What: Edgar Award-winning author of two mystery series set in Los Angeles. Her Mas Arai series, which features a Hiroshima survivor and gardener, has been translated into Japanese, Korean and French. Her Officer Ellie Rush bicycle cop series received the 2014 T. Jefferson Parker Mystery Award. She has also published noir short stories, middle-grade fiction and nonfiction books. The Kickstarter campaign for THE BIG BACHI ends this Friday, Nov. 4.
Where: Los Angeles
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
Congrats on the Kickstarter campaign to bring your beloved character, Mas Arai, to the big screen. Can you tell us how this all came about?
The cosmic intersection of multiple things. First, I was thinking of creating perhaps a web-based product — not for money or anything, just for fun. I was meeting more Japanese and Japanese American actors in their thirties and forties around L.A. and started thinking, what if Mas was younger? In the past, many of the actors who could play Mas were passing away and it was depressing. Depressing to lose such actors and depressing that it would be so difficult to realize this series in another medium like film. I then got connected with director Derek Shimoda several months after I had seen his documentary on a yakuza preacher and it turns out he and his creative partner, Mark Tasaka, had been talking about the Mas books and adapting SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI. It was all very serendipitous. Derek brought in Oliver Ike, a film distributor, and Koji Saki, a producer and screenwriter, and we were off and running.
When you first sat down to write SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI (the first Mas Arai mystery), did you ever imagine that he might one day be headed to Hollywood?
Hmmm, not literally heading to Hollywood, but maybe a small indie film. There was an actor named Mako who was actually nominated for an Oscar for his role in “Sand Pebbles” with Steve McQueen. He was one of the leaders of East West Players, an Asian American theatre, when it was in Silverlake, and I had seen him in playing a production (If you have kids, Mako’s father was Taro Yashima, the children’s book author who wrote CROW BOY and UMBRELLA). I had Mako’s address and actually mailed him a copy of SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI a year or two after it came out. Unknown to many of us, he had been struck down with esophageal cancer and died a few months after I sent him the package. (See, depressing! What a loss.).
Pictured: Naomi Hirahara, screenwriter Mark Tasaka in Dodgers cap, and director Derek Shimoda.
The film, THE BIG BACHI, will be based on that first book, but will take place in the 60s. As the creator of this character, how does it feel to see your work translated into a script?
I did consider adapting some of my books myself. I consulted with Diana Gould, a veteran writer of night-time soaps like “Dynasty.” “Why would you want to do that?” she said to me. “You already have it all in the novel. Why would you want to get notes from the director and producer on how you have to change your characters?” She was right. I’m happy to let someone else who really loves the book (the screenwriter, Mark Tasaka, almost knew the book better than I did) take a crack at it.
In the beginning, I have to admit, it was an adjustment. To hear that two female characters would be combined into one — plus she would be Mas’s living, breathing wife (in the books she is dead) messed with my head a bit. And actually it helps that the screenplay has a much younger Mas because it really feels like an interpretation — not a replica — of the book. The novel is the novel; like James M. Cain reportedly said to a critic: “They haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right their on the shelf.” And I have to say that Mas’s wife is one of my favorite things in a very superb script.
By the way, the script is being considered in the second round of the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, so fingers crossed.
Has the part of Mas Arai been cast already?
No, Mas hasn’t been cast yet. No actors have been cast. Money has to be raised first. For a project like this, it doesn’t need to be anyone famous. Just really good.
Now that you’ve had a glimpse into the film world, which do you think is more difficult—publishing or movie making?
Writing/publishing novels and moviemaking require different muscles. As a novelist, I’m excited to figure out how to present a story — what world, what POV, what kind of tone. Anything is literally possible and it can be my singular vision. With moviemaking, it usually begins with money, even when writing a script. Although a screenwriter shouldn’t be conscious of the budget, every car chase, alien abduction, etc., is going to add to the cost of making the movie. Plus the screenplay is a roadmap — the director, cinematographer, costume designer, prop master and so on will add value to the movie. It’s a collaborative process. If you don’t play well with others, you shouldn’t get involved in moviemaking.
I’ve met some great people through working on THE BIG BACHI project. I would love to continue to work together with filmmakers on adaptations because they interpret stories visually and I find that most interesting. Who knows — maybe I’ll take this experience and use it to get involved in producing. In my core, however, I’m built as a novelist, so I think I’ll spend most of my days trying to become a better one.
Anything is possible! Probably more appropriate for cable or a web series. We had a shopping agreement with a screenwriter, but have it on hold right now.
What are your publishing plans for the rest of 2016 and beyond?
Let’s see. I will have no books out in 2017 — other than the French edition of the third Mas Arai novel — which will be a relief so I can actually spend more time writing than promoting. The seventh and final Mas will be out in spring of 2018, just in time for Left Coast Crime 2018. I’m currently working on a nonfiction book with co-writer Heather Lindquist for the Manzanar History Association and Heyday Books, which also will be published in 2018. I have a middle-grade steampunk novel that has been out on submission since last summer (sometimes I even forget that I wrote it!), but my agent tells me that it isn’t dead (yet), so I’m hopeful that it will have a home with a publisher soon. And I plan to finish a standalone novel next year. It’ll be a historical with most likely a mystery angle.
One last thing, if there are any novelists interested in having their work adapting into independent film, I’d recommend that they follow directors that they like. Go to film festivals — nowadays every mid-sized city has them. Meet and talk to filmmakers. I think neo-noir in particular has a lot of possibilities in independent film. Just like the 1940s, they can be low budget. And there’s an audience for them. A caveat: unless you get a TV or film deal with a decent budget, don’t expect to make much money, if any. I think I’ve seen a small bump in sales during the Kickstarter campaign, but there was certainly a much bigger bump when my sixth book in the series came out. Enter in for creativity and fun — anything beyond that is gravy.
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S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available from Rare Bird Books. The second Greg Salem novel, GRIZZLY SEASON, was published on October 11, 2016. His standalone novella, CROSSWISE, is available from Down & Out Books.