Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Lynette Latzko is talking with Michael Pronko, author of The Last Train
FQ: I enjoyed all of the characters in this story, especially the interactions between the detectives. Are any of these compelling characters based on real life people?
PRONKO: Mostly they are composites of people Iíve observed and spoken with over the years. As for Michiko, sheís based on hostesses who work in the night world pouring drinks and talking with men that Iíve seen when out and about. Thereís no single person that I was thinking of with her, but rather she exhibits the traits and characteristicsógood and badóthat most impress me. Night life in Tokyo is very powerful, seductive, compelling, so the people who spend more time in that world are the same. The detectives work as a group, which seems very Japanese to me, rather than as a lone individual, which feels more American, or European to me. Their dialogue is more how I think of character being expressed, through dialogue and action but also through relationships. Each of the detectives has their own way of working and thinking and living, even though Hiroshi is the central character. Talking over drinks and small dishes is one of the ways business is conducted in Tokyo. Itís how things are done.
FQ: How did a man who is from Kansas City become attracted to and end up living and teaching for two decades in Japan, a culture that is so different from what you came from?
PRONKO: I came out of curiosity, stayed out of fascination, but also practicality. I got a job teaching at a university. A steady paycheck and interesting work makes it a lot easier to adapt. Being in Tokyo is like going on an overseas trip every day. Even twenty years later, thereís always something bewildering and intriguing. Even the predictable things remain surprising in their predictability. There are things that I fail to adapt to, some customs and ways of interacting that wear me out, like Japanese hiding their feelings and the excessive vagueness of communication. Tokyo is maybe different than the rest of Japan, I suppose, too. I donít think I could live outside Tokyo, though I know plenty of foreigners who do, and love it. The city can be very cosmopolitan, but also shockingly traditional, welcoming and rejecting in equal measures. But, it feels comfortable now. I donít feel I need to give up my American-ness to live here. I teach American literature, film, art, and music, so in that role, I remain very American. In some ways, Iím more American than I was living in the States, see it more clearly from outside, or at least feel parts of the culture more objectively.
FQ: Your descriptions of urban Japan are quite fascinating, especially the parts about Japanese business practices that we Westerners donít have. Can you explain to readers the importance of the Meishi for a Japanese business person?
PRONKO: Meishi are central to Tokyo life and culture. You hand your name card to anyone you meet that you want to keep in touch with. But itís also a way of knowing who you are talking to. Because protocol and levels of politeness can be tricky, itís good to know if youíre talking to the head of a company or the custodian, both of whom might say, ďI work at XXX company,Ē when you meet them. For stores and restaurants, itís a form of advertising. You take a meishi so you can go back again. Thatís important because some places are hard to find, and the meishi often have a small map. You can track someoneís life, see their contacts and meetings, through their meishi, which is what the detectives start with in the novel. I have hundreds and hundreds of them, several file boxes full. I bought a special scanner to digitize them. Nowadays, with Facebook, Linkedin and online sites, maybe theyíre less important than before, but I still have a big handful of new meishi just since the last time I scanned them. If I meet my students after they have graduated, itís a moment of genuine pride for them to give me their meishi with their name, position and company. Itís your identity, where you fit in the world, who you are connected to.
FQ: Throughout this story, one of the characters, Michiko, visits a few Japanese shrines and writes on Ema. Can you elaborate more on the meaning of Ema, and their significance in Japanese culture?
PRONKO: Ema are part of the ancient system of offering at a Shinto shrine. The word combines the characters for Ďpaintingí and Ďhorse,í and often there is a small horse painted on the board. In ancient times, the ultimate offering would be a horse, but since thatís a bit impractical these days, the picture substitutes. Nowadays, they are used as prayers to grant wishes from the gods. If someone is taking the college entrance exam, they would write one asking to pass. Other common requests are for pregnancy, smooth childbirth, curing an illness, business success, basically whatever you want but arenít sure about getting. Some shrines specialize in specific requests. Michiko writes the ema to ask for help in her ventures, but also to wash away her guilt. The sacred space inside the shrine is marked as clean and pure by washing oneís hands at the gate, so she needs that. Michiko goes to those shrines to cleanse herself, dispel guilt, and recover. Towards the end, she also goes with her best friend to a temple where they buy small bibs for a stone ďJizoĒ statue, which is a cute, small, man-like statue, often hundreds of them lined up side by side. If women have an abortion, they will sometimes buy a bib and hat and tie it on one of the statues to atone for the lost child.
FQ: What were your motivations behind writing a mystery-thriller involving trains, and your decision to make the villain a female?
PRONKO: Trains were an easy decision. They are central to Tokyo life. It is how people move around. Itís where people meet, how they conceive the city: ďIíll meet you at Shinjuku station, south exit.Ē A car chase is possible (and my third book will have one, though with a twist), but I wanted to think about the terror of the train crowds and the speed of trains. Day to day, no one thinks about it much, but if you stand on a platform, thereís this mass of metal speeding past just a couple of steps away. And because there are often, sadly, tragically, suicides of people jumping in front of trains, it seemed like one way a murderer might cover her crimes. As for the villain being a female, sheís empowering herself and turning the tables on men. But, the main things she does are not evil. Sheís just making a living. The killing shows some disconnect inside her, but that disconnect comes from the way women are considered and treated in Japan. Michiko is doing these terrible villainous things, but at the same time, sheís also doing some heroic things by not conforming and succeeding by societyís standards.
FQ: Is this book also being published in Japan, and if so, what have been the reactions you have received from readers?
PRONKO: I will publish it in Japanese later, but I havenít finalized that yet. Iím curious what the reactions will be. Japanese are usually curious to hear what non-Japanese think and read how they react to Japan. The Japanese readers who have read it in English so far have been very positive, and said they saw a new view of Tokyo. I think as a foreigner here, I see some things and miss a lot of other things. But thatís interesting, and no different for Japanese here, too. With my other collections of writing about Tokyo, the ways of observing and responding are not what most Japanese would see or say, so I guess that will be the case with this novel, too. Back to you on that question next year!
FQ: Iím impressed with your writing ability in The Last Train. However, I am sad to say that I often come across independent writers who do not take their writing seriously, failing to invest in solid writing and editing services. What type of proofreading and editing do you go through when writing?
PRONKO: I think a book is a precious, complex entity, so spending a lot of time on it is just respectful of the audience and itís also interesting for myself. As for services, a professional, well-paid editor is essential. Whenever I read what an editor sends me, itís torture, all those comments on the side of the file! As I read those comments, itís always a series of Homer Simpson moments, ďDoh!Ē How could I have missed that? Itís very humbling. For this novel three professional editors gave detailed line-by-line input, as well as comments on character and story. I rewrote the novel countless times, each time focusing on something different: for overall story, for organization, for drama, for scene, for character, for sentence quality, and again for impact and flow. In addition, I built writing skill by writing for magazines, newspapers and online sites for 20 years. Thereís nothing better than the pressure of a close deadline and a crabby editor to get you to put your ego aside and produce. I read and teach literature as my day job, so thatís a constant source of input and insight about writing. Going over novels, stories and films with students, especially outlining everything, deepens my attention to writing and story-telling. As a writer, I want to write better, so I work on finding ways to deeply experience stories, to understand what a story is and what stories do, to stay open to input, and to be comfortable applying my craft to the work. I want to keep developing all that.
FQ: I read that you will be releasing books two (Japan Hand) and three (Thai Girl in Toky) of this series in the next year or so. Do you have any other stories possibly brewing that your fans can look forward to in the future?
PRONKO: A lot of other stories brewing, too many maybe. After these next two, which Iím rewriting now, I will do two stand-alone novels, one about English teaching and another about foreigners in Tokyo. Those are both mystery-thrillers, too, but not detective-based. I like the detectives, and each of them deserves their own starring role, so I have a couple in mind for them as well. I also like satire, so I have a couple of ideas about cross-cultural satire, but that will come after these planned ones.
FQ: What are some of your favorite Japanese authors that you would recommend to readers from Western cultures?
PRONKO: As for mysteries, I like Seicho Matsumoto, Keigo Higashino, Miyuki Miyabe, Natsuo Kirino, and many more these days are getting translated into English. As for non-mystery writers, I love Kobo Abe, Junichiro Tanizaki, Kenzaburo Oe, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Osamu Dazai, Iharu Saikaku and I could go on, but these are the writers that knocked me out at first reading when I first came to Japan. These writers are deeply Japanese, but also universal enough to grab non-Japanese readers.
FQ: I see that youíve been interviewed by several other review websites. Is there anything that interviewers have failed to ask you and youíve been dying to let readers know about you personally, and about your novel, The Last Train?
PRONKO: One thing that I hope readers will find is the idea of mysteries as a balance of fantasy and reality, escape and observation, pleasure and criticism. I think mysteries help to chart out the limits and edges of acceptable behavior and explore the reasons for unacceptable behavior. Morality is a tricky thing in every culture, and highly variable from place to place, while murder is one of the few universal taboos. Mysteries explore the fissures and confusions among those issues. I find that really fascinating. The value and importance of mysteries and thrillers is they can turn our thinking inside out and, hopefully, in some way restore our interest and trust in the world.