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About the Book
Hiroshi Shimizu is perfectly settled into his life investigating white-collar crime in Tokyo. But when an American businessman turns up dead, Hiroshi is pulled into a high-stakes search across the enigmatic, maze-like metropolis. The reader quickly learns how close homicide and suicide can appear in a city full of high-speed trains just a step—or a push—away.
From there, celebrated Japanese culture writer Michael Pronko’s, The Last Train: A Tokyo Mystery [Raked Gravel Press, May 31, 2017] only picks up speed. Hiroshi’s mentor Takamatsu drags him out to the notorious and intriguing hostess clubs and futuristic skyscraper offices of Tokyo in search of a possible killer, immersing the reader in fascinating Japanese culture. Hiroshi goes deeper and deeper into Tokyo’s intricate, ominous market for buying and selling the most expensive land in the world to find her.
When Takamatsu goes missing, Hiroshi teams up with ex-sumo wrestler Sakaguchi. They scour Tokyo’s sacred temples, corporate offices and industrial wastelands to find out where Takamatsu went, and why an average-seeming woman could have been driven to murder. It is an intense look at the nuances of Japanese interpersonal relationships and the power dynamics of gender roles and how women—and men, too—are treated in this ancient society.
The Last Train is the first book in the exciting new Detective Hiroshi Pronko series, whose writing has been lauded by Kirkus Reviews as, “an elegantly written, precisely observed portrait of a Japanese city and its culture.”
Interview with the Author
What initially got you interested in writing?
I was always interested in writing. One of my plays was put on in fifth grade. I wrote the whole thing based on (actually, stolen from) Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I won a prize in eighth grade for a story based on (stolen from) a Twilight Zone episode. I hope I’m not the only young writer who has absconded with some story in their youth? My teachers all through school always encouraged us to write and I always liked that. I worked on the high school newspaper. At college, it was philosophy papers. I never took any creative writing classes, but always read a lot. Writing was always just there, so no “initially.”
What genres do you write in?
I publish in crime fiction and creative non-fiction. In the past, I also wrote essays, editorials, music reviews, art critiques, and academic papers, but now most of my attention is on mystery novels.
What drew you to writing these specific genres?
I was drawn to mystery fiction because I spend a lot of waking hours reading fiction and in some sense, all fiction is a mystery. We wouldn’t keep reading otherwise. What I like about mysteries is the tension between it being highly structured and highly flexible, the predictability and surprise factors balancing in the right proportions. You can pack in all kinds of things into a mystery—cultural customs, passing characters, arcane details, mini-travel essays. I also like the built-in ethical dimension—someone must pay. As for non-fiction, I feel like that was a way to start writing regularly for publication. By writing non-fiction, I learned the basics of writing and could develop it as a habit. I still like first-person essays for their immediacy and thoughtfulness.
How did you break into the field?
One guy I taught with asked if I wanted to write about music for an online magazine. I knew the answer to that one. So, I started writing about jazz. That led to an invitation to write about jazz for The Japan Times (when invited, “yes” again). Then I started writing short personal pieces (imitating the New Yorker but about Tokyo), which led to another invitation to write for Newsweek Japan. Which led to an editor inviting me to publish a collection of my columns about Tokyo in Japanese. Then, two more collections. I put those collections out in English, and then started to work on fiction. So, I wouldn’t say that counts as “break into,” exactly. I’d say it’s more like “chip away at for years.” Basically, it was lucky breaks and baby steps.
What do you want readers to take away from reading your works?
With the The Last Train I want readers to see Japanese society and Japanese people in a fresh way. The novel is more of a whydunit than a whodunit, so I hope readers find it interesting to read about the characters, how they live and why they do what they do. I think the best mysteries delve into the why of crime. Why kill someone? That’s the toughest question around. Thinking about it in story form gives us ideas, in reverse negative, about why we live. I think it’s easy to misunderstand a culture. I do that constantly in Japan even after years. In my novels, I want people to become immersed in Tokyo, to connect to and bring up close the people and experiences that make up this amazing, and gigantic, city. What they take away from that is their own.
What do you find most rewarding about writing?
I learn. I like to have things revealed to me and that happens all the time when I write. It could be an understanding of the world, or of Japan since that’s the setting, about myself or about language or stories. I think we live in stories. Stories are how we organize our lives, how we see the world and see ourselves, so writing is a constant reevaluation of the power of stories. I love that “aha” moment when the story connects in a way that makes me jump and tingle. It’s a pleasure every morning to jump back into the story I’m writing, and through my one little story, I also jump into the larger mystery of how stories create, and sometimes destroy, the meanings in our lives.
What do you find most challenging about writing?
From the practical side, finding time. I teach full-time at university, so the end and beginning of the semesters, the planning, grading, faculty meetings (pure drain) and advising students takes so much energy finding time for writing is impossible. But that’s the same for everyone, everything that takes time conflicts with everything else that takes time. Sometimes, it’s hard to push other things aside and simply not do them. Other things often have immediate payoff, while writing is very, very delayed (sometimes never) in its gratification. It took me a long time to enjoy writing in and of and for itself. But at the same time, to keep my mind always thinking how it can better connect to readers. Writing a beautiful sentence is one thing, but writing a sentence that will affect another person with power is always a challenge.
What advice would you give to people wanting to enter the field?
Write a lot and write for people to read. I was lucky to have gotten many writing jobs that let my writing be read. And I wrote a lot. At one point, I had seven deadlines a month, plus my full-time university job, research and writing. I managed that for a couple years, and it was excellent training. So, however writers can get traction is fine, but you get traction by having your work in a public space of some kind. That deflates your ego by giving you a good, solid reality check. I think every writer must learn how to focus, to shove the world aside, produce by deadline, work with editors, think about readers. If writing can be said to be “a field,” I tend to think of it as all-encompassing, you get out of it what you put in. I think input is equally important. Garbage in, garbage out is really true. It’s essential to read, and to take in other things like film, art, travel, discussion with friends, all the things that put meaningful pressure on the mind to grow and develop.
What type of books do you enjoy reading?
I read so widely, that’s hard to answer. I like fiction mainly, literature and mysteries. But I also read a lot of literary theory, which, like how-to-write books, I take with a grain of salt, or two or three. I like non-fiction essays and I read a lot for my classes in American literature and culture. I love reading about music, film, art, history, philosophy, both Asian and western. There’re few “types” of books I don’t like in some way.
Is there anything else besides writing you think people would find interesting about you?
I’ve lived in Japan for twenty years and in China for three years. I suppose that’s interesting, though it feels natural and normal to me. I’ve written about that, so maybe that’s writing? I’m addicted to music and run a site about jazz, www.jazzinjapan.com, but I guess that’s also writing…hmmm…so, nothing else, only writing, I guess.
What are the best ways to connect with you, or find out more about your work?
I love to hear from readers and prospective readers. I put up new info, articles and content on my website. I think I’m connect-able through most online routes. I’ll put all those below. I value the chance to connect with readers, so please do.