Interview with Michael Pronko, author of Tokyo Traffic
Today it gives the Indie Crime Scene great pleasure to interview award-winning author Michael Pronko, whose new release Tokyo Traffic we featured on June 22.
The story of Tokyo Traffic concerns Sukanya, a young Thai girl who steals a computer while escaping from human traffickers. The traffickers will stop at nothing to get their computer back, and Detective Hiroshi Shimizu investigates a trail of killings. To begin with, tell us about the setting and the inspiration for the book.
It was a moment when I read about human trafficking and thought, how can they get away with something so ancient, brutal and venal in this day and age? Shouldn’t that be done with? It’s one thing to read statistics and another to think of a particular person suffering. Japan’s often late to join international conventions in abuses and crimes, so I thought that should be addressed. But I wanted to consider that from a novelistic perspective. What it would be like to escape into Tokyo and not know how to survive? Who are these people being trafficked? Who are the traffickers? Tokyo’s a very large cage in which to find yourself trapped and running, but who made that cage?
You live in Tokyo and have lived there for twenty years. Can you tell us what brought you there, and why?
Work, money, adventure: the holy triumvirate of motivations. I was working in Beijing for two years and had friends in Tokyo. In a way, it was as simple as that. Tokyo seemed intriguing, such a big place, so hidden and complicated. Why live someplace easy? I regretted that youthful impetuosity many a time but stuck it out. And it was right to follow it through and stay. I found work, I found writing topics, I found friends and fascinating places. That’s enough for anyone.
Your first degree was in philosophy, but you moved on to literature, doing a PhD on Dickens and Film Adaptation at the University of Kent at Canterbury. What led to your growing interest in literature and how has it affected your writing?
Literature is narrativized philosophy. I always loved reading literature, but never thought it was something to study or teach or become a job. Reading literature was just what I did all the time. I still have to laugh when I say to myself, “I have to read this Langston Hughes poem again for work. Woe is me.” How painful is that? It’s not. It’s wonderful to teach literature. It’s like making a career out of eating breakfast or something. I can’t imagine becoming a novelist without teaching a lot of novels, outlining them, discussing them, writing about them. And I can’t imagine teaching without having worked out the complexities of a novel. The two things create synergy, each affecting the other tremendously.
You trained as a teacher, getting an MA in Education, and travelled the world before taking up a teaching job in Beijing at short notice! Where did your travels take you, and what was it like to suddenly find yourself in Beijing?
I loved traveling but it wasn’t a long-term lifestyle choice. I backpacked for years and loved it, but there just comes a time when you want to settle down a bit, go back to the same restaurant twice, know people longer, and more deeply. Living in Tokyo has the excitement of traveling all the time, but the comfort of familiar places and people. I’m fascinated because it’s still a foreign country to me in a lot of ways, yet, the cooks at the ramen shop by my station know me. In the 1980s, Beijing seemed the farthest, most unknown place I could go to. I figured I’d go as far as possible and then work my way back home. I only made it back to Tokyo.
Tokyo Traffic is the third book in the series featuring Detective Hiroshi Shimizu. The first two are The Last Train, published in 2017 and The Moving Blade, published in 2018. What was the inspiration for the series and what led you to crime as a genre?
I chose crime as a genre because I had been writing editorials at Japan Times for a dozen years and wanted to expand on that. Crime novels shouldn’t be overblown editorials. But looking below the surface every week made me wonder how to put the problems into a human context, without the kind of judging, advising, analysing, or ‘editorializing’ that editorials include. I also realized that anything can go into a crime novel. It’s almost infinitely elastic. And yet, it’s also very rigid in the rules that must be followed. So, that tension between all-inclusive openness and patterned storytelling intrigued me. Mystery is basic to human thought. It’s maybe the basic story form, the kernel out of which other story genres emerge. What happens next? That’s our constant thought, about stories and about life. So, that led me to crime, which is basic cause and effect. That’s very philosophical, too. To do that, I wanted a main character who straddles the inside and outside of Japan. Hiroshi is in Tokyo, but not of Tokyo. Once I had his character, I could write.
Tell us more about your protagonist, Hiroshi Shimizu. What challenges does he face in a city like 21st century Tokyo?
In some ways Tokyo is a very advanced, high-tech place. But in other ways, it is rooted in the past and slow to change. Hiroshi spans that divide. He squares off with the old-school, get-it-done approach of Takamatsu. But I think that conflict between their approaches is at the core of Tokyo’s changing nature. Hiroshi turns to his computer first, but Takamatsu hits the streets. Tokyo is an immense place, with forty-some million people in the city and surrounding areas. So, no single person can either know all of the city, nor find it by computer. Hiroshi has to also deal with the virtual city of representations, online connections, and digital economies. Tokyo is very international in ways, but extremely self-referential in others. How to balance those divergent elements? Those are all immense challenges that Hiroshi, and the reader (and the writer), have to negotiate, but those challenges are fascinating.
You have written three award-winning collections of essays about Tokyo: Beauty and Chaos: Essays on Tokyo (Raked Gravel Press 2014), Tokyo’s Mystery Deepens (Raked Gravel Press 2014), and Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo (Raked Gravel Press 2015). Can you tell us about these and how – and if – they relate to your fiction?
Those books were about my experiences living in Tokyo. I wrote several hundred essays for different publications, mostly Newsweek Japan. I collected them to try to create a picture of what life is like here. These are small takes, singular observations with some thoughtfulness packed on top of them. It’s like a Japanese garden, very different from each point of view, with no single point of view being central. I wanted to think through how and why I live here and what it means to me. Fiction is not so different, though the pattern of meaning-making is more drawn out and directed in novel form. I like essays for their quick flips of direction, but I like fiction for its forward drive. The essays formed the basis for thinking about scenes for the novels.
You are a professor of American Literature at Meiji Gakuin University, and have written books in Japanese, and articles for several magazines, including The Japan Times and Newsweek Japan. How has learning Japanese affected your writing in English, if at all?
I think Japanese has affected my writing by making me pay attention to how people communicate in different cultures. The Japanese language can be extraordinarily subtle and ambiguous, and it’s maybe best when it is! But you can’t write a novel with ambiguity and hints. Seeing, reading and hearing things in Japanese every day is a constant input, and stimulus. Having that input, on top of the English I use for classes and friends and writing really changes how I think and see things. It’s not just the language itself, but more how images are used, scenes are paced, actions taken, words used. Writing a novel is “what follows what,” but in Japanese, word order is quite different. Knowing that makes me pay attention to not just language, but the order of events, how questions are asked, or not asked, and when silences can be used. All of that is very influenced by Japanese communicative patterns.
You also write articles about Jazz and run your own website called Jazz in Japan. Please tell us about this.
This is a real passion that I don’t always have enough time to follow through on. I love listening to jazz and writing about it. I’m sure the reason I stayed in Tokyo is because of jazz. I can stop by dozens of clubs along my train journey home to hear great music any night of the week. Some of the clubs are like second homes to me. The jazz world in Tokyo and Yokohama is huge. The musicians are so outstanding. Jazz is the art form that most inspires me. Creating in the moment, virtuosic control of the instrument, the balance of elements, the intense interaction. It resets me and redirects me. I feel jealous of jazz musicians. Writing is so slow and solitary.
Does your writing have a soundtrack, or do you listen to music as you write?
Music definitely helps me write. Writing involves fingers on the keyboard, movements in scenes, a constant flow of story. Music enhances that, fuels and expands that. I loved music and dance from when I was young and if I listen to music it really changes the pace of what I do. I think narrative should be a forward motion where the writer looks at the imagined space and sees bodies and events in motion in certain spaces. How would you do it without a beat, a rhythm, a driving energy? Maybe I’m not strong enough to write without music. It’d be like writing without coffee, or light. At times, I need silence. I don’t always listen to music, but it’s one of the best creative additives for me.
You mention a fondness for legendary SF writer Kurt Vonnegut. How has he influenced you as a writer, and which works of his continue to resonate?
I loved his writing from when I was in my early teens. I’d wander down to the local bookstore and see if there was a new one, ask the clerk. So, for me, he serves as a kind of continuity between my early reading life and my present writing life. I teach “Slaughterhouse-Five” in my seminar nearly every year. It’s my way of putting anti-war themes into the curriculum but also a way of forcing students to “write” their own book from the time-jangled events that spill out of the novel. I think his sense of irony, his simplicity of phrasing, his roundabout narratives are all amazing. He doesn’t try to be realistic, but he ends up being realistic anyway. And he’s funny as hell. Vonnegut’s ethical humanism, for lack of a better description, always knocks me out. Humans are at the center of it all, so we better do better! I couldn’t agree more.
With Tokyo Traffic being the third book in the series, what are you working on now, and will there be further instalments in the series?
I have two more already outlined. The next one is titled, “Tokyo Overtime,” about the workplace in Japan, which can be very brutal and, indeed, murderous. After that, I want to write about the fishing industry and the credit card industry. I think if Hiroshi keeps growing and changing there’s more stories for him. The other two detectives, Takamatsu and Sakaguchi, also are begging for their own standalones.
How do you organise your writing day, and how do you fit writing round your “day job”?
Stay up late, get up early, don’t watch TV. Not so easy, but doable. Weekdays, I write in the morning and set my classes in the afternoon. First half of the week tends to be shorter writing time and more university stuff. Fridays I save for writing only. Saturday and Sunday, I follow the muse or bend to whatever is most pressing. I have paper and pen all over the house, in my bag, in my office, in my pocket, so there are pockets of writing all the time. I think my day job takes time away from writing but gives back insights and inspiration. An unexpected comment from a student can really set my mind working. At times it’s total conflict, end-of-semester grading, for example, but most of the time it produces this productive synergy that I couldn’t live without.
What are you reading now, and what crime novels have been important to you? Or novels generally?
I teach American Literature, so I read a lot for work, contemporary fiction, but also poetry, song lyrics, essays and whatever I feel like teaching. Outside of work, I’m not an exclusive genre reader. I’m totally omnivorous. I do read different crime/mystery/thriller writers to learn how to write, but I learn as much from a novel I don’t like as from one I do. Even a bad novel is instructive. I think reading world classics was very important for, to see how humans have articulated the world in story form. Reading novels from other countries opened up infinite possibilities. Because I teach American literature and write mystery/thriller novels, those tend to predominate, but it’s easy to get stuck repeating the expected. I try not to.
What do you do to relax?
To relax I dream of relaxing. I do find downtime, which is just as important to writing as anything else. I play guitar and piano, and cook, which are all ways of having to focus without my shoulders hunching up tightly. I have a small garden in back of my house, and work on that. Crashing into a lawn chair with a beer after gardening is a small slice of heaven. Especially in Tokyo, to have greenery in your eyes is a luxury. I jog along a small nearby creek and through a huge nearby cemetery with a friend who lives nearby. And of course, I read. But not all at the same time.
About Michael Pronko:
Michael Pronko is a Tokyo-based writer of murder, memoir and music. His writing about Tokyo life and his character-driven mysteries have won awards and five-star reviews. Kirkus Reviews selected his second novel, The Moving Blade for their Best Books of 2018. The Last Train won the Shelf Unbound Competition for Best Independently Published Book.
Michael also runs the website, Jazz in Japan, which covers the vibrant jazz scene in Tokyo and Yokohama. During his 20 years in Japan, he has written about Japanese culture, art, society and politics for Newsweek Japan, The Japan Times, and Artscape Japan. He has read his essays on NHK TV and done programs for Nippon Television based on his writings.
A philosophy major, Michael traveled for years, ducking in and out of graduate schools, before finishing his PhD on Charles Dickens and film. He finally settled in Tokyo as a professor of American Literature at Meiji Gakuin University. His seminars focus on contemporary novels, short stories and film adaptations.