American author turns two decades in Japan into a thriller
Barry Lancet had long wanted to write a novel. But with young children, a full-time job and a commute, time was nearly impossible to find - until he learned, among other things, to write on a clipboard standing up on his daily train ride. Though not without mishaps, such as nearly falling into people's laps as the train jolted and dropping a pen that marked another rider's shirt, his perseverance paid off with the crime thriller Japantown that starts in San Francisco and moves to Japan. As if that and a two-book contract aren't enough, the novel - which features Jim Brodie, an art dealer and martial artist who also is part-owner of a detective agency - has scooped several best-debut awards and had TV rights optioned by J.J. Abrams, the mastermind behind the last two Star Trek movies. The American, who has lived in Japan for more than 20 years and worked as an editor with the now-defunct Kodansha International, spoke with Elaine Lies about his work.
What got this book going?
I didn't really have an idea initially until I got hauled in by the Japanese police … I didn't know why, and it was a cat and mouse sort of game. I slowly realised they were trying to get information from me, that if I didn't answer this the right way they could throw me out of the country. I knew I had to be very, very careful. They grilled me over my life and raked me over the coals for everything. I was angry for the first few hours but I was also intrigued because there was one guy - this nice, rather senior-looking gentleman. He was at times gentle, at times probing, at times pushing. So I thought maybe I could do a mystery or a detective novel. From that encounter I eventually got two characters.
How did you come up with the character of Brodie?
Mysteries and thrillers always explore the dark side of a society, a person, a group. Japan has that too, but I didn't want to stop there. I wanted to bring in the culture, whether it was traditional or contemporary. So I needed somebody with a foot in both worlds and set up the antiquities/art side. I suppose he's kind of an alter ego because I edited so many art books and know so many artists here. So I could cover both the high and the low, I shaped this character that could move easily, convincingly, in both worlds. I didn't want him to be some Jason Bourne-type person … I wanted him to have some culture. I started the book with a what-if: what if there was a perfect murder of a Japanese national with only one clue nobody could read, and they'd have to call in a Japan expert? As I wrote more and more, I wrote Brodie into a corner he couldn't get out of. Things kept escalating, getting worse and worse, impossibly worse - but in a logical way that seems like it could happen. Then I realised the bad guy I had in mind wasn't strong enough to do all those things. I went back and thought "Okay, I've got to come up with an antagonist who is knowing enough to do all these things. Where can I go?" Then I reached back into Japanese culture and history. The second what-if was what if a samurai culture were to exist today? Samurai lore has come down to the present day, but not samurai. And I thought: what would a samurai group actually look like today if it made it to modern times?
How long did it take from idea to end of book?
I stopped and started a few times, there were minor things. I was still working 60- to 70-hour weeks, I had a family. So probably six to seven years. Now, the next book, which I'm very happy with, took 10 months over a 14-month period. But I'm not working a day job anymore.
Your editing job must have helped shape your eye.
I purposely had done mostly non-fiction (editing) because I wanted to write fiction. I had written non-fiction pieces but [not] fiction. Originally it was going to be a more serious sort of thing. But I was handling such a heavy load of manuscripts at the office - I liked them, art and history, garden books, architecture, Asian philosophy. So I started to write for my own pleasure and entertainment. That's still the way. I write it so I'm enjoying it too, otherwise it doesn't seem to work.
What were the biggest challenges?
For the first book, I realised I'd been in Japan so long that I'd lost confidence in my English dialogue, so I spent an inordinate amount of time getting back that capacity. The other thing was how to present Japanese characters and the culture in an accurate way that didn't dumb them down … I wanted to do it accurately in a way that represented the person or the culture in a way that people could respect, without being a caricature. That was hard to figure out.
Has your editing experience made you too picky?
You have that too because you've been so detail-oriented that you write one sentence or two sentences and you pick it apart. I know people who get stuck there and never get beyond that. There's a wonderful quote where a Japanese author said, "It took me 10 years to learn my art and five to forget it". It was that sort of thing. I wasn't getting anywhere, I was being too picky, being an editor … You have to get beyond your inhibitions, whatever it is that's holding you back, and sometimes that's your ego. You're not quite fearless. When you write you have to be fearless.