Though not without mishaps, such as nearly falling into
people's laps as the train jolted or dropping a pen that marked
another rider's shirt, his perseverance paid off with the crime
thriller "Japantown" that starts in San Francisco and then moves
As if that and a two-book contract weren't enough, the novel — which features Jim Brodie, an art dealer and martial artist who
also is part-owner of a detective agency — has scooped several
"best debut" awards and had TV rights optioned by J.J. Abrams,
the mastermind behind the last two "Star Trek" movies.
Lancet, a U.S. native who has lived in Japan for more than 20
years and worked as an editor with now-defunct Kodansha
International, spoke with Reuters about his work.
Q: What got this book going?
A: I didn't really have an idea initially until I got
hauled in by the Japanese police ... I didn't know why, and it
was very much a cat and mouse sort of game. I slowly realized
that they were trying to get information from me, that if I
didn't answer this the right way they could throw me out of the
country. I knew I had to be very, very careful...
They grilled me over my life and raked me over the coals for
everything. I was angry for the first few hours but I was also
intrigued because there was one guy — this nice, rather
senior-looking gentleman. He was at times gentle, at times
probing, at times kind of pushing.
So I thought maybe I could do a mystery or a detective novel.
From that encounter I eventually got two characters.
Q: How did you come up with the character of Brodie?
A: Mysteries and thrillers always explore the dark side
of a society, a person, a group. Japan has that too, but I
didn't want to stop there. I wanted to bring in the culture,
whether it was traditional or contemporary.
So I needed somebody with a foot in both worlds and set up the
antiquities/art side. I suppose he's kind of an alter-ego
because I edited so many art books and know so many artists
here. So I could cover both the high and the low, I shaped this
character that could move easily, convincingly in both worlds. I
didn't want him to be some Jason Bourne-type person who is just
swift and clever, I wanted him to have some culture.
I started the book with a what-if ... What if there was a
perfect murder of a Japanese national with only one clue that
nobody could read, and they'd have to call in a Japan expert?
As I wrote more and more, I wrote Brodie into a corner he
couldn't get out of. Things kept escalating, getting worse and
worse, impossibly worse — but in a logical way that seems like
it could happen. Then I realized that the bad guy I had in mind
wasn't strong enough to do all those things.
I went back and thought OK, I've got to come up with an
antagonist who is knowing enough to do all these things. Where
can I go? Then I reached back into Japanese culture and history.
[to top of second column]
The second what-if was what if a samurai culture were to exist today
... Samurai lore has come down to the present day, but not samurai.
And I thought: what would a samurai group actually look like today
if it made it to modern times?
Q: How long did it take from idea to end of book?
A: I stopped and started a few times, there were minor
things. I was still working 60- to 70-hour weeks, I had a family. So
probably six to seven years. Now, the next book in the series, which
I'm very happy with, that took 10 months over a 14-month period. But
I'm not working a day job anymore.
Q: Your editing job must have helped shape your eye.
A: I purposely had done mostly nonfiction (editing) because
I wanted to write fiction. I had written various nonfiction pieces
but I hadn't written fiction.
Originally it was going to be a more serious sort of thing. But as I
was handling such a heavy load of manuscripts at the office — I
liked them, art and history, garden books, architecture, Asian
So I started to write for my own pleasure and entertainment. That's
still the way. I write it so I'm enjoying it too, otherwise it
doesn't seem to work.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges?
A: For the first book, I realized that I'd been in Japan so long
that I'd lost confidence in my English dialogue, so I spent an
inordinate amount of time getting back that capacity.
The other thing was how to present Japanese characters and the
culture in an accurate way that didn't dumb them down ... I wanted
to do it accurately in a way that represented the person or the
culture in a way that people could respect, without being a
caricature. That was hard to figure out.
Q: Has your editing experience made you too picky?
A: You have that too because you've been so detail-oriented
that you write one sentence or two sentences and you pick it apart.
I know people that get stuck there and never get beyond that.
There's a wonderful quote where a Japanese author said "It took me
10 years to learn my art and five to forget it". It was that sort of
thing. I wasn't getting anywhere, I was being too picky, being an
editor ahead of time...
You have to get beyond your inhibitions, whatever it is that's
holding you back, and sometimes that's your ego. You're not quite
fearless. When you write you have to be fearless.
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)
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