THE UNREADABLE


In my opinion,  fiction writers rarely choose stories.  I believe that more often than not, stories that demand to be told choose someone to  tell them.  Surely neither Andrew Vachs,  Patricia Cornwell, nor other novelists whose works ooze blood and gore derive much pleasure from imagining vicious killers and their deeds. Publishers do derive pleasure from profits and readers there are who enjoy putting money into the pockets of writers and publishers of gory novels. This seems to be a symbiotically cozy arrangement for those involved.

Trouble is that some readers lack whatever it is that makes reading gory stories enjoyable. I am one of those. My view of the world is sufficiently dark–what with ISIS and other mad people creating mayhem globally–that  do not I find side trips into the minds of imaginary psychopaths all that entertaining. That is why I see M.J. Arlidge’s THE DOLL’S HOUSE and Fiona Barton’s THE WIDOW  as fiction to avoid. The former follows the ghastly doings of a criminal who abducts and starves young women. The later deals with a poisoner and a policewoman who likes to be brutalized.  I cannot go into details. I stopped reading both books after the first few chapters.That no doubt disqualifies me from judging them fairly.But the problem is not the writing. Rather, it is the topic I find unapproachable. all masterfully crafted, Having read Nabokov’s LOLITA, John Fowler’s THE COLLECTOR,  and Emile Zola’s THERESE RAQUIN,  I lean into the universal privilege of readers, that which allows me to refrain from diving  into the garbage pit of  fictional criminals’ mind. I feel no compulsion to read pedestrian writing about fictional killers just so that I can  say  with satisfaction that there but for the grace of god go all of us.  Writers may abdicate the responsibility of choosing their topics. I, as a reader, cannot.  My time is finite, unlike the activity of writers and publishers. No, I will leave these two novels to those who are capable of appreciating them. I certainly cannot.

LAURA JOH ROWLAND AND ZHANG DAI


Laura Joh Rowland not only writes well researched and entertaining novels, she also gives a terrific interview. She is the author of the acclaimed Sano Ichiro series set in 17th. century Japan. Recently, she wrote Charlotte Bronte’s Secret Adventures, a mystery that places the Victorian writer and her family center stage. Read what she has to say about her work at www.richtexts.blogspot.com
While working on Joh Rowland’s interview I read Jonathan Spence’s biography of Chinese essayist and literary stylist Zhang Dai whose long life spanned the late Ming and early Qing Dinasties. Having lost his home and nearly all his possessions, including 30 000 volume library, and a priceless collection of art and antiques during the Cataclysm, the Manchu invasion of China, in 1644, Zhang rented a house in his favorite place, Happiness Gardens and set out to become a farmer. He learnt how to hull rice, how to care for silkworms, how to cultivate eggplant and pumpkin, and how to use his memory to reconstruct his paradise lost. here is what Spence, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, Yale, wrote about Zhang in Timeasia Magazine,

As part of his reconstruction of the vanished past, Zhang Dai wrote a further essay offering his readers the chance to construct the paradise for themselves. He gave all of us a blueprint for the use of air and space, in which wisdom was not buried underground or hidden by rocks but was part of an airy spring and summer world, where the formal placement of halls and corridors and pavilions was given logic by its relationship to the landscape of hills and trees, sky and water, always visible beyond. The constructed spaces echoed nature’s rhythms, and paths led to waterways that guided one naturally to a river, curling through paradise to the north. There stood the gate, clearly marked “Paradise,” and there was a bridge that might take one farther if one chose. But what would happen if one crossed it? Zhang Dai did not say; his paradise ended at the bridge. If we chose to linger there, he provided a chair, a breeze, and the clear light of the moon. The rest was up to us.”


LAURA JOH ROWLAND’S MANY SPLENDOURED GIFTS


Laura Joh Rowland wore a variety of hats before she found the one that suits her best. After earning a bachelor of sciences degree and a masters in public health from the University of Michigan, she worked as a chemist, microbiologist, sanitary inspector, engineer, and freelance illustrator. She found none of these right brained pursuits as satisfying as fiction writing. Science’s loss was crime fiction readers’ gain. Today, Joh Rowland is best known for her acclaimed Sano Ichiro series set in 17th. century Japan. In a departure from her Asian stories, she recently wrote The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte

http://www.laurajohrowland.com/charlotte/index.html, a thriller that places the Victorian author and her family center stage. Her latest book in the Sano Ichiro series, which is comes out in November, is The Cloud Pavilion.

1. What made you choose fiction writing?

I didn’t. It chose me. I studied science in college, worked at technical jobs afterward, and wanted to be an artist. I stumbled into a course on writing and illustrating children’s picture books, and I discovered that I preferred the writing to the illustrating, and I was a lot better at the writing. I eventually realized that because mystery fiction was what I loved to read, it was what I should write.

2. How did the character of Samurai detective Sano Ichiro manifest itself?
He grew out of my research into Japanese history. I learned that during the Tokugawa period, in which my series is set, Japan was ruled by the samurai class. All government officials were samurai, including the police detectives who solved crimes. Therefore, Sano had to be a samurai. I also learned that conformity vs. individuality and duty vs. loyalty to one’s master were classic conflicts in samurai society, and honor was the reigning principle. Sano exemplifies those issues.

3. Sano Ichiro’s world is a world of social boundaries. So was that of Charlotte Bronte, the subject of your latest novel. Have you ever had to deal with such boundaries and how did you cope with them?

All worlds have social boundaries, even the contemporary United States, which is a free-for-all compared to medieval Japan and Victorian England. I grew up during a time when women had to struggle against old ideas of what women can and can’t do. I come from a family that’s geared toward careers in professions like medicine, teaching, and engineering, where nobody wrote fiction for a living. I began writing historical mysteries at a time when there weren’t many, and mine had an unusual setting. So, yes, I have come up against boundaries, and I dealt with them by crossing them.

4. Several readers have described your Charlotte Bronte’s voice as authentic, adding that she seems to be a living, breathing woman. These are characteristics she shares with Sano Ichiro. How do you breathe life into two such disparate characters?

I absorbed Charlotte’s writing voice from her books, particularly Jane Eyre. She also left behind many letters, which I used to recreate her speaking voice and her personality. As for Sano, I read literature from his period of Japanese history. It’s usually translated into modern English, which is what I use when I write him. But there’s a point in every book when the characters come alive for me and begin telling their own stories. I just listen and write down what they say.

5. Sano Ichiro wife Reiko plays a very different role in your novels than that of traditional women in 17th Century Japan. Are any of her exploits based on fact?

No. Reiko is a completely fictional creation. I couldn’t find any stories about women who did what she did during her time period. But there were women who had great influence over their men and wielded power from behind the throne. An example is the shogun’s mother. And I believe that in every society there are outliers, folks who transcend the limits that restrict ordinary people. They’re not always famous enough to be written into history, but they exist. Reiko is one of those.

6. Your parents are Chinese and Korean. What do they think of your Japanese characters?

They love them. Nobody is prouder of my books than my parents.

7. Who would Sano Ichiro’s equivalent be in Chinese and Korean literature?

He would probably be an official in the court of the emperor or king. But there’s no exact equivalent of the samurai class in Chinese or Korean history, so his character and his world would have been very different.

8. Would you consider the style of the novels beginning with The Snow Empress a departure from detective fiction?

No. They have the classic elements of detective fiction: a murder mystery, a detective, and a solution that involves suspects, alibis, clues, and deduction. I do like to vary the settings, the elements of Japanese history, and the narrative structure, to keep the series fresh.

9. You used the spirit cry, the kiai, as a weapon in The Samurai’s Wife. Was that a calculated risk, considering that it requires the reader to suspend his disbelief far more consciously than if the weapon were a katana?

It was a risk because some mystery readers don’t like supernatural elements, and books that cross the line between mystery and fantasy fiction may have trouble pleasing fans of either genre. But the supernatural was a big part of martial arts culture and everyday life in Sano’s time. People who read my series and are familiar with Japanese history know that. I think they’re more willing to accept supernatural elements in my books than in a contemporary American police novel. And the solution to the crime in The Samurai’s Wife is grounded in solid, classic detective work.

10. Is contemporary Japan as fascinating a setting for detective stories as the Tokugawa Court?

Contemporary Japan certainly is fascinating. I’ve read some wonderful detective novels set there. But I will probably stick with historical Japan.

11. Do you intend to bring back Sano Ichiro?

He’s already back. His last adventure, The Fire Kimono, was published after The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte. His latest, The Cloud Pavilion, comes out in November. And I’m currently writing the one that comes next.

SUJATA MASSEY DISCUSSES HER REI SHIMURA SERIES



Agatha and Mccavity awards winner Sujata Massey at home.

Sujata Massey writes well researched, entertaining mysteries that feature Japanese-American Rei Shimura, a sleuth at large on a Japanese landscape not usually accessible to westerners. Young, resourceful and sassy, Shimura morphs from English teacher to antiques dealer to international spy with aplomb and wit. Whether revealing aspects Japanese culture as complicated as kaiseki dining and as straightforward as anime drawing, she does it with an outsider’s enthusiasm for new territory and an insider’s depth and sensitivity. Her cross cultural appeal is cross generational. My daughter led me to the Shimura series and I would hesitate to reccomend it to my mother.
1. Which part of you, if any, does Rei Shimura represent?

I would say the spirited, curious side; I love to travel and research and meet new people.

2. Both you and Rei Shimura seem to share a sense of dislocation, of not being completely at home anywhere. Is this a hindrance or a help for a writer

I do wish I felt more comfortably in sync with the places I live; it always seems that only after I leave a place, do I fully appreciate it. I don’t think this is a hindrance necessarily. What does hinder me is not having a desire to write about the places where I have permanently lived in the US because I see them as comfortable but rather pedestrian, without any particular history that I feel compelled to explore. The US of course has a fantastic history, it’s where you look for it that matters, but I think there are a lot of writers already delving into these topics.

3. While Rei does not feel rooted in either the United States or Japan, her family in both countries anchor and sustain her. Is this contradictory?

I think it is quite common for people with relatives abroad to hunger for those places and to be treated warmly by those relatives, although they may not understand one’s “foreign” ways. For instance, in India I eat a lot less than most adults, even though I enjoy the food, and that troubles people.

4. Do you have a particular audience in mind when you write?

I had originally thought my audience would be primarily female, but it’s likely 40% male, which is great. I have a lot of teen readers in Europe; I like to think because the education system there is so good! I also have wonderful senior citizen fans who travel a lot and can comment directly on their own experiences in wartime and post-war Japan. These people are treasures whose stories must be recorded.

5. Rei has grown from self-involved shopaholic to a more rounded, other-oriented character. What do you foresee for her as you continue the series?

Two answers to this question. First of all, there are a couple of books in which fashion itself forms the mystery; these might make her seem like a shopaholic, but I was interested in presenting how otherwise people can binge shop. If you read the whole series you will see she wears a lot of vintage clothes from her mother and fleamarkets in Japan, and in the end is sewing her own clothes from vintage yukata kimono fabrics. There is a section of books in the middle of the series–I’d say The Bride’s Kimono through The Pearl Diver–which are very much about her relationships with others and growing as a woman. The most likely final book in the series was Shimura Trouble, which came out in 2009–though I reserve the right to pick up and start writing about her again if the fancy strikes.

6. You are an Agatha award winner. Does that influence your work?

I won once and lost it 3 other times, so I don’t think it’s played much of a role in my career or the type of books I write. The Agatha is a fan-nominated award based on popular vote, and usually the book’s lead character is female, and she doesn’t swear and there is no excessive violence. There’s also not supposed to be graphic sex in the books, but I’ve “gotten away with it” in every book, almost!

7. Who is your ideal reader?

They are living breathing and have: library cards, relationships with independent booksellers, and B&N and Borders member cards, too!

8. Who is your toughest critic?

I think I and every other writer would tell you that they themselves are the critics. The critical self keeps one from stretching, daring, and chancing–which is unfortunate. I fight my inner critic almost daily.

9. You are balancing family life with a demanding career. How has motherhood affected your professional life?

It has definitely slowed down the time I take to write; and has kept me from the book promotion trail. However, it has helped me make choices about what’s really important, and I would rather not write, than not have a family. I am thrilled to have both.

10. If you could have one wish, as writer, what would that be?

To write something that changes the way people think.

11. Joyce Carol Oates sets great store by the opening sentence in a book. What is the opening line in your favorite book?

Don’t know. There have been so many great lines. I usually take a very long time writing the first line and change it two dozen times before going back to the original.

12. Mono no aware, translated as the ah-ness of things or a sensitivity to ephemera, is said to be the essence of Japanese beauty aesthetics. How does your Rei Shimura series reflect that ?

Rei adores small things, whether it’s a cup of tea with an unfolding cherry blossom in it, or a cute phrase on a child’s backpack. Little treasures make daily life worth living.

13. How does she relate to Miss Marple?

She would be happy to take Miss Marple on a tour around Tokyo!