Barry Lancet, a long-time American expat in Japan, has completed his first novel, “Japantown,” which is the first in a contemporary thriller series with a Japan background. Japan Today hears more.
What is “Japantown” about?
The book opens with a perfect murder in San Francisco’s Japantown. There’s one clue no one can read, so Jim Brodie, an American antique dealer with a deep knowledge of Japan, gets called into to consult with the SFPD, and is then sucked into a whirlwind of danger as his search for answers leads him to the darker corners of Japan.
Is the character of Jim Brodie based on anyone you know?
His knowledge of the elevated worlds of traditional art and culture are some of the areas I worked in, and was fortunate enough to be allowed behind the scenes. He’s also streetwise, a product of his American parents’ divorce, when he moved from a cozy cottage in Tokyo to undesirable areas in Los Angeles and San Francisco. He’s got martial arts skills and knowledge of the underbelly of Japan. The martial arts came from people I know who practice. The darker elements developed from stories I’ve collected over the years.
What made you want to write a book set in Japan?
No one was really writing about the Japan I was living in. I wanted to capture what I saw unfolding around me, with all its charm, history, and culture, including the people and places. I considered a number of avenues, from travel writing to general fiction. Then I became fascinated with mysteries and thrillers and the nobility found in many of them. In the end I chose to combine the two.
How did you do your research to make sure all the cultural and artistic references are accurate?
One of my colleagues often said only half-jokingly, “If you want to learn about something, edit a book on it.” He was right. And I edited more than I can count. Even so, I double-check everything. I am also fortunate to have a number of Japanese friends, all current and former editors. In the circles they run in, their occupation translates as “thorough, battle-hardened editors and researchers.” They lend a hand when necessary.
I hear you had an unpleasant experience with Japanese police. What was it all about?
I came home from working late one night, and was confronted by a wife and in-laws in shock. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department had called and “requested” I come down first thing in the morning for a “voluntary interview.” That night there were some unflattering insinuations from my new wife and in-laws. “No one receives calls like that from the police unless they’ve done something untenable,” they told me. I insisted I hadn’t done anything. By the time we went to bed, I’d only partially convinced them.
The following morning, I reported to the local police station and was led into an interrogation room by a thuggish policeman who glared daggers at me, then left me alone. In those days, getting a visa into Japan was difficult and time-consuming. I had managed it, but was clearly in danger of losing all I’d worked for over the last 14 months -- six to get the visa Stateside, eight in Japan since my arrival.
Eventually, a senior police officer showed up to “interview” me. The detective began politely enough, with small talk to put me at ease. There was just him - no good cop/bad cop routine. His manner was deceptively polite. He was all smiles, but I soon realized just how clever this unassuming man before me was. Any false - or undesirable - answer would get me thrown out of the country. The interrogation remained excruciatingly polite, although his tone and looks sometimes grew stern, but soon turned into one of the most intensive psychological battles of give-and-take I’d ever faced during my stay in Japan (and I was to have many others over the years). It lasted three hours, during which time I walked the thinnest of tightropes.
The episode eventually sparked my attempt to write thrillers with a Japan focus. Two fictional characters emerged from the meeting with the Tokyo police: Detective Noda, a feisty, grumbling private investigator who works with Jim Brodie in “Japantown” and the second book; and Inspector Kato of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, a detective who appears in the follow-up to “Japantown” and is ever-polite and shrewd beyond his years.
And the incident that led to my summons? Some paperwork I’d neglected to file at the local city office for a minor change in my visa status.
Do you think Japan is a fertile ground for foreign authors?
It can be. I found it an inspiring place when I first came and still do. There are a lot of expat writers on these shores -- both quality fiction and nonfiction. Robert Whiting has an excellent body of work. Richard Lloyd Parry is working on his third book, after an impressive telling of the Lucie Blackman story. Suzanne Kamata has built up a quality list. Then there’s Hugh Ashton, who has made quite a splash with his Sherlock Holmes stories; Jake Adelstein with his true crime adventures; and a number of other writers working on literary projects, including Ann Tashi Slater, with her Tibet stories. There’s quite a bit going on with YA and children’s fiction, with novels from Holly Thompson and Leza Lowitz, to name just two.
A lot of authors and filmmakers who write or film about Japan make the mistake of getting caught up in their preconceptions of what makes Japan special. They write about this mysterious Oriental city with strange food, geisha girls, hostess clubs, yakuza and other obvious images. As an author, did you find it hard to avoid those clichés?
For many people, Japan’s image is locked in a time warp. Over the years, I’ve met two or three people who visited Japan and were shocked to find no one was wearing kimono. And even more were puzzled when they didn’t see geisha walking around everywhere. I’m not exaggerating. Those early encounters were eye-openers for me. To get beyond the clichéd image, you need to pull all the threads together to give a well-rounded portrait that captures the essence of the subject and is human rather than brief stereotypical brushstrokes. It’s not easy and takes time, but it’s not impossible either.
Why aren’t there many thriller books set in Japan? Besides yourself, Barry Eisler is one of only a few authors who have used Japan as a backdrop for a series.
I’m beginning to think the name “Barry” is a prerequisite. The real reason is because Japan does not reveal herself easily. There’s a formidable barrier, which is a combination of the people’s natural reticence, the complexity of the culture, and the lengthy history.
It takes time to get beneath the surface of all three to find a more nuanced story that is authentic and believable. And if you’re fresh off the boat, you don’t see it, or you think you can figure it out in a few days if you focus. That never happens. Two thousand years of history and mannerisms do not unravel so quickly. Even the last eighty to a hundred years is complex.
Do you get inspiration from walking the back streets of Japanese cities, in the coffee shops, nightclubs or somewhere totally different?
Yes, in all of those places, and more. Wherever I find interesting people or sights. I’ll see an artwork that intrigues me, a dusty shop down a backstreet, or find an izakaya with an impressive interior or inspiring menu. Even chatty taxi drivers. The list is long. For me, Japan has an irresistible energy. I’m interested in the traditional, the contemporary, and where they intersect.
If a movie were to be made based on your book, which actors do you think would do a good job as Brodie?
It’s funny you should ask that. I haven’t given it any thought, but some of my friends are going crazy choosing the lead and sometimes the cast. One Japanese friend likes Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Ryan Gosling for Brodie. John Cusak’s name also came up. Someone else suggested the Leonardo DiCaprio that surfaced in “Blood Diamond.” The northern California contingent favors Christian Bale or Keanu Reeves, among others. It’s a nice range.
Any plans to translate “Japantown” into Japanese?
The book is being translated into four languages - German, Russian, Bulgarian, and Hebrew, and more are under consideration. Some of the publishers bought the second book sight unseen, which is a great vote of confidence. “Japantown” is being shopped in Japan, and I’m sure it will eventually sell, but at the moment “Western books” are on a downward slope, so it’s a matter of waiting for the pendulum to swing the other way. I’d actually prefer the series to gain some traction overseas first before it is picked up in Japan. That way the books will be handled better.
Are you now a full-time author?
Yes. It’s always been my dream to write full time. It took longer than I expected, but it’s happening. Every day I write what I want. There is no better feeling.
Where are you based these days? Do you travel much?
I still live in Tokyo. It’s one of the world’s great cities, even though it’s not attractive in the conventional sense. I travel for research, most recently to Okinawa, Kyoto, and Europe. I love being on the road, and have always found it best to travel with a focus, whether it’s to see great art, eat great food, or absorb the personality of a new place. I do all that and more. To that list, I get to add research for my books. You can’t ask for much more.
To find out more about Barry and his book, visit http://barrylancet.com/ You can also connect with him on his Facebook page and Twitter (@barrylancet)
“Japantown” goes on sale on Sept 3.© Japan Today