Category Archives: Naomi Hirahara

Womens Platform Shoes

NAOMI HIRAHARA

As Murderati mate Simon Wood described in a past entry, most of us here on blog are vertically challenged–except for the two statuesque women who close out the week.

At 4’10", I’m venturing a guess that I’m the shortest of the short. It’s not a big (no pun intended) deal for me. I was born this way and will die this way, only probably a few inches shorter. If you could see the rest of my extended family, it would make perfect sense why I stand this tall. That didn’t keep me from playing basketball from sixth grade on, even serving as one of the point guards for my high school basketball team (as Troy Cook has said, go Tigers!).

Although I was raised in the seventies, I didn’t succumb to the temptation to buy a pair of platform shoes. Platforms, which are making a comeback, would have elevated me to at least reach the five-feet status. But I was bit of a nerd, preferring wallabies, brown saddle shoes, and my orange high-top Converse All-Stars (Tigers, remember?).

These days in publishing, the talk is all about an author’s platform. Here platform is where he or she stands in terms of spheres of influence. One’s platform can be the difference between getting a book contract and not getting one at all. (If you’re still confused with the term, "author’s platform," see this or this.)

So what’s a non-celebrity to do? Well, look around because you may have a built-in platform. Let me use some of my Murderati blogmates and the current Sister in Crime–L.A. chapter president to give you a few concrete examples:

EXHIBIT #1 The Case of the New Mexico Writer

With two prestigious Agatha nominations under her belt, Pari (Monday’s child) is anything but regional. But starting out with her debut mystery, THE CLOVIS INCIDENT, Pari first attacked what she knew best: the Southwest–the subject of her Sasha Solomon series.

She had already contributed newspaper columns to the Albuquerque Tribune and articles to a publication that served both Albuquerque and Santa Fe. She became active in writing organizations, where she met respected authors like Tony Hillerman and who gave her a wonderful blurb for her debut. She participated in book fairs in shopping malls and helped start Croak & Dagger, the Sisters in Crime chapter in Albuquerque (even serving as its founding president).

Since getting published, Pari has been extending her net beyond her New Mexico and Southwest home base. She’ll be contributing a monthly column for Mystery Writers of America’s The Third Degree newsletter in which she’ll be interviewing editors and agents in the crime fiction world. Key from the very beginning has been her extensive public relations and marketing background, which aided in her getting an introduction to her publisher, University of New Mexico Press, in the first place.

EXHIBIT #2 The Case of the Paralegal

Sue Ann Jaffarian, the president of the Sisters in Crime Los Angeles chapter is a paralegal. Her protagonist, Odelia Grey, is also a paralegal. Pretty convenient, yes?

Sue Ann went with iuniverse, a POD or print-on-demand publisher, to publish her first two mysteries, TOO BIG TO MISS and CURSE OF THE HOLY PAIL. This could sound the death knell for a mystery series, but Sue Ann proved all critics wrong. She went into super promotion mode, and indeed did it big. Trained also as a stand-up comedian, she booked gigs at paralegal conferences to talk about her books. Soon she herself would handsell more than a thousand of each book. That and her sharp writing attracted a traditional publisher, Llewellyn Worldwide and its new Midnight Ink print. TOO BIG TO MISS, this time sporting a bright green cover, made its second debut at the beginning of this year, and the revised CURSE OF THE HOLY PAIL will be released next year.

Exhibit #3 The Case of the Killer Year

So what’s up with the Class of 2007, writers who are coming out with their debut mysteries and thrillers next year (or close to it)? So many of them already have their own websites and most of them have their own blogs. Look at our J.T. Ellison as a prime example. They have even banded together with a group website and blog, which was launched this Monday. Congrats, all!

I only got a full website with multiple pages up this year for my third mystery and just started blogging. So I am definitely behind the curve.

I’m wondering now if this will be more and more a requirement for aspiring writers. To establish an Internet presence even before a first book is picked up. It’s a bit frightening, but all I can say is that I’m glad I’m already published.

To find a platform does not mean picking up an ill-fitting shoes. But to see what’s natural, comfortable, and appropriate for us and most importantly, the best for actual walking. At times we will have to change–the introvert will have to become slightly more extroverted, the computer averse will have to take a few classes.

For the examples mentioned here, there are probably as many writers who tell me that they had no platform in first getting published. But I predict that in order to stay in print, we will each have to find that natural platform to stand on.

THREE WAYS TO GAIN A PLATFORM

1) Leave your house. Yep, get out the door, wear something nice, drag that comb through your hair, and go to that meeting, party, convention, etc. Sometimes you might even have to do a little hard labor for an organization, maybe even speak, lead, or lug boxes, but it’s a great to meet people and get out of your head.

2) Love your computer. Kiss it everyday and be thankful that it works. Do wonderful websites and blogs and hook up with others who are doing the same. Exchange e-mails with strangers and wonder what they really sound and look like.

3) Write short. Write essays, write reviews, write short stories, write articles. Write things that are a thousand words or maybe two thousand words. Send them off to people that you’ve met via #1 and #2 and then go back to writing that darn book.

GUEST BLOGGER REVEALED: Well, Elaine Flinn’s Gphillips_copy_1knees and back thank you because no one guessed the identity of next week’s Wednesday guest blogger (I promised that Evil E would bow down to the one who guessed correctly). Well, next week’s Child of Woe will be none other than Gary Phillips, prolific writer of short stories, comic books, and the Ivan Monk and Martha Chainey mystery series. He also is on the board of Mystery Writers of America and will serve as the toastmaster of Left Coast Crime 2007 Seattle (note to self: turn in that registration).

Gary is featured on the cover of his MONKOLOGY short story collection as well as the dust jacket for a limited edition of George Pelecanos’ SOUL CIRCUS, the latter which unfortunately never made it to bookshelves. Both book projects were spearheaded by Dennis McMillan Publications.

Gary and I travel in some of the same circles in L.A. He’s a great writer, far out guy, and damn good looking to boot! If you haven’t seen Gary recently, that guy is cut (he claims having teens is a great weight-loss program). Have fun with him next week.

BLUE BELL BOLOGNA AND OTHER WEIRD SEARCH STRINGS: Had to mention a couple of really strange search strings (that is, what people googled, etc. to get on my website) that cropped up last week: blue bell bologna; hiroshima leather wallet; and the strangest, japanese dentures falling out video. What the heck is that? There’s a Japanese video of dentures falling out of someone’s mouth? Oh, I just googled–it is indeed a video, but it’s of a Korean man, most likely a politician. And I hate to admit it: it’s pretty funny.

MAS HITS WALL STREET: SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN, the third Mas Arai mystery, was reviewed in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal by Tom Nolan. Thank you, Mr. Nolan, for your continued interest in the series!

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: pikadon (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 48)

Look carefully again–what do you see? How about pika? For those with children, does Pikachu ring a bell? Pikachu is, depending on your feelings about crass commercialism, an adorable yellow Pokemon creature with floppy ears or else related to the kid in the OMEN. At any rate, its name means "Electric Mouse" and I believe that it resides near a power plant, thus having some kind of post-nuclear connection to its ugly cousin Godzilla, a product of an explosion in the Marshall Islands. Anyway, pikadon, which literally means "bomb of light," refers to the atomic bomb. The people of Hiroshima also use the term genbaku.

Independents Falling: Correction or Foreshadowing?

(Your usual Friday hostess, the ever gracious and beautiful J.T. Ellison, leaves this message for all of you: “I’m in New York today on a research trip. It’s my first real trip to the city, a brief two day affair, and I’ll report back on all the excitement next week.” Subbing for her today is one of her very cranky cohorts who has become a little less cranky with this news.)

NAOMI HIRAHARA

First it was news of A Clean Well-Lighted Place closing its doors in San Francisco. And soon after that announcement, it was Cody’s Telegraph in Berkeley. The dam then seemed to break, at least in large cities. Bob and Bob in Palo Alto. Murder Ink in New York City. Dutton’s Beverly Hills. Luis Rodriguez’s Tia Chucha’s Cafe and Cultural Center. Book Soup in South Coast Plaza. And now possibly Dutton’s Brentwood might be erased by redevelopment. 

Changing demographics and pricey real estate, I thought. The impact of Internet sales and chain stores. Increased competition for our recreational time.

Two additional pieces of news that opened January (and we’re only three weeks into the new year) bode badly for publishing, especially in the independent realm—the bankruptcy of Advanced Marketing Services (AMS) and Independent Press Association (IPA).

So what the heck is going on? And for most of us who have never really heard of AMS or IPA (like myself), should this concern us?

The AMS Story

The humble start of AMS follows one of those homespun, rags-to-riches storylines: its first shipment as a book wholesaler was a children’s book, which was delivered to a Price Club from the back of one of the cofounder’s station wagon in 1982. The company quickly grew from there—to being the primary book supplier to four Price Clubs to securing deals with Price Club’s successor, Costco, as well as Sam’s Club and Pace Membership. Large distribution centers were opened in major cities; AMS became a publicly traded company; and international agreements were forged in Great Britain and Mexico. Among the flurry of acquisitions AMS initiated during the past decade was the purchase of Publishers Group West (PGW), the esteemed and largest distributor of independent publishers in North America.

Why has this great behemoth of a company, which boasts $900 million in sales on its website, declared Chapter 11? Evidence of the cracks in the company was revealed in the 2005 conviction of three executives in a scheme to falsify earnings and defrauding publishers of co-op advertising funds (news release, Office of the U.S. Attorney, Southern District of California). Leadership also went through a merry-go-round of changes.

Perseus Books Group has stepped in to offer distribution rights for PGW clients, many of them small presses whose survival greatly depends on recouping both the monies and inventory owed to them during the last quarter of 2006, arguably the most profitable season for publishers. (Perseus actually will be acquiring a PGW client, Avalon Publishing Group, which includes Caroll & Graf.)

An AMS creditor’s committee has also been formed, comprised of Random House, Penguin, Hachette Book Group, Grove/Atlantic and Wisdom Publications. Two of these publishers—Grove/Atlantic and Wisdom Publications—are PGW clients, so independents hope that their interests will be represented during the bankruptcy negotiations.

And on a more personal note, I have friends who produce books which are distributed by PGW. (PGW is very discriminating, so I remember how happy they were when they finally were accepted as a PGW client.) I’m afraid to contact them to see how they are doing. I know that business was hard to begin with, and now this. Devastating.

IPA

There are these magazines born out of the zine revolution of 1990s—you know, those photocopied and stapled in garages, which also served as the main rehearsal area for punk bands. Well, these zines have grown up. I’m not really part of this world, but I’m a big fan of Giant Robot. It was actually through publisher Eric Nakamura’s blog that I learned about the fall of GR’s distributor IPA, which distributed the now glossy mag to newsstands throughout the country.

Again, this will affect independent publishers; some have announced closures already.

So are all these bankruptcies and closings coincidental? Rather than a trend, are they a correction of bad, illegal, or perhaps unimaginative business practices? Or is it something more?

In this publishing game, it’s all about distribution. How to get your product, whether it be books or magazines, out to its readers. I won’t go all red, white, and blue on you and talk about the need for a variety of voices in a democracy. But it is particularly disturbing that in the case of AMS, fraud definitely played a role in compromising the integrity of a company that was responsible for distribution of so many independent publishers. And who knows—with large publishers owed so much (Random House, $43.3 million; Simon & Schuster, $26.5 million; Penguin Putnam, $24.6 million; the list goes on)—is it only a matter of time before midlist authors at these houses take some kind of hit?

In terms of book selling, there are glimmers of hope, daffodils in the snow. Books Inc. has taken over A Clean Well-Lighted Place and one of the co-owners of (ACWLP) has already started a new venture, Bookshop West Portal in San Francisco. A Sister in Crime, Julie Ann Swayze has launched an independent bookstore, Metropolis Bookstore, in the middle of downtown Los Angeles to great fanfare, with expansive writeups in Publishers Weekly and the Los Angeles Times. And independent bookstore proponent and author Keith Raffel happily reports that his beloved store, Bob and Bob, has secured a new location.

Producing, distributing, and selling books are a tedious and expensive business. For most, especially the independents, it’s a labor of love. To see some players treat it with such disrespect is disappointing, to say the least.

To keep up to date with the AMS bankruptcy and the unfortunate repercussions felt by PGW as well as publishers, both large and small, check out www.galleycat.com, www.pw.com, and Radio Free PGW (http://radiofreepgw.blogspot.com/index.html) Also, the online archives of the San Diego Union-Tribune (www.signsonsandiego.com). (AMS is headquartered in San Diego.)

L.A. MIX PROFILE: Librarian and Book Club Organizer Gary Warren Niebuhr

Me2006NAOMI HIRAHARA

Anyone who attends a Bouchercon mystery convention has seen the rail-thin figure of Gary Warren Niebuhr, usually in the center of a boisterous crowd—the eye of the storm. My girlfriends and I refer to him as Gasa-Gasa Gary because he always seems to be on the move. A career librarian and die-hard mystery fan, Gary has written books about his passion for the genre, the latest being on how to conduct a book club.

Book clubs can be a godsend for midlist mysteries. As an author, I’ve done my share, ranging from a Japanese-themed dinner in Phoenix to a phone conversation with a group in Seattle. Many were arranged by friends and acquaintances, but some resulted from contact through my website. Normally no Angeleno would invite a stranger to her home—no Angeleno would think of going to a gathering of complete strangers in a home, but books serve as a bridge.

Gary’s book is designed for readers and librarians, not authors. But we can learn much from his tips and experience. So, Gasa-Gasa Gary, speak out!

Tell us about the reference book you just released.

READ ‘EM THEIR WRITES A HANDBOOK FOR MYSTERY AND CRIME FICTION BOOK DISCUSSIONS is a guide for people who want to lead a crime fiction book club. The book reveals how to organize your group, get participants, select book club titles, prepare for the meeting, and conduct discussions. The main content of the book is a breakdown of 100 titles that can be used for discussion purposes. For each book, information is provided including biographical information on the author with web sites and reader’s guides, a short plot summary, geographic settings, time period, series information, subject headings, appeal points and read alike suggestions. Then, I provide about a dozen questions that can be used to discuss the selected title.

Did Greenwood approach you or did you approach them?

I have had such good luck falling into the publishing business. My first book (A READER’S GUIDE TO THE PRIVATE EYE NOVEL. G. K. Hall, 1993) came about because I answered a one-inch ad running in Drood Review for someone to do a book in the series G. K. Hall was putting together on various sub-genres in the field. My second book (MAKE MINE A MYSTERY, Libraries Unlimited, 2003) came about because I attended a children’s author lunch at the Public Library Association and decided to sit down next to the acquisition editor from Libraries Unlimited.

This book was offered to Libraries Unlimited after MAKE MINE and they loved the concept. I loved doing this book and by far, it was the easiest to complete.

Can you tell us a little about your background? How long have you worked as a librarian? And tell us about the library you current work at.

I was born, schooled and worked in the city of Milwaukee for my entire life. While attended college and attempting to spend five minutes in every major that they offered, I came to the realization that my part time job as a shelver in the Milwaukee Public Library could be a career path. After earning an M.A. in Library Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I worked two years for an engineering college (like living amongst aliens) and two years as a clerk in a public library (in a building that is now a funeral parlor). Then, for reasons still undetermined, the Greendale Public Library hired me to be its library director and I have been there for 26 years.

When did you begin reading mysteries?

I read all types of books growing up including Freddy the Detective and the Hardy Boys. But I gravitated to science fiction for most of my youth despite still having the complete Sherlock Holmes collection my parents bought me when I was a teen. When I went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I took literature classes as time off from my other classes. Looking back now, I wish I had realized what really appealed to me and just read my way through the university experience.

After exhausting all the science fiction, fantasy and utopian electives in the English Department, I enrolled in a crime fiction survey course that began with THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler. This set me on a lifetime of reading mystery and crime fiction. Early in my reading of this genre I was able to ground myself in the history including reading everything from Carr, Christie, Sayers, Stout, etc. However, I always found myself drawn to the private eye.

Around 1978, I formed a mystery book discussion group with Beverly DeWeese (1999 Bouchercon Fan Guest of Honor) and some other civilians. The group met at my house. I no longer remember what we read or even how we operated. Eventually we heard that a mystery book discussion group called The Cloak and Clue Society had formed at a brand new mystery bookstore in town. Deciding it was silly to have two groups, we merged the two groups and that is how I met Beth Fedyn (2005 Bouchercon Fan Guest of Honor).

Cloak and Clue has been meeting ever since. While for a time my attendance was spotty (I was too busy doing community theater because I enjoyed wearing makeup for legitimate reasons), I have had a long association with this group and could not have done the new book club book without the experience I gained with this group.

In a conversation I had with Otto Penzler in 1981, who was discouraging me from trying to buy every work of crime fiction ever published like Allen Hubin had, he suggested that I specialize in the type of detective that I enjoyed the most. So, I now have 6,000 private eye novels in my basement. So much for specialization.

Somewhere in the eighties, while selling mystery books out of the basement of my house, I met Ted Hertel (2002 MWA Robert L. Fish Award recipient and current MWA-Midwest President) and we have been steadfast friends ever since. Ted, Bev, Beth and a host of other fans created EYECON’95 to honor the Private Eye Writers of America by having a convention in Milwaukee in 1995. Four years later in 1999, the same crew ran Bouchercon in Milwaukee.

During the Bcon experience, Ted and I met Sandy Balzo (2004 MWA Robert L. Fish Award recipient). After Bouchercon, Ted and Sandy had this crazy idea to form a crime fiction writers group. So The Noirsketeers have been meeting for six years. Ted and Sandy were the first readers for READ ‘EM.

And when did you decide to have a mystery book club at your library?

In 1992 I began the Greendale Park and Recreation Crime Fiction Book Discussion Group. People who want to be a part of the group sign up through Park and Recreation and pay a small fee. We meet in the Community Room of the Greendale Library from September to May (skipping December). We read one book for each session. There is no food.

Explain how you set up your book club. Is it different every year? How do you select your books?

Every year in May I create a list of about fifty books I think would make a great book discussion title. I pass the list out to the current members and let them vote on which title they would like to read. After gathering the ballots, I try to see a pattern in the top vote getters so that I can establish a theme for the next year. Here are some examples of the last few years’ lists:

2006-2007 THE SINS OF THE FATHERS AND SOME BAD MOTHERS TOO

9/26/06: Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s THE SHADOW OF THE WIND

10/26/06: Carol Goodman’s THE SEDUCTION OF WATER

11/16/06: Donna Tratt’s THE LITTLE FRIEND

01/25/07: Anita Shreve’s THE WEIGHT OF WATER

02/22/07: Jonathan Lethem’s MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN

03/22/07: Jodi Picoult’s THE PLAIN TRUTH

04/26/07: T. Jefferson Parker’s SILENT JOE

05/24/07: Minette Walters’ ACID ROW

2005-2006 THE SUN NEVER SETS ON YOUR BODY IF YOU DIE IN THE BRITISH EMPIRE

Minette Walters’ THE SHAPE OF SNAKES

Mark Haddon’s THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT with Michael Chabon’s THE FINAL SOLUTION: A STORY OF DETECTION

Jacqueline Winspear’s MAISIE DOBBS

Ian Pears’ AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST

Erin Hart’s HAUNTED GROUND

Rhys Bowen’s MURPHY’S LAW

Michelle DeKrester’s THE HAMILTON CASE

Darren Williams’ ANGEL ROCK

2004-2005 MURDER THEY WROTE, MURDER WE READ

Dan Brown’s THE DA VINCI CODE (2003)

Alice Blanchard’s THE BREATHTAKER (2003)

Thomas Cook’s THE CHATHAM SCHOOL AFFAIR (1996)

Minette Walters’s THE BREAKER (1998)

Matthew Pearl’s THE DANTE CLUB (2003)

Alexander McCall Smith’s THE NO. 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY (1998)

Carolyn G. Hart’s LETTER FROM HOME (2003)

Donna Andrews’s YOU’VE GOT MURDER (2002)

2003-2004 OVER THERE: MYSTERIES IN INTERESTING PLACES

Giles Blunt’s FORTY WORDS FOR SORROW (2001)

Robert Wilson’s A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON (2003)

Elizabeth George’s A TRAITOR TO MURDER (2001)

Anthony Piper’s LOST GIRLS (2001)

Larry Watson’s MONTANA 1948 (1993)

Minette Walter’s THE ECHO (1997)

Ken Breun’s THE GUARDS (2003)

Elizabeth Inness-Brown’s BURNING MARGUERITE (2002)

What makes a mystery a good book club selection?

I talk a lot about this in the book but let’s cut to the chase. The best titles for book discussions are ones that have a strong theme and along the way do something to piss people off. With varying degrees of strength, all novels have plot, character, setting, subject matters and style. While you can hook a discussion on any of these elements, it is my contention that it is theme that will anger people the most and make them really want to discuss a title with someone.

I wrote READ ‘EM because I got so tired of people asking me how we could discuss crime fiction for 15 years when the only thing to discuss is "who did it." If they only discussable element of the book is the plot, you have picked the wrong crime fiction book to discuss.

How can an author help book clubs?

Authors need to understand the difference between books that are great entertainment and books that are great book discussion titles. Some books are never going to work as a book discussion title. Be kind to those who do not feel confident in discussing your title.

However, to help, an author could put a readers’ guide on your website with some suggested discussion questions.

What makes a good book discussion question?

We cover this extensively in the book, but the first rule is never write a question that can be answered yes or no.

Do you network with many other libraries or book clubs?

I do connect with other book discussion leaders. We all have the same problems and the same joys. Some ambitious book discussion leaders have started one city one book discussions (a concept invented by Nancy Pearl in Seattle) where an entire community (libraries, schools, private groups) all read the same book. Some libraries have book discussion kits. There is a lot of cooperation.

If a group is planning to launch a book club for the first time, what tips do you suggest?

Believe in the book and stay focused on a discussion about it. It is a great way to express yourself, learn about others, and feel the joy of sharing stories.

***

Thank you, Gary. And looking forward to seeing you at Left Coast Crime! Here’s more info on his book:

Cover

READ ‘EM THEIR WRITES A HANDBOOK FOR MYSTERY AND CRIME FICTION BOOK DISCUSSIONS

ISBN: 1-59158-303-9

ISBN-13: 978-1-59158-303-5

Libraries Unlimited; $35.00
Ordering information for the book can be found at http://www.greenwood.com/catalog/LU3039.aspx.

***

BIG BIG BACHI AVAILABLE IN JANUARY: Yes, it’s SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI in large print. Happy New Year from Crown City, Rose Parade and Rose Bowl Central!

L.A. MIX PROFILE: Librarian Padmini Prabhakar

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NAOMI HIRAHARA

Oh, what would authors do without librarians and libraries? Most of us devoured books in our youth in libraries. My local library was nestled among deodar cedar trees in Altadena. At the time it was brand spanking new, but now it is decidedly retro-Seventies; the architecture has held up well over time.

Most librarians love mysteries because they are among the most popular books in their libraries. In metropolitan Southern California, libraries frequently hold author talks and some even offer a token honorarium.

A couple of years ago, I was invited to Cerritos Library’s inaugural Mystery on the Menu luncheon event. Cerritos is on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, right next to the Orange Curtain (OC). Known for its excellent school system and large automobile dealership center, Cerritos has definitely been on the fast-track of development, both economic and cultural. I myself was blown away with its state-of-the art library. When I returned home from the event, I told my husband that I would want to move to Cerritos just for the library. Of course, as usual, he thought I was crazy.

Behind the scenes of the spectacular author events at Cerritos Library is Padmini Prabhakar, one of the most thorough and professional librarians I’ve ever encountered. If you are ever in Los Angeles for a book tour, definitely have your publicist or publisher contact Padmini to see if she might be interested in hosting you for an event.

Tell us a little bit about your background. When did you decide that you wanted to become a librarian? Where did you study library science? What other libraries have you worked at and when did you join the Cerritos Library?

I originally come from Chennai, (formerly known as Madras) India. I have lived in Cerritos since 1979. I used to bring my two children to the original Cerritos Library to Storytimes and to check out books. A new wing was added to the Library in 1985. I thought it would be exciting to get a part-time job as my kids were growing up. I applied for the part-time Library Assistant job and was surprised to be hired as I was then a housewife with a Bachelor’s degree in Botany. I was also an Art Consultant at a local elementary school and it was a real challenge working two part-time jobs and taking care of the family. In 1991 I was promoted to the full-time position of Young Adult Librarian to serve the needs of the teens in the community.

When I realized we were remodeling the Cerritos Library, I wanted to be worthy of working in this fabulous building. That’s when I decided to get my Master’s degree in Library and Information Science. I graduated from San Jose State University in 2003.

I heard that the Cerritos Library building was made out of titanium? Is that true? Any other nifty trivia about the building? When was it constructed?

The outside of the Cerritos Library is clad in titanium tiles. The Library was the first titanium-clad structure in the United States. Titanium expresses the concept of change as it has subtle color shifts from reflecting the angle of the sun and atmospheric conditions. Titanium also allowed for a fluid design with compound curves. The material suggests the Library’s "Save the Planet" theme as it does not have a negative impact on the environment and is maintenance free.

The library has a series of themed spaces designed to make you feel as if you are journeying through time, from an old world reading room, to a Craftsman style great room, to an art deco area inspired by the old Pan Pacific Auditorium, to the "21st Century" level designed to feel like a library of the future. The children’s area is probably the most impressive. A 15,000-gallon salt water aquarium, complete with sharks, a moray eel, and hundreds of colorful tropical fish is located in the lobby area. Stan, a full scale T-Rex skeleton from the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota, a space shuttle and a rainforest tree are a few special features in the Children’s area. I would like to invite everyone to come visit the Cerritos Library, the world’s first "experience library" and enjoy several commissioned art pieces, including a Chihuly glass sculpture.

When will this year’s Mystery on the Menu be held? What authors will be participating? Why did you decide to launch Mystery on the Menu and who helped you?

The third annual Mystery on the Menu will be held on Saturday, January 27 between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. I have confirmed the following authors so far: Sheryl Anderson, Brett Ellen Block, Stephen Cannell, Joanne Fluke, Lee Goldberg, Tod Goldberg, Gar Anthony Haywood, Susan Kandel, Kelly Lange, Robert Levinson, Barbara Seranella and Walter Satterthwait. It is a fun event. I would encourage all mystery buffs to attend.

Couple of years ago, I attended a panel discussion with three mystery authors and I heard about the annual Men of Mystery event with 50 authors. I thought I would invite 10 mystery authors and request the Friends of the Cerritos Library to sponsor the luncheon. President Janice Dawson and other boardmembers were willing to give it a try and because of its success, our second luncheon had 12 authors and I am working on inviting 14 authors for Mystery on the Menu III. The all-day event will start off with the first panel of authors discussing their careers and books followed by a delicious lunch. Next the second panel of authors will address the audience and all the authors will sign their book provided for purchase by Linda Bivens of Crime Time Books.

What suggestions do you have for libraries that may be thinking of integrating mysteries into their programming? How popular are mysteries among your library constituency?

I am finding that most of the authors we host are mystery ones. That tells you that this is the most popular genre in Cerritos. I may also be partial to mystery as I grew up reading Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner.

Librarians who are interested in getting in touch with local mystery authors should contact local bookstores and see who is signing books there. Los Angeles Times Sunday edition’s Book Review section lists author events every week. It is always good to attend some of these events and make contact with the authors or their publicists and let them know that their libraries are interested in hosting them. There is a lot of talent in Southern California and all these authors love to visit libraries.

What advice would you give authors who want to approach libraries about author talks?

I would request all authors to update their websites and keep their contact information and calendar of events current. I am sure your fans would like to come to your programs and meet you in person and discuss what you are planning to write. American Library Association offers a program to its members called authors@your library. Publishers can get in touch with ALA at http://www.authorsatyourlibrary.org/ and register to be part of this program. Very often the Friends of the Library would sponsor author events. This is a great group to get in touch with to schedule visits to libraries. Many of your authors may already be aware of these resources.

***

Thank you very much, Padmini!

If you ever have time while you are in Southern California, please visit this magnificent library:

Cerritoslibrary

Cerritos Library

18025 Bloomfield Avenue
Cerritos, California 90703
Phone: (562) 916-1350

If you have ever worked with Padmini and want to sing her praises, please do so in the comments section. And if you have any other fabulous librarians, library events, or plain library memories you want to mention, add them as well. I’ll be continuing this theme of librarians with another profile on Friday. Who will it be? I’ll give you a clue: he’s very gasa-gasa.

Get Ready for the Boar

NAOMI HIRAHARA

2007 is the Year of the Boar, or Wart Hog, which would have been my grandmother’s year, if she was alive. For me professionally, 2007 will be a transitional year. I won’t have a novel out, and I’ll be working on a YA series as well as doing research for a mystery standalone. As my career shifts, or rather expands, and my workload increases, I thought it best for me to give up my spot on Murderati for another blogger.

My intention to join forces with Pari and others on Murderati was primarily to discuss the process of releasing my third book, to write about public relations and promotional efforts (I was a flak in Hollywood for about three years), and to talk about the L.A. mystery writing and marketing scene. For the sheer size of the book market here, I still maintain that we don’t have a comprehensive literary web presence. There are many good websites and blogs, but we can use more.

Here’s a handy and dandy index of L.A. Mix profiles I’ve posted during the past eight months:

Independent Bookstore Mystery Galaxy in San Diego
Media Escort Ken Wilson
Newspaper Writer Patricia McFall
SinC/LA President Sue Ann Jaffarian
Professor William Edwards

And nuts and bolts posts:

Copyediting styles and copyeditors
L.A. Times Festival of Books (I, II, III)
Craziness of Amazon numbers and how they don’t mean much
ISBNs and Library of Congress numbers
Book launch for a first novel
Author essays in mystery magazines

I purposefully haven’t blogged too much on the writing process, because I have learned to write intuitively from reading novels, not from how-to books or classes. I’m pretty independent and stubborn, and don’t like to rely on any kind of guides, except for maybe travel books. Since I learned to write outside of the classroom, I didn’t know how beneficial my writing advice would be.

Although I’ll be leaving Murderati as a regular blogger, I’m be visiting from time to time as a guest blogger. And I’ll still be very much a part of the mystery scene, as three of my short stories will be published in anthologies in the Year of the Boar (or else close to it):

"Number 19" in LOS ANGELES NOIR, edited by Denise Hamilton. The life of a lonely young woman in L.A. is changed forever when she becomes obsessed with a masseuse at a Koreatown spa.

"The Chirashi Covenant" in A HELL OF A WOMAN: AN ANTHOLOGY OF FEMALE NOIR, edited by Megan Abbott. A former Japanese American beauty queen seeks upward mobility for her family in the 1950s at a disastrous cost.

"Tat Master" in THE DARKER MASK, edited by Chris Chambers and Gary Phillips. A young female tattoo artist, on the run from her yakuza boyfriend in Japan, finds herself with some supernatural powers after an encounter with a stranger in L.A. (This is going to be super cool because each story will be illustrated by a comic book artist. Actually, I think this book will be coming out the beginning of 2008 instead of the end of 2007.)

I can’t tell you how I excited and honored I am to be included in all three anthologies, which appeal to slightly different niches. Just looking at the editors and other contributors indicate the high caliber of these respective collections.

The stories I’ve written for these anthologies are definitely more hardboiled than my Mas Arai mysteries. (I still have a few weeks to polish two of the stories.) It was both liberating and challenging to sharpen my story-telling skills and to find the unique voice of each protagonist. The stories are all told from female points-of-view, which has been a refreshing change for me. In fact, writing "Number 19" probably helped "clear my decks" in tackling my YA novel, which is told in first person by a 13-year-old girl. Taking a break from Mas Arai and stretching my creative wings have made me more confident and brave a writer.

While I’m excited about the creative and professional changes in my life, I am sad to leave the camaraderie of Murderati team. It’s strange–I’ve only met in person one Murderati blogger, our fearless leader, Pari, so far. I think one of the reasons why Murderati has worked is that we are so different. We aren’t a clique. What binds us together is that we write mysteries professionally. And I don’t know if the other Murderati would appreciate this observation, but that we all are underdogs in one way or another.

There’s nothing wrong with being an underdog. In fact, it’s as American as apple pie. Our national fascination with the underdog and second chances is probably our most endearing cultural value (well, at least to me). As these stories go, the underdogs always come up winners at the end. So I have special wishes for each of the Murderati bloggers, both present and future, with gifts of Japanese New Year, or Oshogatsu, food, which is full of symbols and metaphors.

Renkon for Deni
Renkonb

Lotus root, which has many holes to foresee the future.

Kazunoko for Jeff

Kazunoko

Herring roe for fertility. (Enuff said. How about productivity in terms of books?)

Both Jeff and Deni will be moving on to pursue their own blogging venture.  My best to them.

Kuromame for Simon

Kuromame

Black beans, which represent health. Add chestnuts, and you have success, repeated over and over again.

Tai for Elaine

Tai

A big fish for the queen of the sea. Tai, or sea bream, is usually served whole; nothing is broken. Elaine will be taking over Wednesdays, so I know this day will be hopping!

Kamaboko for J.T.

240pxkamaboko

Pink fish cake which symbolizes patriotism, purity and honesty. Totally appropriate for this Killer Year woman.

Mochi for Pari

Mochi

Pounded rice cake, which is plenty sticky for long life and prosperity. Mochi, like Pari, keeps everyone together.

Kombu Maki for all the new Murderati bloggers!

Kombu

Rolled kelp for gladness or joy. Kombu maki always reminds me of tuxedos or penguins for some reason. And oh, so fun to make.

Toshikoshi Soba for all you readers

Toshikoshisoba

These buckwheat noodles are especially long for long life. Yum! Can’t wait to eat some.

As of 2007, I will be updating my website monthly with a note, brief book review on novels and mysteries related to Asian Americans, and yes, a new Japanese word to learn. So come visit. I know I’ll be visiting Murderati on a regular basis. In fact, as a guest blogger, I’ll be posting two interviews on two illustrious librarians during the last week of December. In February I’ll be in Seattle for Left Coast Crime; if you are too, please say "hi" in person.

If you ever come to L.A., I’ll be helping with the inaugural Asian Pacific American Book Festival on Saturday, May 12, 2007 and contributing to the Japanese American National Museum’s "Landscaping America" exhibition, which opens in June. And let us not forget–there’s the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the end of April.

Happy Year of the Wart Hog!

Peace.

WEDNESDAY’S LAST WORD: inoshishi (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 75)

Boar, wart hog. It’s pronounced EE-no-she-she. Boar birth years are 1923, 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, and, of course, 2007. Boar people are supposed to be pure of heart, generous, and kind. A true friend with a passion for life and indulgence. They are supposedly compatible with Tigers, which would make any Boar a good buddy of mine.

This Is Dedicated to . . .

NAOMI HIRAHARA

It’s a day before Thanksgiving, an appropriate time to talk about book dedications and acknowledgments. Since my first book took me approximately 15 years to complete–from idea to final publication–these two sections proved to be a challenge.

First of all, in terms of acknowledgments, you can collect a lot of people to thank along the way in 15 years. But I didn’t want to necessarily junk up the beginning of my first book with list upon list of names. (I’m so impressed with books with one succinct paragraph of thanks.) It’s like determining the invitation list for a wedding: Where do you cut? Who do you include/exclude?

For myself, I had to begin with the folks who were with me during the early, early part of my struggles with the manuscript. Then it moved to people and institutions who were instrumental in providing editorial input or finances to give me time to write. And last of all, those who just made life easier through tangible and emotional support. These were friends and family members who fed me, made me laugh, and provided me with larger spiritual perspective through this painful journey towards publication. What is funny is that I’ve had a couple of friends who have been approached, "Are you the one in Naomi Hirahara’s acknowledgments?" (One thing to note: you’ll definitely sell some books based on the acknowledgment. I guess that’s one plus of having a long list of names.)

Although I had read numerous nonfiction books to get a handle on my first book’s topic, most of the research was done through day-to-day interaction, memories, and informal interviews. I depended heavily on layers of personal experience and imagination, rather than tomes of paper.

In my second and third books, which had much shorter acknowledgments, I had done focused research on specific topics, so I did mention those resources to help direct persons who wanted to find out more.

Now in terms of dedications, I must warn you that I’m a bit prepositionally challenged. As a copout, I explain that it’s my bilingual upbringing (Japanese probably was my first language), and if you are familiar with Japanese in anyway, you know that the Japanese use of participles, specifically "postpositions," is at the very least perplexing. That confusion has bled a little in my command of English prepositions.

What I’m getting at is the subtle difference between "to" and "for" in a dedication. Most book dedications seem to use "for." But "for," to me, connotes that the author wrote the book "for" somebody. I wrote my first book, SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, for the story. And during the course of 15 years, the motivations ebbed and flowed. When the book was finally to be published, I wanted to dedicate its completion to my parents, who had inspired me in different ways to write the story, and to my grandmother, who, unfortunately, had passed away a year before the publication date. The dedication reads, "To Mom and Dad, for dreams and laughter, and to Chiyoko Mukai (1912-2003)."

The second book in the series, GASA-GASA GIRL, was dedicated "to" my brother Jimmy, who had accompanied me once on a trip to New York City, where the book is based. And the third book, SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN, I wrote "for" Wes, my husband, because I did, in essence, write it for him, in honor of his Okinawan heritage. (If you want to see photos of the whole brood, check out the gallery here.)

So, for you writers out there, did you find your acknowledgments or dedication page particularly difficult to pull together? And set me straight on this "for" and "to" business (grammarian Deni, perhaps?). Take a break from stuffing the turkey or watching football and write in a comment.

One final note: for you debut authors, I would recommend that you submit your acknowledgments and dedication with your manuscript before the proofreading stage rather than after. I’ve seen some botched acknowledgments in mystery books; it’s obvious that no one checked these pages that carefully. And since these pages usually start off your book, you want these expression of thanks to be the best they can be.

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: omiyage (GASA-GASA GIRL, page 241)

Every good Japanese American knows that when you visit someone, you come bearing gifts. The gift–whether it’s fancy or a two liters of Coke–is omiyage, pronounced o-MI-a-geh. And when you go to visit family in Japan, you must bring omiyage back for all your relatives. Which makes for a very heavy suitcase. Coffee and Almond Roca used to be standards, but they have all that and more in Japan. Decaf coffee is rarer in Japan, but what is definitely a big hit is American baseball T-shirts with Japanese players’ names. The most popular: Matsui on the Yankees, of course. Go Godzilla.

Do a Murakami

NAOMI HIRAHARA

To make ends meet during the early years of my journalism career, I pulled an all-nighter once a week, translating articles from Japanese to English for a Los Angeles-based Japanese business weekly. The editor there was a kind soul, a portly Colonel Saunders-type character, complete with a full black beard and mustache. One day, after turning in my assignment, I asked him, "What do you think it takes to be a good journalist?"

I waited to hear his answer, expecting him to talk about fortitude, strength of one’s convictions, ability to see the truth. But instead he answered, "Good health."

What the heck? I wondered later, as I took my 23-year-old body back to my day job at a daily newspaper. Mr. Editor had spent one too many days in the composing room. Good health?

He had tried to explain it to me later: journalism was a rigorous field, requiring late nights, driving to odd and sometimes dangerous locales, and being "on" most of the time. To sustain a lifetime of this, you needed a strong body to withstand both the physical and mental battering of the job. And, of course, the pay would not always be good, I knew this firsthand, requiring moonlighting and other side jobs to pay the rent.

Many years later, I was reading an article about the master Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s devotion to exercise–either swimming or jogging–because writing required so much "concentration."

And I concur: there is a connection between body and mind. And it’s not even about our simple definition of "good health," as countless of excellent writers have struggled with physical limitations–Flannery O’Connor and her battle with lupus being one.

No, this is more about the intersection of body, mind, and soul–concepts that the west seem to maintain in different compartments. I guess in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there are not physical exercise practices comparable to tai-chi or yoga. But fasting and food restrictions are prevalent in the Bible, but those values have not been embraced by popular culture. (Can you imagine middle America saying, "No, I’m fasting today," as many times as "Supersize me"?)

I go to a gym that’s literally two blocks away from my house. And yes, I actually do walk over there. While I exercise, I don’t think about what I’m writing. Instead I must concentrate to my step aerobics instructor: "L-connector!" "Turn step!" "Airplane!" "Hopscotch!" "Mambo!" All this to rerecordings of very bad eighties and nineties music. (I know, not very meditative.)

But it’s wonderful. Here in this mirrored room, I’m not a writer or a wordsmith, but just another middle-aged Asian broad in a T-shirt and yoga pants, in a sea of twentysomething rail-thin females and a sprinkling of men.

It’s about keeping weight and cholesterol levels down, but it’s also about working the body so that it can support all the physical and emotional stamina of producing a book. To make yourself so dog tired and you can actually fall into a good REM sleep and have all those subversive and crazy dreams that may help you solve a creative problem you may having. It’s about vanity, too, because you’ll be photographed more times than you’d like, only later have those images placed on websites and in newspapers.

So that Japanese Colonel Saunders lookalike did have a pearl of wisdom worth sharing. The older I get, the more important it is to do a Murakami.

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: kokoro (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, pages 127 and GASA-GASA GIRL, page 20)

How to define kokoro? A mixture of heart, mind, soul. In western culture, intellect and emotion are separate, but in Japanese culture it’s all together.

L.A. MIX PROFILE: Professor William Edwards

NAOMI HIRAHARA

Out of the various individuals my husband has met at different mystery events, Professor William Edwards is among his favorites.Edwardsphoto

Professor Edwards doesn’t live in Southern California; he resides in beautiful Marin County, just north of San Francisco, where he is the head of the Sociology Department at the University of San Francisco, a private Jesuit college. I first met Bill in another country, Canada, where he approached me in the vacuous signing room of Bouchercon Toronto and said, "I sold forty of your books." Needless to say, Bill became my new best friend.

Bill had sold these books because he had assigned SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI to his Sociology class that year, along with Tess Gerritsen’s HARVEST and Marcos M. Villatoro’s HOME KILLINGS. He’s used numerous other mysteries in his Introduction to Sociology class.

The academic market is an untapped source of readers for mysteries. Not only will it help spur an author’s back list sales, but it will introduce mysteries to younger readers. Reaching this market is not an easy one, but something certain authors should explore. Can you envision creating a curriculum with mystery books? In Southern California, SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI has been used at Pasadena City College and an Asian American literature class in University of California at San Diego. The only way BIG BACHI has ended up on some twentysomethings’ favorite books on myspace, I imagine, is because they were introduced to it in one of these classes.

As Professor Edwards is at the forefront of this movement to integrate mysteries into academia, I thought that it would be interesting to get to know him better and find out his students’ reactions to mysteries.

When did you start reading mysteries? What are some early favorites?

I don’t recall the earliest years in which I started reading mysteries. As a high school student interested in science I read sci-fi. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were my favorites. In mysteries I was fascinated by Edgar Allan Poe. There was a dark side to his imagination that intrigued me. He had lived in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, and I think that added to his appeal. It was not until the nineties that I became seriously interested in crime fiction. Having gone to grad school in Seattle I came across the early novels of Ridley Pearson set in that area and got hooked. Since I was a big jazz fan, I liked Lou Boldt. Donald Westlake was perhaps the next author I discovered. From then, I was in for the long haul.

Can you tell us a little of your academic background? When did you start working at University of San Francisco?

I began my undergraduate education at Virginia Union University in Richmond, where I majored in chemistry. When it became necessary for me to work full time I couldn’t make the labs and had to change majors. That’s when I switched to Sociology. Science was fun, but people were more interesting. For graduate studies I went to the University of Washington and completed my master’s degree in urban planning. After working for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in San Francisco and the San Francisco Planning Department I went to UC Berkeley and earned my Ph.D in Sociology.

Currently I am teaching at the University of San Francisco where I began in 1988 after having taught at UC Santa Barbara and the College of Marin.

When did you start to offer sociology classes that featured mysteries? How did you conceive of this concept? What can mysteries teach that textbooks cannot?

I had read Donald Westlake’s book, THE AX and was absolutely captivated by the story line. As a sociologist the book portrayed several dimensions of downward mobility. At the time, issues of downsizing, restructuring, and outsourcing were making national headlines. I was teaching the introductory course in Sociology and thought this book would be a great way for students to understand the whole phenomenon of mobility, both upward and downward, minus the murders. Plus, the topic was timely. In the meantime it occurred to me that other novels might be useful as teaching tools. So, along with Westlake I added Tony Hillerman, Barbara Neely, and S.J Rozan. The idea was to use a cross section of novelists focusing on different ethnic groups as protagonist or subject. Since crime fiction represented inherent conflict situations, I thought they would be a great vehicle to get students to understand what I called, "Sociology in action." In addition, I thought crime fiction would get their attention, pique their imagination, and encourage their reading.

The initial experiment of crime fiction in the classroom met with success. Students were instructed to read the novels from a sociological perspective. Of course they were cautioned that the works were fiction, but that the action and the characters existed in sociological contexts. And, these contexts could be identified with the use of sociological concepts. Over time I expanded the novels to include international writers and settings. International settings get students to think about worlds outside their own and to understand how social worlds are different. What is taken for the norm in our society may be quite different in another context. Since my university require nursing students to take Introduction to Sociology I always include a medical thriller on my reading list.

Crime fiction can only be instructive if students have had the necessary background; that is, learning a range of sociological concepts and theories that explain social interaction. Once they have been introduced to these ideas, the novels provide a context for them to see these ideas being played out in narrative fashion. Crime fiction is especially useful in getting students to see life outside the routine. Unlike the text, the novels mitigate the usual refrain of being "boring."

How has the reading of mysteries been received by your students? Can you give us some concrete examples?

One of the unintended consequences of using crime fiction has been that students have associated my Intro class with the novels and not the subject of Sociology. I’m often asked when I will next teach the class with the novels. It is not uncommon for students to ask me for additional books by a particular author. A few years ago I had used Tess Gerritsen’s book, HARVEST. The nursing students were so thrilled (pun intended) with the book that they recommended my class to their colleagues based upon the book. Similarly, a group of students enjoyed Gerritsen so much they formed a small reading group outside of class. When the school news magazine carried a story about my class I received an inquiry from an area alumni chapter requesting recommendations of crime fiction for their book club. I’ve heard rumors from the campus bookstore that students not enrolled in my class are buying copies of assigned novels resulting in the need to order additional copies.

Do you think that there will be more academicians who will incorporate mysteries in their classes? Why or why not?

In 2003 I conducted a teaching workshop for the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. Several attendees were very interested in the use of crime fiction in their classes. I subsequently received an inquiry from a colleague in Ontario regarding the use of the novels. In 2004 I organized a panel for the Bouchercon Mystery Conference and several writers were very interested in the idea of crime fiction in the classroom. All four panel members used crime fiction in their university classes. This year I attended the Left Coast Conference in Bristol, England and was engaged in conversation with UK writers who said they couldn’t imagine professors outside literature using crime fiction as a teaching tool.

The idea of capturing students’ attention is a major selling point for using crime fiction. Certainly at the college level students are not generally assigned crime fiction in their classes. Many of my colleagues tell me they think of crime fiction as good entertainment but not as a learning tool. I would concur that not all crime novels are a good fit for the classroom. Care has to be taken in selecting them and most importantly, they should be a supplement and not the main focus of the course (assuming the course is not one in literature). As I have indicated, the novels are a teaching tool. It is a way to get students to learn something and the essential question is what do you want them to learn from reading this genre.

I teach at a Jesuit university and social justice is a mainstay of its mission. Crime fiction is an excellent way to engage students in issues surrounding social justice. Many of the best novels are topical and students can learn about important social issues through reading crime fiction.

Finally, one of the best reasons for using crime fiction in the classroom is that they are darn good fun.

***

Thank you, Professor Edwards! If you want to meet the esteemed professor, chances are you can find him at a book event at M Is For Mystery in San Mateo if he’s not in class or grading papers. He may be stopping in later today, so please leave comments and questions.

And back to my husband, why is he so enamored with Professor Edwards? Bill is also the academic advisor to the college basketball team. Bill was able to make arrangements for us to visit the Bill Russell Room, a simple yet glorious room full of memorabilia connected with not only Bill Russell and other USF greats like Casey Jones.

Mystery and basketball–what a combination!

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: sensei (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 258)

Actually sensei is officially an American word, as it’s in Webster’s dictionary, as is Issei (first-generation Japanese American) and Nisei (second-generation Japanese American). Anyone who’s taken a Japan-based martial art knows what sensei means, right? Teacher.

SISTERS IN HOLLYWOOD: My, what a great time we all had at the Sisters in Crime Goes to Hollywood Conference. SinC President Rochelle Krich, Mae Woods, Lisa Seidman and SinC/LA chapter leadership are to be commended. I understand it was Lisa who had connections within the Writers Guild of America and all those movie-related agents, producers, and writers (fantastic panels). My main goal was to hang out with out-of-towners and out-of-staters, and that goal was definitely realized. I enjoyed meeting for the first time Patricia Sprinkle, Joyce Yarrow, Mark Zubro, Ron Lovell, and Keith Raffel. Many of these folks will be at Left Coast Crime Seattle, so I look forward in getting to know them even better!

Sujata Massey and I had a wonderful time at the Pacific Asia Museum (I think that Sujata wanted to move into the museum building, a former residence built in the 1920s by a successful female stenographer and curio shop owner, as well as take over a couple of hand-painted Tibetan chests). When we left the darkened building at night, we both felt like we were Rei Shimura snooping around old artifacts. And the conference itself was incredibly informative, even for a native Angeleno like me. In a nutshell, here are three things that I learned:

1) MONEY (most important, course). A typical option for a movie is $5,000 with perhaps a $50,000 payout at the end if the movie is produced. So, in other words, you might be able to afford a nice week-long trip (for one) to Tuscany with your option monies, but you won’t be able to afford a house in Tuscany.

2) LINGO. "Attachments" mean high-profile actors, writers and directors attached to a project. "MOW" is movie-of-the week, which networks obviously aren’t not making as many as before. "Limited series" refers to a six-part series, which USA Network is currently producing. USA is also apparently looking for character-driven series versus police procedurals like CSI, Law & Order, etc. Attention, ITW members–Dreamworks mentioned that they were looking specifically for thrillers, including erotic thrillers (M.J. Rose immediately came to mind).

3) GETTING YOUR FOOT IN THE DOOR. The Hollywood agents talked about obtaining a story when it was in manuscript or galley form. In this competitive environment, all kinds of "attachments" are necessary. There was talk about treatments ranging from 75-85 pages, but I was getting lost at this point. The gist of the matter is that it is very, very hard to get a movie or television program made. And even harder to make any money at it.

I think I’ll stick to books for now. And, of course, my mini-script, which is shaping up nicely. I am using voice-over, by the way, but judiciously. We are also hoping to shoot here.

Finding Takeo

(Note: This is an author’s essay I wrote for Mystery Scene when my second Mas Arai mystery was released. To learn more about contributing an essay to Mystery Scene, refer to this.)

NAOMI HIRAHARA

FINDING TAKEO was the working title Japanese2 of my second mystery, eventually named GASA-GASA GIRL. As it turns out, doing research for the book became a search for a real-life Takeo.

This Takeo was Takeo Shiota, a Japanese immigrant who designed the famed Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden in Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York City from 1914-15. I wanted to set my second book in present-day New York, because the estranged daughter of my amateur sleuth/gardener, Mas Arai, lived there and I had left their tenuous relationship hanging at the end of my first book, SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI. I also desired to expand my mystery world beyond the Japanese American community in Los Angeles, the milieu of BIG BACHI to avoid any Cabot Cove "why is everyone getting killed off in a small village" syndrome.

Since my murder would take place in a Japanese garden, I had to investigate the Japanese-inspired landscape in New York City. My research took me to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), which also has an amazing collection of bonsai hundreds of years old. The Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden is still one of BBG’s crown jewels, with its serene koi pond and the majestic orange torii gate reminiscent of a much larger one in Miyajima, near Hiroshima. The pond is in the classic kokoro shape–kokoro being the Japanese language character for spirit or heart. The garden, as is most Japanese-style gardens in America, is a fusion of cultural influences. The stonework on the waterfalls resemble the style found in the construction of grottoes, no doubt due to the Italian workmen who had been hired to do the hard labor.

When I visited New York City in April, the weather was extremely erratic–no surprise to the natives. As a Southern Californian who was leaving mild sunny weather, I was shocked to arrive to melting snow and a temperature of 30 degrees. An early trip to the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden revealed bare trees with tiny buds. But on our last day in Brooklyn, the temperature had risen to 80 degrees, pushing open the cherry blossoms, magnificent pink umbrellas around the placid pond. Spring had sprung.

My husband and I continued our research to the New York Public Library, where I was able to locate a document that Takeo Shiota himself had written in English in 1915 about "The Miniature Japanese Landscape." In some ways, the language was childlike, in other ways profound: "And the older a Japanese garden, the more natural it looks, and added years serve also to increase its glories."

There has been surprisingly little written about Shiota’s life. Shiota His best biographer so far has been artist and architecture expert, Clay Lancaster (1917-2000), who wrote brief articles and excerpts on Shiota’s work all along the East Coast. After consulting his writings, other documents and books, professors, and Japanese journalists, I hit a roadblock. No one, not even relatives in Japan, was quite sure how and exactly where he died. The only common thread was that he had spent his last days in an internment camp on the East Coast in the 1940s.

Shiotas_wife Shiota had a white wife. They had no children. Shiota had one foot in the Japanese world and one foot in white world–and neither one embraced him totally as their own. As a result, he had no personal historian who followed and recorded intimate details of his life. That nobody really knows about his demise is a tragedy in itself.

Shiota is only a shadow historic character in my mystery, which is essentially a contemporary story with echoes in the past. I quote from Shiota’s essay in a few places; Mas’s grandson is named after the master gardener. But Shiota’s life, his risk-taking, and his interracial marriage are all reflected in the spirit and theme of GASA-GASA GIRL. Gasa-gasa in Japanese means "restless," or "always moving around," and this characteristic not only refers to Mas’s daughter, but the frenetic nature of New York, and even our ever-changing history as Americans.

As I watched mothers with children in strollers, seniors, and nuns in short, grey habits walking around the kokoro-shaped pond, I was amazed how vibrant the garden experience was to these disparate people. Even though Shiota had created this landscape masterpiece close to a hundred years ago, it is literally alive today. If only my attempts to write mysteries could have the same effect.

(Photos of Takeo Shiota and his wife are courtesy of the Shiota family)

REI AND MAS TOGETHER FOR THE FIRST TIME: It was only after I had written my second mystery that I discovered that Sujata Massey had a secondary character named Takeo. (Really, Sujata!) Anyway, Sujata, the author of the Rei Shimura series, and I will team up this Thursday night for a joint book program at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. It’s going to be the first time we’ll be speaking together, so if you’re in the area, please come by. Later this week will be the Sisters in Crime Goes to Hollywood conference; I’ll be moderating a discussion about heroes and heroines with Sujata, Anne Perry, and Marcia Talley at the Mystery Bookstore at 4 p.m. I’ll have a few notes in next week’s post about the event.

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: gasa-gasa (GASA-GASA GIRL, title and page 1)

Well, again, I’ve given you the definition in my text above. Gasa-gasa is also an onomatopoeic word for "rustle" or "rustling sound."

A Tale of Two Grandmothers

(Note: This is an author’s essay I wrote for Janet Rudolph’s Mystery Readers Journal, published earlier this year. To learn more about contributing an essay to MRI, refer to this. I’ll be posting an essay I wrote for Mystery Scene next month.)

NAOMI HIRAHARA

My Mas Arai mysteries, featuring a Japanese American gardener and atomic-bomb survivor, are largely set in the United States, but the threads of two stories take us back to Japan. And in these two cases, it was a personal connection–in fact, two grandmothers–which led me to specific material clues that ended up in the center of my mysteries.

My late maternal grandmother, Chiyoko, had an unflinching eye for the truth. Although genteel and elegant, she never covered up anything in the name of civility. She lived most of her life in Hiroshima, her birthplace, but spent about a year with our family in Altadena, California, when my brother, eight years younger than me, was born. I also frequently traveled to Japan as a child and young adult. Chiyoko was the only obaachan (grandmother)–in fact, grandparent–that I had really known.

After I met my future husband, another grandmother would enter my life. Her name was Kame, but everyone–even those not related to her–referred to her as Mama. She had come to America as a picture bride from Okinawa in the early 1900s. She was short and squat and often boasted about making the best Japanese food in the western hemisphere. She grew Okinawan winter melons called goya, zucchini-shaped vegetables with a bumpy exterior, outside her fourplex in the middle of urban Los Angeles and distributed the exotic vegetables to all her Latino neighbors. In addition to her world famous maze gohan (rice mixed with red beans), she also cooked potfuls of snake that apparently filled her kitchen with a powerful aroma.

These two women had amazing stories of survival and tragedy. My grandmother had survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, but lost her husband, my grandfather, in the blast. Mama, on the other hand, had been sent to a detention center in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where she claimed that she made the best Japanese pickles within her block of barracks.

When I visited my grandmother in my early twenties, I heard that she had contributed an illustration to a Japanese television network, NHK, for a project the station was spearheading. It was a picture of a dead man she had seen while escaping the ravages of the Hiroshima bomb. It had been a few days since the blast, and the corpse was deteriorating in the summer heat. But somehow the man’s name tag, required by the Japanese government, was still visible, so my grandmother, the ever-dutiful citizen, wrote the name down. Later she drew a picture, complete with maggots coming out of the man’s belly, and his name.

While recording something so horrific seems grotesque to western sensibilities, but I understood my grandmother’s motivations. She, my uncle, and my mother had searched hopelessly through ground zero to find any signs of my grandfather. She felt that it was her duty to retrieve any remains and in probably the same spirit, she created the picture to honor this stranger’s life. Apparently the man’s family felt the same way. After identifying the illustration, they thanked my grandmother for taking the time to recognize the death of one person when the lives of so many hundreds of thousands had been lost.

Somehow that illustration stayed with me–both its beauty and grotesqueness. When my first book, SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, evolved into a mystery, I knew that somehow this illustration had to become a clue.

Mama, on the other hand, had lived a different type of life here in the United States. Her broken English was peppered with Spanish words, so sometimes it was difficult to follow the language she was speaking. She and her husband had religiously followed the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. "I Love Lucy" was her favorite television program.

But the Okinawan culture was also deeply ingrained in their lives through not only food but also music. Her husband had played the snakeskin shamisen, called the sanshin in Okinawan. He had passed away before I started dating my husband, but I saw pictures of him in a black hakama, Japanese flowing pants, proudly holding onto the sanshin.

Mama died several months after she turned one hundred. She didn’t quite make it to our wedding day. When the family was cleaning out her unit in their fourplex, I spied a dusty, battered sanshin on a chair. It was only for a minute, but that image stayed with me and became the title for the third Mas Arai mystery, SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN.

Both Mama and Obaachan are gone now. Much like the material things these women left, the illustration in SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI and the musical instrument in SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN take on lives of their own. Of course, without the stories of the people who touched them, these objects are meaningless. So here these material clues are not only keys to unraveling fictional crimes, but remnants of real and amazing lives lived.

OC SAYS HAPPY ANNIVERSARY TO SISTERS IN CRIME: Img_0428_1 I haven’t been getting out much in mystery circles these days, so it was great fun for me to party with the Orange County chapter of Sisters in Crime at their 20th anniversary celebration of the national organization at Book Carnival in Orange earlier this month. President Theresa Schwegel ensured that everything ran smoothly, including hiring an improv group that left dead bodies in the store throughout the event. It was good to see both Colin Cotterill and Eric Stone after their long road trip throughout the U.S. (Eric measured bookstore attendees by tonnage–hilarious). In addition to my favs, Patricia Smiley, John Morgan Wilson, and Sue Ann Jaffarian, I got to meet for the first time Taffy Cannon and Dianne Emiley, another Pasadena author that I’ve heard so much about. On the right is Dianne (center) and Number One mystery fan Emily (right). And yes, sadly, I’m the short one. I really forget what a munchkin I am until I see photos like this. (And I’m wearing heels!) Sigh. (Photo courtesy of Theresa Schwegel)

CHINA DOLLS WORK IT: I had the pleasure yesterday of meeting with two upcoming debut authors, Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan, actually cousins (I can’t remember if they are first, second, etc.), who will be releasing their chicklit novel, CHINA DOLLS, around Chinese New Year next February. These two New Yorkers were in L.A. to do some research for their next novel as well as to make some contacts. I give props to their editor Diana Sze, St. Martin’s Press, and the authors for working it so early in Southern California.

SUBMIT YOUR BACKSTORIES: M.J. Rose on her fabulous blog, Buzz, Balls and Hype, reports that some of her Backstory entries, written by various authors on their books, will be reposted on The Huffington Post. The Huffington Report is among of the Top 100 blogs out there in the nation (and maybe the world), so this is a great opportunity for authors. Check it out. I have my own Huffington story to share. When Arianna’s ex, Michael Huffington, was running for Senate, I sent our associate editor at The Rafu Shimpo, Takeshi Nakayama, to cover a press event. Several days later we received a thank-you note from the campaign addressed to Jakishi Nacoljaba, a strange Finnish-African hybrid. We figured out Takeshi’s bad handwriting was the culprit, but hey, couldn’t have the campaign staffer double checked? Shortly thereafter I started calling Takeshi, Jakishi Nacoljaba. Has a ring to it, right?

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: obaachan (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 76) and obasan (SUMMER OF BIG BACHI, page 216)

Well, I defined obaachan for you up above–grandma. The suffix, chan, denotes affection or endearment. You can use san to create obaasan, as well, which is a more formal version. Obasan, with a shorter "a" sound means aunt or lady.

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