Our Interview With Author Naomi Hirahara

Michael Wolf asked each of the authors to share a little bit about themselves, talk a little about the story they contributed to West Coast Crime Wave, and tell us their thoughts about e-books.  Today we talk to Edgar award winning author Naomi Hirahara. 

Tell us about yourself.

After graduating from college and spending a year in Japan, I worked at a small daily newspaper as a reporter and then editor while taking creative writing classes at UCLA Extension.  I don’t know if it was hubris or if I was delusional, but I was committed to being a published novelist someday.  Probably what fueled me more than anything was that I felt that I had stories to tell.  Not necessary of my life, but of my parents’ experiences and my larger community’s collective experience.

My first mystery, SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, took me fifteen years to write and get published.  It didn’t start off as a mystery; it evolved into one.  I was first attempting to write . a literary novel, but my prose was too simple and straight-forward, just as my journalistic training had taught me.  Walking alongside me during this time were mystery authors and their books: Walter Mosley and his Easy Rawlings series, Barbara Neely and her Blanche White series.  I began to see a place for my lead protagonist, Mas Arai, an aging Japanese American gardener who had survived the atomic blast in Hiroshima, in a mystery landscape.  This turned out to be the perfect container for him, a passive character who needed a high-stakes situation to push him out of his dust-ridden house in Altadena, California.

The third novel in the series, SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN, won an Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Paperback Original.  I remember walking back from a post-award party down a Midtown New York City street.  It must have been past midnight.  The streets were wet and shiny; the rain had ceased for an evening.  Mas Arai had made it in New York!

I’ve published four Mas Arai mysteries — three with Random House and one with St. Martin’s.  I’ve also had one middle-grade novel published with Random House’s imprint, Delacorte.  Before all this, I’ve had a number of nonfiction books published by either small presses/reference publishers or my own press, Midori Books.

Tell us what makes your city/location a unique and interesting setting for crime fiction.

I’ve set my story in two places — Monterey Park, a Chinese American enclave in Southern California dating back to the 1970s, and Rowland Heights, a newer and wealthier Chinese immigrant community.  I didn’t really delve into more stereotypical crimes with connections to Asian gangs.  It’s more about a rivalry between two mothers-in-law — I thought the juxtaposition of the old and the new, poor and the rich, would be interesting.

Tell us a little bit about the story’s main character.

Mrs. Lin is an old-school immigrant from Hong Kong.  I got her name from a curious fortune teller storefront in Alhambra, a town just south of Pasadena, California.  Mrs. Lin’s Psychic Shop is a shoebox-shaped building, probably no larger than eight feet by ten feet.  Every time I drive past it, I wonder what is inside.  The story morphed from a more mystic angle to a very concrete, working-class one.

This anthology is an e-book from a new publisher.  In general, how do you as an author see the opportunities in publishing changing with the growth of e-books?

I think the growth of e-books gives midlist authors who have somewhat of a following more choices.  Our entire backlists were never carried extensively by the big-box stores.  With the popularity of e-readers, people can easily access and purchase our earlier books.

In terms of self-publishing e-books, there are no obstacles now for someone determined to get his or her book published.  For me, that means there’s another option if my book proposals are not accepted by New York publishing houses, which, I guess, now includes the Amazon imprints (!).  Notice that I still consider the “Big Six (Seven?)” and independent presses part of the equation while some do not.  I’ve worked in publishing in different capacities (as a publisher, too), so I know all the facets involved in producing a high-quality book.  It’s hard work.  It’s 24-7 at times, and creatively, I need rest to write. 

Of course, any midlist author knows that you have to engage in some aspects of marketing even if you are published by another entity.  But it’s a relief that there are other people working to get the book in libraries and on independent bookstore shelves.  They are sending ARCs to reviewers, foreign publishers and contests.  I still have a lot of readers who depend on print copies of my books.  I have to offer that option so that my readers can go to a brick-and-mortar store to buy a book.  (And yes, there are still some of those stores out there!)  I have a lot of speaking engagements throughout the year, and people often want to buy a real, physical book at the event.  I don’t know when a majority of my readers will change over, but it’s not quite now.

That said, I’m delighted to be part of a collection launched by a newbie e-book publisher.  West Coast, let’s continue to represent!  I do think e-books have decentralized publishing; it will be interesting to see if that affects content at all.  While seeing the merits of being traditionally published, I’ve definitely dabbled in electronic self-publishing. I am a member of Top Suspense Group, a collective of suspense writers, all who have been traditionally published but some who have been experimenting with either e-publishing themselves or with the Amazon imprints.   We released a couple of short story anthologies so far.

Digital technology in general has revolutionized possibilities for small publishing ventures.  I’ve written two serials for pay for a website.  I’m also planning to do something entrepreneurial in the audio book arena.  Revenue streams are coming from a variety of sources, so authors need to be nimble and open to new possibilities.

Tell us what’s in store for you over the next 6 to 12 months. 

I’m currently working on a couple of projects: my fifth installment of my Mas Arai mystery series and a new middle-grade novel.  Our next Top Suspense Group anthology, FAVORITE KILLS, will be released soon.  My essay on some of the early Japanese Americans involved in the creation of the Japanese garden at Huntington Library will be included in a coffee-table book to be released by Huntington Press in celebration of the garden’s renovation and centennial year in 2012.  You can visit my website, www.naomihirahara.com, for updates on my speaking engagements.

If you want to read Naomi’s short story “Mrs. Lin’s Art of Tea” you can find it and 17 other great crime fiction shorts in West Coast Crime Wave. You can find West Coast Crime Wave at Amazon and at Barnes & Noble today.