Today’s guest on What Cathy Read Next is Michael Pronko, author of the Tokyo-set thriller, The Last Train. I’m delighted that Michael has agreed to mark publication day of his book by answering some questions about the inspiration for The Last Train and his approach to writing.
‘An absorbing investigation and memorable backdrop put this series launch on the right track.’ (Kirkus Reviews)
About the Book
Detective Hiroshi Shimizu investigates white collar crime in Tokyo. He’s lost his girlfriend and still dreams of his time studying in America, but with a stable job, his own office and a half-empty apartment, he’s settled in. When an American businessman turns up dead, his mentor Takamatsu calls him out to the site of a grisly murder. A glimpse from a security camera video suggests the killer was a woman, but in Japan, that seems unlikely. Hiroshi quickly learns how close homicide and suicide can appear in a city full of high-speed trains just a step—or a push—away. Takamatsu drags Hiroshi out to the hostess clubs and skyscraper offices of Tokyo in search of the killer. She’s trying to escape Japan for a new life by playing a high-stakes game of insider information. To find her, Hiroshi goes deeper and deeper into Tokyo’s intricate, ominous market for buying and selling the most expensive land in the world. Hiroshi’s determined to cut through Japan’s ambiguities—and dangers—to find the murdering ex-hostess before she extracts her final revenge—which just might be him.
- Format: ebook
- Publisher: Raked Gravel Press
- No. of pages: 348
- Publication date: 31st May 2017
- Genre: Thriller, Crime
Find The Last Train on Goodreads
Interview: Michael Pronko, author of The Last Train
Without giving too much away, can you tell me a bit about The Last Train?
The novel is set in Tokyo and pits novice detective Hiroshi against Michiko, a savvy, skillful young woman. She decides to take back what’s owed her by learning how to cash in on insider information. Hiroshi teams up with ex-sumo wrestler Sakaguchi to follow her through Tokyo’s maze of skyscrapers, wastelands, sacred temples and odd hideaways. It’s more ‘whydunit’ than ‘whodunit’, and very much a mystery-thriller.
What was the inspiration for the book?
Tokyo’s a very inspiring place. In a normal day, I come across so many things that make me want to write–torn-down buildings, new neighbourhoods, advertisements, odd news items. I find the multitudes of people—each a novel in themselves—to be very inspiring. For this novel, I was thinking about the current prime minister’s coined term, “womenomics,” which was used to describe his plan to bring women into the economy. That was more slogan than policy, as it turned out, so I wanted to take that a step further to see what would happen if a smart, strong woman decided to engage with the male-dominated world of high-priced real estate.
You’ve published collections of essays about Tokyo but what made you decide to venture in the world of fiction?
I still love writing essays about Tokyo, but fiction opens up more possibilities for bigger connections. In fiction, you can see through another character’s eyes, while non-fiction tends to frame my own reactions, insights and language more snugly. Fiction offers a bigger canvas to paint on, which is both freeing and a little daunting. When I was younger, I wrote much more fiction, but non-fiction took over for several years as I wrote for different magazines and newspapers. So, it’s maybe more of a return than a new venture. Anyway, I love both. The internal struggle is the same both ways.
What is it about Tokyo that made you choose it as the setting for your book?
I’ve lived here for 20 years, so I know it better than anywhere else. Little by little, Tokyo’s become home. I think Tokyo is one big mystery, so it really begs to be written into fiction. It’s a complicated place and very exciting, disturbing and irritating all at once. There is just so much going on, and so much energy. Of course, it’s easy to remain on the surface of its vitality, but in the novel, I wanted to look beneath the surface. The giant skyscrapers and constant construction are amazing, but there’s a lot going on behind the go-go big-city bright-lights, and a lot of it not so good.
The Last Train takes the reader into the world of high finance, insider dealing and the Tokyo property market. What research did you have to undertake?
I would say it’s a gradual accumulation of knowledge rather than research per se. Years of it. Most of the issues in the novel are not researchable, because it’s not something people talk about openly. I wrote editorials for ten years, which is a real education. I talk with people a lot, at bars or wherever, and with former students and friends. All of them have told me a lot about what they do. The novel’s settings are real places I know and go regularly. When writing, I revisit those places like Roppongi. It’s important being there and soaking it in actively and unconsciously. I take photos to see better and remember. But it’s also like a couple hundred photos and years of visits comes out to a short introductory paragraph!
What was the biggest challenge you encountered when writing The Last Train?
Writing about another culture is difficult because even after all the years living here, there are still aspects of the culture that are easy to misconstrue. Especially because many things are left unspoken in Japan, especially shameful things. My “outside” standpoint gives me a different sort of objectivity to see aspects of Japan that Japanese might not notice, so I have to go with that. It’s also hard writing women characters. Most of my university students are women, so listening to their stories, good and bad, gives me an idea of what they experience and how they feel about things. The third challenge was putting Tokyo into a very few words. It’s a big place.
Do you have a special place to write or any writing rituals?
I have a great space at home looking out on my back garden, so that’s very special and very productive. I start writing as early as I can in the morning and I like to have music playing when I write. I’m always fiddling with the right music to propel my thoughts and words for a specific scene or a feeling I’m trying to convey. But at other times, silence is productive. I also write on the train, or rewrite. It’s a bit embarrassing with other people on a crowded train staring at me scrawling changes onto a folded piece of paper as fast as I can before the stop where I need to change trains. But that makes me work in quick, vigorous strokes. And then, as I walk through the crowd, I rewrite in my head.
Which other writers do you admire?
I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, but I’m not a fan of any single author. I like older noir novels, classic mysteries, Japanese and Chinese mystery writers. I’m always stunned at almost every writer’s unique skill fashioning prose and engineering stories. I try to learn from all prose writers whether I admire them or not. I teach literary fiction at university, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Kerouac. I teach classes in poetry and song lyrics, so I always admire that for rhythm, imagery and concision. Of Japanese writers, Kobo Abe is the one that always knocks me out the most. I read everything I can, and it’s rare I don’t admire something in a writer’s work, if not always the whole thing.
If The Last Train was to be made into a film, who would be your choice of director and lead actors?
If I could, I’d maybe go back to the actors of Japanese 1950s films, Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Ken Takakura, Tatsuya Nakadai. I see current actors like Takeshi Kaneshiro, Ryuhei Matsuda (as the punk), Yosuke Eguchi, Hideaki Ito fitting roles. Jun Kunimura (as the building owner) and Koji Yakusho and Ren Osugi are always great. Shinichi Tsutsumi would fit Detective Hiroshi perfectly. Lead actress is harder. Miki Nakatani, Koyuki, Ryoko Shinohara are tough in many of their roles, very strong women. As for director, tough call between a Japanese and non-Japanese director. Directors bring their own style, so it’s tricky. What about a blend of Ridley Scott and Beat Takeshi or Rokuro Mochizuki? Anyway, that’s all a real stretch!
What are you working on next?
I have two more up and working in the same series, Japan Hand, which delves into the relation between Japan and the American military bases and Thai Girl in Tokyo, which has two great women characters finding their way through the dangers of Shibuya’s underground nightlife. Those are set for release over the next year and a half. I’ll do more non-fiction after that, or kind of concurrently, a non-fiction book on Japanese “things” like bamboo, pottery, rock gardens. I have a couple of stand-alone thrillers in mind, too. Tokyo’s so infinite story-wise!
Thank you, Michael, for those fascinating answers. I’ve got a feeling The Last Train is going to get readers hooked for future books in the series.
About the Author
Michael says: I have lived, taught and written in Tokyo for twenty years, but I was born in Kansas City, a very different world from Tokyo. After graduating from Brown University in philosophy, I hit the road. I travelled around the world for two years working odd jobs, and finally went back to school. After a Master’s in Education, I got a call from Beijing offering me a teaching position. I took it. I lived in Beijing for two years, teaching English, travelling the country and writing. I was lucky enough to meet my wife there. I spent more time traveling, teaching English and finishing two more degrees, Comparative Literature in Madison, Wisconsin and a PhD in English at the University of Kent at Canterbury, writing about film adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels.
Now, I live with my wife in western Tokyo and work as a professor of American Literature at Meiji Gakuin University. I teach seminars in contemporary novels and film adaptations, and classes in American indie film and American music and art. After talking with my students about Jackson Pollock, Bessie Smith, or Kurt Vonnegut, I head out to wander through Tokyo. The contrasts, and confluences, always put ideas for writing into my head. I have published three award-winning collections of essays: Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo (Raked Gravel Press 2015), Tokyo’s Mystery Deepens (Raked Gravel Press 2014), and Beauty and Chaos: Essays on Tokyo (Raked Gravel Press 2014). I have also published books in Japanese and two textbooks in both English and Japanese. I currently run my own website Jazz in Japan (www.jazzinjapan.com). I also continue to publish academic articles and help run a conference on teaching literature (www.liberlit.com).
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