Tokyo professor turns to crime: An interview with Michael Pronko

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Michael Pronko contemplates a life of crime-writing.

You might have heard of Michael Pronko, the award-winning Tokyo essayist. Or maybe Pronko, the social commentator on Japanese culture for NHK, Nippon Television, Newsweek Japan, The Japan Times and Artscape Japan. Possibly, you know Pronko, the American Literature and Culture professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. But do you know Pronko, the crime novelist? I was lucky enough to spend last weekend interrogating him by email before the release of his first novel, The Last Train, on May 31st.

Patrick Sherriff: How did you come to write Japan crime novels? I think you are better known as an essayist, certainly that’s how I came across your name.

Michael Pronko: Actually, I “came back” to writing novels. Outside of school assignments, all I wrote when I was young was fiction. I just didn’t publish it. And then just when I started to get things published, about twenty years ago, I got a couple of great gigs writing essays, reviews, and journalism, so I went with that. And then I got more offers, so I kept going. In a way, I can’t think of any better way to learn how to write than having a lot of deadlines for small-form writing. At one point, I had seven deadlines a month. But, I felt that I was always painting miniatures, and sort of disconnected ones. So, I wanted to work on a mural, or at least a bigger canvas, with more motion and fluidity and interconnection. Fiction also lets you work with different points of view, different characters, and to engage with a broader set of conflicts. Essays tend to stay within your own personal opinion. I love both novels and essays, and there’s great overlap between the two. I’ll go back to essays again after the Hiroshi series is finished, or even before.

Yes, the discipline that doing journalism instills is invaluable for any writer. Also, I think Jake Adelstein said that writing at speed in a newsroom environment where your words are looked over by benches of editors before they go public (this was back in the days when papers had staff) quickly cures you of being precious about having your stuff critiqued by others. And I agree, there are limits to what you can achieve with journalism alone. As Alain de Botton says, trying to understand the complex world around us with soundbites and headlines is like trying to understand a Tolstoy novel one shouted sentence at a time.

And working with editors, especially under time pressure, helps to internalize that editing function. It’s just easier to edit it yourself at the end of your drafting rather than having to listen to an editor nitpick with you on the phone at ten at night. Anything to shut them up and get the piece over with and get to a beer! The carefulness and constraint editors enforce make you realize you’re nothing special as a writer. It takes your ego down to a manageable level so you don’t have to stumble over it all the time.

Hah! Anyway, Is there really enough conflict to explore in homogenous Japan to fill a crime novel, let alone a series?

It’s true it would be hard to write a novel about bicycle theft, which is the most common crime in Japan a policeman informed me one time when he stopped me to check my registration. But then again, bicycle theft is probably a profitable little crime niche. Japan looks neat, clean and safe at one level, but if you dig deeper there’s lots of problems. Lots. Everyone seems to conform to the cultural harmony and unity, but Japanese have the same internal conflicts—and passions—as everyone else on the planet. At one level, Japanese are very group-oriented, but as individuals they still want to act freely and express themselves. That can lead to conflict and conflict leads to crime. Social problems often get glossed over in Japan, but that doesn’t stop them from being horrifying ordeals for whoever runs into them. Conflicts may not be as open and obvious, but they’re just as serious. And maybe more serious for having festered under the suppressing pressure of homogeneity.

I finished The Last Train last night (your third crime novel?) and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It’s said that the strength of a mystery/thriller is directly related to the strength of the villain. And your villain, Michiko, is perhaps the best aspect of The Last Train. Tell me more about her character and internal conflicts. How did you come up with her?

That’s great you enjoyed it! Actually, it’s my first published novel. The other two are still being edited and polished. I finished all three first to see how they would go together. I wanted to know more about the series and the characters before I published the first one.

You can thank Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for Michiko! His plan for “womenomics” to bring women into society was a nice idea, but never followed with genuine action. So, I thought, “OK, you want womenomics, I’ll give you womenomics.” What if a woman started taking things under control herself? Like men do? In a country like Japan, which ranks 111th out of 144 in global gender inequality? Michiko does everything on her own. She exhibits traditional masculine virtues and strengths. She’s not soft or servile. She knows what she wants and learns whatever she needs, to do whatever she wants. At the same time, she’s also obsessed with clothes, a dutiful daughter, retires to her childhood bedroom, so she also encapsulates a bit of what’s supposed to be feminine. You can read her from several angles, or at least I do. Underneath all that drive forward in powerful ways she has this lingering desire for revenge. Whether that revenge is justified is up to readers.

You write convincing Japanese characters. I sometimes struggle with the idea of cultural appropriation, that as a white, middle-aged man myself, I have no place writing young, female Japanese characters. What’s your take on cultural appropriation?

My seminars are filled with mostly young, female Japanese students. That isn’t to say I know what they’re thinking better than they do—to say that would be cultural appropriation. Mostly, frankly, I’m clueless what they’re feeling. But I always ask them stuff and have listened to what they say for twenty-some years, not only about the novels or films inside classes, but about their job hunts, life problems and whatever small part of their experience they share with me. None of them are like Michiko, though!

Writing depends on a lifelong acquisition of that kind of input from people. For me, that’s interesting. If you didn’t “appropriate” a little bit, you’d only ever write about yourself. Not so interesting for me. Not to mention that people don’t usually understand themselves too well. I think of most interactions, conversations, and people observations as learning about character, few of whom are like me. The Tokyo trains are great places to observe people. What novels, or good novels, do is allow us—or challenge us—to understand points of view, feelings, experiences and stories that are dissimilar to our own. But also similar, too, in some way, or we’d get weirded out and stop reading.

Because it’s so tricky to write characters unlike myself, I’m always wondering what that character would be thinking, feeling, saying or doing. I’m always testing it against my own experience, and my experience with other people and what others tell me of their experience. If handled with sensitivity and balance, all that helps create the true-ish energy of an engaging and believable character. When writing another type of character, I feel like it’s more of a dialogue that I have with that character. I wouldn’t say I appropriated Michiko, rather she appropriated ME, to tell her story!

Can you tell me a little about your journey from finished manuscript to published book? Are you self-published? (Raked Gravel Press is a great name, by the way).

I really love Zen rock gardens, so Raked Gravel Press is a company I set up. I’m the guinea pig for now, but plan on expanding to other authors in the future. I tried for years to get agents and editors interested in my creative non-fiction about Tokyo and in my novels set in Japan. That met with various degrees of non-success, though I got good at cover letters. So, I gave up on the traditional publishing route and went indie. “Indie” I would define as self-publishing with attitude. After I finished the manuscript, I sent it to an editor for content editing. He made a lot of ‘meta’ comments. Rewrote it again. From there, several friends read it and gave me input. Another rewrite or two. Then, I gave it to an editor who commented scene by scene and line by line. Rewrite #something. And then to a proofreader. More fiddling. A cover and web designer, a formatter, distributors, printers, and a promoter are all more people who helped along the journey. Without them, it would never happen. All of that amounts to setting up a freelance-based publishing company, but “company” in the sense of companions more than a financial corporation, I feel.

How has the experience been of constructing a novel instead of deconstructing one, as you would do as a literature professor?

It’s fascinating to work in both directions, from inside out as a writer and outside in as a professor. I think writing has made my teaching more creative, and teaching has made my writing more critical and solidly constructed. I probably learned more about novels by writing one than in all the years in graduate school, but I never would have gone to graduate school if I hadn’t always been writing. One is interpreting and explaining language and narrative, and the other is producing and polishing sentences and story. I’m not sure those are so different at bottom. University professors tend to look down on writing skill as a lower form of knowledge that lacks conceptual or historical understanding, while writers tend to discount academic theory as too removed from the real world. Writers can benefit from literary and critical theory and academics can learn a lot by writing creatively. What both need is heart, or they end up being just a theoretical or a technical exercise.

Are there tropes peculiar to Japan crime novels not present in, say, American hard-boiled yarns?

Yes, I think so, many. It would be interesting to make a list of them! There are expectations about how a story best unfolds that are often very different. I read a lot of both, but I wanted to be flexible enough to pick and choose from both traditions. To overuse the tropes from either side would end up being predictable. Also, I think the sense of what’s right and wrong really differ between the two at a detailed level. How things are solved might be more individual in American hard-boiled fiction, though much more group-oriented in Japan. Still, I think mystery is a basic, universal story form that exists in every culture.

What’s next for your sleuth Hiroshi? And for you?

I have two more books in the Hiroshi series written and almost ready, but still being edited and polished. One will come out later this year, and the other in spring 2018. There are a lot of issues that Hiroshi will dig into as the series develops. I have several others in the series sketched out, so we’ll see which one emerges after the next two. For myself, I plan on keeping on teaching and writing. I’ll squeeze in more non-fiction, too. And maybe a non-mystery, too, at some point. Tokyo’s a big city, so there’s a lot more to say!

It’s remiss of me, perhaps I should have asked first, how did you end up in Japan?

And why stay? It’s interesting. After university, I traveled for a couple years, but traveling penniless forever is hard to do. I taught in China for a couple years, and had friends here in Japan from grad school. So, I taught for a couple years, went back to the States, then to China, then back here again—all some strange current in the Pacific Ocean? Once I settled into teaching at university here, I stayed. Tokyo’s an intense place and if not always easy to live in at least always interesting.

Where can readers get in touch with you and where can they buy The Last Train?

The Last Train, and my other three books on Tokyo life, are available from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and other e-book sites. Paper and digital copies inside Japan are available directly from my website, too. I love to hear from readers and writers, so please do get in touch!

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