“What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions.”
Margaret Atwood – The Handmaiden’s Tale
Naomi Hirahara is the author of a popular mystery series involving a complex and wonderfully human character named Mas Arai. Mas was “born” out of the author’s desire to “shed light on is Japanese American culture and history”, and is based on her own father, who survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshema in the basement of a train station. Her father Sam, is also a gardener like Mas Arai. What makes these mysteries go beyond the genre is the perspective they are told from: an older gentleman who has gone through much in his life and yet, still has an active curiosity about his surroundings. The writing is well-crafted and takes you into a Japanese-American culture which looks to its past and present to shape a future.
Naomi was a reporter, and has written non-fiction books before venturing into the world of fiction. Summer of the Big Bachi (Bantam/Delta, March 30, 2004) is Naomi’s first mystery. The book, a finalist for Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize, was also nominated for a Macavity mystery award. Gasa-Gasa Girl, the second Mas Arai mystery, received a starred review from Booklist and was on the Southern California Booksellers’ Association bestseller list for two weeks in 2005. Most recently Snakeskin Shamisen, the third in the series, was released in May 2006. In April 2007 it won an Edgar Allan Poe award in the category of Best Paperback Original.
She has short stories published in a number of anthologies, including Los Angeles Noir (Akashic, May 2007), A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir (Busted Flush Press, December 2007), and The Darker Mask (TOR, January 2008). In the summer of 2008 her first middle-grade book, 1001 Cranes, was released by Random House’s Delacorte imprint in hardback and came out as a Yearling trade paperback in June 2009.
Naomi Hirahara’s latest novel in the Mas Arai series, Blood Hina, was published by St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne Books. Mas’ best friend Haruo is getting married and Mas has grudgingly agreed to serve as best man. But then an ancient Japanese doll display of Haruo’s fiancee goes missing, and the wedding is called off with fingers pointed at Haruo. To clear his friend’s name, Mas must first uncover a world of heartbreaking memories, deception, and murder. You can read an excerpt here.
Below is an interview with Naomi Hirahara.
I know you were quite close to your father with the character of Mas being based on him (Mas is your father’s name spelled backwards). Did he get to read any of your series, and if so, what did he think of them? If not, what do you believe would have been his reaction?
When two of my novels were finally translated into Japanese (a direct result of the Edgar nomination), my father finally had an opportunity to find out who Mas was. “Hey,” he said after he had read the books, “you wrote about me!” ”But Dad,” I explained, “you knew that the main character was based on you.” He had, after all, taken me to places that gardeners had frequented in past (like the racetrack during the rainy season!). He followed me out to the porch when I was leaving my parents’ house. ”Hey,” he called out to me, “my friends are waiting for the next book.” That’s the biggest and perhaps best endorsement from my parents — that their friends like them.
A number of the characters in the book speak a mixture of Japanese and English, and you do a beautiful job of capturing this without it being distracting. Do you make a conscious effort to balance the accents/and or Japanese words as you write? Can you suggest ways of doing this to help other writers who would like to emphasize another language and culture?
This is perhaps the most “controversial” aspect of my series — the use of dialect or vernacular. It’s taken me a while to understand what I’ve been trying to do. First of all, I’ve been impacted by dialect since I was a small child. I was a huge Lois Lenski fan and if you look at her children’s books today, such as her Newbery Award-winning STRAWBERRY GIRL, it’s filled with strong Southern dialect. I love that. Being from a bilingual household and as a result, serving as an interpreter of the outside society for my parents, I understood from a young age what is being said in certain homes does NOT sound like the standard English dialogue on the page. If Mas or his other peers suddenly speaking in standard English, it would be absolutely bizarre. Language serves as an integral part of them as characters.
That said, dialect is sometimes a barrier for certain readers. One group of female readers said that they thought it was disrespectful that I had my elderly characters speak in dialect. So interesting! I guess some folks believe that accented English is evidence of a lack of intelligence. My intention was quite the opposite: that having an accent is absolutely not a reflection of how smart someone is.
In terms of writing in dialect/vernacular, I would not recommend that writers use it unless they are very familiar of how the intonation/language sounds. There’s a wonderful literary anthology called ROTTEN ENGLISH, edited Dohra Ahmad. She explains that vernacular (her favored term) is spoken, so transferring it to written form immediately changes it use/purpose. In a sense, when you write dialect, you are in essence creating your own language, kind of like that movie AVATAR. It’s not just mimicking sounds, but making decisions on what kinds of words/sentence structure to use. Of course, I’m not only using dialect but actually foreign words. What helps is that Japanese, like Spanish, usually has a consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel word structure and American English readers can somehow get the general gist of how something may sound. Tonal languages like Chinese is quite a different story.
Sorry that this answer is so long, but it is one of my passions.
Mari, who is Mas’ daughter, is a Gasa Gasa Girl (which happens to be the name of your second book). This means she is a restless person, not one to stand still for very long before moving on. Do you see yourself as a gasa gasa personality? How did you fill out her personality in the book to make her what I call, “a touchable character,” someone we can believe in? Do you think hard about your characters before you write them, or do they evolve as you write the book?
There’s another Japanese word, “guzu-guzu,” which means lazy, laid-back person. My husband says “guzu-guzu” fits me more than “gasa-gasa.” Actually I’m very “guzu-guzu” about household chores, but more “gasa-gasa” when it comes to meeting friends, participating in events and travelling. My goal is to go to all 50 states and I think I’m at least up to almost 35 states.
In terms of building characters, I need to figure out the character’s name before I can get that deep in who they are. I’m currently developing a new mystery series and I’ve thought long and hard about what to name her. Figuring out a series character’s name is crucial.
Developing Mari was not that difficult because I knew who she was in reference to her father, Mas. I know that Mas had not been an emotionally available father and as a result, she was scarred and jaded. I will say that I’m not Mari and my father is not Mas in terms of their emotional development.
I don’t need to know all the facts about a character before I start writing, but I need to know some basics facts about them. Most important, perhaps, is their outlook on life, because that would determine the tone or voice of the book. Voice is really everything. You can have the best plotted book in the world, but if you don’t have the voice down, forget it.
In Snakeskin Shamisen, you emphasize relationships between men: brothers, father and son, etc. Did you find it hard to write in the male perspective? What helps you to keep focused from a male’s POV?
I really adore men. I played organized sports as a young age, and appreciate some the rules and behaviors of men in group contexts. I’m old enough to have worked in a once male-dominated profession (journalism), and I’ve spent a lot of time with men.
I actually had problems writing from a female perspective (I have issues!). I attempted to write parts of GASA-GASA GIRL from Mari’s perspective, in fact, and it just didn’t work.
Writing a middle-grade book from a 12-year-old girl’s perspective (1001 CRANES) was actually extremely helpful for me creatively. Around the same time I wrote three short stories from a female POV. My new series will most likely be from a female POV and so will be next middle grade book. As I get older, I really appreciate women. I don’t think women reveal their secrets as readily as men. In some ways, they are an enigma, but I think that I’m slowly figuring them out!
Do you outline your books before you write them? Has your background in writing non-fiction books been helpful or a hindrance to you in writing fiction?
Lately because of the more competition nature of the publishing business, I’ve had to write outlines, at least for my Mas books. For other projects, I prefer not to write outlines and let the story organically lead me to where it wants to go. Writing nonfiction has helped in that I steal research from myself constantly. I think at times you can get buried in research and forget what you are trying to write. Journalism is good in that you learn to adhere to deadlines and be very self-motivating. It’s not good in that all that so-called objectivity needs to be shed. Fiction is all about being subjective.
How do you know when the rewrite is done?
When you can’t make the book or short story any better. I’ve a big believer that an author can over-rewrite. The initial energy of a piece can get snuffed out by a writer pushing their material too hard. Writing a book is a delicate business.
What tools do you use for research? I understand you are researching for you next book, could you give us an idea of that process? (Also, any hints on what the new book will be about?)
In terms of research, some of it has to be experiential. For me, something magical happens when I’m actually standing in the place where my characters are standing. Photographs and site visits are important. I try to be open to new experiences, even those that don’t seem like they will help me. Of course, I also use Google maps and the all the resources the Internet provides! Academic papers available on Google books and other sites are helpful, too.
And in terms of the next Mas book, it will be on strawberries! I’ve actually worked on a nonfiction book on strawberries, so, again, I’ll be stealing from myself. I also have that middle-grade project–steampunk set in California–and a new series that I’m still developing. I’m very excited about that project.
Please give us an eight-word description of your life.
shedding of old skin, every seven years