Plum Rains on Happy House follows an American who is trying to turn an Inn into a school but is thwarted by the house’s strange creatures. What was the inspiration behind this unique story?
I live in Japan, and it’s a place I know well. The book’s dedication probably says it all:
This book is for Japan. It’s the place I call home—though it may not want me to. For over 25 years I have grappled with the dos and don’t’s of my host country, destroying the language in conversation, giving up, resuming more study, eventually resigning myself to the boundless plateaus of almost-speech.
And Japan abides. Like a patient steward, it absorbs the frolics and the ribbing, while providing a solacing habitat in which to write and teach and parent and grow.
I came over to Japan in the 80’s and I’ve lived in some pretty seedy guesthouses—what we call gaijin houses. In creating the residents of Happy House, I just mingled the characteristics of a few of the unique people I’ve met over the decades in Tokyo and in Los Angeles. In some cases, I didn’t need to exaggerate at all.
On one level Plum Rains on Happy House is a detective story. A fellow named Harry Ballse invites the protagonist, nicknamed the Ichiban, to Japan. But the residents of Happy House all deny any knowledge of this mysterious Harry Ballse.
Some readers may pick up on the references to the 1973 film The Wicker Man, about a policeman who is lured to a Scottish island to investigate the report of a missing child. It’s a game of deception. The islanders are playing with him. The paganism and the sexual activity the sanctimonious policeman finds so objectionable are simply part of the selection process—to see if he possesses the characteristics to burn in their wicker effigy so that the village will have subsequent successful harvests.
In Plum Rains on Happy House, the Ichiban must undergo his own horrific sacrifice to appease the house. My novel is in many ways a tribute to that remarkable film, and it has the same foundational plot lines, but I’ve laid down a hearty layer of satire and lots of cross-cultural lunacy.
There are some weird and fascinating things happening in this story. Was this an easy outlet for your creativity or was there some effort put into creating these things?
Nothing is easy. If women will forgive me the metaphor, creating Plum Rains on Happy House was like giving birth—it hurt a lot. There were points when I considered giving up because it was just too hard. I’m not a funny person, but I have little trouble dreaming up wacky stories and characters. The residents of Happy House had to be distinctively quirky. I didn’t know how bawdy things were going to become, or how much depravity would creep its way into the story. But once I had the characters they took charge, and I relegated myself to being, more or less, their stenographer.
Dialog was also something I paid close attention to. Of course, sharp dialog is vital in any story, but for this kind of back-and-forth humor to succeed, I felt it really had to have zip. Just like a comedian practices his delivery line, the dialog exchanges had to have real punch. As with most writing, dialog should say a lot , with very little. The communication isn’t in the words being said but in the subtext. Good dialog says it without saying it. One quick example from Chapter One has the resident of Room 3 (nicknamed The Goat) explaining to the new resident about his missing foot:
“I saw you looking at the bottom of my leg.”
The Goat scowled. “Obviously, you can see that no longer exists.”
“It’s in Cambodia.”
The Goat went into a cross-eyed fluster. “What is?”
Sometimes readers need to work a bit to understand the exchange, and I think they appreciate that. Dialog is an organic process. It’s the way characters talk in my head, and I think I know how to write them because they are all a part of me. It all works toward satisfying the element of what a good scene often comes down to: one person trying to get something from another.
Mix that in with the baffling idiosyncrasies of Japan and its language, and the vexing stages of culture shock, which frame the Ichiban’s adventure in Happy House, and readers have a lot to juggle, especially those uninitiated to living in other countries. I’m hoping this confusion is a part of the magnetism of the story. On top of that, one should remember the old guesthouse is haunted:
“Happy House is an amoeba everlasting, a floating world—capturing and sealing the self-indulgence of the red-light districts, the bordellos and the fleeting, delightful vulgarity of ancient Japan, an eternal time capsule of the flamboyant and the boorish.”
What do you find is a surprising reaction people have when they read your book?
The book has received mixed reviews. Of the five books I have up on Amazon, Plum Rains on Happy House was the first to receive a customer review of one star—perhaps rightfully so: the reader was “disgusted” by some of the more explicit scenes, and I think that was my fault; the earlier cover gave no indication of the sexual content within, and this poor woman was clearly ambushed. With the one star, I know I’m finally an author, and wear it as a badge of honor.
There are, however, cultural elements in the story that some will not understand: the usage of the various slipper customs inside a house, the daily beating of the futon, the laundry poles, the shockingly steep stairwells, the neighborhood garbage trucks that play cute tunes to let you know they’re coming, the confusion between the colors of blue and green.
The dichotomy of substance versus form also plays an important part in underscoring the tension—in the way one swings a tennis racket, or walks in a swimming pool, or plays baseball, or eats particular dishes: What should predominate—what you are doing or how you are doing it?
On another level, the story examines language acquisition and the role of structure within the learning process. The residents all have their various opinions: As teachers, should English be taught through some kind of lock-step formula, or would one be better off approaching it in a more hands off manner, rather like painting? Everyone seems to have an opinion.
The idea of structure comes to the forefront again when discussing what one character, Sensei, calls the hidden structure of the house, which, like the neighborhood (or any cityscape in Japan) appears as an amorphous sprawl. But look underneath this sprawl and one sees the organism. Sensei says that the randomness, or chaos, embraces a flexible, orderly structure, and he likens the house to an amoeba that has the ability to alter its shape. Similarly, this amoeba can be seen as a microcosm of Japan as a whole.
What are you currently working on and when will it be available?
I’ve finished the first few drafts of a story about Special Needs teens who discover time travel. But the adult teachers at the school find out what’s going on and abuse this ability to travel back into time for their own selfish needs. It turns out the ones with the Special Needs are not the teenagers—who are all somewhere on the Autism spectrum—but the supposed grownups, and it’s up to the teens to save the day. It should be out in autumn.
Thanks for having me!
The American in Room 1, however, is dead-set on turning the derelict Happy House into a burgeoning English school.
The house has other plans, and Room 1’s attempts are thwarted by a freakish creature that lives under the floorboards called “the Crat”.
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Kumite for Love is a compelling story about Aiyana Amari. A Japanese-American that learned martial arts from her father before he died in a tragic accident. Aiyana is obsessed with winning an international Kumite, a type of Japanese martial arts, tournament in Japan to save their families gym. Once she arrives in Japan, she encounters genuine artifacts in the back of a souvenir shop. She leaves the shop with a beautiful comb at the insistence of the shop owner, and after placing it in her hair, finds herself transported to 1850’s Japan. Aiyana meets an intriguing ship Captain, has a hand in a few historical events, and struggles to find her way back to the present, while wondering if she’d rather stay in the past.
Kumite for Love by Judy Malcom is a very well written romance novel with a lot of depth and historical intrigue. The book had a background setting that is more interesting than you’ll find in a lot of romance novels. It was really interesting to read about Japanese culture and historical events and to journey with Aiyana as she is mistaken and subsequently becomes a geisha in the 1850’s. Captain Blackburn is an American ship captain posing under a Dutch flag in 1853 Japan where American traders are not welcome. He seeks out a geisha at a local establishment and there he finds Aiyana. The romance and building of the two main characters is done really well and I was rooting for, and very attached to, their love by the end of the book. Not to mention, the love scenes are hot.
The beginning of the book starts off with Aiyana and her friend Peter at the gym practicing karate. There are only a few pages of discussion about Aiyana’s present-day life before she flies to Japan and ends up thrust back in time. I wish there had been a little more build up and description of her current life and background before she flies to Japan and jumps into the story line from the past. I think it would have helped tie the book together better and would help you become more invested in Aiyana’s struggle when she is stuck in the past with no way out.
Throughout the book, Aiyana struggles with indecision as she becomes more entrenched in the world of Edo (present-day Tokyo) and Captain Blackburn. She wants to get back home, so she can compete in the Kumite tournament and win the money her family needs to save their gym. She also worries about never seeing her mother again, whom she had a fight with and left on a sour note before she flew to Japan. At the same time, she is enjoying this new life, the time she gets with Captain Blackburn, and sharing her knowledge of history as its occurring. She doesn’t know what the right answer is or what to do. Should she keep fighting to return to the present? Or embrace this new life in the past?
Pages: 179 | ASIN: B073YKFCZV
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The Moving Blade follows detective Hiroshi as he navigates street level politics to solve the murder of an American diplomat. What was the direction that you wanted to take book two in the series that was different from book one?
The direction I wanted to take it is not the direction it ended up going. So, I headed more into the characters, who became more and more interesting. I focused on the roiling tumble of conflicts inside them, and what that might reflect of social, political and historical conflicts outside. I think that’s similar to book one, but because the characters are embedded into a larger framework of political pressures and international relations, their actions resonate differently. The canvas is broader in this second book, and I go deeper into Tokyo, to see the background of the characters and their choices, good and bad.
I enjoyed the mix of interesting characters throughout the novel. Who was your favorite character to write for?
I like all of them. Well, I don’t like the bad guys, but I like hating them. My favorites were maybe the bookstore owner twins and the radical leftist. They were fun to write and to put in scenes together, the twins steady and demure and the leftist stridently angry. Sakaguchi, the ex-sumo wrestler, is always fun to write for. He has this core set of values that is rock solid Japanese. When he explodes, he really explodes. And of course, Hiroshi developed and grew as a person and as a detective, in perhaps meandering ways, but human ways. The women characters are great to write for, too, as they pull the story in their direction.
It quickly unfolds that the missing manuscript was the driving factor behind the diplomat’s death. How do you balance storytelling with mystery and action to ensure readers are engaged to the very last page?
Among all the different types of mysteries, whodunnits, whydunnits, I-dunnits, I didn’t-do-its, I tend towards the why. Maybe because I was a philosophy major? Not-knowing who creates a different kind of curiosity than not-knowing why. Withholding certain pieces of information is essential. As Alfred Hitchcock pointed out, if you know there’s a bomb under the table, but the characters don’t…well, that’s suspense. And if you don’t know why the bomb is under the table in the first place, it’s really intriguing. As jazz musicians often say, and I think Mozart said it originally, the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between. I think writing should be aware of what’s not spoken, what’s not known. The unknowns make you lean in and pay attention.
Where will book three in the Detective Hiroshi series take readers?
Book three is called Tokyo Traffic. The story revolves around a young Thai girl who gets lost in Tokyo, after running away from some horrible people. She is rescued by a young Japanese woman who lives in an internet café and plays in a rock band. Most of the story takes place in the nighttime youth hangouts in Shibuya and Shimokitazawa, another side of Tokyo. The detectives are the same, though Hiroshi has moved in with his college girlfriend and Takamatsu is off suspension. It goes deeper into the characters and deeper into Tokyo.
When the top American diplomat in Tokyo, Bernard Mattson, is killed, he leaves more than a lifetime of successful Japan-American negotiations. He leaves a missing manuscript, boxes of research, a lost keynote speech and a tangled web of relations.
When his alluring daughter, Jamie, returns from America wanting answers, finding only threats, Detective Hiroshi Shimizu is dragged from the safe confines of his office into the street-level realities of Pacific Rim politics.
With help from ex-sumo wrestler Sakaguchi, Hiroshi searches for the killer from back alley bars to government offices, through anti-nuke protests to military conspiracies. When two more bodies turn up, Hiroshi must choose between desire and duty, violence or procedure, before the killer silences his next victim.
THE MOVING BLADE is the second in the Tokyo-based Detective Hiroshi series by award-winning author Michael Pronko.
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This book made it to my favorites list before I even finished reading it. I am a sucker for a good mystery and The Moving Blade provides suspense and intrigue from the very first chapter. In fact, the first chapter is what kept me going through the next several chapters which do get a bit dry as far as action goes. However, I love the authors style of writing which is very descriptive without being overly wordy and this keeps the reader interested even when nothing spectacularly interesting is happening.
The characters are effortlessly interesting which I think is pretty hard to accomplish, so kudos to the author there as well. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Shibata, who was an old friend of Jamie’s recently deceased father. Shibata is eager to meet with Jamie after her father’s (Bernard Mattson) funeral and while his demeanor is calm and kind and heartwarming you can tell there is something more to him than he lets on to. It’s also clear early on that Jamie is in for more than she bargained for and that staying in Tokyo to settle her father’s affairs will not be as simple as expected.
The main intrigue of the story surrounds Bernard Mattson’s writings, which are unpublished but well sought after at the time of his death. In fact, Jamie immediately finds herself bombarded by those who wish to obtain them. The detectives on the case of Mattson’s murder are unsure that his death was politically motivated, but it quickly unfolds that the missing manuscript was probably the driving factor behind his death.
The book is a good mix of drama between its many likeable characters and the action that can be expected from a murder mystery. I love the imagery that the author invokes with his good use of descriptions. For instance, reading about the book shop owned by the Endo brothers (maybe because I love books!) gave me such a great image of the shop. I find that in a lot of newer books that I pick up these types of small details are left out and they really make or break a book in my opinion. I also loved the description of Shibata’s home. When Jamie mentioned that she somewhat remembered his house, he told her that it was actually a completely different house and only looked the same on the inside. These little details are a great addition to the literary quality of the book and I found them throughout the story.
These are the types of things that really stand out to me and give the author distinction as a great writer. Some books you read because they’re quick and fun, but like I said, this one ended up on my favorite’s list because of the great writing.
Pages: 339 | ASIN: B07GCYRY61
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Forgotten Letters follows Robert and Makiko as they overcome many obstacles for family, love, and faith, during a tumultuous time in history. What was the inspiration for this heartfelt novel?
The inspiration for my story was a dream that I had 15 years ago. The entire story was in my dream. I did not have a recurrent dream ever again but the story was always on my mind. I would think about the story frequently but told no one about the dream for years. I then told my wife and several good friends my dream. They were spellbound and when I finished they said I should write a book. I put the project on hold for over 10 years and started to put the story on paper 4 years ago.
Robert and Makiko deep and well developed relationship. Was there relationship planned or did it develop organically while writing?
Robert and Makiko’s relationship was always part of my dream. As the book developed so did their relationship change. I had several beta readers help make very good suggestions during to project. In fact we added a few sentences to the book just before printing that solidified their relationship.
You wrote this book with Mario Acevedo. What was the writing collaboration like?
Mario Acevedo is a very talented and professional author who has produced a number of very good books. To name a few “Werewolf Smackdown, Blood Business, Rescue From Planet Pleasure” and many more. Mario was very easy to work with and has a wonderful imagination. Mario and I worked very well together and I thank him so much for all his input.
This book was able to get many historical and biblical details correct. What kind of research did you undertake for this book?
The research we did was a great deal of fun and good learning experience. For a majority of the facts we used Google but we each relied on our military backgrounds to help with those facts. In the beginning of my dream there was a big earthquake in Japan early 1900’s. I thought Japan always has earthquakes so I did research for that time period . I found that in 1923 the “Great Kanto“ earthquake destroyed both Tokyo and Yokohama with shaking and fires. The fires were started by the open hibachi stoves in most houses at that time.
Remember three things when reading Forgotten Letters a spider, baseball and birthmark. These three items will be introduced at the beginning of the story and again introduced later on. I think the reader will smile at reading each of the words again.
A trove of forgotten letters reveals a love that defied a world war.
In 1924, eight-year old Robert Campbell accompanies his missionary parents to Japan where he befriends a young Makiko Asakawa. Robert enjoys his life there, but the dark tides of war are rising, and it won’t be long before foreigners are forced to leave Japan.
Torn from the people Robert has come to think of as family, he stays in contact by exchanging letters with Makiko, letters that soon show their relationship is blossoming into something much more than friendship.
The outbreak of total war sweeps all before it, and when correspondence ends with no explanation, Robert fears the worst. He will do anything to find Makiko, even launch himself headfirst into a conflict that is consuming the world. Turmoil and tragedy threaten his every step, but no risk is too great to prove that love conquers all.
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The Last Train revolves around Michiko Suzuki and the team of detectives that are investigating the train murders. What was the inspiration to the setup to this thrilling novel?
For quite a few years I was writing about jazz every week, so I was always going to Roppongi and Shinjuku and Shibuya, nightlife parts of the city. I’d see the hostesses who work in all the clubs there, and they would often be in the jazz clubs. They were almost always strikingly attractive, but underneath that seemed some sadness. Whatever one thinks of their work, the women seemed smart. What impressed me most, though, was the great personal dignity with which they carried themselves. So, I started wondering what kind of life those women lived, and what if they turned the tables. What if one of those people-savvy women took things into her own hands to do things men usually do? And what was this odd dynamic between men and women that seemed so unfair to women, but then again, was something else, too. Many Japanese women might not even say Japanese society is unfair exactly, perhaps because Tokyo is home to a vibrant urban culture where women are incredibly free to do what they want and live how they like. But, what would that freedom turn into if taken to an extreme? Michiko is that extreme. The men struggle to catch up.
Michiko is the daughter of a factory owner whose mother died when she was young. Her character continues to get deeper as the story progresses. What did you use as a starting point for the character and what was your guidance as you built the character?
I think the way Michiko grew as a character was based on my observation of women, and men, in Tokyo, but all kinds of women, not just hostesses. There’s a lot of people TO observe in Tokyo, for one thing, but I like to talk and interact with people as much as I can. Michiko is a “typical” character in that her experience parallels the shift in Japan from a manufacturing society, which is where Michiko grew up, to an information and service society, which is how she makes money. I wondered how that shift affected women? Is it easier for women to adapt to economic changes than men, or harder? Michiko is working class in origin, growing up above a factory, but she turns herself into something else altogether through her own efforts. She’s tough and resilient, which is how I see most Japanese women, and yet still very feminine in traditional ways. She has no hesitation to compete in a man’s world, and to do it on her own terms. Like many characters, once she was created, everything followed from that.
The novel takes place in Tokyo. Why did you choose a train station in Japan as the setting to your novel?
Trains are one of the things I love most about Tokyo, but they are also these huge masses of steel shooting through a very densely populated city. Just as America is built around the car, Tokyo is built around trains. Suicides on the train lines, sadly, happen all too often.
I came upon the clean-up after a suicide one time years ago, and the image stayed with me.
Like every other commuter, I have been stuck waiting on a train or a platform when a suicide shuts down the entire train system. It’s so shocking because usually everything runs on time. So, I guess, if you transplant the American car chase to Tokyo, it becomes a train chase, or a chase on a train. I also like that as a setting because trains and train stations are great levelers. Everyone takes the train, together, equally. I also love trains and train stations because I can completely indulge in people-watching. It’s startling how many people you see in a day. Still, it’s never so lonely as in a crowd, and there’s always a crowd in Tokyo.
What is the next story that you are working on and when will it be available?
The next novel is called Japan Hand and Detective Hiroshi is again in the lead, together with Sakaguchi. They investigate the death of a long-time Japan specialist who helped negotiate the complicated relations between Japan and America, including the US military bases in Japan. That novel should be out by December of this year or early 2018. The next one after that is called Thai Girl in Tokyo and will be out in spring of 2018. I’ve finished writing those both, so they’re now being edited and polished.
Pages: 348 | ASIN: B071DPXP7M
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Michael Pronko is a scholar and an on Japanese culture. He is also an excellent story teller that captivates readers and takes them on an adventure through his words. The Last Train is set in Tokyo, and even if you have never been to Tokyo, don’t worry, Pronko draws you into the life there. His attention to detail is not limited to the scenery, but the customs and mannerisms that make up the Japanese’s culture. There is extensive time devoted explaining the life and world revolving around the hostess clubs, not sex clubs, rather clubs where men go to find a woman to entertain them for a period of time, while drinking and getting their ego stroked. It is within this society of hostess clubs that murder mystery is flushed out. A killer, targeting foreign investors is using the trains as her weapon of choice.
The story revolves around Michiko Suzuki and the team of detectives that are investigating the train murders. Michiko is the daughter of a factory owner whose mother died when she was young. She was raised by her father and his workers. She learned early that business is not always neat and clean, and that sometimes getting their hands dirty and making backdoor deals is the norm there. As Pronko tells Suzuki’s story he alternates between current events and her memories of the past, telling how she got to where she is, and how she has picked her victims. The main detectives investigating are Hiroshi and Takamatsu. Hiroshi is an accountant that due to spending part of his life in America is fluent in English so he works white collar crimes for the police. Takamatsu is a homicide detective that pulls together his own dream team to work on this case. Their case takes a high profile turn and soon they’re dodging politics as well the cultural need to keep everything neat and tidy. Michiko tries to keep her activities low key but when several of her victims survive her plot, things get messy for her and the police.
One of the most fascinating things about this novel is not the mystery aspect. The murder is not a secret from the beginning. What is a mystery is why she is killing people, figuring out what drove her to this life. Hiroshi is a complex character as well, and his dynamic interactions throughout the investigations add to the plot as well as provide an unique look at the culture. Even though he is from Tokyo, spending time in America gave him a different perspective on the way things are done; whereas Takamatsu comes off as the typical Japanese man. They make an interesting and effective partnership. Having the diverse views interacting with witnesses and other characters makes for a dynamic story line, it is diverse and provides multiple views from different cultural perspectives. Much of the story takes place in Roppongi, here you see all the varieties of hostess clubs, the basic lounge style, mud wrestling, nude women, and the high-end invite only David’s Lounge. Each club gives readers a different taste of the culture.
Overall The Last Train by Michael Pronko is a well written and enticing look into the culture of Tokyo. The story behind Michiko Suzuki is compelling and engaging, you can’t help flipping the pages to see what she is going to do next and find out why her victims were chosen. Hiroshi connects well with everyone he interacts with so there is an emotional response from the reader. Pronko uses emotion, mystery and attention to detail to keep the reader engaged and wanting more. I look forward to seeing more from Pronko and hope he has more stories to tell with Hiroshi.
Pages: 348 | ASIN: B071DPXP7M
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