Interview with My Book Place

Michael Pronko

Tell us about yourself and how many books you have written.
This is my debut mystery novel. 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 traveled 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, traveling 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.

Over the years in Tokyo, I have written regular columns for many publications: The Japan Times, Newsweek Japan, Jazznin, ST Shukan, Jazz Colo[u]rs, and Artscape Japan. I currently run my own website Jazz in Japan. I also continue to publish academic articles and help run a conference on teaching literature

What is the name of your latest book and what inspired it?
My latest book is The Last Train. I got the idea for it because I live in Tokyo, and was a jazz writer for quite a few years, and still am. But when I started I was writing about jazz for the Japan Times, so I was always out at night in the nightlife parts of the city. I’d see these hostesses who work in all the clubs there, and they are stunningly attractive. But, I wondered what kind of life they led, staying up all night, working in the clubs in all these pretty wild areas of the city. I stared to wonder what was inside their appealing external appearance. What if one of them was a LOT smarter than they men she was working with, and decided to get more money than she could make as a hostess. The other inspiration is riding trains. They are a central part of Tokyo life. I wanted to explore how important they are to life—and to death.

Do you have any unusual writing habits?
Writing is an unusual habit in itself, I feel! I just sit down and try to focus. I usually meditate a bit beforehand, but when I’m busy, I just sit down and let fly. I also write a lot on the train. Trains in Tokyo are packed, but calming to me. So, I can rewrite if I get a seat, which is rare, or just standing up.

What authors, or books have influenced you?
EVERY book I’ve read has influenced me. I read a lot for work as a professor of American literature, but I also read whatever I feel like, too. Everything is part of the effect on how I approach the writing.

What are you working on now?
The next book in the Hiroshi detective series. It’s called Japan Hand and looks at the relations between America and Japan, and tries to figure out why an old Japan hand, who lived in Japan and loved the culture, was killed.

What is your best method or website when it comes to promoting your books?
I wish I knew! I think any site that saves readers time to find what they want is helpful. The internet is a pain at times, but it’s really good for looking around when you know sort of what you want, but not exactly. I google around for things all the time. My own site, I suppose is best to connect.

Do you have any advice for new authors?
Write every day. Find a place to get published no matter how small. Working with an editor is important as they wise you up pretty quickly about the dismal state of your writing. That helps get the ego out of the way and lets you focus on the writing itself. Editors also help immensely to focus clearly.

What is the best advice you have ever heard?
Mark Twain said don’t let your schooling get in the way of your education. I repeat that to my students at the end of every semester, and to myself. I also like the Latin ‘nulle dies sine linea’ which means never a day without writing a line. That goes to the previous question.

What are you reading now?
I always have two dozen books half read. I read mysteries and thrillers, but also mainstream and literary fiction of all kinds. I love to read about culture, Zen, jazz and whatever topic I find. I read a lot of essays, too, since my last three books were collections of creative non-fiction.

What’s next for you as a writer?
More novels in the same series. I may go back to non-fiction about Japan again, but for now I want to get this series out. I have the next and next next written, so I’m focusing on that for now.

What is your favorite book of all time?
Zorba the Greek! It’s everything together.

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