Naomi Hirahara turned to the mystery genre to tell the story of a grumpy old LA gardener and reluctant sleuth who is also a Hiroshima survivor. It’s a story that is central to her life, because it is also her Father’s story. And as Naomi explains, mystery enabled her to tell the closely personal story of the atomic bomb survivors who were American citizens, without the danger of polarising views.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- How a grumpy Japanese gardener became a voice for his time
- The secret of “telling lies to tell the truth”
- Why she speaks for people who found they belonged nowhere
- How a 20 year old woman writer got inside an old man’s head
- The downtown LA ‘renaissance’ that’s transforming her ‘burb’
- The exciting new Chicago series that’s her next big project
Naomi can be found at www.naomihirahara.com
On Facebook https://www.facebook.com/NaomiHiraharaBooks
For more details, a full transcript follows: Note – this is a “close as” rendering of our full conversation with links to key points. (Not word for word)
Jenny: Hello there Naomi, and Welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Naomi: Thank you for having me Jenny, and my dog Tulo is here, so just ignore him if he gets excited!
Jenny: Of yes I have seen pictures of him on line he is very much part of the family isn’t he?
Naomi: Yes he gets in on most things.
Jenny: So, Naomi, before you wrote the first book in your award winning mystery series centered on Mas Arai, an elderly Japanese gardener, you were a journalist for 15 years and published a number of more academic works – Japanese American social and business histories.
What was the”Once Upon a Time” process that led you to turn to fiction as a better way to tell your story?
Naomi: Well actually, always in my mind I wanted to write fiction. The way I say it, is ” I tell lies to tell the truth.” Even when I was working as a journalist during the day I was writing fiction at night or early in the morning.
I had one of those old fashioned Toshiba laptops with a dot matrix printer? And then after work I would go to UCLA to workshops to hone my craft. I just think there is much more freedom to write about what people are really going through in fiction,
Those two worlds, journalism and fiction – well some people think journalism is fiction, but no, if you are a very committed practitioner of that you want to get the facts in, you want to get it right, and sometimes it’s very hard to write from a very committed point of view, with a subjective voice.
Many journalists have problems in capturing that in writing a novel, writing a mystery, writing fiction. That’s a process.
Jenny: And you have been praised for the wonderful intimacy of Mas Arai’s voice. We really do feel you know this elderly, slightly curmudgeonly, widowed Japanese gardener working in LA; we understand the feelings and experiences he is going through. That’s a real tribute to you. I gather he may have been based on your own Dad. Can you tell us a little about that?
Naomi: Definitely in terms of his chronology, it is very like much my father. He was born in California, raised on a farm and then because of circumstances in the family they had to return to Hiroshima and that became by father’s new home.
He was relatively young during World War II and so he was in Hiroshima when the bomb went off and he was a bomb survivor. As soon as he could – as soon as he turned 18, he got on a boat and came back to his birthplace and he returned to the US.
When you talk about the bomb it is so polarising and people take sides politically but I think for myself I wanted to write something very personal and I thought an atomic bomb survivor who was an American citizen would tear through the polarising elements. This is a personal story, and just so I didn’t have to be worried about the question of “could this have really happened to someone” I stuck to my father’s story. But as far as personality goes he is totally different.
You say Mas is curmudgeonly. My Dad had a prickly side to him in some ways but in terms of our relationship we were very close. I started this project in my 20’s and there is no way a young woman could get into the head of an old man unless she had a very close relationship with her father, and that was the case with me.
Jenny: Until I read your books I admit I did not realise there were quite a few American citizens who were caught in the Hiroshima bombing.
Naomi: Actually most of the migrants from Japan were from Hiroshima – there were a lot of reasons for that. To be an immigrant you need a little cash – unless you are a refugee, you can’t be the poorest of the poor. For various reasons a lot of people came from Hiroshima and so many Japanese migrants had some ties to that part of Japan.
Then because of the discrimination that occurred in America, many Japanese parents started questioning whether America was going to be the best place for their children, they started thinking “maybe I should take them back to Japan for education or for them to understand their culture, who knows what is going to happen” so that’s why a lot of young people were sent to Japan to learn the culture and people did get caught there.
They also faced discrimination in Japan, so they were truly people without a country. Here in the States sometimes we are not thought of as American, and in Japan we were not thought of as Japanese, so I think that was such an irony. But I think it also helps people to understand who these people are. Just because we have a Japanese face we are not necessarily all Japanese.
Jenny: You’ve said it was your parents’ “dream and worst nightmare” to be immortalized in a book. Can you explain a bit more about those conflicting feelings?
Naomi: Well you know, my first book Summer of the Big Bachi took me fifteen years to write. And when people know you are writing a book they are always asking you how it’s going and then after a while they get tired of asking.
My parents weren’t journalists or story tellers of any type, even orally, so the notion to them of having a child who is a writer is a bit scary, especially as some of what I was writing was my parents’ story. The characters are not my parents, but they felt that things became very transparent. Things were not as private as what they would have hoped. If I had been writing a different kind of story – a fantasy or science fiction say – I don’t think they would have felt so vulnerable.
I was at a Mystery Convention in Monterey California and I showed my father my cards… You know you always have to have these promotional business cards – “Meet Mas Arai, California gardener, Hiroshima bomb survivor, reluctant sleuth” and my Dad was like “Hey this is me”
And I said “Dad, you are not a reluctant sleuth.” And then my Mum got on the hotel bed and she said “Oh what am I going to do?” because she was worried her friends were going to view this as out life. And I said to them “You know what, you are just going to have to be tough and strong, because we’re kind of, in terms of our family, there are not many stories told from the point of view of someone like Mas, so we just have to get the book out there and forge ahead.”
Jenny: And I imagine when the book did finally come out, they were probably very happy, they didn’t find too much to be concerned about.
Naomi: You know what, even until this day, my Mother has never admitted she’s read any one of my books in its entirety. I think she is frightened and some of it, I don’t blame her.
Some of my colleagues, their parents are writers themselves, and they read their first drafts and they are their biggest cheerleaders. And my mother is a cheerleader, but it’s like she will come to my events, she will make this amazing spread of food and she’ll watch and she’ll say “you sold a lot of books tonight” you know – and it is scary for someone like her. If I were in her situation I would probably be scared myself.
Jenny: You’ve said that both your parents were there on that day when the bomb was dropped . . . and that one of them felt it should be talked about, and the other that it should be buried and forgotten. Can you share a little of those two views, and how they affected you growing up?
Naomi: Well I think my mother is the one who talked about it. She is considered an atomic bomb survivor although she wasn’t there – she was in the countryside – she was a child – eight years old when the bomb was dropped. My grandmother had taken her out into the country – they didn’t know what had happened.
They were in the countryside at a Buddhist temple because Hiroshima was dangerous. Close to Hiroshima was a naval base, so it was targeted for different sorts of bombing. So my grandmother picked my mother up and took her into Ground Zero. They were looking for my grandfather – my mother’s father – in the ruins. It’s horrific for me to to think of it.
Because she was exposed to radiation she qualified as an atomic bomb survivor. My mother was the the one who would tell a stranger the whole story. My mother’s mother in a sense gave me the baton. She survived the bomb herself and when I was 14 years old she took me to the Peace Park and she told me the story of our family.
I was too young to have experienced it but I felt like I was a witness to a witness and I felt “this is too important, this is a big story in our family, maybe I should do something with this” because this is what I do, I tell stories and this is a story I should tell.
With my father, he wasn’t the type to just go and tell people He was articulate when it came to more philosophic things, but with him you had to read a bit more between the lines to know how he felt.
Jenny: There is a very evocative picture on your website of you as a three year old in Hiroshima, shoulder deep in a field of flowers. It brought to mind an impressionist landscape with poppies….. It’s an idyllic scene after so much horror. Do you remember anything of that visit?
Naomi: You know memory is a funny thing because sometimes you’re not sure if you remember or just remember being told about it, but I think I do remember. We were separated from my grandmother because she was in Japan and I was born and raised here in California, but I remember being carried on her back, I think I remember umbrellas.
My relative who is a photographer had taken me to that spot, and I rode on the back of a motorbike, so I remember that. I had gone to Hiroshima last year to do research on the last Mas Arai, and my relative, my father’s aunt, she remembered, and she took me to that exact same spot. Unfortunately it was summer, and there weren’t so many flowers, but she said “This is the spot, where they took that photograph of you.” It was very eerie to revisit that 50 years later.
Jenny: You were lucky there wasn’t a shopping mall there . . .
Naomi: You’re right! No that part is still pretty much countryside.
Jenny: Sayonara Slam the sixth book in the Mas Arai series is recently published, and the seventh one, Hiroshima Boy is out early next year – Did you always have a series in mind when you started?
Naomi: You know with the first book I never thought it was going to be a series per se. I love JD Salinger and some of his “quote – series books” when he goes back to the Glass family. (Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey etc) So as I was writing the first book, I was developing a relationship with my characters and I was thinking “It sure would be nice to see them again” And then Random House picked up the first book, and they said “this is contingent on you delivering a second book in the year.”
After the third book I felt I wanted to be more intentional, I didn’t just want it to fade out, so at that time I was thinking of seven and I did want to end it in Hiroshima, but I had no idea of how I was going to do it. I hadn’t been back – I studied there for a year after I finished college – but apart from that I hadn’t gone back there in such a long time…. I wasn’t sure how it was going to get done but that was my intention.
Jenny: And then there is Officer Ellie Rush in the Bamboo Mystery series, a young LAPD cop on a bicycle with an Aunt in high places in the LAPD who is maybe more of a liability than an asset….? Where did she come from?
Naomi: When you write an amateur sleuth like Mas you have to face the question of “why is this regular person encountering so many dead bodies?” Unfortunately my father was ill, and eventually passed away when I was writing the fifth Mas Arai, and I felt “you know I have to write something from a young person’s perspective,” just to add levity to my life.
There was that, and I was teaching a class at UCLA and I fell in love of the students. There is such a conflict with them, on the one hand they are optimistic and ambitious, and on the other there is a lot of insecurity. I just loved them and I wanted to write about that time of life, of a young person and her life decisions, about a young woman who wanted to be a police officer like her aunt, but her peers don’t understand why and her mother especially was not supportive.
You are over in New Zealand, right? I don’t know if you have any bicycle cops there…? In LA it started in the beach communities but now it’s becoming very popular, they are in many urban areas.
It’s a way of policing where you get to know people, you are not riding in a black and white squad car, you get to know people, and it’s less threatening, it makes a difference. If there is drug transaction – or those kinds of things, it’s happening on the street, it all happening very quickly and a bicycle cop can be there and view it more easily than someone in a car.
I worked in downtown LA for such a long time for a newspaper and on different projects and I thought you know it really is like a village even though its LA. We have a produce market, we have a flower market. We have all of these weird industries, we have the garment district, and the toy district right next to each other, so I felt in that compressed space I could create a fun series.
Jenny: In more general terms (moving away from specific book focus) – Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success?
Naomi: That is a really good question and it’s kind of hard to see yourself. It’s almost better to ask someone else outside and say “What am I doing?”
But I do think it might be an openness, but with an eye on the big picture. You know in those first fifteen years of writing the first book, I went to a lot of classes and there was a salon, a literary salon, I used to go to. One of the speakers – not sure if he was an agent or an editor – but he said he was looking for story tellers, not necessarily writers, and at the time I thought “What does he mean?”
I was in my 20’s, but now I’ve come to see that we can tell stories in so many different ways – in plays, films, and different genres – and I took that to heart. Because when I started writing the Mas book, it wasn’t in the mystery genre.
But I learned that that was the right container and so there are so many changes and disruptions in terms of publishing. You can’t just stick to one thing. I am still writing non fiction and I am doing exhibit work now, working as a curator, and that’s telling stories with artefacts. Sometimes doing something you normally don’t do that much helps you with your writing, and I think that’s something I do that maybe other writers don’t.
Jenny: Sure I was thinking about it from your point of view and thinking that the whole story of Mas could have been a memoir but it seems so much more interesting to have it as a mystery it just makes it seem so much more alive.
Naomi: One of the letters I got in the first year after publication – I live on the West Coast and this was from a reader on the East Coast – she had mentioned Mas is a curmudgeon “but I really miss him.” and I thought – yes this is the beauty of fiction.. I mean you can develop a relationship with someone I guess in a memoir too, but particularly with fiction the reader feels they own that person. That’s why often they don’t like film adaptations, because the characters are presented in ways they hadn’t imagined them.
People get attached, they get involved. With someone like Mas you have to go inside his head and that’s the beauty of a novel even versus a film, you can do that.
Jenny: If you were going to organise a magical mystery literary tour for any of your series, where would you suggest readers go?
(See full article on this garden: http://landscapevoice.com/james-irvine-japanese-garden/)
Naomi: There are two strands – there are two possibilities One is the whole Japanese garden tour, and there are a lot of Japanese American gardeners who are a part of that.
I mention some of these gardens, briefly in the books, like in the second book, Gasagasa Girl, we go to the Brooklyn Botanical gardens in New York. It is one of the first Japanese gardens in the US and they hired Italians to work on it so there are these rock grottoes in it! So I think one of the fun things would be to jump around the country a bit, to see these Japanese style gardens, some of them are hybrids.
With Ellie the Bamboo Mysteries are set within a five mile radius in downtown LA. What’s fun is there is a renaissance happening in ethnic communities in downtown LA – for example cutting edge chefs are opening pop up restaurants – that kind of thing, and then there is the intersection of Ellie and Mas. There is this beautiful little Japanese style garden in Little Tokyo, and it’s kind of hidden from view – it’s like a secret garden, it is really gorgeous and there are three different levels representing three different generations of Japanese migrant – the grandparents and their children, and then their children, and there’s water and a bridge. It gives you a sense of peace in the urban traffic.
Jenny: Naomi lets change tack a bit and talk about you as a reader: Have you authors that now or in the past you loved to “binge read” If so who – any recommendations for listeners?
Naomi: There are so many. Obviously I have been influenced by Walter Mosely and his Easy Rawlins series about an African American man in the 1940’s. It is a mystery series and he covers political and social things and you learn a lot. And I love the Nordic writers, and also someone like Tana French. She is interesting because she follows different people in her Irish crime series – they work together but they are different.
I love series and episodic TV. I am a total junkie for TV series like the British mystery series and Grantchester.
Jenny: I see you do series writing yourself on one of the Japanese websites?
Naomi: Oh yes, those are things that are just really fun for me and I don’t really plan it out carefully. Sometimes we get really precious about our writing. We need to allow ourselves to have fun. I think for some people it paralyses them.
Jenny: Circling around from the beginning to the end what is next for Naomi Hirahara? In your blog you’ve mentioned you’re working on a new historic series set in historic Chicago. Is this also a mystery series – and how did this idea form?
Naomi: You know it really came out of doing the research for this non fiction book I have coming out – Life after Manzanar. Manzanar was one of the detention camps which incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War Two.
Chicago was one of the places where the government wanted them to resettle. So there were only 400 people there, and it went up to 20,000 within a short period of time, and there was a lot of criminal activity that happened as well as gangs – a legacy of that area – gangsters.
It got my head spinning. I have always wanted to do a book with a Japanese American woman who was in her early adulthood in the 1940’s. This young woman in the new series is born in LA, is placed in a camp like Manzanar and then released to Chicago.
This might not as light as my other mysteries – it might be a little more noir. To tell you the truth, Jenny, I am not sure if I can pull it off, but that makes me excited. It’s set in 1943 – 44, and it might be a trilogy. The authorities started releasing people from the detention camps into the interior of the US in 1943 when the war was still gong on.
Jenny: So Naomi our time is nearly at an end. Where can people find you and your books online?
The best place to connect is on Facebook, where I have an author page facebook.com/NaomiHiraharaBooks
or on my website, www.naomihirahara.com
My email and other information is right there
Jenny: I see you’re also going to be the guest of honor at a Crime Writers Convention in Reno next year.
Naomi: That’s right and it’s going to be so much fun. We’re going to do karaoke, and improv. I don’t want just talking heads.
Jenny: Thanks so much Naomi, it’s been great talking!
Naomi: I’ve enjoyed it too. I’ve been to Auckland by the way . . .
Jenny: Come again! And thanks!
Thanks To Our Technical Support:
The Joys of Binge Reading podcast is put together with wonderful technical help from Dan Cotton at DC Audio Services. Dan is an experienced sound and video engineer who’s ready and available to help you with your next project… Seek him out at email@example.com or Phone + 64 – 21979539. He’s fast, takes pride in getting it right, and lovely to work with.
Our voice overs are done by Abe Raffills, and Abe’s another gem. He got 20 years of experience on both sides of the camera/microphone as a cameraman/director and also voice artist and television presenter. Abe’s vocal delivery is both light hearted and warm and he is super easy to work with no matter the job. You’ll find him at firstname.lastname@example.org