Born in Palo Alto in 1962, Julie Otsuka lived in California until she left for college. She earned her BA from Yale University in 1984 and her MFA from Columbia University in 1999. New York City is her current home.
After pursuing a career as a painter, she turned to fiction at age 30. One of her short stories was included in Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops 1998, edited by Carol Shields. When the Emperor Was Divine is her first novel, started as part of her thesis at Columbia. She began the first chapter with no idea that it would evolve into a whole novel.
The subject material is very personal for Otsuka because her own family was interned during WWII. Her grandfather was arrested by the FBI the day after Pearl Harbor and her mother, then 11 years old, and her uncle and grandmother were sent to Topaz, Utah for the duration of the war.
Otsuka says that rather than using her own family stories for material, she did a lot of research because her mother doesn't have clear memories of camp. She would tell small, humorous stories about being interned, but otherwise "camp" was not mentioned. Otsuka says of her novel: "I wanted to write a novel about real people... their experience isuniversal not only for Japanese Americans, but for people of any ethnic group. All throughout history people have been rounded up and sent away into exile. The predicament of the family in my novel ... is that of ordinary people caught up in the extraordinary."
Julie Otsuka was a winner of the sixth annual Asian American Literary Award in 2003. Ernest Hemingway is her favorite author and biggest early influence, and she also enjoys the works of Richard Ford, Rick Bass and Cormac McCarthy. Otsuka's current project is a work that continues the exploration of some themes found in “When the Emperor Was Divine."