Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Katie Specht is talking with Michael Pronko, author of Shitamachi Scam (Detective Hiroshi Series, Book 6).
FQ: It is obvious that your affinity for Tokyo and the Japanese culture runs deep, as evidenced not only in your books but in your own personal life, having lived there for 20 years. Can you describe how this love affair with all things Japan began for you?
PRONKO: I had a set of flash cards for learning Japanese that my father had. He was stationed in Japan for a while working in an army hospital and brought back other things, too, like geta wooden sandals. So maybe that was part of it. But what really grabbed me were Japanese films, Akira Kurosawa and others, which I saw at college. I loved reading about Zen as a philosophy major. It was so different from western thinking. I had Japanese friends at graduate school and one of them said I could find a job easily in Tokyo. So, I went. I read a lot of novels translated into English. So, I’m not sure exactly when it began. But I like a lot of western things, too. I love the culture and literature of France, and love traveling in many different countries. But something about Japan really grabbed me. I’m not sure “love affair” is the right phrase, though, as there are many things I really don’t like here—the conservatism, the rigid rule-following, the low expectations people often have. So, maybe “coming-to-terms-with-it” might be a better phrase?
FQ: PRONKO: In your bio, you share that you have one more novel planned for Detective Hiroshi to bring the Tokyo-based mystery series to a close. What can you share with your readers about this long-anticipated finale of Detective Hiroshi?
PRONKO: Maybe I wrote it would be the finale on something before, but now that I’m onto the sixth one, I think I’ll continue for several more. So, finale or not, the next novel in the series will focus on young people studying for college entrance exams. It’s probably the most pressured time of people’s lives in Japan, so it’s a very serious time in Japan. Some people feel one day of testing decides their entire lives. I also have in mind one or two standalones with Sakaguchi, the ex-sumo wrestler detective, and a prequel with Takamatsu, the do-what-works detective in mind as well.
FQ: When do you anticipate the final book to conclude the Detective Hiroshi series will be released? Can you share where you currently are in the writing process for this novel?
PRONKO: The next novel will be released sometime in 2024. I’m not sure yet as I always hope to have more control over the writing process but usually don’t. So, I have to follow around the characters, the research, the walking around the city before I can pull it into shape. At the moment I have the basic outline and the characters. Now, I need time.
FQ: During your career as a professor, you have taught English, American Literature, and American film, music and art. Which course has been your favorite to teach and why?
PRONKO: I like all of them. I have a free hand with the content, as long as it works with students’ English level, so I never feel like I’m forced to teach something I don’t like. But I do have to compromise as some works are too violent, disturbing, or just plain hard language for students. But I really like to hear students’ reactions to the films and novels a lot. I’m always pleased to hear what students say about music, which they love but have never studied formally, and art, which they have never studied at all. I always have a sense of discovering something new together with them. I love witnessing the transformative power of those works. I don’t always know what readers of my novels think or feel, but with students they present on their reactions, so it’s fascinating.
FQ: You run a website entitled Jazz in Japan. Can you describe how this originated and what its mission is?
PRONKO: I wrote a column about jazz for The Japan Times and for another online website for years, but finally decided I wanted more freedom in content and approach, so I set up my own site with some of those old articles, and then plenty of new ones. The other publications don’t have room for an 1,800 word interview, for example, but my website can accommodate that easily. I’ve been running that for many years now and really enjoy it. I’ve also written about Japanese jazz for academic works. But my mission is to convey how creative, intense, and unique jazz is in Japan. I’m a failed musician, but love to listen and write about it.
FQ: You share that you received an offer to teach in Beijing shortly after earning your MA in Education. Can you explain how this came about?
PRONKO: That was back in typewriter and envelopes with stamps days. I sent off a batch of application letters to different countries and one school in Beijing called me (about five in the morning), so I said, sure. That was a fantastic experience. Students at that time were the elite of the elite, after schools had been wiped out during the Cultural Revolution. They were eager to learn English, and learn everything about outside China. There were so few foreigners in Beijing at that time that the embassies had Friday afternoon cocktail parties, so me and the other teachers could go to all these different embassies. I could travel all over the country on break times and got to see some amazing places. And people outside Beijing got to see their first non-Chinese. I spent a year there later and visited again several times, each time, it’s a different country it feels like.
FQ: The number of characters that you developed for the Detective Hiroshi series is staggering. With that many characters in play in your novels, I am curious if you modeled any of them after friends, family or personal acquaintances?
PRONKO: Well, there are a lot of people in Tokyo, so you’re never short of characters. I wouldn’t say they are modeled on people I know other than that. I think it’s more a process of condensation of qualities taken from real people and packed into a single character in the book. I don’t model it on one real person, but usually draw on several different people. I talk with people a fair bit and observe them even more, so a lot of those experiences funnel into a single character.
FQ: In your bio, you reveal that you have traveled for years, during and after graduate school. Can you share with our readers where your travels took you, and which area of your travels were your favorite and why?
PRONKO: I took off after college for a working holiday in New Zealand and Australia. I worked on a farm, as a dishwasher, sandwich board man, and security guard. The security guard job was the best as basically I just sat at a desk in the lobby, signing people in and out, and I could read for hours. Six months of that was almost as much reading as in college. I went to Indonesia, Thailand, India, and then over to Turkey, Greece, Morroco, Italy, France, Switzerland, and Denmark. Some of those I had friends in a couple of places I could stay with on the cheap. I was amazed by India, which really stunned me, with poverty, of course, but with the brilliance and strength of the culture. I studied French at school, so I enjoyed being there.
FQ: You currently work as a professor of American Literature at a university in Tokyo and also teach American film, music, and art. Can you walk us through what a typical day looks like for you?
PRONKO: I usually write in the mornings at home, and schedule classes in the afternoons to protect that time. After writing, I exercise, shower (I never adapted to Japanese bathing at night), and bicycle to the station. My commute is just over an hour, only two trains, a relatively easy commute by Tokyo standards, and without the morning rush hour. I like the train as I can observe people and see bits and pieces of the city going by. I often get my best ideas on the train. I prepare classes in my office and zip through the inevitable on-campus errands. Afternoons are teaching. I run my classes in English, though campus stuff is all in Japanese. I usually put two classes in a row. Classes are 90 minutes. After that, students ask questions or stop by my office. Classes meet once a week. I try to stem the tide of email flooding in through the day. My office has a nice view over the city, so before I leave, I turn off the light and look out at “my” little sliver of the city. Then, on the way home, I meet people for drinks or dinner, or head to a jazz club and drift off into the music. Then, train to bike to home.
FQ: Along with your teaching and writing endeavors, you also help facilitate a conference on teaching literature. Can you please explain how you became involved in this, and what your role in this project entails?
PRONKO: When I first started teaching in Japan, I was disappointed at the outdated methods of some literature professors. Much of classwork was simply translating works from English to Japanese without discussion, interaction, or presentation. Students complained to me. Literature teachers tended to consider themselves to be researchers and did what their professors did which was one-way lecturing. So, I set up a conference to share ideas, present techniques, and discuss the pedagogy of teaching literature in more active and engaged ways. The first year, about two dozen people showed up, but we considered it a success. From there, it grew to 150-some participants the year before the pandemic. I ran it for six years and then colleagues took it to other universities, adding a grad student awards section, panel discussions, and broader participation. Now, I’m more supportive than executive, but I still find it valuable to swap ideas, techniques and experiences with other literature teachers. It helps tie together my love of reading, teaching, and thinking about literature. And that funnels into my writing.