Interview about The Last Train

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Michael Pronko About ”The Last Train”

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Summary: Sue was very impressed by The Last Train, a thriller set in Tokyo. she had quite a few questions for author Michael Pronko when he popped into Bookbag Towers.
Date: 9 May 2017
Interviewer: Sue Magee

Reviewed by Sue Magee
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Sue was very impressed by The Last Train, a thriller set in Tokyo. She had quite a few questions for author Michael Pronko when he popped into Bookbag Towers.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Michael Pronko: I see all sorts of people. Whenever I talk about mysteries or thrillers, people often sheepishly confess how much they love reading them. All novels are mysteries in some sense. I see readers interested in Tokyo or Japanese culture, since Tokyo is a big mystery, or millions of small mysteries. Thrillers and mysteries are very ethical at their core, despite the awful things that happen. So, I think people who are mystery readers have a sharp sense of justice and maybe a need to see things set right, even when they can’t be. I also see readers who just love a great story.

  • BB: We’ve always been impressed by your non-fiction pieces on Tokyo. What inspired you to turn to fiction?

MP: I love writing both, but with the novel, I wanted to work inside a larger frame to create new kinds of connections between ideas, images, places and characters. In the non-fiction pieces, I’m always there reflecting on what’s happening, on what I see. So, with fiction, I can take myself out of the writing to see through another character’s eyes. I was also interested in taking readers (and myself) into the concealed interiors of Japanese culture. Much of Tokyo is hidden away. I can go to those secret places in non-fiction, too, of course, but fiction has more potential to explore and examine the veiled sides of Tokyo life. I’ve always written fiction, just not published much of it, so in a way, it’s turning back to fiction.

  • BB: Which do you find more difficult to write – fiction or non-fiction? Does your writing overlap at all?

MP: I find fiction is an expansion of experience and non-fiction a condensation of experience. Fiction makes broader connections and non-fiction makes focused connections. The two forms of writing are two ways of ordering and examining the world around me, two different lenses, two different writing challenges. I’m not sure which is harder ultimately, but for me, they feed off each other. Many passages in fiction, especially description and exposition, could be non-fiction, and non-fiction employs fictional elements, like three-part dramatic structure, irony, dialogue, or symbolism. They overlap tremendously. It’s not the parts that differ, but the whole.

  • BB: I loved Detective Hiroshi! Will we meet him again? What was the inspiration behind him?

MP: Yeah, he’s this likeable guy, a little lonely, very demure, but with tremendous energy, well-honed talents, and a strong sense of what’s right and wrong. Because of his experience outside Japan, he’s divided between his internationalized mindset and the traditional array of Japanese feelings and attitudes. I often sense this unresolved divide inside many Japanese. Hiroshi’s different from the other two detectives who are more “purely” Japanese. Sakaguchi, the sumo wrestler, all instinct and brawn, knows who he is. Takamatsu is the old-style Japanese male who does whatever he wants because he can, always sure of himself, too sure, it turns out. You will meet all of them again in the upcoming books, Japan Hand and Thai Girl in Tokyo.

  • BB: Your love of your adopted city shines through the story, but at one point you say that ‘Tokyo’s a strange, lonely wacko place’. Is that how it feels to you?

MP: In the novel, the American guy who is escaping Tokyo says that at the airport. I feel that way sometimes at the airport, too, going in AND going out! But, living here, it all starts to make sense in a way, so I would not say it’s wacko. Some things are still strange to me, but I like that sense of strangeness. I find a little discomfort energizing, and motivating. Tokyo is a very lonely place, though, and that’s what many scenes express. Tokyo is a split way of life where you are massed into large groups, on the train, at work, in social outings, but you still spend a lot of time alone. Maybe that’s the wacko side?

  • BB: The men who move the boxes from Hiroshi’s apartment are described as ‘displaying the self-respect Japanese accorded all jobs, high or low’. Is this a particularly Japanese trait? Do you think the western world would do well to copy it?

MP: Yes, I think that’s a great attitude and very Japanese. In the West, many people lose the sense of self-respect that comes from work. I think in the west people should respect other people’s work more, whatever they’re doing. It’s amazing the level of service in Japan, and it comes from performing whatever job with dignity. You expect people to do their job, but you thank them for even the smallest of things. Japanese have a sense of duty, to do what they should do, even if that’s something—like wiping tables or wrapping a package—that seems trivial. It’s a form of mutual respect that pervades all public interactions in Japan.

  • BB: You describe real estate in Tokyo as being some of the most expensive in the world. Does this create problems for Japanese workers?

MP: It creates problems for everyone who doesn’t own any! This is the core social and economic conflict of the novel. Real estate became a dominant form of power during the bubble years of the 1990s when prices went sky high. But even after the economy slid into recession, owning real estate was still the great social divide. Things are spatially cramped in Tokyo, so you will see even small plots of land, I mean like arms-width, being turned into a store or a three-story house. Space is just always this calculation about everything. It drives the economy, not always in good directions. It’s a basic desire, because it’s so in demand, and so hard to get. That’s why Michiko in the novel is so unusual, because she figures this out and acts on it. She’s not satisfied accepting her land-less life.

  • BB: Your descriptions of Japanese food made my mouth water. What would be your perfect meal?

MP: I love having a bowl of ramen noodles by myself along a long counter in a steamy noodle restaurant. But I think “the” perfect meal is with friends, talking, eating, drinking. It starts with light vegetable dishes and tofu and proceeds to a plate of raw fish (sashimi) served on ice. From there, I order yakitori, a succession of grilled chicken and vegetable skewers, followed by grilled fish or deep-fried chicken. And I always order something I don’t know, some strange, seasonal, unknown thing. Wash it all down with cold sake. At the end, chazuke, which is green tea with rice, nori, and a sliver of salty fish. Puts you right to sleep. Perfect.

  • BB: You’re a university professor and you teach a wide variety of subjects. How do you find the time to write?

MP: I wonder myself. I’d love more time to write, but I feel teaching feeds into writing and vice versa. My students keep the reading side of literature alive for me. It’s so fresh and first-time for them. Outlining a novel to prep for my seminar is learning to write. When we work on a poem in class, it heightens both my students’ and my feel for the power of language. With the films I teach, my students and I work on outlines together before discussing characters, conflicts and themes. All that feeds into writing. And it flows in the other direction. Writing novels allows me to better help students understand how novels work and what they mean. William Carlos Williams said he couldn’t have been a poet without being a doctor, and vice versa. I take his attitude as good, solid advice. It’s less conflict than confluence. Most of the time, anyway.

  • BB: What’s next for Michael Pronko?

MP: Two more novels in the same Hiroshi series are penned and drafted, but not polished and finalized. The next one, Japan Hand, focuses on Japan’s relationship with America, especially the military bases. It features a great main character who is, unfortunately, dead from the beginning, and digs into US-Japan relations. The next after that, Thai Girl in Tokyo, looks at the world of teenagers, prostitution and pornography. It features two fantastic women characters on the lam, one a vibrant Thai girl and the other a street-smart Japanese teen. And some non-fiction, too. I’ll be in the U.S. for several months this year to do research, and will gather notes for a non-fiction book about Japan and America, a side-by-side cultural consideration. When I get back, I’ll focus on a non-fiction book on Japanese cultural objects.

  • BB: There’s lots to look forward to there, Michael. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

You can read more about Michael Pronko here.

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