|Photo by Ben Simmons|
Patrick Sherriff: First off, and there is a question coming, I promise, I really enjoyed Japantown. I started reading it with a writerly eye: watching the craft—trying to pick apart how you had stitched the whole together. But once preliminaries were over—introducing a sympathetic hero single dad, the mystery kanji, not to mention a public slaughter of a Japanese family in San Francisco, you had me hooked. Pages were flying by and I was just reading to find out what happened next, damn you. This is your first novel, but it's a highly polished debut if I may say so. How long did it take you to write, and did you really write much of it wedged between Tokyo's commuters? Any hairy moments in the writing process (other than the trains)?
Barry Lancet: Happy to hear you enjoyed Japantown and were hooked by the story in spite of your best intentions! I don’t know how much time it took me to write because it was stop and go until I made up my mind to get it done, and get it done exactly as I imagined it.
But it was years, not months, because I worked for a Japanese company at least six days a week. So I salvaged every available moment to write. And that included standing-room-only time during the commute with a clipboard in hand.
Of course, I refined the material that emerged from those train sessions. The second book was finished in a matter of months, happily with no train time. I’m sure Japan Rail’s revenues dropped precipitously.
Never underestimate a man with a clipboard. You've spent a career in publishing as a book editor, how's the view from the other side of the desk?
I’m enjoying it on two levels, as an author and as a former editor. Everyone I’ve met or corresponded with at Simon & Schuster has been great. They are working on a much higher stage than I ever did. Some of what they are doing is the same. Quite a lot is different. I help when I can. Otherwise, I stay out of their way and just let them do what they are all good at!
Congratulations on being published by S&S. Tell me and my half-dozen readers a little about the process of catching the eye of a Big Six publisher.
Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, it’s about quality. For fiction, that means character and story. A Japanese editor who has crafted more than his share of bestsellers once told me that top-selling books have to deliver one-hundred-and-ten percent. Eighty, ninety, or a hundred percent won’t do it.
In other words, a writer has to go beyond what’s currently available. With few exceptions, I think this is true. So know the books in your field and reach farther.
Second, think about the agents’ and editors’ points of view. An agent will often look at 20 or more queries a week. An editor might accept four or five submissions a week to consider—after the books have been filtered through the agent system. Call it jaded, call it experience, call it what you will—but these are smart people who happen to love books. They are looking for something that excites them. Keep that in mind.
Third, after all the time you’ve spent writing your book, invest time on the single-page letter that will represent your effort. If you are planning to approach any serious American or European agent or publisher, my advice would be don’t even consider sending out your query letter until it’s gone through 10 serious rewrites. And then I would test it on small targets first.
The above advice has been earned. I banged on these doors for a long time. My position as an editor got me an extra thirty-seconds’ consideration in some places, but in the end it comes down to the manuscript.
Did you consider going the self-publishing route? You have the necessary skills after all. What are the advantages/disadvantages as you see it of either proposition. Would you ever self-pub or is that out of the question now your soul belongs to Simon and Schuster?
Self-publishing was at a much more primitive stage several years back when I might have gone that way. I did consider it, but after my final draft of Japantown I was convinced it was strong enough to attract a major publisher.
I’ve seen some excellent self-published books and believe self-publishing has its place and purpose. For example, and this is only one type, nonfiction books by someone who has his or her own business or teaching platform can work extremely well.
For fiction, over the last 15 months I’ve met three thriller writers who self-published, got some traction, then had their contracts picked up by a publisher. Two by Amazon.
For those going the self-publishing route, I’d advise keeping these points in mind: make sure you are putting your best effort out there before you publish, and be prepared to spend an extraordinary amount of time on marketing and PR work.
Will I self-pub in the future? You never know.
Fair enough. With the relative economic decline of Japan, has the world's readers' attention moved on to say, shock horror, China?
The West’s fascination with Japan has never been about Japan’s economic clout, even at the height of the country’s financial success. It’s always been about the culture, the tradition, and the people. The old and the new. People might come for business but they stay for everything else.
There is a lot else, for sure. What advice would you give writers eager to put their experiences of Japan onto the page? Should they embrace the tropes (Japan as mysterious-geisha-loving-ninja-geek-land) or reject them?
What Japan has going for it are a different lifestyle and a vibrant culture and aesthetic. Too many Asian countries wiped out their traditions for political or economic reasons. Japan has not.
The traditional and contemporary are in continual flux with each new generation, or half-generation. And there are the psychological aspects. I find all of this fascinating.
So I would say write about what intrigues you, or use Japan as a springboard to something larger as, say, Bruce Feiler did. Or consider your adopted Asian home as an inspiring place from which to write about whatever you choose.
What are your hopes for Japantown? You mentioned a sequel. Is that in the pipeline?
Even before Japantown sold, I’d already begun a second book with the same main character, Jim Brodie. I was having too much fun, so I couldn’t help but start the next one.
In a preliminary discussion with my future editor at Simon & Schuster, she asked about what I was working on next, and in the end the initial offer for one book evolved into two.
Her decision was a huge vote of confidence for which I’ll be eternally grateful. And then J. J. Abrams and his Bad Robot Productions came along and optioned the book. They too, like my editor and agent, “got it,” which I take to mean I must be doing something right. I expect there will be a lot of interesting conversations going forward.
Any plans to write about the Tohoku disasters? Or is Fukushima too thorny a subject even for protagonist Jim Brodie to tackle?
Jim Brodie tackles thorny subjects. Wait until the next book! In Japantown he grumbles about the tragically slow government response to the Kobe earthquake, for example. He mentions Fukushima in that context, and I imagine something more fully developed will eventually emerge.
That said, there is a lot of good work being done on the subject, including yours, so I feel no urgency. If I tackle it, it’ll be from Brodie’s perspective. We haven’t argued about it yet, so that’s a promising sign. I lose most arguments.
Yeah, protagonists are like that. Don’t ever give them a Twitter feed, by the way, you’ll never win an argument again. How do you see the future of publishing?
That is a great question and one I’ve been wrestling with for the last five years. I can see a number of different paths it could take, but the truth is, no one really knows.
Publishing is in an extended transitional phase, extended being the key word. Books aren’t music, nor are they movies. The one thing I can say is that there are more options for writers than we had before, and that is a positive development.
Anything else while you have the floor?
I’d like to express my gratitude to all those who have shown interest in Japantown and Jim Brodie. I hope they have as much fun reading the book as I had writing it!
Barry can be found at his Facebook author page and on Twitter here and his website is here.