The business of murder: An interview with Tokyo author David W. Rudlin

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 11.56.23 PM
Diamonds aren’t forever: David W. Rudlin

David W. Rudlin is a Tokyo-based executive, author and inveterate traveller with an unshakeable conviction that the secret to happiness is eating well. Born in the US in 1958, David has spent almost all of his adult life abroad. He has lived and/or worked in the UK, Japan, Hong Kong, China, India, Australia, South Africa, Botswana, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, and half-a-dozen other exotic locales. He has written eight novels, all featuring Inspector Ian McLean of Scotland Yard, as well as two screenplays. He kindly took time out from his exotic life to answer a few mundane questions Patrick Sherriff had about his writing and Broken Idol, his recent murder mystery set in the world of Japanese pop groups.

Patrick Sherriff: How did you start writing fiction, you’re a business executive, not an artist, and certainly not a crime expert, right?

David W. Rudlin: I was an English major in college, and like all such misguided souls, always wanted to see if I could write a book.

My first significant job in Japan was as a copywriter at Dentsu, which helped me make the transition from writing suitable for my tutor at Oxford, to something someone might actually read.

But while I thought (wrongly) I had the skills, I really didn’t have anything to say. It was only years later that a random lunch with the visiting boss of a friend of mine illuminated the way forward.

I was telling tales of the diamond world — and there are many — when my host said I should write a book. “I couldn’t,” I replied. “They’d shoot me first.”

And then she said perhaps the most life-changing words I’ve ever heard: “It doesn’t have to be non-fiction.”

At that time I was doing a global job, and spending about half my time in an airplane, and half of the remaining half lying awake with jet lag. I started plotting My Book in my head, and when I left De Beers I thought I was fully prepared for fame & fortune. I sat down and started writing, and within a very short period of time I had a fast-paced, informative, and often amusing story that the whole world could love.

It was 11 pages long.

I realized that reading novels and writing them aren’t the same thing. I then went back and re-read all sorts of books, looking at technique rather than storyline. Did every character need a back story? A detailed physical description? When is it okay to go off on a tangent? When does a chapter end?

And so on and on.

Eventually I had a draft of respectable length, and called into service a good friend of mine from college who had gone on to write a number of books about film, and is an excellent editor. He walked me through perhaps a dozen drafts, until finally we had something I thought worth unleashing upon the world.

(Might not make that same decision today.)

The original intention had been to write just the one, but that took so long there was time for the idea for a second book to emerge. Little by little, it became a bad habit.

I’ve also ventured into screenplays, starting with a TV pilot based on my first book (largely written by my partner in Hollywood), and two movie screenplays on unrelated topics. With both TV and the big screen I went through the same process of having to learn the difference between watching and writing, underlining how oblivious I’d been when sitting in the theater munching popcorn and watching things get blown up on screen.

Initially I thought that, despite being an amateur, I had three things to bring to the party: diamond knowledge, familiarity with some exotic corners of the world, and a passion for good food. Over time the diamonds have pretty much disappeared from my stories. Travel and food remain, though the book I’m working on now spends all of its time in central London and the most exotic food served is a wagyu hamburger. I suspect that’s probably for the best, for while a formulaic approach can be as comfortable as an old pair of tennis shoes, you do risk “phoning it in.”

At least, that’s what I think right now. Might be best to ask the question again once Book #9 is ready to see the light of day.

I see that the first Inspector McLean mystery was released in 2013, if you’re on your ninth now, that’s, err what, three a year? That’s an impressive speed if you also have a demanding day job. Can you say a little about your writing process? You’re self-published, right? How’s that working out for you?

I seem to be churning ‘em out at a rate of about two per year. That’s unintentional; I give each book as little or as long as it takes until I’m happy.

I always dread the process question, as that seems to imply method whereas my style is closer to madness. I begin writing when I have an idea. At that stage I haven’t a clue how it’s all going to end, and my favorite moment in the “process” is when I figure out how I’m going to get myself out of the hole I’ve dug.

Once a first draft is finished and I know where I’m going to end up, I go back and do the first of many, many rewrites. Things that don’t lead to the desired goal are stricken. New bits of flesh are added to the bones. Usually a few twists pop up. And I do a LOT of research: online, talking to experts, reading books and articles.

Another four to five revisions follow. Then I send the draft out to a few readers, which usually include a few people who have knowledge of the particular setting or murder method involved. Their comments lead to at least one more rewrite.

And then it goes to my editor.

In the early days I would read his comments with surprise and wounded pride. But I’ve learned that he’s almost always right (my “victories” all come when I have knowledge of a dialect or technical language that he doesn’t), and that many of his corrections are caused when what was in my head didn’t make it to the page. Now, I fear sending out an email without first getting approval from his careful eye.

A couple of more rewrites follow. Then there comes a point where anything I try to improve ends up creating problems with other things in the book. That’s when I know it’s time to lay down my keyboard and let the publishers do their thing.

Which brings us to self-publishing. I spent a lot of time debating this. My conclusion — which could well be wrong — was that conventional publishers put their weight behind books they think will be blockbusters. While someone like a John Grisham arguably doesn’t need any help, he’ll get tons of it. On the other hand, someone just starting out will be lucky to have review copies sent to a few publications. For that you give up a significant portion of the revenue.

Let’s do some math. In Japan a non-famous writer would be lucky to get a 5% royalty. 5,000 copies (the initial print run) is considered a big success. Say the book costs ¥1,000 (to make the calculation easier). That means the author gets ¥50 per book. Multiply by 5,000 and a very successful title returns a whopping ¥250,000.

If you self-publish on Kindle, you can choose between 35% and 70% royalty levels (you have to charge $2.99-$9.99 for the book in order to get the higher rate). With that same ¥1,000 book, you’re now looking at ¥700. So for every self-published book you sell, a publisher would have to sell 14. My bet was that they were unlikely to deliver an improvement that large.

Also, print-on-demand is now commercially viable. That means there’s no inventory risk, and writers don’t end up with a garage full of unsold books. (That risk is part of the reason publishers pay writers so little.)

With either conventional or self-publishing, the problem is standing out. In just the US and UK there are more than half a million new books published each year. There are more than 17 million titles listed on Amazon. Getting noticed is probably the hardest part of the process.

And the problem is getting worse. In Olden Times, if you wrote a short story you held onto it until you had a dozen more — enough to fill up a book. With Kindle, you can publish a one-page novel if you want to.

Not only does this add to the clutter, it makes it difficult for potential buyers to know if you’re a “proper author.”

I have a couple of friends who are not only proper, but best-selling authors. For them, things are very different. They work to clearly defined schedules set by their publishers. There is a publicity tour following the release of each new book. They’re featured speakers at writers conferences and book fairs. They get reviewed in The New York Times, once (recently) by the more famous author Scott Turow. And because they’re part of a larger ecosystem, they have to work in a more visible, consistent, predictable way than I do.

You’re preaching to the choir here about self-publishing. The case for self-publishing when you add in the fact of retaining copyright for your lifetime (plus 70 years) is so strong in my mind, you’d need a pretty amazing trad deal to make it worth considering. I suppose an advance would be nice, but really if you have enough money to get yourself a cover done and a decent editor, forget the advance and go for the higher rate of potential returns. As you say, the hard part is getting noticed. Do you have any tips for getting noticed? Do you try to game the almighty Amazon algorithm or do you take a more long-term approach?

I think the days of gaming Amazon are over. For a while people were giving away books as even a free download counted as a sale in terms of the rankings. Do that until you’ve worked you way into the top 100 or even top 10, and then start charging — while enjoying the greatly enhanced visibility. But Amazon figured that out, and closed the loophole.

I’ve tried to talk my way into various Amazon promotions, so far without success.

I had one huge burst of sales — for reasons still not understood — and sent Amazon a note asking if they’d done something I should be thanking them for. “We don’t do that,” they replied.

I bought ads on Facebook, and was stunned as I hit my (very high) daily limit of click-throughs in less than an hour. Didn’t sell a single book. One theory is that people clicking on a FB ad expect to be getting a freebie, even if it’s not the complete book. But as Look Inside on Amazon already provides that, I don’t buy this line of thinking.

My guess is that somewhere there are barns full of Chinese people clicking away on anything and everything in exchange for a fraction of a penny per click. Won’t do that again.

I was expecting to see synergies as the number of titles piled up, but either that’s not happening or that’s ALL that’s happening.

For a while I read Advice From The Experts, but it’s all pretty much the same. Set up an author website (have you EVER looked at an author’s website?). Send out review copies. Offer to speak at book clubs. Give out free copies to get reviews (that one I believe in — and Amazon reviews are particularly powerful).

The most effective tool I’ve found so far is using a cover photo as my email signature. I started doing it simply because it was free and easy. But I get a LOT of feedback. Many has been the time I sent off a brief note with a question or request, and received a formal reply followed by a very personal “I love to read and I noticed…” response from someone I never met. I think people like the idea of “knowing” the person who wrote a particular book.

Most of my books have a Deep & Meaningful Theme, as well as food, death and a storyline. In Broken Idol there are actually two themes (and yes, this will be on the test). One is the Japanese justice system. The other is the very blurred ethical lines surrounding cute girl groups. When something related to those themes hits the news, I use that as an excuse to give my books a plug online. And I encourage anyone who says they’ve read one of my books to post a review — even if it’s critical — wherever they go to do such things.

For me, that’s what’s worked best so far. Got some secrets I’ve missed?

My main tool is my newsletter list, but you have to write regularly (I’m trying once a month) and I find I don’t have that much to say to folk, hence the search for content, like this interview. Ultimately, I think it’s about quality (and to some extent quantity) of product. Write a damn good book, get people who liked it onto your email list… and repeat. Guaranteed to be an overnight success in, er, 20 years or so? I wrote a blog post about best self-pubbing resources here, but frankly it’s a full-time job keeping up with what’s hot and what’s not, and I’d rather spend the time writing. 

Screen Shot 2017-07-31 at 12.09.53 AM

I really enjoyed Broken Idol. As you say in your acknowledgements, it was your seventh novel but only the first to be set in Japan, a country you’ve been living in for 35 years. Why did it take so long for your second home to make an appearance in your fiction?

It’s possible that I’ve been in Japan so long I’ve lost perspective. I’m aware of its idiosyncrasies, but have come to understand and accept them. Or maybe I’m less able to predict what a reader who hasn’t been here will find interesting. Or maybe the oddities of places I’ve spent less time feel fresher and more engaging.

What are the challenges for the author writing about Japan for an English-language audience that you had to overcome?

One difficulty with writing about exotic locales is knowing how much background to provide. Take the idol groups featured in Broken Idol. Do I mention that the core fan-base is actually middle-aged women? Do I explain there are very few independent musicians, and it’s rare to find a bar that offers live music on Friday and Saturday nights? What about the Japanese obsession with cuteness generally? It’s hard to decide just how long a piece of string needs to be.

I also struggle with the English spoken by Japanese characters. It’s easy when they don’t speak the language well. It’s harder when they’re fluent, but still make mistakes. Will the reader understand these are the normal errors made by a non-native? Or will they think the mistake is mine, and chalk it up to bad writing rather than an accurate reflection of reality?

Finally, I’m acutely aware of the risk of painting in stereotypes. For example, while the Japanese justice system is infuriatingly formulaic, it’s hard to look at the low crime rates and conclude they’re doing it all wrong. Traditionally it has been overly reliant on (often forced) confessions, but particularly in recent years there have been significant efforts to change that — including taping interviews. (It seems an obvious correction, but at least they’re finally making it.) I don’t want readers walking away from the novel with a view of Japan that is entirely black or white. But it’s tough to provide nuance without slowing down the story.

Which brings us back to where we started. Perhaps I’m more concerned about nuance when writing about my second home, especially when that home is considered “inscrutable” by much of the world.

Tell me more about the McLean series. Where’s the latest, Trade Off, set? And do you have any plans to bring McLean back to Japan for another bite at the cherry (blossom)?

The first half of Trade Off is set in Hong Kong, where I lived for five years and worked — on a seagull basis — for another six or seven. The second half takes places in Scotland and London. It brings together the triads and Britain’s Royal Family.

Via a heroin addict.

I haven’t thought about bringing Ian back to Japan, even though I’m not against reprises. Trade Off marks a return to Hong Kong, though to be fair, in Shooting Stars he was only there for a day-and-a-half before venturing onto the Mainland, getting the crap knocked out of him, and being deported.

He definitely wanted a rematch.

As for McLean: a ninth book has been written, but it’s quite different in style than its predecessors. It’s currently with my editor so we can have a chat about whether, when, how, etc. to release it.

I’ve also completed a pilot for a TV series based on the books that’s just beginning to make the rounds in Hollywood.

My focus at the moment is on my first movie. It looks like we’ve got the financing lined up, and are targeting a production start in April. I’ve learned the hard way that nothing in Tinseltown is actually “done” until the popcorn is being sold in the theater, so I’m trying not to upset the Movie Gods by making any assumptions. But with each passing day I’m feeling just a shadow of a tinge more confident.

It’s completely unrelated to the books, an action-suspense thriller that has some (totally superficial!) similarities to Jason Bourne.

Fantastic, well, best of luck to you. I’d love to ask you back for an interview about your Hollywood experience, especially if you get a movie or TV series out of it. Finally, where should readers go to find out more about you and your books? 

Probably the best place is my author page on Amazon (link here). Thanks for doing this. I look forward to being famous!

Advertisements