- On 6th September 2017
- In Mac on Tokyo Tokyo Books Tokyo Tales
Mac on Tokyo: Jonelle Patrick
Jonelle Patrick’s ‘Only In Tokyo’ mysteries raised the bar for Tokyo-based English-language fiction. A graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Institute in Tokyo, and a member of the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and Sisters In Crime, Jonelle gives her first ever in-depth interview exclusively to Maction Planet.
Maction Planet: Hi Jonelle. Welcome to Maction Planet. It is a real honour to be talking to one of our favourite authors of contemporary fiction set in The World’s Greatest Metropolis!
Jonelle Patrick: Thanks, Mac! It’s even more of a pleasure for me to be talking to someone who not only agrees that Tokyo is the World’s Greatest, but who knows all its best corners so well.
MP: Cheers. The intricacies of your novels and the way they feed off the landscape of the city clearly show that I can throw your kind words right back at ya! But before we delve into your writing, let’s go all the way back to the beginning. How did your Tokyo adventures begin?
JP: Weirdly, my Tokyo adventures began about as far from Japan as you can get, in a public school classroom smack in the middle of America. We inexplicably studied Japan for a week in second grade, and I was gobsmacked. Every night I’d come home all excited about kimonos and Mt. Fuji and smoked octopus that came in little sardine cans (yeah, misinformation was a thing back then) until one night my dad told me that if he’d chosen a different speciality when he was in the military, I’d have been born in Japan. I was seriously SERIOUSLY miffed for at least a week, because I thought if he’d just had the foresight to make the proper career choices, I wouldn’t have been a boring skinny blonde kid, I’d have been JAPANESE. (Um, my eight-year-old grasp of genetics was a little sketchy.) But lo and behold, skipping ahead to adulthood, the first time I visited Japan all that excitement whooshed back, and my life promptly made a course correction toward Japanese school and living in Tokyo and eventually writing about it all.
MP: So, the love was kindled, albeit through a middle-American lens, at a young age. Did you think about Japan between then and your first visit? Study Japanese? Read any books?
JP: Nope, the connection just lurked around below the surface until I landed in Kyoto that very first time. But as beautiful as Kyoto was, it was Tokyo I really fell in love with. Kyoto is all about preserving a golden age of Japanese culture (and don’t get me wrong – it’s gorgeous!) but Tokyo is the thousand ways that culture exploded and grew and mutated.
MP: I couldn’t agree more, and I am stealing that line to use on my next tour. Don’t tell anyone though. How long were you here on your first visit?
JP: Only about ten days. Which was long enough to discover that ten days was way way WAY too short to do all the stuff worth doing and eat all the stuff worth eating!
MP: It is always the first trip where the bug really begins. What was the strategy for eventually moving here?
JP: Well, if you want more than a three month tourist visa, it pretty much comes down to either teaching English full time or learning Japanese, so I took the plunge into a serious Japanese school and started going to class three hours a day, five days a week. Which was great for the first two months, until my agent sold Nightshade to Penguin in a three book deal, and I owed them the next manuscript in seven months. From then on, I mangled Japanese grammar all morning, then hauled my laptop to the local Excelsior Cafe to write all afternoon. As you can probably guess, I became the worst student in the class. (I know this because the school was super Japanese, and they handed back the tests in order of worst grade to best. Guess who always got hers back first?)
MP: Ah, Excelsior Cafe. The “authentic” Starbucks. Let’s rewind though and talk about the creation of Nightshade. When did you start writing that? Was it written with the hope/expectation of being first in a series.
JP: I started Nightshade in 2009, and I did write it hoping it would become the first in a series. But Nightshade isn’t actually the first Yumi and Kenji book I wrote. When I finished the first manuscript, I sent out query letters to a bunch of agents, and five asked to see the first few chapters. Four said no thanks, and one said she’d like to talk to me on the phone. I was so thrilled, I’d practically written my Golden Dagger acceptance speech by the time she called that Saturday morning, but for the next hour all I did was listen to her rip the thing to shreds IN EXCRUCIATING DETAIL. When I got off the phone, I stared at my slightly tearstained notes (yeah, silent crying: crucial novelist skill) and decided that she was 90% right. Instead of trying to fix it, I tossed all 90,000 words in the garbage, and the next day (still wincing from every painful word of criticism but not forgetting a word of it) I started a new one set in the cosplay and Goth-Lolita world. When I finished that one, the first agent I contacted wanted to represent me, and that’s the book that became Nightshade.
MP: I first read Nightshade after I had been living here for 6 years. One of things that hit me then were the little details. I think I was sold after the mention of ukon no chikara in one of the first pages
JP: Ahahaha, Ukon no Chikara separates the true residents from the just-passing-through! The first time I tried it was after my first end-of-term Japanese school party, and the izakaya we went to gave them out instead of after-dinner mints!
MP: How did you go about researching the Lolita world of Nightshade?
JP: Well, it started with discovering what used to be a HUGE Gothic-Lolita fabric section at the Yuzawaya craft store (Skull buttons! Spiderweb lace! Who knew?) and ended up standing in line in Kabuki-cho, waiting with Bo-Peep-Meets-Lestat fellow partiers for the doors to open at an all-night underground event called Tokyo Dark Castle. And in between was (of course) a ton of online ferreting about, hours and hours of watching Japanese dramas and movies, and striking up a lucky friendship with a famous Goth-Lolita blogger who calls herself La Carmina. She’s the one who really introduced me to Lolita fashion cult events, where I became a note-taking fly on the wall.
And actually, figuring out what to wear to these things was the hardest part. I’m not a cosplayer or Lolita myself, so I didn’t want to pretend to be something I wasn’t, but I didn’t want to stick out like a monkey in the hotspring either!
MP: Except when the monkeys rule the hot spring… like in Jigokudani. It’s all well and good having the facts and the anecdotes, but fashioning them into a 350-page novel is a monumental task! Can you describe your process, and has that process evolved over the course of the four novels?
JP: It has! The thing about writing mysteries and thrillers is that they have a lot of moving parts that all have to link up nicely by the end, so when I wrote my first one, I figured the best way to do it was to meticulously plan out every chapter for the entire book. I made this super nice document. In Excel. It was beautiful. And it worked great…until about Chapter Twelve, when one of the characters refused to do the thing I had planned for her. The thing is, characters sort of grow and change as they accumulate experiences, and even though I’m the one who put them in harm’s way, sometimes I don’t realize how it’s going to affect them until I’ve written them through it. And sometimes they turn into someone who would NOT do that thing they’re supposed to do, so I either have to rethink the character or rethink the plotline. Now what I do is sort of like laying train track right ahead of a moving engine – I know where I’m going, and who done it, but I usually only make detailed plans a couple of chapters ahead of writing them.
MP: There are some strong parallels there to starting a business! So, Nightshade is out, and reviews and sales numbers are coming in. How did you react to the reaction, so to speak?
JP: Well, it turns out that getting a book published is sort of like…throwing a leaf into the Grand Canyon. I mean, it’s about the least interactive thing EVER. After all the sprinting for deadlines and wrestling over details and anticipating the glories of Publication Day, well, you know that feeling when it’s your birthday and nobody at work knows? Well, the big day finally arrives and…deathly silence. (Especially right at first, before reviews start popping up.) I have to admit that it was a thrill to get good reviews, and way more heart-stabby than I thought it would be to read bad ones, especially the ones that were not thrilled it was set in Japan (which is a point of view I find utterly baffling…)
MP: Well, here we are, four books later. Now, at Maction Planet we don’t like dwelling on the negative, but I am intrigued by your last comments. Are you telling me some people were hating on a book set in Japan because it was, um, set in Japan? “Dear Murasaki Shikibu. I have big issues with The Tale of Genji. Number one: It is set in Japan…”
JP: Ha, it kind of cheers me up thinking of Murasaki Shikibu having readers suggesting that The Tale Of Genji would have been way better if it had been set in America…<snort!>
If America had been invented then, of course.
MP: I think that you navigated a fine line which very few manage to successfully do. A novel set in Tokyo, not just the city but deep within one of its most unique subcultures, and for it to be authoritative, and to an extent educational, without being patronizing.
JP: Mac, you are now officially my new best friend, for saying what every writer dreams of hearing! But I feel kind of guilty accepting that most coveted of compliments, because don’t you think that Japan is the kind of place that utterly rewards people who, if they see an open door, they walk through it? I’m pretty sure that’s something we have in common – I’d bet my favorite cat-ear hoodie that YOU walked through all kinds of strange doors and discovered all kinds of great things that weren’t what you were expecting, and after a while, you were just bursting with the desire to show other people the far more interesting Tokyo that lurks beneath the surface of the guidebooks.
MP: This is exactly why Tokyo truly is The World’s Greatest Metropolis. The depth of adventures you can find here are incredible. So much of the English language literature about Tokyo seems to revolve around the 5 cheapest sushi places, or how shrines are great because they’re free. And by definition, anything you’ve read about online, everyone else will be there because, that’s the internet age. So yes, we are trying to help people see the Tokyo that keeps us living here and loving it and never wanting to leave.
In Nightshade, how did you decide what elements to keep “real” and such to make “fictional”?
JP: Well, there’s a sort of unspoken rule in genre fiction, which is that the characters and plot are conjured from the writer’s imagination, but the details (places, history, science, cultural norms) have to be strictly accurate. Which is why some of my time in Japan is spent roaming around with a list of odd things to check, like, are there benches at the Nezu Shrine for the characters to sit on when they have that conversation in Chapter 24? What’s included in the price when you spend the night in a cubicle at a manga cafe? What’s the preferred hangover remedy of Japanese hosts? As you can imagine, some of these things are more entertaining to research than others…
MP: I can imagine. What made you choose Komagome as the central location for your books?
JP: I wanted the characters to live in a neighborhood that’s typical of where ordinary middle-class people actually live, rather than the parts that make the “here’s how crazy/beautiful Japan is” lists. Komagome still has a strong neighborhood fabric, where people live in the same houses for generations, know their neighbors and run family businesses. But it’s not “preserved” like Kawagoe, with its picturesque wooden houses and destination festivals – people in Komagome modernized in ugly ways just like people do all over the world, and that makes it more interesting (and more like real life) than Instagrammy perfection.
MP: OK, let’s move on from Nightshade and talk about Fallen Angel. After evaluating Nightshade and the response to it, how did that influence Fallen Angel?
JP: Actually, the biggest course change I made was in the main female character, because so many Western readers were mad at her at the end of Nightshade. Dancing around the spoilers here, she winds up in a situation where everything that Japanese people weigh when they decide to marry someone is pointing at one guy, and everything that Western people value is pointing at another, and she makes the Japanese choice. It’s one of those things that’s a real split between America and much of the rest of the world: if a woman decides to marry for anything but burnin’ love in the US, she’s a golddigger or a social climber. But in many other parts of the world, if she doesn’t take into consideration her family’s social status, her future childrens’ advantages, and how they will care for their aging parents, she’s considered pretty selfish.
MP: How far do you plan ahead in your process? For example, in Nightshade, Yumi’s friend Coco is introduced, and in Fallen Angel it is revealed that her name is short for Kokoro, a name she has rather appropriately started reusing in one aspect of her life (trying to word this so as to avoid spoilers). So, was that always the intention with the character, a piece of good luck, or some other mystical writing process?
JP: It’s super mystical. Kidding. Actually I did secretly know that Coco’s name was Kokoro, because there had to be some legitimate peg to hang her nickname on from the beginning, but most of the character stuff grows organically. And sometimes in directions I didn’t plan! Characters really do inhabit their written lives, and what happens to them changes them, just like our experiences change us.
MP: How much time did you have to write Fallen Angel?
JP: I had actually nearly finished the Fallen Angel manuscript by the time the contract was inked, but it’s a good thing I wasn’t on a tight deadline, because it took much longer to write than any of the others. I thought it would be easy to write about the host club world – sex, money, jealousy! God’s gift to novelists! – but once I got to know people who worked in it, I realized it was much more interesting and much more complicated than it appeared. Westerners generally assume that anyone who pays exorbitant sums for the company of attractive men and women – hosts, hostesses, geisha – is getting sex in return, but that’s not true. The reason Japanese still lump those professions in with prostitution is that selling emotional intimacy is every bit as shocking as selling your body.
MP: It is a very tough world for foreigners to get close to and crack. How did you manage it?
JP: Pure luck! I’d been poking at it from every angle I could think of, and getting nowhere. Then I discovered that a Japanese friend played on the same coed flag football team as a host club manager and she’d always wanted to go to a host club too. She asked him if she could bring me one night, and we were IN. And because she was his friend, he really rolled out the red carpet for us and brought around every host in the club to our table. It was unbelievably great! They were all a little nervous until they realized I spoke Japanese, but then they were so relieved that they told me all kinds of stuff about their lives. Quite a few of them were from small towns far from Tokyo, and their families had no idea what they did for a living. Apparently, none of them (except the owner) knew that the manager was married with a teenage daughter. A few of them had tattoos, which they covered up when they went home to see family. After that, the manager and I became friends too, and he not only gave me some back issues of a host industry magazine called “Men’s Yukai” (filled with inspiring articles about successful hosts and comics demonstrating how to pour drinks and light cigarettes!) he also invited me to a couple of the other clubs he manages.
MP: Absolutely incredible. What were the parts of the world that really amazed, surprised or shocked?
JP: Well, first of all, I was shocked at how expensive it is. Our friend the manager just charged us the “first time” introductory price (about $30) even though he let us stay way past the two hours, but the second time I was at a club, the table next to us ordered a champagne call. All the hosts in the club excused themselves from their customers and gathered around the table next to us, sang the club drinking song, and toasted the lucky customer. Then, of course, she handed over the rest of the bottle for her host to chug. After it was over and our manager friend returned to our table, I asked him “How much?” (At a host club there are no menus or prices anywhere – I guess if you have to ask, you can’t afford it!) He said, ¥70,000! For the cheapest bottle of Dom! And that’s on top of the table charge, the charge for requesting her favorite host etc. etc. etc. which made walking in the door cost her about ¥15,000 even before she ordered the bottle.
I was also pretty interested in how much being a host is like being an actor. None of them use their real names, and all the info they put on their online staff page is pretty much made up. It’s like they’re playing a role for the night. A lot of them even lie about their ages, because customers prefer men who are in their early twenties, so when they hit 26, no matter how many birthdays they celebrate, the number tends not to tick upward anymore.
MP: I think your work helped change foreign perceptions of this unique Japanese subculture. And, reading the comments on your website and your social media I think it helped a lot of people who have had interaction with the field feel comfortable about talking about it.
JP: It would make me so happy if even one person’s mind was opened to a deeper understanding of some part of Japan by reading the books (although of course I’m also happy if the books merely shorten a tedious plane flight or make someone want to go to Japan to see all the great stuff for themselves!) And now that I know about your tours of Tokyo, I finally have somewhere to send them – I’m seriously impressed with the fun days you put together. Even my friends who are veteran travelers are a little anxious about coming to a place where they can’t read or speak the language, and having a Tokyo maven take them to see the kind of things I write about would really make their trip something to tell people about for the rest of their lives.
MP: What made you decide to stick with Kenji and Yumi, and not to write a second book with different characters?
JP: That’s an easy one! You know how when you’re reading a great book you really don’t want it to end, because you want to stay in that world with those characters as long as possible? With a series, you can return again and again and watch how the main characters’ lives unfold, while still reaching satisfying conclusions at the end of each book. So basically, I write a mystery series because I love reading mystery series! (That’s not to say that I won’t ever write a stand-alone book or spin off one of the characters into his or her own series, but at least through the next book, it’ll still be Yumi & Kenji.)
MP: As an avid reader, I’ve know that feeling a lot. Probably most acutely reading “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt. I remember slowing down my reading pace dramatically as the end approached as I didn’t want it to finish!
Let’s talk about Idolmaker. Quite a damning critique of celebrity culture at times!
JP: I know, right? And I even kind of held back, because truth is stranger than fiction in that world. Can you believe that idols really ARE contractually prohibited from having relationships?
MP: I’ve heard this! Didn’t a member of AKB48 break this rule and shave her head as penance a few years ago?
JP: Yes, although the head-shaving ploy in that video was actually an attempt to appeal to her fan base over the heads of her management. AKB48 members are upvoted and downvoted by their fans (who qualify to get ballots by – you guessed it – buying merchandise and tickets) and if she convinced enough of them that she was sorry and ought not to be demoted, she thought her management would have to give in and allow her to remain with the top group.
MP: Crazy stuff. You say you held back – how do you filter what goes in and what doesn’t, given you want your stories as grounded as possible?
JP: Well, remember that thing I said about the unwritten rule of genre fiction? How the story is made up, but the cultural stuff has to be absolutely right? There are so many things that boggle Western imagination about the idol world that if i put them all in, my readers would begin to doubt they could all be true. So I chose a few of them (the scummy promoter, the gender-bendy style, the prohibition against relationships) and built a context for readers to understand and accept them as strange but true.
MP: There are some parallels between the worlds of Nightshade and Idolmaker, but it was the differences you highlighted which I really enjoyed in Idolmaker.
JP: Wow, that’s interesting that you picked up on parallels between Nightshade and Idolmaker – usually people see more connections between Fallen Angel and Idolmaker, because people who work in host clubs and people who perform onstage as idols both work in the “mizu shoubai” floating world of entertainment.
MP: Maybe some of the issues you highlight in Idolmaker are what drove the creation of vocaloids!
JP: They’d certainly be easier to manage than a pack of teenagers HA
MP: The natural disasters in Idolmaker were poignant to me, reading them after the tragic events of 3/11.
JP: That’s right – you were already living in Japan when the earthquake and tsunami devastated Tohoku. Where were you when the earthquake hit?
MP: I was actually in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. I had taken some time to travel around parts of Africa and South-East Asia. I woke up in my hostel and on way to check my email that morning out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the TV was playing images from NHK. It was of security camera footage inside a building in Tokyo. I watched it, not understanding at that time that the epicentre so far enough away that this was quite muted relative to what was happening in Tohoku. I jumped on Facebook and my wall was peppered with messages from concerned friends and family, both in and out of Japan.
JP: Wow, so you were sort of in the same situation as me – out of the country, but everybody messaging you for news.
MP: Yes exactly. I actually felt very guilty I was not in Japan. I was in denial about the whole disaster and situation, until I boarded a flight from Johannesburg to Bangkok for the final part of my travels. The stewards were handing out newspapers, and I took a few. One of them had a 16-page photo special about the disaster. One the front cover was a picture of a house in the centre of a baseball stadium. I stared at it, and then began crying like I hadn’t cried in a long time. I couldn’t stop turning the pages of this paper, and the tears kept coming. The lady sat next to me ended up giving me a hug! An incredible person. We are actually still in touch and she came to Tokyo for the first time last year!
JP: That’s so great. And I understand your response – when you’ve made a country a home, to see it suddenly so devastated is heartbreaking.
MP: Back to the books. Why was there a relatively bigger gap between Idolmaker and Painted Doll?
JP: Mostly because I wanted to deepen the characters. Mystery fiction can be perfectly successful hurtling along on plot twists alone, but I think that a series becomes unsatisfying if the characters remain players acting their expected parts on a stage rather than people you feel you actually know. That’s a lot harder to write, though, and takes longer. Fortunately, my new publisher isn’t stuck on the you-have-to-crank-out-one-a-year model, and because of that, I think Painted Doll is steering the series in a promising direction.
MP: You also switched publishers during the course of the books, right?
JP: I did! The first three were published by a Penguin imprint, but then I jumped to Bancroft & Greene, a new boutique publisher that I love. Penguin and I parted ways amicably – they do best when aiming their big guns at selling blockbusters to the mass market, but quirky little mysteries set in foreign countries need a more creative and labor-intensive approach to finding an audience.
MP: Let’s move onto Painted Doll. I hate spoilers, so let’s talk more generally… you really explore Kenji’s backstory in this one. Was that something you have been meaning to do for some time, or the fans demanded, or both?
JP: I’d have to say it was the readers that drove Painted Doll. A lot of them told me they wanted a deeper relationship with the main characters. The first three books focus so much on taking readers into alien Japanese subcultures that the 90,000 word limit for mysteries didn’t leave me a lot of room for delving into the backgrounds and psyches of Yumi and Kenji. I’m also hoping that Painted Doll appeals to more people who love a good international mystery, not just people who love mysteries set in Japan.
MP: The 90,000 word limit?! I never knew there was one!
JP: Yeah, unless you’re J.K. Rowling, that’s what readers expect of genre fiction, and it’s the sweet spot for balancing storytelling with publishing cost (or that’s the justification I’ve heard). Apparently publishers can’t really charge more just because a mystery/thriller/romance/sci-fi/young adult book has more pages, but it costs them more to print.
MP: It’s been 7 months or so since publication. From the reaction would you say you’ve achieved your goals?
JP: It’s hard to know for sure (the publishing industry still loads up the carrier pigeons with sales reports every six months, whether we need them or not) but there has indeed been an uptick in sales of the other three books since Painted Doll came out, so I’m hoping that means people enjoyed #4, then went back to read the previous ones!
MP: Whether that’s the conclusion, or that the addition of a fourth book has given weight to the series that purple have responded to it, it’s all good!
So, when’s the fifth one coming out!?
JP: We don’t have a hard publication date for the fifth book yet, but my publisher wants to aim for winter 2018. It’s always easier to launch a book that’s set in the season it takes place (try selling a Christmas book in August HA) and since the next one happens in the spring, we want to get it out in time for people to read it under the cherry blossoms. That also gives us time to take video for the book trailer early next year (which means I’d better write like a demon on that first draft, so we know what to shoot!)
MP: How has your writing process changed over the course of the four books?
JP: I cut a lot more now, before my editor ever sees those five thousand unnecessary words of golden prose.
MP: Which of the books was your favourite to write? And no, “It’s like picking a favourite child” is not allowed as an answer!
JP: It’ll probably come as no surprise that the most fun book to write was Fallen Angel – I mean, who WOULDN’T want to have wickedly attractive host boys pour drinks for them in glamorous clubs and call it “work”? But weirdly, that’s not why I enjoyed writing that book the most. The truth is, becoming part of that very alien world as a foreigner was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. Getting past the door was a big challenge, but the hardest part was getting the information I needed without SEEMING like I was pumping the hosts for information (in, uh, Japanese, with hecka loud J-pop blasting!) Every ten minutes, a new stranger who spoke no English would replace the one I just got comfortable with, and because they’d never talked to a real live foreigner before, they didn’t realise that slang and idioms (spoken at lightning speed) are not routinely practiced in the hallowed halls of Japanese school. By closing time, I felt like I’d been standing on a tennis court with the ball machine aimed at me for four hours, and I’d count it as a win if only couple of the balls had hit me smack in the face. But that’s what made it great. When people ask me why I like Japan so much, I usually say, “Because I fail there every day.” Making mistakes (even embarrassing ones) is a much better way to connect with people than being perfect, and being wrong is the only way we become open to all the different ways of being right. Because Fallen Angel delivered so many chances to understand Japan through the eyes of people who were REALLY different from myself, it was a rush from start to finish.
MP: I’ve never expressed it like that myself, but that is definitely a huge part of why I’m still here 11 years on. I like how you ended describing it as a rush. It truly is FUN, at least for some people. When I think back to people who I have known who have left the country of their own volition, it is almost invariably because they never got that rush, or they never found the mistake-making fun, ever.
What’s the most interesting thing that has happened to you in terms of interaction with your readership?
JP: It’s got to be the day I was franting about online and discovered an absolutely devastating review of one of my books. (Thankfully, this was a rare occurrence, or I’d be dead now.) The thing was wretchedly well-written – even *I* didn’t want to read one of my books ever again after seeing it. But over the next few days I thought about the points he’d mentioned, and ended up really wishing I’d given some of them more thought before the book was published. Then I noticed that the review was in a place that allowed me to comment. Normally I’d never EVER comment on a review, but this time I went online and thanked him for taking the time to point out the things that bothered him. I told him that if my editor or my readers had called those things out to me in time, I’d definitely have given them more thought. I told him it was too late to change the book after publication, but I had the next one in the works and I’d be thrilled if he joined the team of readers who sling arrows at the manuscript before it’s too late. I never expected to hear from him (who goes back to read their old reviews?) but lo and behold, a couple of months later, I got a message on my Facebook author page! Turns out he’s a really smart, nice, Japanese-American guy who works about fifteen minutes from where I live in San Francisco! We met for lunch, he said he’d be delighted to trash the next manuscript, and now he’s not only a friend, he’s my most excellent critical reader.
MP: Fantastic. All’s well that ends well.
Reading your reviews, it is clear you are many people’s favourite author. Who are your favourite authors?
JP: Eek, I’m going to reveal just how lowbrow I really am when I admit that most of my favorite authors write escapist genre lit. I’m a huge fan of William Gibson’s science fiction (Neuromancer & such), and am not worthy to tie his shoelaces when it comes to sheer density of reality-bending detail. His most famous future setting is a creepily Japan-dominated world, and he gets it so right (even though he says he’d never been there before the books were written GO FIGURE.) I’m also very fond of the British writer Phil Rickman, whose mystery series features a woman priest who serves as the diocese “Deliverance Minister” (i.e. she’s a modern-day exorcist). This series flirts with the paranormal – a genre I usually have zero interest in – but her main character and the character’s daughter are so great, I never get tired of spending time with their witty and oh-so human selves.
MP: I also love William Gibson, and how we are being to live in parts of his futures!
Moving away from your books, what are your favourite spots in Tokyo?
JP: Spots I love: Koshikawa Korakuen and Shinjuku Gyoen gardens (okay, those are no-brainers, but I had to be honest!), Odaiba (walking across the Rainbow Bridge, taking pix at the Trick Art Museum, shopping at the store where you can buy knick-knacks of the damned, going to the track where they have the drift racing, etc) and Kappabashi Street (plastic food, excellent knives, and the temple with virtual graves & hearses with shrines on the back). For starters..!
MP: Maction Planet approved spots!
JP: And that’s one of the big reasons I approve of Maction Planet! It’s so hard to find people to take you to the really GOOD stuff in Tokyo. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve had to talk out of “going to see the Imperial Palace” – like, no, you can’t actually go IN, no, you can’t actually go on a tour of where the emperor lives OR EVEN SEE IT OR GET REMOTELY CLOSE TO IT please trust me there are way more fun things to do with your time in Tokyo. Or near Tokyo! Like doing an easy day trip to Kamakura, where you can not only get the super iconic Japan selfie with the Daibutsu, you can visit the fox shrine to end all fox shrines, the ultimate moss-covered steps, the money-washing shrine, and then stop in at the dish-breaking shrine to get rid of negative people in your life.
MP: On a recent day off, the Maction Planet team headed to Kamakura. We checked out the Ajisai and did some Zazen meditation at Engakuji. Truly amazing and highly recommended to any visitors
JP: The hydrangeas in Kamakura are to die for and that’s an immense coup that you got people in to meditate at Engakuji! Well done, Maction Planet. The other thing I like to do in Kamakura in the summertime is eat nagashi somen – do you know that place near Meigetsu-in where they float cold noodles down a bamboo trough in the middle of the long table where you sit, and you have to catch them with your chopsticks as they go by?
MP: Nagashi somen. A truly fantastic culinary experience.
Any other favourite Japanese foods?
JP: Weirdly, these days my favorite Japanese foods are Japanese home cooking: niku-jaga (Japanese beef & potato stew) and next day leftover niku-jaga made into curry rice YUM, tofu hamburgers (which in typical Japanese vegetarian fake-out fashion also have chicken or pork in them), and buta-shabu (pork hotpot) with soba sauce mixed with yuzu kosho instead of traditional shabu-shabu dipping sauce. (Okay I’ll also admit a secret love of Japanese Domino’s mille-feuille cheese-stuffed crust pizza KILL ME NOW.)
MP: You split your time between the US and Japan. How do you handle the culture shock… of heading to the US?!
JP: You mean the land of grubby, wrinkled money? I actually used to get a sort of preemptive homesickness for Tokyo the week before going back, but now I try to concentrate on the things that I sort of miss while I’m in Japan. Like, not having to go through Davos-level negotiations with friends, just to decide which restaurant to go to. And (less cheerily) it’s nice not having to check the vegetable labels at the supermarket to make sure the mushrooms weren’t grown too close to any melted-down nuclear plants. Also, public trash cans are everywhere! (Um, can you sense I’m reaching? The truth is, I still have a hard time re-entering!)
MP: I recently went to Hong Kong for 24 hours to meet some business partners and I have to say it was quite nice to see a garbage bin whenever I needed one. If you had asked me 12 years ago how to improve public cleanliness I would have said “more bins”. Who would have thought that it is the opposite which would have led to the incredibly clean city that is Tokyo.
Jonelle – it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Congratulations again on all your successes. It truly is a fantastic story in and of itself, even without the Tokyo tales which you have given the world.
Any final words for your fans before we sign off?
JP: The best last words I can think of are THANK YOU! To the readers of my books, who are among the most interesting people I’ve ever met (honestly, the best part of writing is connecting with other people who love the same things I love) and to YOU, who are the loveliest interviewer ever. I was on a panel at Thrillerfest (yeah, that’s a thing) and was lucky to have a moderator who asked questions that allowed us to give interesting and witty answers. Many of the other panels were not so fortunate, and I appreciated all over again how key it is to know enough to ask the right questions. You know so much about Japan that I learned a few things too! It was an enormous pleasure talking to you, and I’m looking forward to booking one of your tours.
You can follow Jonelle Patrick on Facebook and on her fantastic ‘Only in Japan’ blog, and purchase her books on Amazon by clicking on the names below:
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