Monday, 16 December 2019

Nicolás Obregón Q&A

Blue Light Yokohama, Sins as Scarlet, and your latest novel, Unknown Male, all feature your protagonist Inspector Kosuke Iwata, but are all very different books. What was the original inspiration for the character?
Ah well, he has many mothers. I always had an idea for a ‘different’ kind of detective kicking around in my head, probably inspired by Rick Deckard, Chandler, and Seichō Matsumoto. But the moment that that 'character' became Inspector Iwata specifically was the 17th of April 2014 in a hotel in Hiroshima. I’d been obsessed with the Miyazawa Family Murders for years and that night I picked up a newspaper about the real-life cold case. It had been unsolved for 15-odd years by that point. In the photograph of the detectives bowing outside the house where the family died. The photograph was grainy but one of them seemed particularly moved, almost in tears. I wondered what it was that moved him so deeply, wondered if maybe this was more than a job to him. Perhaps it snagged at some trauma of his own, buried away. And then I imagined writing about a fictional version of that sad detective, hunting a fictional version of the man that murdered the Miyazawa family. And lo, Inspector Iwata was born.

What was the inspiration, the first spark, for each of the book’s plots (Can be brief, of course)? 

Blue Light Yokohama, Iwata’s first story, is covered above. 

Sins As Scarlet, the sequel, is set a few years later in 2015, between LA and Northern Mexico. I knew I wanted to move Iwata to California, (like me, he’s grown up in two cities, between two cultures, and two languages), in order to both homage and subvert the classic Los Angeles gumshoe narratives we’re so accustomed to. I also knew that I wanted him to be a private eye, to lose the powers he had as a Tokyo homicide detective. I just needed to find a case for him. That’s how I came across the story of an unidentified dead man in the desert. He was carrying a hummingbird in his pocket, which in some indigenous Mexican cultures is a messenger between the living and the dead. It’s likely he carried it for luck as he tried to begin a new life but he ended up as bones in a desert. I pictured Iwata investigating a case that would take him into that world and I realised then that I was going to write a story where murders in LA would lead him out into the desert during the midst of the migration crisis that we’re still seeing today.

And finally, as for Unknown Male, I wanted Iwata to close his trilogy back in Japan, investigating the murder of an English exchange student on the eve of the 2020 Olympics. This was most directly inspired (not sure if that’s the right word) by the murders of both Lucie Blackman and Lindsay Hawker.

Your novels have a tremendous sense of time and place, the first and last novels taking place in Japan, the second in a Mexico wracked by the cartel wars. What research did you do to achieve this?
I'm glad you think so! I’ve spent a fair amount of time in both places and that obviously factors into the writing. Sometimes you go to a place without any intention of writing a book, you’ve left your butterfly net at home, so to speak. That’s usually when the really good stuff presents itself... So yeah, walking the streets, smelling the smells, talking to people. That definitely informed the Iwata trilogy. In the case of Sins As Scarlet, I’m fluent in Spanish so that helped a lot in writing the Mexico-based scenes and I’d also spent five years working with Mexican lawyers in my old job so there was an element of writing what I knew. Sometimes it's the little things that I think really pop - little turns of phrase, local dishes people eat, the way someone might drink their coffee. If you speak to a Londoner about an arrogant colleague, they might say 'he thinks he's all that and a bag of chips'. You have the same conversation with an Argentine, they might say 'he thinks he's the last Coca-Cola in the desert'. Those little quirks have always fascinated me and I think if you're able to lace those details in without being heavy-handed, they really deepen the richness of the place. 

Then, of course, it goes without saying that a shedload of reading goes into the stew. Everything from academic papers to speaking to an undocumented immigrant working as a cleaner in Downtown LA - both of them have their own perspective of the cartel war. So the time-honoured method of just simply hitting the books is a big part of being able to create a sense of place - beyond just your own experiences of it - to be able to create a version of a said place that is informed by reality. But there also comes a time when research and striving for authenticity can get in the way of getting the actual chapters down. 

Have you always been attracted to the crime thriller genre? 

Yes and no. I’ve always loved it and some of my earliest heroes were detectives. But at the same time, I never really expected to write crime novels. Inspector Iwata presented himself to me and his job was to hunt bad men and put them in jail. But maybe if he were a zookeeper or an investment banker I’d be writing shitty rom-coms or long-winded pseudo-literary family sagas. (Or, more likely, I’d still be drowning in the quicksand of my old dead-end office job). I suppose I just mean it was never really the plan per se to write a detective novel, but in the process of doing that, I completely fell in love with them. It’s a pleasure to be part of this genre. Chekov said, in the end, all novels are detective novels as the protagonist is always trying to come to their truth. This is what detectives are, it’s why they exist. I can’t imagine ever wanting to not write that.

What’s your process and how do you go from vague inspiration to fully fleshed out notion?

From inspiration to an actual solid concept can be a bit chicken and egg sometimes. But essentially, once you feel that you’re baking something tasty, I think there has to come a time when your research is put to one side while you get your actual chapters down. Maybe it's a eureka moment and everything flows togehter. Or maybe it's more of a slog where you have to cobble a story into shape. But either way, I think in some sense a fully fleshed out notion is where you surrender all other possibilities and all expectations and really grasp the nettle of your narrative.

Part of that is allowing yourself to cut certain corners, especially in early drafts, in order to write the best story you can. That sounds easier than it is. As for my own process, it's a bit haphazard, to be honest with you. I don’t have a magic formula that I’m ready to flog as a YouTube class... But I would say that my writing process is a period of eliminating and whittling. You reduce and reduce and reduce until you fully understand the essence of what you want to write - put simply, I think I have to understand WHY I'm making these choices. From there, I can then put all the baubles on the Christmas tree that I want.
My own writing (and the writing that I tend to enjoy) concerns itself more with the why than the what. So a stunning twist or a gruesome MO or a unique investigation? All of that is great. But I care more about the people pushing those things forward rather than the things themselves. I don’t want to write puppets that exist to just progress plot. So, in a very roundabout way, my process is mainly a period of getting to know the people that are going to live in my story. Who are they? What are they afraid of? How are they going to suffer? That's crucial to me. After all, my story only exists because of them and the answers to those questions. 

When do you know if an idea isn’t working? Have you ever had to abort a story because it just isn’t “doing it”?
I’ve never aborted a story once I’ve seriously started to write the thing. But then I’ve only written three novels. There can be a thousand reasons why you might not fully commit to an idea and intangibles such as ‘not feeling it’ are part of that. But I have definitely thought this is the draft and then, lo and behold, it needs another draft. I think many writers want to get on with the actual writing itself rather than get bogged down with the nitty-gritty of plot holes etc. I've definitely been guilty of that, having to go back to the beginning and make sure things are all happening for a reason. Theoretically.

Tell me about the research that goes into your writing?
I think I touched on this a bit in question 3. I suppose to add to that, every research phase is as different as each story. I write quite instinctively and let myself meander sometimes and then reign that back in as I get closer to the final draft. So there’s a period when I read and read and read while taking notes. Then that might lead me in a vague direction of a narrative which, in turn, branches off in a new direction of research. But yeah, there comes a point in which you have to say, OK, I know this topic inside out but I’m not giving a TED talk, I’m writing a story. A lot of the time the research doesn't even make it into the final draft. Or initial images that sparked the entire book end up being written out - despite having inspired the whole bloody thing. Them's the breaks, I suppose.

Last thing I’ll say on research, I get asked sometimes, if you could ask a question to any writer, what would it be. And my answer is: I wouldn't. I would trade my question in for a look at their browsing history instead.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?
A little of both?

If you plot, how do you go about plotting your stories? 
Kicking and screaming.

If you’re a pantser, how do you make sure you don’t go off on wild tangents? 
I think wild tangents are great personally. Whether your editor does or not is a different matter…

Tell me about your writing, do you write full time?
I do. I have a good pair of slippers and I drink too much coffee. That's about as exciting as that gets.

When is your most productive period of the day?
I think some days flow better than others but I tend to write office hours, Monday to Friday. Of course, I’ll still be chipping away on Sunday night but to give my life some routine, I try and stick to that. 

Is any part of your writing biographical or are any of the characters inspired by real people? 
Some characters are definitely modeled on real people I’ve known/know. Sometimes, you fuse people together. But a writer is a magpie, forever stealing little bits and bobs for their nest. I think on some level, all my characters are versions of versions of something in my life. 
As for biographical, perhaps, though not intentionally. I might share a few traits with Iwata here and there but we're nothing alike. Certainly, the older he gets, the more concrete he becomes as a completely distinct persona from me. The more time you spend with your protagonist, the more separate from you they feel. Maybe like a child. (Not that I would know). 

What writing projects are you working on now? 
I’ve got a lot of plates spinning but sadly I can't go into too much detail: a book due out with Penguin/Michael Joseph next year which will be a standalone mystery novel set in rural America which I can’t say too much more about. 
Then there are also one or two things happening in terms of adapting Inspector Iwata for the screen which is exciting although rather surreal. Then again, Hollywood is 99% maybe and 1% we'll see. 
And I’ve got a side hustle right now writing a screenplay set in the murky world of insurance fraud. I live in LA after all so I thought I would embrace the cliche.

Some writers get published with their first attempt at a novel (even if it takes years of changes) others have aborted previous attempts. Was Blue Light Yokohama the first novel you tried to write? Do you have unpublished novels that have never seen the light of day?
I wrote a half-hearted thriller about a translator who gets sucked into a conspiracy in Latin America about 10 years ago when I was 25. It was more of a fun exercise than anything else, I was never serious about shopping it around. But I did learn some really important lessons that I think helped me later on. 
I started writing Blue Light Yokohama when I was 29. So I suppose it was my second completed novel that was my big break. Certainly, I had a suspicion that it had some value. But, although it's stupid, you don't want to jinx it so you tell yourself not to get your hopes up. Plus, it's impossible to disassociate yourself from your writing far enough to be able to look at it completely impartially and judge its merits fairly. But yes, I did have a feeling that Blue Light Yokohama was of a publishable standard. 
As for unpublished novels, I’ve got a box full of ideas but I’m trying to take them in turn. Certainly, I haven't tried to sell them yet. I'm yet to be laughed out of the pitching room.

Tell me a little about your journey to success, how did you secure that all-important agent and first publishing deal?
Success is relative. When I was unpublished, success looked like X. Then you get published and success morphs into Y. That's not to be contrary, I just think being a writer is an ongoing examination rather than the end of a rainbow. But, as far as my journey, I think it’s a fairly standard story. (Although it still feels like a fairytale to me).
I wrote a book, made a list of agents that I loved the sound of, and told myself that if they all told me to jog on I’d take it as a sign that I only thought I could write and not actually write. If that happened, my plan B was to pack it in and write graphic novels instead or something. 
So I sent off a query email with the first three chapters of Blue Light Yokohama and a few paragraphs on what it was and why I'd chosen that particular agent. Luckily the planets aligned for me and the first agent I reached out to asked me to send him the full novel. We worked through it, a few weeks later I signed an agreement with him, and then publishing deals ensued.

Finally, I’m going to shamelessly poach two questions the author Mark Hill (author of His First Lie and It Was Her) used to put to writers on his blog. 
Like me, Mark was a book blogger before he became a successful author and I like to think that the answers to these questions helped him glean valuable help for his own writing. Certainly, reading them on his blog is helping me. So here goes:

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
The hardest lesson? 
Hm, I suppose that writing is a business, in the end. Of course, it's something you understand intellectually from the outside, but it's just so oblique it hardly seems real, somehow.
I went into this without knowing a single thing about that side of publishing. That’s not to say you need to become Gordon Gekko to be a successful writer, but just getting to grips with the machinations of how the industry actually works — it’s not an easy thing, especially when you have to ignore it to some extent in order to be creative again and produce another book that is actually by you and isn't trying to please everyone at the same time. 
So I would say to unpublished authors, as well as swotting up on the writing process and really understanding the genre in which you want your story to sit, it's definitely worth researching the world of agents and the world of publishers as these are the two oceans that your little paper boat must sail on. 

Give me some advice about writing?
Only take career advice from people that actually have the career that you want. That's all I've got for you. 
So I'll steal from others instead. Now I can’t remember where I read this but: writing is sowing a seed of truth and then planting a tree of your own making. I think there’s a lot to that. Also, I always go back to the words of my secondary school English teacher:
‘I don’t care so much what the story is about. You just have to make me care.’ 
I've never forgotten that. Your story can be very well written. It can be polished. It can stay perfectly in tune. And yet…It can leave the reader nonplussed. 
Not that I would profess to be an expert here, but I think the thing that makes people want to push your book into the hands of other readers is the emotional connection they have with your characters. If that’s not happening, it’ll just be another crime novel. You have to remember that they’ve read a million crime novels before. If you’re not giving them some kind of feeling to connect with, then they’re just left with plot. Not saying that’s bad, I just think, as a writer, it’s your job to make readers feel things.

Sunday, 15 December 2019

Unknown Male by Nicolás Obregón

Nicolás Obregón is an author whose trilogy I’ve read from the start. His debut, Blue Light Yokohama, introduced us to his protagonist, Inspector Kosuke Iwata. Iwata was a newly appointed Tokyo homicide cop and was on the trail of a serial killer, the Black Sun Killer. Iwata was an outsider in the force and the events of that novel led him to leave the Tokyo Police under a cloud; he relocated to the United States, where he worked as a private detective, and this is where we found him for the sequel, Sins as Scarlet. In Obregón's second book, Iwata was asked to look into the death of a transgender relative and stumbled upon a cesspit of corruption and violence in the US/Mexican borderlands. Both Blue Light Yokohama, and its sequel, Sins as Scarlet, were brilliant novels, and so when the author brought out the third novel in the trilogy, I was keen to read it.

Unknown Male takes Iwata back to Tokyo, Japan. A British student, Skye Mackintosh, has been found murdered and with the world’s press taking an interest, the Tokyo Homicide Department is desperate for a quick result.  Iwata’s old boss, the head of the unit, is dying of pancreatic cancer and determined not to have the Mackintosh murder unsolved, and thus a blot on his legacy. He calls Iwata back to Tokyo to lead the investigation, installing him as a consultant, though in actual fact he is in charge. Joining him as an observer is DC Anthea Lynch of London’s Metropolitan Police. She has as many issues as Iwata and has been sent to Tokyo to keep an eye on the Japanese investigation into Skye’s murder as a means of keeping her out of trouble back home.

Alongside the high-profile investigation into the murder of Skye Mackintosh is a second investigation which is receiving much less attention, the disappearance of a number of sex workers. It is not clear how linked this is to the murder of Skye and the author does not reveal this until the very end. Neither does he reveal until the end what link, if any, and to which case, the seemingly normal but in actual fact brutal serial murderer, Mr Soto, has. The author weaves all these strands together throughout the novel, each barely touching the other, but doing so enough that we know that one or more are going to impact with each other in the finale. He does this deftly and the plotting of Unknown Male is impressively done.

This isn’t a particularly violent or gruesome novel, but Unknown Male has some horrific elements. Most noticeable is what Mr Soto does with women he’s kidnapped. I won’t go into details but the drink he prepares for them is the stuff of nightmares. But like Hitchcock, the author knows the power of imagination, and these elements are touched on lightly, with much left to the reader to picture for themselves. This is much more effective, in my opinion, than those writers who graphically describe in technicolor and visceral detail.

Unknown Male is perhaps the final book of the author’s to feature his hero Kosuke Iwata. The book closes his story nicely, and while it’s left open for his return in a future novel, it’s also quite possible that his journey has come to an end. It’s a brilliant novel and a fitting end to a brilliant trilogy.  Nicolás Obregón is now working on a standalone and some scripts and if they’re as good as this series of novels then I await them eagerly.

5 out of 5 stars

The End Is Always Near by Dan Carlin

Being a writer of fiction that tends to the dark side - crime, horror, dystopia - I’m a big fan of popular science and history books that look at things that reflect such interests. So it was that I came across Dan Carlin’s The End is Always Near, a history book that looks at moments in history of near apocalypse. 

Based on a popular podcast, which I must confess to having never heard, Carlin’s book is split into chapters, each of which focusses on a different event. For example, and to give an idea of the scope of the book, we have a chapter on the Fall of the Roman Empire, another on the plague, and another on the use of nuclear weapons.

I found this book illuminating and a fascinating read. I learnt a lot too and felt that while each subject might be covered in more detail in more specialist books, it gave an entertaining and thought-provoking overview.

This is a book that is both cautionary and optimistic. Time and again we learn of human hubris. While apocalyptic thought has been a feature of human imagination down the centuries - from religious texts such as the Book of Genesis, through literature and film - none of these societies that actually faced it ever really felt that they were on the cusp of a disaster. But equally, it is undeniable that we are better prepared than ever to deal with some of the challenges we face (for example, we know more about epidemiology than ever and thus are more able to staunch epidemics of disease). 

This is a fascinating collection of popular history and I highly recommend it.

5 out of 5 stars