Where: Pasadena, CA
What: Naomi Hirahara is the Edgar Award-winning author of the Mas Arai mystery series including SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, GASA-GASA GIRL, SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN, BLOOD HINA and STRAWBERRY YELLOW. Her new mystery series, MURDER ON BAMBOO LANE, features a female twentysomething LAPD bicycle cop and was released with Berkley Prime Crime in spring 2014. Her next in the series, A GRAVE ON GRAND AVENUE, will be released in April 2015. She also has penned a middle-grade novel, 1001 CRANES, which was chosen as an Honor Book for the Youth Literature of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in 2009.
Interview conducted by email. Some answers have been edited.
My father and other Japanese American men like him were the inspiration behind Mas Arai. The Sixties and Seventies were the heyday of the Japanese American gardener in Southern California. That many of them, unknown to their customers and strangers, had these amazing experiences was the impetus to make them heroes of a detective story. Of course, since many gardeners were born in the US but raised in Japan, language was not their strong suit. My challenge is to move the unfamiliar reader into Mas’s world. The mystery genre turned out to be the perfect container to build these stories.
SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI was originally published in 2004. You have since written four more Mas Arai novels. How has your relationship with Mas Arai evolved?
I originally wasn’t conceiving of a long-running series when I wrote SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, which took me 15 years to complete, if you factor in shopping it around to different agents. Of course, when you spend that much time with characters, you are bound to get attached to them. Before I sold the first book, I thought to myself, I would like to revisit Mas’s world someday. And then the offer came from Random House as a two-book deal. Now I had to deliver a second book in a year’s time when I had other nonfiction book commitments. It was a bit stressful, but I got it done. Since BIG BACHI dealt with a very huge topic, the atomic bomb, I knew that I had to dial it back for the second. So it became more about Mas’s personal life and his relationship with his daughter. With each book, Mas becomes less passive. I won’t go as far as saying that he embraces his amateur detective status, but his reputation precedes him, for sure. The sixth one will be set at Dodger Stadium and the last one will take Mas back to Hiroshima — not to live but to visit, time enough to solve another murder, of course!
And SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI is now being published in France. Is this the first time it has been published in a foreign language? Why has it not been published in Japan?
Yes, this is the first foreign-rights acquisition for my debut and I have to say that I’m thrilled. I naturally thought that if BIG BACHI was to be published in another country, it would be Japan. But my agent and I soon learned that Japan is not that interested in books by Japanese Americans. Only when my third, SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN, was nominated for an Edgar Award for best paperback original did I receive a Japanese translation deal for two Mas Arai books — for SNAKESKIN and the second. I believe that BIG BACHI, with scenes set in Hiroshima during the atomic bombing, was too sensitive for their readers.
You also recently published MURDER ON BAMBOO LANE, the first book in a new mystery series featuring a 23-year-old LAPD bicycle cop. How does that book differs from the Mas Arai books? Was it freeing to write a mystery featuring a different lead character?
While I was finishing my fifth Mas Arai mystery, my father passed away. In a way, it was a blessing to recall and memorialize his history in his hometown in Watsonville, but I also knew that I needed to embrace a younger character. Around this same time, I taught a creative writing class to UCLA undergraduates and I fell in love with them. I also had been part of the ATF Citizens Academy, and those two experiences — teaching college and law enforcement — led to the creation of a 23-year-old bicycle cop. This series is in first person. It’s a breezy, fun read. It’s more about a young woman trying to find her place in the world, despite criticism and doubt from her family and friends. The advantage of writing about someone working in law enforcement is that it’s easier to explain why the character is encountering dead bodies! But my Ellie Rush is a patrol cop on a bicycle, so there are still elements of an amateur sleuth in the series.
Much of your writing is set in Southern California. What makes this such a great place to set your stories? What are the challenges to setting a story here?
I just love Southern California. My major in college was international relations and I can weave global issues into my novels without leaving the comfort of home. Since I write about the Pacific a lot, it makes sense for the stories to be set here as opposed to New York City. I really don’t see any drawbacks about writing about Los Angeles, because I think that I write about an LA that many readers are not familiar with.
You have published a long list of non-fiction and fiction since you first started writing and editing books full-time in 1997. How has publishing evolved over the course of your career?
Well, first of all, I have to say that writing a full-length biography helped me with understanding how to structure a novel. At times, I would pretend that I was interviewing my lead character, Mas Arai, to determine the knot of his story. I still work on nonfiction projects from time to time and I love the discipline of research. I’m not a bestselling writer — I just keep eking out books and other writing, now over the course of 30 years! Because it’s been a constant struggle, I’ve just gotten used to the times when I have to reevaluate the trajectory of my writing career.
I know that the Internet is abuzz with how e-publishing has disrupted traditional publishing, but for me, it really hasn’t made a whole heck of a difference. One advantage of ebooks is that it’s brought new readers to my Mas Arai series. And now the whole series will be in audio via Audible, so I imagine that Mas Arai will gain new followers from that format. Without these new technological advancements I don’t think Mas would have this new injection of life. I still remain fiercely loyal to independent booksellers, because many of them are the ones who hand sold the series in the first place. But the reality now is that both authors and publishers have to figure out how to market and sell online.
When I first started writing mysteries, I had just a page holder on my author website, and now I have multiple pages and an e-newsletter that I send on a regular basis. I still am not sure how authors are supposed to use social media to sell books, but certainly it’s a way to be interactive with readers. I just don’t know how to balance the promotional activities with the writing. When in doubt, always choose writing over promotion. If you totally neglect promotion, however, no one will know of your book. Newbie writers need to find a path that is natural to them. Since I enjoy public speaking, I do a lot of that throughout the year. Now I often receive honoraria, which can contribute to my income stream, or at least defray expenses.
You also lead writing workshops and are a former president for the Southern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. What advice do you have for writers trying to break into publishing in 2015?
Write what you are passionate about, because you may be starting something that will last a very long time, many decades. If it’s not selling, whether it be to agents, editors or the public, perhaps you haven’t chipped away at the heart of the story. Keep working at it. Many times we psychologically avoid the very thing that we need to write about. Don’t try to be like another writer. Write what you know, and I don’t mean experientially. I mean emotionally. Once you’ve seized upon your writer’s “calling,” you’ll know. Everything should fall into place.
What were some of the best books you read in 2014?
I blurbed dozens of books and was short story judge in 2014, so I didn’t get a chance to do much personal reading. But I enjoyed Haruki Murakami’s COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI AND HIS YEARS OF PILGRIMAGE. Nothing seems to happen in the first half of the novel and then, bam, he’s got you. I love reading for characters.
If you could recommend ONE piece of your writing to somebody, what would it be? Why? (Provide a brief description and link, either to buy or to read).
Probably SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI because it took me 15 years to write and get published. It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s really my heart. Mas Arai, an aging gardener in Altadena, California, must wrestle with memories of Hiroshima during World War II when a private investigator from Japan comes into his life.
Previous Interrogation: Erik Arneson & Scott Detrow
S.W. Lauden is a writer and drummer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Akashic Books, QuarterReads and Crimespree Magazine. He is currently working on the novella, CROSSWISE, and his debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION. You can read one of his recent short stories right HERE.