japan, like every culture, has elegant beautiful points and also has negative darker sides,” she said.

The cover of "Gaijin" by Sarah Z. Sleeper

In “Gaijin,” the main character, Lucy, is a journalist at Northwestern University. She begins a relationship with a new student from Japan, Owen, who disappears without telling her anything. Lucy travels to Japan, where she experiences many aspects of the culture Owen had described to her, and tries to find him.

“It sat in my brain for a long time before it became a finished product,” Sleeper said, adding that the book was about a decade in the making.

After spending her career as a journalist, Sleeper said making the transition to writing fiction came as a challenge.

“I always wanted to write fiction and poetry, which were my first loves after I got out of college with my little English degree in my hand,” Sleeper said. “I toyed around writing fiction over the years but found it difficult to find the brain time to write a lot of fiction because I wrote all day, every day.”

She made the transition by completing a master of fine arts program in creative writing at Fairfield University in 2012, and then completing the first draft of “Gaijin” in 2016. The novel came from a short story she wrote as part of her MFA program. Then it took a few years of shopping the book to publishers before she found Running Wild Press.

Prior to completing her MFA, Sleeper had a 25-year career as a business writer and technology reporter and won three journalism awards and a fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She has earned other honors, including an award from Writer’s Digest for her short story “A Few Innocuous Lines.” At one point in her career she served as editor-in-chief of the literary journal Mason’s Road.

“When you write a lot, it begets better writing,” Sleeper said. “So the more you write, the better you write. And that’s for sure whether you’re doing journalism, or corp work or grant writing or whatever, that you become a clearer writer, a more concise writer, a more powerful writer.

“I had to tap into a more poetic and creative fire in my brain and allow myself to go outside the form dictates of journalism,” she continued.

Sleeper said she’s “cautiously optimistic” about the reception the book will receive after its release date.

“I resist the urge to say flat out excited because I know for sure some people won’t like the book, but I also hope and believe that people will like the book,” she said.

Other authors who have reviewed the book said that it’s an “expansive, meaningful debut” and a “nuanced, subtly written tale.”

Sleeper said she has a book of short stories that she’d like to get published, and that she’d like to start writing more poetry.

“Gaijin” is available on,, and more. For additional information on Sleeper and where to buy “Gaijin,” visit