Author Interview: Mami Suzuki is a Composite of Everyone I Have Met or Know, Says Simon Rowe

Simon Rowe, author of the new book Mami Suzuki Private Eye, tells us why most of his lead characters are female, the inspiration behind Mami Suzuki, his life in Japan and more.

Bhavneet: You grew up in New Zealand and Australia and are now living in Japan and writing about people in Japan. Would you say that you have internalized the culture of Japan deep enough to write about it? 

Simon Rowe: Without a doubt, because I have lived there for such a long time, 25 years, quarter of a century, half my life. I live, breathe, eat Japan. My job is teaching at a women’s university. I teach speaking and writing. My wife is Japanese. I’m involved with the community. I have a history of travel journalism, a lot of it done in Japan, so all of these things together really inform my writing. In fact, it’s what I can do the best right now. They say “write what you know”, well, I’m writing what I know and that’s stories.

BSA: In a world full of detective stories where the sleuth is almost always a man, Mami Suzuki comes across as a very fresh breath of air. How did the idea to create Mami Suzuki come around? 

SR: My second self-published book is a collection of short stories, the same as the first one. When I had almost completed that second book, I needed one more story and I was a bit stuck. At that time a leaflet came through my letterbox in where I live in a small city called Himeji. I picked it up and it was an advertisement for the services of a female detective specialising in cheating husbands. I just filed it away and let it kind of brew and ferment while thinking about it and the story just came to me and it took only a week to write the story. And the reason I like to have female protagonists is because I think women are more intuitive, they express and show empathy more. They can read people better. So all these things can give more depth to the story, more human, more about the human condition than if it was just a, you know, a hard drinking, smoking typical male detective. I wanted to just kind of turn the stereotype on its head. Here’s another really important point: Most readers these days, correct me if I’m wrong, are female. And I thought, women would prefer to read a story about a woman battling against poverty and having to work two jobs and against male chauvinism and discrimination and triumph over this adversity. So that was the other reason she, the protagonist, is female. 

BSA: Mami Suzuki is a very strong woman. She’s a single mother, at the same time she is a working private detective. Is there someone who you modelled her character on? 

SR: That’s a good question. I would say, between my wife and I, we know so many women who have to be strong because they’re single mothers, or they are battling away raising kids and working part time. In the Osaka area, or what we call the Kansai area, which is different from the Kanto area which includes Tokyo, things are very different. Kansai is more easy going. It’s like Delhi, Bombay, like that kind of thing like New York, Los Angeles. So you’ll find in Kansai that the women are very loud, boisterous and they’ll drink beer with their friends and they’ll be tough with their husbands. And they don’t take any crap and they are very friendly. So I would have to say that this woman is a composite of everyone I have met or know, you know, right down to the drinking too much alcohol.

BSA: Your book cover has a very dark, very noir feel. Would you tell us about that? 

SR:Yeah, first of all. I wanted something eye-catching. Secondly, I wanted to use colours which represent Japan. We’ve got the red and the white, the same as the Japanese flag. But if you look and I’m not stealing anything from Murakami, but if you look at his covers, they use similar colours and I always think simple with high impact is best. So I wanted to wanted to bring in Private Eye using that keyword as a subtitle and being a mystery of sorts, in fact, there are 4 mysteries, I thought that’s what we need. A lot of this takes place at night because she works in a hotel during the day, but at night time she does her research and she meets her friend or male love interest, let’s say, and so a lot of this happens in the evening, which is very noir. Ohh, and by the way, Yayoi Kusama is a famous Japanese artist and her trademark is dots, She does dot dot dot dot dot dot dot dot dot and I was so happy to see Levent, the artist (who designed the cover) put in the dots because I think these things kind of subconsciously play on the people of Japan. Like, “Ohh Yayoi Kusama. I know her”. But these are actually meant to be pearls, I think, or lights, I’m not sure. The first story is called Pearl City. 

BSA: Your book comes in at a time when Japanese literature is suddenly becoming more popular around the world. Do you think you know this was the right moment for Mami Suzuki to come into play? 

SR: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. As you said, the world has been introduced to Japanese literature through modern literature, through Haruki Murakami especially and so many other writers, not to mention the classics, Seicho Matsumoto and many others. And I wanted to write a story set in Japan that would give readers a taste of Japan and perhaps transport them around Japan using the mysteries as the vehicle to drive the story. So, it’s essentially like a travel book and that’s great. It’s the perfect time since we’re getting so many tourists coming to Japan because the Yen is weak and that creates the perfect book for someone who wants to read while they’re traveling around Japan. 

BSA: Since you’re writing about the cultures in Japan and nearby countries, what kind of books are you reading? 

SR: I’m reading everything I’m reading Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City about Bombay while I’m here. I’ve also got Harini Nagendra’s, The Bangalore Detectives Club. I’m reading it again. The Japanese book I’m halfway through is Kaoru Takamura’s massive 2 volumes, 600-pages-long Lady Joker and it is the best translated Japanese mystery fiction I’ve ever read. It’s just superb. It was inspired by a true story. And it’s a mystery which brings all the usual characters that you meet and get to know while living in Japan together. It just creates this great story about humans who are trying to improve their lives. So to answer your question, I’m constantly reading lots of things. I’m trying to finish everything I start, but sometimes, you know, when you’ve got so much choice, you can’t waste time torturing yourself, going through a book you don’t like, right? You can’t do it. You gotta read quality stuff that you enjoy.

BSA: What do you prefer – reading ebooks or hard copy? 

SR: Ohh definitely paper. The smell and feel, the physical. I have all my maps printed on paper, everything, even my  air tickets are on paper. I see these people with their phones causing a long waiting line because their phone won’t work at the airport and I just breeze through with the paper. And I got my book. And life is simple. Some things you just have to keep simple. And it’s so good that books are still being read in the physical. 

BSA: Are you fluent in reading and writing Japanese also? 

SR: No, I can read. I have a basic  command of reading in Japanese. My daily Japanese is satisfactory. I wasn’t a textbook guy, so I spent most of my time learning Japanese outside, in bars and cafes, restaurants, in sports clubs. You meet people everywhere and they help you to not only learn about the culture but it also helps you to pick up the language in a practical sense. So if you go to a restaurant, you learn all the words associated with that. So you can easily order and talk to customers and ask for recommendations. So my speaking is helped.

I’ll just add one more thing: To research this story I went to Tokyo twice to interview private detectives. One could speak English, the other one couldn’t. So we conducted the whole interview in Japanese. I didn’t think it would be possible, but after one hour I had a notebook full of notes. And I was like, “Wow”.  And that was fantastic. I realised then that I could actually use my Japanese language skills to research a book. So I celebrated with beer. Yeah. 

BSA: You know, from a time when the most famous books to come out of Japan were the famous Shogun series, where do you think Japanese literature is heading? Has it finally accepted that there is a different world outside, outside altogether? 

SR: You’re right. I think it’s something that’s happened in step with things like the greater exposure of Japanese culture through anime, through Manga, through music, makeup, fashion, technology and, of course, the Internet has accelerated all of this. So it seems natural to me that literature has also moved at the same speed, giving the world greater access to writers such as Murakami. He’s written some great stories. My favourite is The Second Bakery Attack. That is a superb short story. Back to your question, yeah, I think now we’re seeing a lot more modern Japanese literature. They’re out there and it’s unique, it’s odd, it’s strange, it’s fresh. 

BSA: In your books you’ve written about Japanese culture. What has been the most difficult part of Japanese culture to write about with regard to writing in fiction? 

SR: I wouldn’t say anything has been difficult, but I would say that I’ve been very conscious of making sure that the story is authentic. It has to be as it is in Japan for the Japanese to read and go “Oh yeah, that’s right. How did you know that”, or foreigners who have lived in Japan for a long time ago to go, “Yeah, this, I know that and yeah, I totally get it”. But also for foreigners who have never been to Japan and to have to be able to understand and appreciate the Japanese culture. So the hardest thing has been ensuring that it is authentic. I’ve had multiple readers in both Japanese and Japanese foreign residents of Japan read the story. 

BSA: Does your wife read your books? 

SR: That’s a great question. No, she hasn’t read anything and I dedicated the book to her. Isn’t this crazy? Her name is Masami and she hasn’t read it. But I tell you what, without her help, without her helping to keep the family, you know, all the micromanaging of everything with the kids, doing the stuff, I wouldn’t have been able to write the stories because I would have been tied up with lots of PTA and such stuff. So I feel very thankful to her and she’s reasonably supportive. But there are two universes. There is the family and then there’s the writing. And no one in the family cares about my writing. So we keep the two universes separate. 

BSA: You know with this growing advent of cell phones and gadgets, what do you think is the future of bookstores like Kunzum?

SR:  I’m really impressed with the bookstores I’ve seen in India so far. They’re really creating a place for people to come, and if you have coffee, that’s great, but just to come and browse and feel comfortable, it’s a really great way to attract readers. I don’t think the bookstore will ever die. I think my impression of India is you’ve got lots of people who just love reading the paperbacks and will come to a store just to relax. 

BSA: Would you give us a list of your favorite five books? 

SR: When I was a teenager while growing up in New Zealand, the three books that made a huge impact on me were Jaws by Peter Benchley, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I was only 14 or 15 when I read it, but I think reading that helped me become an adult. And the number three book was Papillon by Henri Charrière. It’s a classic. These were the books that impacted me. This is what makes young people think big, that there’s the big world out there and there’s all this crazy stuff happening and I want to be a part of it. So those are the books that had a big impression on me in the beginning. And then Australia opened. We emigrated to Australia and that opened more opportunities. 

BSA: So New Zealand to Australia and now Japan. SR: Yeah, and in between I’ve spent many years travelling as a travel writer. That’s been really a great way to write, from an ethnographic point of view to be immersed in a culture, not to go on a tour, not to hang out with other Australians and New Zealanders, but to just do everything by myself has  given me a great insight into the cultures which has helped me authenticate the stories.

Pick up Simon Rowe’s Mami Suzuki Private Eye from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

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