Exclusive Interview: The Last Train Author Michael Pronko
While noir crime novels are a distinctly American art form, it’s one that’s practiced by writers all over the world. Sweden gave us Henning Mankell (Faceless Killers), Matz (The Killer Omnibus Volume 1) hails from France, while Japan’s Hideo Yokoyama recently made an impressive first impression with Six Four. But writer Michael Pronko is a little different. While the writer of The Last Train (paperback, digital) was born in Kansan City, he’s lived in Tokyo for the last twenty years, working as both a writer and a professor of American Literature at Meiji Gakuin University. All of which informed his own take on the noir crime novel.
I always like to start with the basics. So, basically, what is The Last Trainabout?
The basics are a woman named Michiko seeks revenge by using her business smarts, her good looks, and the Tokyo trains. Investigating her are Detectives Hiroshi, the lead, and Sakaguchi, an ex-sumo wrestler turned detective. The novel is also about Tokyo, the external side and the internal side both. The novel is about how they find her and how the reader comes to understand her reasons for wanting revenge.
Where did you get the idea for The Last Train, and how different is the final novel from that initial idea?
I covered jazz for The Japan Times for many years, and still write about jazz on my site Jazz In Japan, so in the jazz clubs and other bars I would always see hostesses, women who work in high-class clubs pouring drinks and talking with male customers. They were certainly attractive, dressed and coiffed to perfection. I felt they carried themselves with dignity and elegance, and were not so passive as they acted. They often seemed quite smart and savvy to me. I wondered what would happen if one of them got angry and decided to take what she felt she was owed. The train system in Tokyo is central to the novel and the story came to me in a flash standing on a platform as an express shot by. From that moment, I think my idea didn’t change that much, though the details evolved and expanded.
The Last Train is a crime novel, but there’s lots of subgenres in the crime novel realm. Where do you think yours fits in?
Genre boundaries are so tricky, inclusive and exclusive, marketing hype, reader orientation, but I think novels are always a mix of many genre elements. The Last Train is a mystery, but with elements of suspense and thriller. It’s a detective novel, certainly, with a dash of police procedural, though not a straight-line procedure, more intuitive. From my point of view here in Tokyo, it’s not international, but from outside Japan, maybe it fits under the category of international mystery.
What writers, and which of their novels, do you see as being the biggest influences on The Last Train, and in what ways?
It’s such a huge mix of influences, though I’m not trying to emulate anyone or any style. I teach American Literature as my day job, so I’m influenced by reading Hemingway, Pynchon, Nabokov, McCarthy, Vonnegut, Heller, and by outlining all of them to teach them. Outlining really gives you a deep understanding of how novels work. Just reading is one thing, but when I study, read, outline, explain, discuss, I feel I can understand those novels and the idea of novels most fully. I read older mystery, thriller, noir novels, too…and sometimes outline those as well. I like the ’30s and ’40s style the most.
I also feel influenced by novels that really arise from the setting. Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler, their novels are deep Los Angeles, right? Many Japanese crime writers give me a sense of Japan from deep inside: Keigo Higashino, Natsuo Kirino, Seicho Matsumoto, Miyuki Miyabe. Though I’m sure I see Japan very differently than they do, so I’m not sure if that’s influence. I also like the Chinese writer Qiu Xiaolong; I lived in China for three years. And this might sound odd, but it’s often novels I don’t like very much which influence me, too, pushing me to write differently from them. Maybe that’s counter-influence?
What about non-literary influences; do you think any movies, TV shows, or video games had an influence on The Last Train, and if so, what in what ways?
Films and more films, yes. I love film noir, and even the most B-movie-like of them are fascinating. I watch many films set in Japan, old and new, so I learn a lot from those. Most samurai films, which I really love, could be considered mysteries, or suspense/thrillers. Many anime paint a rich visual view of Japan, and their constructed visuals call attention to details: the color of the sky, the way a crowd moves, the structure of buildings. But it’s more the small details of those films and anime that really sink into my consciousness, and unconscious. I want readers to be able to see Tokyo and the characters in the same way those visual narratives let viewers see and re-see. I watch TV shows, too, to see how Japanese see Tokyo, and to get a different take on the inner conflicts of current Japanese society. All that mixes in and adds its influence.
It’s my understanding — and please correct me if your experience has been different — that some Japanese people don’t like it when people from other countries come there to live. Given that, what has been the reaction in Japan to an American resident of Tokyo writing a crime novel set in Japan and with a Japanese detective as the hero?
When I say to people here that I’m a teacher, I’m always surprised how deep respect for teachers runs in Japan. So, being tenured at a Japanese university, I’m accepted at least for that role. But still, there’s a lot of resistance, even inside universities, to foreigners living here. The reaction to the novel, and to my other essays about Tokyo life is always mixed. The cosmopolitan side of Tokyo people is open and interested, but there’s a closed-in, traditional Japanese attitude always lurking there, too. The one sleight-of-hand I did to mitigate the rejecting, dismissive reaction was make Hiroshi, the Japanese detective, fluent in English and conversant in other cultures. He’s lived outside Japan, so that gives him an internationalized understanding. His inside/outside perspective is closer to my own after living here for twenty years. In it, but not completely of it. That’s the classic detective position, isn’t it? The crimes, too, have a connection to other countries’ people in all the novels. I haven’t published the novel in Japanese yet, though, so that would surely get a different set of responses.
Do you think the reaction to the book would be different if instead of writing a crime novel, you had written in another genre?
It would be harder to write a love story between two Japanese maybe, and that would fall under more scrutiny, I’m sure. It’s hard to get inside the mind of another person no matter where they’re from. With my other three collections of essays about Tokyo, and the column published in Japanese, I found people receptive to my comments about Tokyo, perhaps because I wrote from my own point of view. They would often say, “I never noticed that before.” So, a foreign point of view can see the routine, accepted parts of life in a fresh way. That’s what makes all writing interesting, that freshness.
Now, The Last Train is your first novel, but it’s not your first book. You previously wrote the non-fiction books Beauty And Chaos: Slices And Morsels Of Tokyo Life, Motions And Moments: More Essays On Tokyo, and Tokyo’s Mystery Deepens. Is there anything that your first foray into fiction shares with your non-fiction writing? Like is there a similar style or something else in common?
There’s a lot of overlap. The novel draws on years of being immersed in life here, observing, participating, working, traveling, and writing about it all. I drew on that for the non-fiction books, and for the novel as well. The creative non-fiction has lots of literary elements, like three-part dramatic structure, character, symbols, setting, all those things. On the other side, a novel must include a lot of non-fiction elements if it’s going to ring true. Writing editorials for The Japan Times forced me to work with a lot of facts, information, statistics, and background knowledge. Fiction and non-fiction share a lot of things but from different directions, or with a different balance of what’s in the foreground or background. The similarity is maybe hard to see at first, but it’s there. Both voices are mine.
You’ve already said that The Last Train is the first book in a series you’re calling the Detective Hiroshi series. But how much of that series do you have figured out? Do you know if it will be a set number of books, like a trilogy, or an ongoing series?
I launched into the second novel right after finishing the first, and then right into the third after the second was done. I wanted to get a sense of where it was all going, and I’m glad I did. When I finished the third novel, I had a lot of new ideas for when I circled back to rewriting the first. Charles Dickens, another huge influence on me, had to think in two different ways: far, far ahead and for the next month’s deadline. His longer novels are about four times the length of most mysteries. That’s a lot of narrative to keep bouncing around in your head bone, with or without a computer. But it makes you think big. It’s not that I wanted all the Detective Hiroshi novels to interweave in terms of story, but rather in the overall approach. Doing it this way, the books all work alone, but reverberate with each other, expanding and enlarging parts of the others as a series.
So do you know how many books will there be and when might we see them?
I haven’t set the final number yet, but I’ll do at least six books in this Hiroshi series. The next two I’m working on now are getting a solid rewrite, edit, and polish. I have three more outlined in detail. The next one, Japan Hand, should be out by early 2018, and the next one, Thai Girl In Tokyo, will be out mid to late 2018. I’m thinking of two standalones outside the series, but the other two detectives, Sakaguchi, the ex-sumo wrestler, and Takamatsu, the old-school bad boy, seem to be clamoring in my head for novels with them as the lead.
So, has there been any interest in adapting The Last Train into a movie, TV show, or maybe even an anime?
I’d love to see it on the screen. I think very visually when I write, and often go back to look at places or at photos I’ve taken of places in the novel. I teach a class on film adaptations of novels, so I’m fascinated by the back-and-forth comparisons. Tokyo’s so photogenic, too, a huge city that’s visually stunning, surprising, overwhelming. I think a lot of anime directors are amazing artists, so it would be fascinating to see an adaptation in that way, too. Anime lets you see more concretely and directly. TV shows run on a different set of episodic structures, but I think the conflicts and characters would work there. I think The Last Train could be adapted to all those forms.
If it was going to be made into a movie or TV show, who would you like to see cast as Detective Hiroshi and the other main characters?
There are so many great actors in Japan. If I could, I’d go back to the actors of Japanese 1950s films, Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Ken Takakura, actors who entered completely into their roles. I could also see current Japanese actors like Takeshi Kaneshiro, Yosuke Eguchi, Hideaki Ito as fitting detective roles. Koji Yakusho and Ren Osugi always impress me. Shinichi Tsutsumi is maybe the closest idea I have of Detective Hiroshi. Lead actress is harder. Maybe an unknown actress would be best, but I love the acting of Koyuki, Ryoko Shinohara, who often plays a detective, Miki Nakatani are smart, savvy women in many of their roles. As for Sakaguchi, the ex-sumo wrestler, well, you can imagine the tryouts for that part.
Finally, if someone really enjoys The Last Train, and they’re looking for something to read while waiting for Japan Hand to come out, what Japanese crime novel would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Seicho Matsumoto, but all of his. He’s a slower pace than contemporary novelists, but he really embodies the essence of Japan in his detective novels.