once again welcomes as our guest, Michael Pronko. Michael is a professor of American Literature and Culture at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. 

He has written about Japanese culture, art, jazz, and politics for Newsweek in Japan, The Japan Times, Artscape Japan and many other publications for over twenty years.

Michael has appeared on several television broadcasts and he has an award-winning publication of essays about life in Japan.

Recently, Michael has published The Moving Blade: A Tokyo Mystery which is part of the Detective Hiroshi series

Norm: Good day Michael and thanks once again for participating in our interview. Was writing always a career move for you or did it grow into one?

Michael: Thanks for having me. I love interviews, from either direction. Writing was always a passion, but as a career, it didn’t move for a long time. I was busy traveling, studying, teaching and living. I always wrote a lot wherever, whenever and however I could, but at some point, the writing started to overtake the others. For a long time, though, writing fiction was set aside, as I was teaching and writing academic papers and regular columns for magazines and newspapers. Finally, I cut back on the other writing to focus on novels. Overall, that’s pretty slow growth, I suppose, but it all adds up.

Norm: With your experience as an author, is it difficult for you to read a novel just for the pleasure of being the reader?

Michael: I read in both modes, plus maybe a third when I teach. I can’t get to sleep without curling up with a book. That is pure enjoyment. But I also read/study books as a writer, flipping pages back and forth and thinking, “What? She put that turning point on page 120?” Or, “That’s an interesting way to describe…” and I learn that little trick. In that mode, I don’t enjoy it enjoy it, but I enjoy learning from it.

One thing I learned from teaching novels, stories and films is to outline a novel. I wouldn’t say that’s a pleasure exactly. Outlines are tedious. But once they’re done, wow, they’re like an X-ray! You can see inside! It’s one of the best ways to “read” as an author. Reading as a writer or a teacher is not as much fun as reading for pleasure, granted, but it enhances the pleasure when you do. For me, whatever the purpose, just being immersed in words and stories is always a pleasure.

Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to write?  What was least useful or most destructive?   

Michael: I never took writing classes, so I never had to unlearn anything. Getting rid of my romantic notion of being a long-suffering writer in an unheated basement room unrecognized by an uncaring society—well, that helped a lot! It freed a lot of mental space and unleashed energy. It was also helpful to figure out what creativity means and how it works. And why it doesn’t sometimes work.

While writing newspaper and editorial columns, I learned how to write daily and to rewrite quickly, and how to take criticism from editors. There was never time to argue with the editor before the deadline. No time to even to argue in my head! With seven deadlines per month for ten-plus years, I learned to take my ego out of the equation and just do the work as well as I could in the time I had. That expunges perfectionism, too.

I also pay attention to my writing weaknesses, without excusing or glossing over them. I think every writer needs to find what works and what doesn’t work for them. So, I keep teaching myself. That never ends.

Norm: What are your thoughts as to why people read mystery novels and what do you believe makes a good mystery story?

Michael: Mystery and adventure are two primal story patterns that captivate people because we live them. Mysteries have fluid boundaries. They can contain all kinds of odd characters, ironic notions of right and wrong, workplace details, and they can take us into unseen places to confront unnoticed problems.

Because mysteries are so inclusive, they entertain on multiple levels, and each one has its own tension. Suspense is a constant, even when it seems to lighten up at points. A good mystery balances its elements, orders them carefully and never slows the pace. A good mystery should make you more curious about life and give your adrenal system a good goosing.

Norm: What do you think is the future of reading/writing?   

Michael: With qualification, I feel positive about it. Technology can be a distraction, but I tell my students that now is the true golden age of writing and reading. Their jobs will involve being able to communicate in writing and being able to process written texts. Most of their knowledge will come from reading. In the past, parents, teachers, bosses would explain things. Friends were spoken with. Now, those interactions often happen in writing. Get good at it or else!

It’s possible that things could swing further towards aural and visual modes of interaction, but even if reading and writing get “written out” of the equation, I think that the power of story will remain deeply embedded in humanity. And storytelling has evolved in written form for the past several thousand years. People crave stories, big and small, and that deep-seated need, that compulsion, will keep people reading and writing in some form far into the future. At the very least, writing will leave its traces on storytelling.

Norm: What would you like to accomplish as an author that you have not?

Michael: It’s so frustrating not to be able to get more writing done more quickly, or at least, more comfortably. But for now, at least, my goals are rather simple—writing better. That’s enough of a challenge. And deeply satisfying.

I try to accomplish small things every day. Getting this answer phrased right—there’s an accomplishment, for example! Big goals can get in the way sometimes, so I don’t put them front and center. And the path towards goals can be winding and treacherous, so I stay focused on making my writing better in the present moment of writing.

Norm: What has your other writings and novels taught you that you have been able to apply to your most recent book The Moving Blade: A Tokyo Mystery?

Michael: Writing in other genres taught me a lot. Writing is trial-and-error, as far as I can tell, so the more you try, and the more errors you make, and the more different kinds of errors you make, the more you learn. I worked in the editorial department of The Japan Times for a decade and that forced me to read and write and think clearly about issues. You can’t twitter-rant in a newspaper editorial. You must convince people reasonably that what you say is right.

At Newsweek Japan, I wrote for Japanese readers about Tokyo life. That was a tricky proposition! What was I supposed to tell them about their daily lives? But that was the challenge, and the instructive lesson.

Putting together four collections of essays about Tokyo life really taught me a lot about myself and about writing. Essays are ‘timeless’ in the sense of being description and thought, with vignettes tucked inside. Novels are the opposite—stories with description and thought folded inside. I don’t see essays and novels as all that different at some level. The pattern is different, the aims the same.

Norm: What do you think most characterizes your writing? 

Michael: I hope that attention to detail along with a drive to keep readers reading. I spend a lot of time observing life in Tokyo, and reading and writing about it, so I think that comes through in the writing. I hope the time I spend thinking about and reworking the language of the novel will come through, too.

Norm: For your writing of The Moving Blade: A Tokyo Mystery, did the story come first, or the world it operates in?

Michael: I think story and world come together. You can’t have one without the other. Characters also can’t exist without a world and a story in which to act. I can’t start writing until all those parts are developed to roughly the same level.

For this novel, I had the idea for Mattson, the old Japan hand (which was the original title: Japan Hand), for a long time. It was originally his story with flashbacks to an earlier age. But by the time I got to the full-on writing, the novel started with his funeral. His spirit hovers over the story, of course, but it became his daughter’s story, and Detective Hiroshi’s. I’d developed this character’s whole story and world, but it all became background to the eventual story. That happens.

Norm: How and why did you become interested in the SOFA agreement between Japan and the USA and what made you want to weave it into your story?

Michael: My interest in the SOFA agreement came from the front page of the Japanese newspapers. Nearly every day, there is a news story about something related to the American military, be it war games in the Pacific, American helicopter parts falling onto school playgrounds, crimes by servicemen or East Asian geopolitics.

The SOFA agreements are one of the hidden stories of America. Talk about mystery—no one really knows what goes on inside the 800 American military bases in 70 countries. I became intrigued by these well-funded, highly secret spaces, which are now on every continent. It’s not as well-known as it should be.

Norm: What are some of the references that you used while researching this book?

Michael: Mostly newspapers and magazines. I was particularly interested in several articles about the storage of napalm leftover from the Vietnam War on Okinawan bases. There’s been some excellent reporting on that. Several very dedicated investigative journalists, in Japan and elsewhere, cover news about the bases.

There are a few good, solid books about the bases themselves, but I also read history books about Japan’s post-war era, and about America’s long-term involvements in other countries. I also went through a lot of online archives and databases. And of course, I’ve been on a couple of bases and spent evenings in the areas around the bases. The scariest was going to a sword shop. Up close, swords have this powerful energy.

Norm: What do you hope will be the everlasting thoughts for readers who finish your book?

Michael: I think that humans remember intense moments. So, I hope readers will remember those from the book. Some are frightening, but others beautiful. I hope, too, that readers will gain an understanding of Japanese culture while having a great time with the story. For some readers, the book will be just a fun read or armchair traveling, both of which I love myself, but I think mysteries can suggest larger themes that linger in the mind and add to one’s worldview. I hope that happens. I work for that to happen.

Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and The Moving Blade: A Tokyo Mystery?

Michael: My website has more information about me and the novel, as well as about The Last Train, the first in the Detective Hiroshi series and my collections of writing about Tokyo life. There’s a newsletter signup for my mailing list there, too. I send one ‘letter’ about Tokyo life every month.




Norm: What is next for Michael Pronko?

Michael: Next is always more reading, writing, traveling and walking around Tokyo. The next mystery in the series, The Tokyo Traffic, will come out next spring. After that, I have a standalone mystery/thriller set in Tokyo. I also want to get back to non-fiction, so have been collecting notes for another collection, tentatively titled Tokyo Soft City.

Norm: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. It's been an absolute pleasure to meet with you and read your work. Good luck with The Moving Blade: A Tokyo Mystery

Follow Here To Read Norm's Review of The Moving Blade: A Tokyo Mystery