Category Archives: Naomi Hirahara

Let’s Do Lunch. Really.

NAOMI HIRAHARA

As a native Angeleno, I swore at different times of my life that I would never fulfill certain stereotypes:

1) Get a mobile phone. (I made this vow in the early 1990s, when the cell phones were the size of a small man’s dress shoe–remember the "Get Smart" schtick? My news staff then proceeded to get me a mobile phone in the early 1990s. I guess they wanted to keep tabs on me.)

2) Join one of those obnoxious glass-walled gyms where passing drivers can see your butt while you exercise. (I joined one in the 1990s. I guess the 1990s was my downfall decade.)

3) Say to someone, "Let’s do lunch." (Did this repeatedly while I worked in Hollywood for a p.r. company for three years.)

4) Get cable and a big-screen TV. (This dirty deed was done this January–but no HBO or Showtime. Yet.)

5) Attempt to write some sort of screenplay.

I’m currently treading dangerously into this last stereotype. I’m not working on a real, real screenplay, it’s actually a media piece for a museum’s upcoming exhibition in the summer of 2007 on Japanese American gardens and gardeners. The thing is, they are not requesting a standard documentary film that usually accompanies their exhibitions. This time, they are trying something different. I’m writing a short mystery script that’s about 15 minutes (or pages) in length.

I’m having great fun in writing an original script. A friend who is a member of the Screen Actors Guild had lent me a few Oscar-nominated adapted screenplays and the good ones are a joy to read. I read Charlie Kaufman’s "Adaptation," which made me laugh at loud a number of times. I’m employing the dreaded "voice-over" technique, and Kaufman does it so well. (Somehow reading the script was even more enjoyable than viewing the film the first time, so I’d like to see the movie again.) I’m reading the screenplay adaptation of MYSTIC RIVER, and I wonder how the screenwriter knows how all the scene cuts will make sense to the viewers. "The Hours" is beautiful, but with such a slow beginning, how were the producers able to pitch it to financiers? (I guess having Nicole Kidman and Merryl Streep attached to the project probably helped.) I find it interesting how the narrative descriptions in these screenplays are so muscular and powerful. I thought movies are all about dialogue, but the scenes without dialogue are important as well.

I’ve also watched a number of helpful films, including Wayne Wang’s debut, "Chan Is Missing." Shot in grainy black-and-white film, it took place entirely in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The movie is as much about the real and imagined Chinatown as it is about the search for the mysterious Chan.

On November 3-5, the national Sisters in Crime will be holding a special conference about "Selling Your Book to Hollywood." (Registration is still opened until the end of October, so if you’re traditionally published and a SinC member, you might want to sign up. The Author’s Coalition will reimburse everyone the $100 registration fee.) I was looking forward to the conference mostly to see mystery writers from different parts of the country, but now I’ve become more curious in script, movie and TV show development. On Saturday, November 4, the pilot and episode of Showtime’s "Dexter," which is based on the books by Jeff Lindsay, will be shown at the Writers Guild Theatre, followed by a discussion with one of the show’s writers and producers.

As I mentioned in my above list, we don’t get Showtime but a couple of weeks ago the cable channel gave us a free preview, ostensibly to hook us into the programming and have us sign up. My husband wanted to check out "Dexter" and we saw the Crocodile episode. First of all, just the titles of "Dexter" are worth checking out for sure. (Don’t watch while you’re eating unless you have Hannibal Lechter tendencies.)

Dexter is played by Michael C. Hall, the actor who played the gay Christian brother in "Six Feet Under"–my favorite character in that series, hands down. Here his hair is longer and more disheveled, but he still has the edge in playing a forensic scientist, specifically a blood splatter analyst, who does his own serial killing on the side.

"Dexter" is beautifully filmed and captures the flavor of Florida a whole lot better than CSI Miami, in my opinion. But like many mystery shows, there are multiple plot lines and my husband, who was watching the program while reading the sports page, was plenty confused. With flashbacks as well, you do have to pay close attention.

That’s the challenge of mysteries in television and movies, isn’t it? How do you unfold the puzzle and make it both surprising and understandable for the viewer. That was the beauty of "Sixth Sense." It was so well constructed–taut, suspenseful, surprising yet totally clear at the end.

I completed my first draft of my script, tentatively titled "Three Riddles: Mystery of an L.A. Gardener’s Life." It was critiqued at a meeting yesterday and have now the task to determine the motivation of two "spirits" in the piece. The script takes a paranormal turn and the spiritual world needs its own logic and rules. And since I’ve used voice-over in places, I need to figure out who my main character is talking to–himself, a relative, etc.? Since the purpose for this project is not only entertainment but education, I’m treading a fine line here. I’ll be also assisting in casting (hey, any actors in L.A.?) and location hunting, so this will be fun to watch as it develops.

Truth be told, I don’t know if I’ll ever try to write a real screenplay or teleplay, but my respect for those who can write a good one has certainly elevated, for sure.

Now back to my NOT TO DO list–what personal rule can I break next? Plastic surgery and botox are definitely out and I’m unwavering in that. And we were smart enough to stay away from SUVs when gas was less than two bucks. But sitting in a Starbucks with a Mac notebook? Hideous image, I know. Does writing in a Peet’s or Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf count?

ALL IN THE FAMILY: I’m a proud older sister, so I have to make mention of what my brother Jimmy has been secretly working on this past year. I don’t totally get it, but I know enough that it’s a big deal. From movie special effects to high-tech production design, pretty darn impressive! Gardener’s kid done good. Again.

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: kattenahito (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 153)

I know this word looks scary, but just cut it up. First of all, we have katte, which means selfishness, and the na turns it into adjective which in turn modifies the noun, hito, or person. Selfish person.

L.A. MIX PROFILE: SinC/LA President Sue Ann Jaffarian

NAOMI HIRAHARA

I can’t remember when I first formally met Sue AnnSue_ann_jaffarian_1
Jaffarian, but I remember when I first saw her. She was emceeing one of our Sisters in Crime Los Angeles (SinC/LA) chapter meetings. (I had recently joined this mystery writing organization.) She was introduced as doing some stand-up comedy on the side and I said to myself, how brilliant is that for a mystery writer.

In time, I would get to know Sue Ann and her work a lot better. Like her plus-size lovable amateur sleuth named Odelia Grey, Sue Ann is a paralegal. She self-published her first two mysteries through iUniverse, and when she read an excerpt of her second, THE CURSE OF THE HOLY PAIL, at one of the SinC/LA meetings, I again said to myself, this stuff is good–it needs to be picked up by a traditional publisher.

Well, that hope came true this year, when Sue Ann’s debut, TOO BIG TO MISS, was released by Midnight Ink. THE CURSE OF THE HOLY PAIL will be coming out next year, with a third, MOTHER MAYHEM, due for publication in 2008.

Sue Ann and I have, before and after her Midnight Ink deal, sat side by side at numerous author festivals and library events. (We’ve joked around coining our combination Hiraharian or Jaffahara–nice Japanese/Armenian mix, no?) She is currently in her third year of her second term as president of SinC/LA. She’s served on the board for seven years, and when her term as president expires at the end of 2007, she will leave the board.

Sue Ann, with her stick-to-it-tiveness and great warmth, is a wonderful representative of the organization, which nationally is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Here to discuss not only Sisters in Crime, but also the road from self-publishing to a traditional publisher is Sue Ann Jaffarian:

How did you get involved in the organization? How old is the chapter?

I originally heard about the organization from a friend of a friend who is a close friend of former L.A. author Glynn Marsh Alam. I was almost done with my first mystery novel, yet had never heard of SinC. The chapter was founded in 1989.

I’ve heard that the Los Angeles chapter is SinC’s largest. Is that true and how many members does it have? About what percentage are women vs. men? Can non-L.A. residents join? What would you attribute to the chapter’s success?

I don’t know if we are the largest chapter, but I believe we are either #1 or #2 in size (the other large chapter being the New York/Tri-State Chapter. SinC/LA usually runs about 180-200 members, with about 30-35% men. In recent years our proportion of published authors has grown to reach close to 70. And, yes, non-L.A. people can join! In fact, we have many members from places like Northern California, New York, Arizona and New Mexico. Non-L.A. authors join us to take advantage of our various signing opportunities.

Several factors contribute to the success of SinC/LA. One, we are in Los Angeles, a huge metropolitan area and entertainment mecca that attracts many writers in many fields. SinC/LA doesn’t just have mystery novelists among its members, but screenwriters, TV writers, comedy writers and journalists, all with an interest in the mystery/crime/thriller areas.

Another big factor in the chapter’s success is the dedication of the board to find ways to help writers of all levels rise in their careers, whether they are just starting to write, have a finished manuscript, newly published, or well established. We do this by providing interesting and informative monthly speakers, a biennial writer’s conference, a speaker’s bureau that provides opportunities for library and book store events, and a presence at major local book festivals. SinC/LA is focused on helping its members realize their goals.

Tell us more about the No Crime Unpublished writing conference in 2007. Do you have a date or location for it yet?

The date will be Sunday, June 10, 2007 (save the date!) and the keynote speaker will be Jacqueline Winspear, author of the incredible Maisie Dobbs series. The location is the Embassy Suites Hotel in Arcadia. Shortly, the board will be releasing details and we will once again offer an early bird registration special. So stay tuned!

I know that through your and now vice president Diana James’ work, SinC/LA has revitalized its Speaker’s Bureau. How would interested members get involved with it?

With Diana James recently moving into the vice president spot and the overwhelming interest from libraries and bookstores in the program, we have divided the duties of the Speaker’s Bureau along geographical lines among several motivated board members: Gayle Bartos-Pool (Director), Celeste Covas and Ashley Baker. Author members interested in the program should contact Gayle at gbpool@earthlink.net.

Tell us more about SINC L.A.’s anthology, LANDMARKED FOR MURDER, which debuted at the West Hollywood Book Fair.

LANDMARKED FOR MURDER is actually the brainchild of SinC/LA board member Susan Beery, who originally came up with the theme of linking short stories together with Los Angeles landmarks. She teamed up with Michael Mallory, who was instrumental in bringing SinC/LA’s last anthology, MURDER ON SUNSET BOULEVARD, to life. The editors of LANDMARKED FOR MURDER are Harley Jane Kozak, Nathan Walpow and Michael Mallory, with a foreword by Taylor Smith. The featured authors include some returning favorites, such as Kate Thorton and Paul Marks, as well as exciting new contributors.

I know SINC-LA uses the term “pre-published” for its unpublished writers. Certain critics really assail the use of that term. What’s your take on it?

I often have published writers approach me with negative comments about the term “pre-published,” and I don’t understand why this term bothers them or why they invest energy in thinking about it. Perhaps they have forgotten the insecurity of working on that first novel, wondering if anyone else will ever see and understand the vision they’ve been toiling on for so long. While the term was coined and used at SinC long before I became a part of the organization, I see it as a harmless little nudge or boost of positive energy. During those long and lonely hours at the computer, when self-doubt threatens to creep in, if someone feels better thinking of themselves as “pre-published” rather than “unpublished,” then good for them. Of course, I understand that not all “pre-published” authors will become published, but if that term can make the emotional road a little easier, then by all means use it.

Tell us a little about your own journey from POD to a traditional publisher. Why did you opt to go with iUniverse with the first two Odelia mysteries? Was being an iUniverse author difficult in attracting an agent and traditional publisher? And how different are the Midnight Ink-edited and -published versions from the POD originals? In hindsight, would you do things differently?

Let’s start with the last question. In hindsight, I don’t think I would head to self-publishing so quickly if I were doing it all over again. People are surprised when I say that, BUT it was (and is) a very hard row to hoe, and most authors don’t have the stamina to fight the prejudice and rejection that goes along with being a self-published author. (Hmmm, maybe being a fat woman in a thin society gave me an edge on that, I don’t know.) When I first published TOO BIG TO MISS through iUniverse, I was totally ignorant and naive of what I was facing, which was probably a good thing or I might never have done it. I mean, would you throw yourself off a cliff after first having a chance to stand on the edge and look down at what’s ahead?

I chose to publish TOO BIG TO MISS through iUniverse when my agent at the time refused to represent it (not the lovely agent I have now). She called it “purient” and “crap.” Well, being the stubborn junk yard dog that I am, I wasn’t about to be deterred from my goal of being a “published” author. Also, I was worried that maybe she was right. So I used self-publishing to test the waters, only to discover that readers LOVED my book. Then, worried that I was a one-hit-wonder, I wrote and self-published THE CURSE OF THE HOLY PAIL. When that was successful, I knew it was time to get another agent and find a traditional publisher. Attracting a new agent was not a problem at all, but many publishers turned the two books down because they did not want to reprint them. My agent presented them to Midnight Ink Books and the rest, as they say, is history.

As for the difference between the iUniverse editions and the Midnight Ink editions, both books were re-edited, though THE CURSE OF THE HOLY PAIL not as much as TOO BIG TO MISS. TOO BIG TO MISS was totally overhauled, given a new ending, and 6,000 more words. So it’s really almost a whole new book. When MOTHER MAYHEM is released in early 2008, it will be the first original Odelia Grey mystery in five years.

I know that the series has been optioned for TV. Any news on that or any other new developments (translation rights, etc.)?

Yes, the series has been option for TV. Yea!!! All I know right now is that TOO BIG TO MISS is being packaged by a very well known agency for presentation to various networks/cable companies. Hey, I’m just the author of the novel. They gave me money, sent me on my way, and told me they’d let me know if there were any solid developments. Don’t ya just love Hollywood?

As for other developments, TOO BIG TO MISS should be coming out soon in e-book through Hard Shell Word Factory. Also, Midnight Ink Books will be releasing the second book in the series, THE CURSE OF THE HOLY PAIL, January/February 2007, with the third book, MOTHER MAYHEM, scheduled for January/February 2008.

Besides the writing conference, L.A. Times Festival of Books, West Hollywood Book Festival, and SinC Hollywood conference, what other SinC/LA activities are on tap for the rest of this year and next year?

SinC/LA is hosting the Friday night welcome dinner (Nov. 3) for the SinC Hollywood conference, and after that will be our December Holiday Party and Pre-Published (there’s that word again) Author Showcase. In the next month or so, the board will also be kicking around some pretty creative fund-raising ideas, with the actual fund-raising event in February or March. So stay tuned! And, as always, we are planning a full roster of monthly informative and fun speakers for our general meetings.

***

Thank you, Sue Ann!

I predict greater and greater things for this SinC/LA president. Already she’s been mentioned in the New York Times by a reporter who just happened to come across TOO BIG TO MISS in a shelf in a bookstore! And she’s currently having a contest, with the prize being an ARC of her upcoming THE CURSE OF THE HOLY PAIL and Thin Mints (yum, my favorite–am I eligible to enter?). The deadline for the contest is October 31, so hurry on over to her website, www.sueannjaffarian.com.

Visit SinC/LA at www.sistersincrimela.com.

For national information, go to www.sistersincrime.org.

And finally, there will be two special Southern California events involving the organization this month:
On Saturday, October 14, the Orange County Sisters in Crime will be celebrating national’s 20th anniversary with Michael Connelly’s kickoff signing of ECHO PARK from 11 to 12:30 p.m. and a reception from 1 to 5 p.m. at Book Carnival in Orange. See the OC website for more information.

Landmarked_cover_from_top
And on Saturday, October 21, at 5:30 p.m. SinC/LA will have a launch party for its LANDMARKED FOR MURDER anthology at the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood. One local reviewer has stated, “LANDMARKED FOR MURDER is the best of the Sisters-In-Crime/LA
anthologies so far.” It’s a nifty collection with a real cool cover showcasing one of my favorite L.A. landmarks, Eagle Rock.

Published by Top Publications in Dallas, the collection includes short stories by Gay Degani, G.B. Pool, Darrell James, Dee Ann Palmer, Paul D. Marks, Kate Thornton, Jinx Beers, Pamela Samuels-Young, Arthur Coburn, and A.H. Ream. Congrats, all!

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: niisan (SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN, page 111)
Pronounced NEE-san, it means older brother, not to be confused with younger brother, which is ototosan. For older sister, there’s nesan (NAY-san) and younger sister, imotosan. In terms of “sisters,” there’s the word, shimai, but I personally haven’t heard it used that often–which may mean absolutely nothing.

LITTLE TOKYO GETS ITS SCREEN TEST: For those who saw this week’sMasi2
episode of NBC’s “Heroes,” it was Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, pretending to be the Big Tokyo in Japan, in a key scene. Actor Masi Oka plays Hiro Nakamura, an ordinary man with the extraordinary power of freezing time. He becomes convinced of his destiny through a comic book that plots out his future. In the Little Tokyo scene, he stops time to save a little girl from being hit by a truck. Here’s a piece of trivia for you: the statue of the rocket in the street (that is also featured in the comic book) is a memorial to Lt. Col. Ellison Onizuka, one of the astronauts who died in the Challenger explosion. That street, formerly Weller, was renamed in Onizuka’s honor, provoking some protests from Japanese merchants who were afraid that the name’s meaning, Devil’s Grave, would be distasteful to foreign visitors. Japanese Americans, on the other hand, successful fought for the name change. It’s fitting that Onizuka’s memorial was on a TV show called “Heroes.” If you want to read and see more about that episode, including cool storyboards and candid production shots, check out the blog of the show’s director. A great insider’s view.

THREE DEGREES OF SEPARATION: The Last Days of Daikon Ashi

NAOMI HIRAHARA

When my uncle in Tokyo spotted me in Narita Airport in Japan, he almost breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh, you are like the old model," he said, picking up my carry-on baggage.

I was 21 years old, and too busy absorbing theDaikon  rush of businessmen and tourists to register what he said. Later his words were interpreted by my aunt. Although they had seen me when I was 14, they feared that somehow the American air would kick in during my adolescence, transforming me into a bosomy, long-legged Wonder Woman seductress. But I was like Japan’s "old model" female: short, round-faced and freckled with a healthy pair of daikon ashi (white-radish legs), usually seen half-submerged in rice paddies. And, well, the bosom, I wouldn’t even get into that.

Most Japanese Americans 40 or older understand the term, daikon ashi. Go to any Japanese grocery store and you can’t miss daikon. Piled like logs, perhaps next to hairy balls of sato imo (taro), these are not the cute bunches of red-knobbed radishes found in the local grocery store. No, we are talking about a thick, usually dirt-covered root. Wash it off, peel the skin and there you have my calves.

No women would revel in having daikon ashi. Older men, flushed with beer, use that term to disparage a woman’s body. In California, we second and third generations have picked it up. Growing up and playing basketball, we girls would tease one another, pointing at our well-endowed calves stuffed like sausages into our tight tube socks. Later, approaching womanhood, we would hope our calves would magically melt away into the more svelte western model a la Barbie. But that day never arrived for some of us.

I don’t hear much about daikon ashi these days. Perhaps it’s because women’s bodies have indeed changed over the past 40 years. I see the willowy teen figures in coffeehouses and malls. These gorgeous Asian American women, stylishly clad in black and light lipstick, are thin as coat hangers. I look at them not with envy, but amazement, that their graceful frames are a result of a similar gene pool as mine. And their legs–no one would mistaken them for giant white radishes, but maybe fast-food drink straws.

Even the look of Japanese girls, especially in the urban areas like Tokyo, has been updated. Their black-and-white uniform are loose on their long and lanky bodies. Some people have told me it’s because they now exercise more; some have comment on their diets. Who knows how long this will continue as mayonnaise and fast food permeate their daily lives?

All these thoughts about body image and type came to a head when I joined a gym in Pasadena. I had a free session with a pert, blond personal trainer. As she used metal clamp to calculate my body fat and a tape measure for my waist, she then looked down at my legs. "My husband would die for your calves."

"Really." I didn’t know if it was a sales pitch or honest admiration.

Her body-builder husband, no matter how hard he tried, could not build up his calves, she explained. They remained so thin that socks would fall loose around his ankles.

A peculiar problem, I thought to myself. As she asked me if I’ve ever been injured, it dawned on me that I hadn’t ever broken a bone or torn a single ligament, in spite of years of exercising.

Somehow, I thought, it all goes back to those trusty daikon ashi, which served millions of peasants well back in Meiji Japan.

Now my pet project is to further develop my muscular calves. Who knows? Like the VW Bug, maybe the "old model" will be in some day.

(The original THREE DEGREES OF SEPARATION columns were published in the Pacific Citizen from 1999-2000.)

TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT: Newbery Award winner Cynthia Kadohata and I will be doing a joint presentation at the Torrance Public Library tonight at 7 p.m. Be there or be square. And safe travels to all who are going to Bouchercon, especially Murderati’s Denise Dietz and Simon Wood. Come visit next week for some cool photos of Madison by my guest paparazzi Iden Ford.

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: daikon ashi (GASA-GASA GIRL, page 89)

You know what daikon means, now learn all about it:

Write Me an Essay

NAOMI HIRAHARA

So you’re a writer with not much money rolling around in your pocket. You have no publisher-sponsored author tour and a limited advertising budget. So what do you do? Sulk? Gnash your teeth and wail? Rob a bank? Or maybe you do what you do best–write, and not only your next novel, but how about an author’s essay for one of the mystery periodicals out there?

I asked two of mystery’s best journal/magazine editors, Janet Rudolph of Mystery Readers Journal and Kate Stine of Mystery Scene, about their submission policies. I’ve written for both of them, and can certainly vouch for their professionalism. (I’ll be posting my essays for them in the future.) Although you are not paid for an author’s essay, it is certainly worth the time to write them. Think of it as a free, effective and fun way to promote your latest book.

Mystery Readers Journal

Mystery Readers Journal and its related entity, Mystery Readers International, are labors of love for their Berkeley, California-based founder and director, Janet Rudolph. "Neither is my ‘real’ job," explains Janet, "but our motto is ‘Dedicated to Enriching the Lives of Mystery Readers.’ I think that’s what I’m accomplishing with the Journal, especially."

Mystery Readers International is the largest mystery fan/reader organization in the world and annually awards its Macavity Awards for the best in the mystery genre at the Bouchercon mystery convention. (Congrats to this year’s nominees, BTW!) Membership in the organization includes a subscription to Mystery Readers Journal, which released its first issue in 1985. Since that time, MRJ has consistently published three to six issues each year.

MRJ has about 1,500 subscribers and is also sold in most independent mystery bookstores. It goes to many libraries–both public and university–around the world. MRJ is theme-based, so you need to wait for a topic that is related to your book. The next two issues are on Academic Mysteries. (Deadline for submissions is October 15.) The themes for next year are The Ethnic Detective (a personal yay!) Historical Mysteries, and Scandinavian Mysteries.

In addition to interpretive articles, MRJ includes at least a dozen of author essays in its "Author! Author!" section. She gives this advice to writers thinking about submitting essays:

It’s great publicity for your novels. Mysteries must have been published by a recognized press but do not need to be still in print. Many of our subscribers use libraries and used bookstores/online booksellers. Be sure that in the essay you address the theme of the issue. It should be 500-2,000 words, first person, up close and personal, about yourself, your mysteries and the ‘theme’ connection. Think of it as chatting with readers and writers. Query letters are good, so I know what to expect and when.

Check the website, www.mysteryreaders.org, for writers’ guidelines. Themes are chosen from the suggestions of members and subscribers, so if you join Mystery Readers International, you can chime in on what you want to see in the yet-to-be-determined issues for 2008. And if you want to submit an essay for the Spring 2007 Ethnic Detective issue, the deadline is January 15, 2007.

When asked about what she enjoys about putting the issues together, Janet says:

I love the Author! Author! section because I believe it’s unique. I enjoy soliciting articles and ‘meeting’ the authors via email and snail-mail. Their contributions make the Journal what it is. That being said, I also enjoy the reviews and articles and ‘meeting’ with those contributors at well. Mystery Readers Journal is a collaborative endeavor. I love the mystery community. Everyone is so supportive.

Janet Rudolph

Mystery Readers International

P.O. Box 8116

Berkeley, CA 94707

janet@mysteryreaders.org

Mystery Scene

Also established in 1985, Mystery Scene comes out five times a year. Co-published by Kate Stine and Brian Skupin, the magazine boasts a circulation of 12,000, spilt fairly evenly between subscribers and newsstand sales. Based on some demographic research, 60% are female, 74% are between the ages of 40-65, and 75% buy 11 or more crime books a year. Thirty-five percent buy at least 31 per year, and a whopping 20% buy 51 or more crime books per year. So we are talking about hard-core fans here.

Mystery Scene is also offered in 190 libraries, mainly public libraries but some college and universities as well.

The magazine has a regular New Books section where authors can write a brief essay about the inside story about their upcoming book. Usually interesting photos–not your standard author photo or book cover–accompany the pieces.

I recently asked Kate, who is also the magazine’s editor, more information about the New Books section:

Do you receive an inordinate number of submissions for this column?

In the past, we’ve tried to publish all the essays we got which often meant a lot of editorial work for me. Competition for space and my time is increasing, though, so we’re starting to reject more pieces.

Do you prefer that authors query you first or do you prefer authors send completed essays to you?

I’d prefer that writers send in essays. We’re interested in seeing essays from all sorts of writers at all stages of their careers. (The only exception is true crime, which we generally don’t cover in Mystery Scene.) The key point is the quality of the essay, not the fame of the writer.

Writers should understand, though, that if they don’t read and follow the editorial guidelines chances are their work won’t be accepted or, in some cases, even read. These guidelines are posted at our website, www.mysteryscenemag.com.

It’s also important to keep in mind that these are NEW Books essays. We can’t publish an essay about a book that’s more than a month or two older than the issue’s pub date. It’s best to send an essay to us three or four months before the book pub date.

How can authors make their submissions more interesting and attractive (tone, photos, etc.)? What mistakes do authors often make?

Interestingly enough, the most common mistake is talking too much about the book itself because it invariably comes off sounding like catalog copy.

These essays are meant to entertain and intrigue potential readers, so be creative. Some examples: real-life inspirations for plot and characters; unusual research; issues raised in the book and why they were of interest to you; the story’s locale or time period. Humor is good, detailed plot summaries are not.

Reading some good essays beforehand will give you pointers. Good nonfiction writing is an art not something a novelist knocks off in 20 minutes. And it’s very important to be familiar with the magazine so you can properly target our readership. Unless you’ve read Mystery Scene within the past year or two, you’re not familiar with it.

Providing us with interesting photos and illustrative material is a huge plus. Check out some back issues and look for Twist Phelan’s essays. She’s funny, she tells great stories–and her photos kick butt.

Mystery Scene has published some outstanding New Books essays over the past four years and this section of the magazine is quite popular. It’s definitely a great place for writers to get in front of an enthusiastic book reading (and buying) audience.

Kate Stine

Mystery Scene Magazine

331 W. 57th St., Ste. 148

New York, NY 10019-3101

(212) 765-7124

katestine@mysteryscenemag.com

It would also be nice to support these magazines and others like Mystery News by subscribing to them. I know that writers’ budgets are stretched–I know that firsthand–and that everything is tugging at our wallets. But if and when that extra check comes in, consider subscribing to one of these fine mystery periodicals.

And, in the meantime, write those essays! And if you have any tips regarding writing and contributing author essays, please note them in the comments section.

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: meishi (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 18)Meishiire2

Business card. In Japan you always present your meishi with two hands and a slight bow. I suspect all Bouchercon attendees are making sure that they have their meishi in hand!

Money Book

NAOMI HIRAHARA

Before I became a published novelist, I only bought one hardback novel a year.

I’ve always been a trade paperback kind of girl. I like to devour books, take them into the bath (and yes, sometimes even the shower) with me. I’m rough with books.

And there’s always the matter of money. I had little and still continue to have little–if I don’t count my sweet husband’s salary. The library is wonderful–but only one thing, I’m also a little absent-minded. So those fines add up, so it just makes sense to buy paperbacks.

But then I got published, and suddenly my hardback fiction collection exponentially grew. Suddenly I had all these colleagues and friends who were also published, and most of them were getting published in hardback.

My husband has watched helplessly as our living room china cabinet that we use as a bookshelf has continued to get filled with hardbacks. But let me tell you, he’s doing his share with all his sports books (he’s a roundball fanatic–he probably has every biography ever published on an American basketball coach).

Anyway, now I have a bunch of hardbacks, autographed and personalized at that. But I tell myself they are all an investment. I’ve suddenly become a book collector.

I know what you’re thinking. Naomi, personalized books are not as valuable as just autographed books. But again, it all depends who they are signed to–stranger, friend, or colleague. These signatures will tell a story of the relationship between one writer and another.

For instance, why did S.J. Rozan draw a basketball in my copy of her 9/11 novel, ABSENT FRIENDS? I love that bestselling children’s author Ken Mochizuki, a fellow ethnic press editor and reporter, signed his YA novel, BEACON HILLS BOYS, with "Remember when they told us to ‘get a real job’?" Gary Phillips appropriately penned, "Writing is fighting," in my West Coast Crime copy of his mystery debut, VIOLENT SPRING. And of course I’ll always treasure Walter Mosley scribbling, "Good luck with Summer of the Big Bachi," in BLACK BETTY.

My most emotion-laden autographed hardback book is not a novel, but nonfiction–late Iris Chang’s RAPE OF NANKING. It was another dearly departed figure, television newsman Sam Chu Lin, who had encouraged me to attend Iris’s signing at the Santa Monica Borders in January 1998 and I was so glad to have the opportunity to meet her in person before she tragically took her life in November of 2004.

As I write this, I see that books are actually physical footprints, emotional and intellectual markers of my life. My copy of RAPE OF NANKING not only brings to mind Iris Chang, but also the subsequent conversations it engendered and the many related stories on Japanese war crimes I placed in the newspaper I once edited. I also remember my pal Sam and how he mentored and befriended so many of us younger journalists. Perhaps that’s why I don’t think electronic books will ever completely replace actual bound books. There’s magic in those pages.

The book in my collection that is worth the most money is a first edition, first printing of Cynthia Kadohata’s KIRA-KIRA, which garnered the Newbery Award months after it was signed. The Newbery Award is the closest thing to literature’s Oscars, at least for writers for children. Soon after Cynthia received a 4:30 a.m. phone call announcing that she had won, she was whisked away for the Today Show. Now how glamorous is that? Soon Cynthia was deluged with e-mails requesting a first edition, first-printing book. The book was going for $800 at one time, and currently is listed for more than $1,000 for an autographed first-printing copy. And I have a personalized one.

By the way, Cynthia and I will be appearing together at the Torrance Public Library on Wednesday, September 27, at 7 p.m. so all you locals come out and see us. Cynthia will be showing her brilliant PowerPoint presentation, while I’ll be more low-tech with some show-and-tell surprises, nonetheless.

And for those going to the Bouchercon world mystery convention at the end of this month, keep you eye out–not only for current stars, but also for those newbies under the radar who may become stars of tomorrow. Especially those getting published by small presses or having limited print-runs with larger publishers.

And don’t forget about those paperback original writers! Robert Crais’ first book, MONKEY’S RAINCOAT, a mass market paperback original, in mint condition is going for three figures.

No more showers with books for me.

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: okanemochi (SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN, page 86)

Rich person. Pronounced "o-KA-neh-MO-chee." Okane means money and mochi is derived from the infinitive motsu, or to hold onto.

DISORIENTED EXPRESS LEAVES THE STATION: Mystery authors Eric Stone and Colin Cotterill’s joint tour, Disoriented Express, begins tonight at the Mystery Bookstore at 7 p.m. I was hoping to attend, but being the traffic wimp that I am, I’ve decided not to take the trek through downtown L.A. to the westside. But I know that I’m missing out on great, great fun. Asian snacks, beverages, and good company. I am hoping to meet Colin at Book’em Mysteries in South Pasadena tomorrow, however. A much, much saner drive for me personally. BTW, Colin has the best website ever.

EVENT SEASON GEARS UP: Come to the West Hollywood Book Fair this weekend on Sunday, September 17. At 1:15 p.m. I’ll be on a panel, "Who Am I?," with Rochelle Krich, Luis Rodriguez and Victoria Christopher Murray, moderated by Holly Hoffman. It’s going to be on the age-old theme of a writer’s identity. Should be interesting! I’ll also be doing a self-publishing and book distribution workshop in Little Tokyo this Saturday.

L.A. MIX PROFILE: Newspaper Writer Patricia McFall

NAOMI HIRAHARA

I was waiting for newspaper features writer Mcfall_p Patricia McFall in a Japanese restaurant in Pasadena, California. I was scheduled to be interviewed for an article in my hometown newspaper, the Pasadena Star-News. Through the window I saw a PT Cruiser park alongside the curb. Cool car–first sign that this would be a good interview. Out emerged a tall redhead. She rushed into the restaurant, sat down with me, and the conversation began.

As my blogmate Pari Noskin Taichert wrote last month, many interviewers don’t even read the books of their subjects, but that was not the case with Patricia. Insightful questions and then when the story finally came out in the tabloid U-Section of the San Gabriel Newspapers (Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Tribune, and Whittier Daily News), I was so impressed with how well the article was written. And if that wasn’t enough, a few months later the Long Beach Press-Telegram picked up Patricia’s story for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May 2005, making it the cover story for the U-Section and even placing a teaser above the masthead on the front page. What more could a fledgling author even dream of?

While many of us are familiar with the reviewers and writers for larger metropolitan newspapers, I thought it would be helpful to profile a writer for suburban newspapers in Southern California. (For more information regarding the holdings of the parent company, Media News Group, Inc., see this website.) Without further ado, here is Patricia McFall.

How would you describe yourself professionally? Freelancer? Stringer? Writing coach? All of the above? How many publications do you write for and can you describe the "U Section"–how many newspapers share content for that?

I’m a freelance writer and editor. I also teach fiction and coach writers privately. I’ve published one suspense novel, a half-dozen short stories of which three are mystery, and many non-fiction features, book reviews, and a regular style column. I’ve also been editing an online academic journal for the California State University system. Formerly, I ran the Programs for Writers at Cal State Fullerton extension for three years, where it was so much fun to set up classes taught by mystery stars like Elizabeth George and T. Jefferson Parker.

For three years, I wrote regularly for the lifestyle sections of the San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group, which includes three dailies: the Pasadena Star-News, the Whittier Daily News, and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. That group is in turn part of the larger Los Angeles Newspaper Group, which has other papers in the San Fernando Valley (Los Angeles Daily News) Long Beach (Press-Telegram) and three in the Inland Empire. Some of those occasionally pick up my pieces. I’ve eased off some of the newspaper work recently to have more time to write fiction, but I’m still involved in reviewing books and profiling local authors.

How many author profiles/book reviews do you estimate that you do a year? And how many of those are related to mysteries?

Of those, a dozen were about authors, but only one was on a mystery writer and one mystery-related—if you call Anne Rice that. She was a great interview, and author profiles are among my favorites because writers are almost always articulate, smart, and interesting.

I’ve also reviewed half a dozen mystery or suspense novels and a non-fiction book by a mystery author.

Describe your involvement with the mystery genre. I believe that you participated in some mystery conventions in the past. Which ones?

I attended Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime in the ‘90s, where I enjoyed being on and going to panels, and I did a presentation on Dashiell Hammett, where I got to interview Joe Gores and William Nolan. Conventions offer writers such a wonderful chance to connect with other writers, since we’re all readers and fans too. I remember stalking Ross Thomas and, realizing that he was about to leave the convention, running up to him to get his signature on my MWA card because I didn’t have any of his books on me. On an airport shuttle bus, I told Lawrence Block I knew who he was. He grinned and replied, "More than I can say most days." Wonderful and funny.

I’m lucky to count some terrific mystery/suspense authors as friends, including Barbara Seranella, Taylor Smith, and the late Patricia Guiver, who was my first student to be published. I never would have met any of them had I not been in the mystery world.

Conventions also offer the chance to learn a lot about publishing and to make good contacts, though I don’t advise a frontal-attack pitch to agents or editors trying to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee alone. Get business cards and use them, that kind of thing.

The workshops related to writers’ conventions—not just mystery gatherings—can be very worthwhile, and I’ve enjoyed teaching short-term classes for some of them.

How do you get ideas for your reviews/columns? Does your editor assign them to you? Do you want ARCs/galleys sent directly to you? If so, where should authors send them?

My editor used to be a student in my mystery-writing class, so it’s been a wonderful role reversal and collaboration since I wasn’t trained in journalism. She’s a great mentor and spoiled me rotten, letting me cherry-pick assignments. Most of my style topics were my own suggestions—like how to get a bra that fits, or how to spot quality workmanship in ready-to-wear clothes. Others were seasonal, but she usually let me put my consumerist spin on, say, the wedding dress industry or movie stars’ unfortunate fashion choices.

I usually get review copies of books from my editor, very seldom galleys, but I’d love to see new mysteries from legitimate publishers. I’m pretty finicky and am not very interested in e-books or self-published/POD books. Maybe I’ve read too many unpublished manuscripts in my time, including for my old agent. Meaning no disrespect, but in an earlier era, many self-published books would either have been rewritten or remained in a drawer. Of course, there are notable exceptions, as in the case of African American authors who self-published fantastic books because big publishers were ignoring them. I’m sure that agents and publishers can be blind to other stunning new talent, so please don’t send me hate mail for having that opinion!

For my purposes, an author has to live in Southern California, preferably in the San Gabriel Valley, for me to do a profile or review. Anyone wanting to send me a book, please email me first at offthecuff@surfside.net.

What tips would you suggest for authors who want to explore getting placement in the San Gabriel Newspapers/Long Beach Press-Telegram, etc.?

If you think reviewers are busy, wait until you meet a features editor! I’d say a good old press release is the most appropriate way to make contact. Be sure to approach a paper where you live or where your books are set, as a local angle is essential. It’s best not to bother an editor otherwise. I expect some people prefer paper releases and some electronic, so you could do worse than to send both. Newspaper websites often have a staff directory so you can send it to a specific person.

Have you won any awards for writing? If so, which ones?

Well, sort of. I never entered any contests, and my fiction portfolio is pitifully thin. However, my novel, NIGHT BUTTERFLY, was chosen by the L.A. Times as a year’s best-ten crime novel, and my piece on the history of velvet has been nominated for a best-column newspaper award. The Boston Globe said my first short story was worth the price of the paperback anthology it appeared in; does that count?

Thank you, Patricia! Patricia said that she’ll be checking in a few times today, so if you have a question or comment, fire away. She might have an answer for you.

Now who will be the subject of next month’s profile? You’ll just have to tune in and see.

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: kawaii (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 213)

Spend even a couple of hours in a store with any Japanese female from junior high age to young adulthood and you’ll undoubtedly hear the screech, "ka-WA-eeeeeee." Kawaii means cute. Just think Hello Kitty, Kero-kero-pi, etc., and you get the picture. There’s a lot of theories of why kawaii prevails in Japan.

I myself don’t have a natural affinity Furenjieitai for cuteness, but it’s surprising how easily you can get indoctrinated into the kawaii culture while living in Japan.

Even the military gets a kawaii makeover with this billboard for the Self-Defense Forces. (Photo courtesy of The Hokkaido Crow.)

‘A Dark Shadow Fell Over My Chop Suey’

NAOMI HIRAHARA

When Mari was growing up, they only went to onFar_east_cafe_night_los_angeles_2 e restaurant: Entoro in Little Tokyo. Entoro was also known as Far East Cafe, a chop suey house, the old kind before the new Chinese came to town. There, you got greasy homyu, looking like day-old Cream of Wheat in a tiny bowl; almond duck, slippery, fat and buttery with a crunch of fried skin and nuts; and real sweet and sour pork, bright, stinking orange like the best high-grade motor oil. Everyone went to Entoro, crowded around tables separated by wooden dividers like a giant maze of horse stalls. The upstairs area was open and reserved for special occasions. Someone married, go to Far East. Someone dead, go to Far East. It was simple and predictable. Same set of waiters, who doubled as the cooks, who happened to own the joint. And the menu, who bothered to even look? Mas wasn’t even sure they had menus, but seemed to remember a bewildered hakujin family, probably visiting from out-of-state, looking lost while they perused some kind of stained sheet of paper in front of them.

–SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 28

I was having some Chinese food when a dark shadow fell over mFarewell_1 y chop suey.

–FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975), the movie starring Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe

In between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, I’ll be making good on an auction gift I donated to last year’s Bouchercon–a three-hour walking mystery tour of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo.

I’ll be taking the winner, a New Yorker no less, by the former location of the Yamato Hall, also known as the Tokyo Club, where gangsters and gamblers regularly frequented before World War II. I’ve heard various stories of murder and mayhem, and hopefully, can give specific dates and examples after snooping through old records of Japanese American National Museum.

There’s also koban, the Los Angeles Police Department way station–its creation led by the bean cake maker next door. A couple of blocks to the north is the Federal Building, where the L.A. riots began as a political protest in April 1992, then igniting into violence, leading to the burning of vehicles and the breaking of glass windows at the nearby New Otani Hotel. I’ll point out crime sites that either my staff or I covered during my tenure as reporter and editor of The Rafu Shimpo daily newspaper, including the case in which a very scary-looking man with possible underworld ties and his lawyer visited me one day.

But probably the most important site will be the most visibly arresting: the Far East Cafe, which was reopened this month as the Chop Suey Cafe and Lounge. Some Asian American youngsters take offense at the name, but growing up, I constantly heard, "chopu suey, chopu suey." Every Japantown throughout the Pacific West Coast had its own landmark chop suey house, and in Los Angeles from the 1960s until its closure in 1994 due to the Northridge earthquake, Far East Cafe was ours.

What is chop suey? Well, as mentioned above in the excerpt of my debut novel, the Far East Cafe standards were almond duck, sweet and sour pork, homyu (also spelled homu) made of fermented bean curd, and what else–chop suey. You won’t see most of these served in Mandarin or even many Cantonese restaurants these days. But this was the comfort food of Japanese America and mainstream America at one time. During one period of time, probably 90 percent of all Japanese American wedding celebrations and funerals luncheons took place at a chop suey restaurant.

Housed in an 1890s Beux-Arts building in the Little Tokyo Historic District, Far East Cafe opened its doors in the 1930s. Besides its exterior neon sign, the most distinctive feature of the eatery is the maze-like wooden stalls that divide the diners. There’s also a balcony where groups ate and children like myself blew paper from our straws into unsuspecting diners below.

Many period movies have been filmed in this historic restaurant, including the 1975 version of "Farewell, My Lovely" starring actor Robert Mitchum as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, now unfortunately out of print. It’s difficult to get a hold of the video, although it is readily available at a handful of libraries within the Los Angeles Public Library system. (I borrowed mine from Echo Park Public Library.) It’s a fun film, co-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and George Pappas and including a brief cameo of a fresh-faced Sylvester Stallone during his pre-Rocky days. The Far East Cafe is only pictured in a very brief scene when Moose Malloy pays the "private dick" a visit. "I was having some Chinese food when a dark shadow fell over my chop suey," states actor Mitchum in the voice over. (I couldn’t find that line or a reference to a chop suey house in the book; if you can, please correct me in the comments section or send me an e-mail.)

It’s perhaps because the character of Philip Marlowe sat in one of the stalls of Far East that stories spread that his creator Raymond Chandler frequented the chop suey house. However, after making some e-mail inquiries to the Little Tokyo Service Center, which owns the restaurant property, I could not find any verification of this information.

Undoubtedly, Far East, with its close proximity to City Hall and the Los Angeles Police Department, could have been a place that Chandler might have visited.

Yet, based on an article written by Judith Freeman on Raymond Chandler residences (he apparently lived in more than 30 houses and apartments, from downtown L.A. to Redondo Beach to Arcadia) for the Los Angeles Times on December 23, 2004, it doesn’t seem that he frequented anywhere for any length of time.

This past Monday an aspiring mystery writer, Elaine Yamaguchi, and I met for lunch at the Chop Suey Restaurant. I made a mistake and ordered the House Chow Mein instead of the Chicken Chop Suey under the Wok Classics section. I wanted that nostalgic taste that would take me back to my childhood and heyday of Far East. In another stall, I saw a group of elderly Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) men and women ordering the old classic dishes. In time, I smelled that pungent scent of homyu, nasty and familiar at the same time.

You can never go back home again, but then again, it felt good to be in a place where my beloved mystery genre and my personal history collide. I’ll definitely be back again to check out the old-school menu as well as try something different–the chashu sandwich with wasabi fries perhaps?

Far_east_cafe_los_angeles

Chop Suey Cafe
347 East First Street
Little Tokyo (213) 617-9990

Parking has become a little tricky in Little Tokyo now with all the new condominium units. Lots are available on First Street–about $4-5 for a whole day. Make a day of it and go to Rafu Bussan and Utsuwa no Yakata for beautiful and inexpensive ceramics and the local grocery stores (Mitsuwa, Marukai, and Enbun) for some Japanese snacks. And, of course, the store at Japanese American National Museum and Kinokuniya Bookstore for what else–books!

More information about Far East and related topics:

  • Far East’s biggest fan: Tony Osumi
  • Far East’s biggest detractor who became a big fan through courtship and marriage: Tony Osumi’s wife, Jenni Kuida
  • Current reviews of Chop Suey Restaurant
  • Great blog on Little Tokyo and its changing facade, in word and pictures.
  • Chop suey history

Photo credit: (Top) Wataru Ebihara (Bottom) Denny, co-author of LOS ANGELES: A WORLD CLASS CITY

FULLY UPDATED: After some prompting by my website designer Sue Trowbridge, I finally have updated my fall events on my website. I’ll be adding a couple more soon, so check it regularly.

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: oishii (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 29)

Delicious. Say it with gusto (OIIIII-shiiiiii) after you take a big bite of your favorite sushi and your itamaesan (sushi chef) will be so happy.

THREE DEGREES OF SEPARATION: Sentimental Journey to Watsonville

Note: Today begins a monthly special feature, "Three Degrees of Separation," a column I wrote for the Pacific Citizen, a publication of the Japanese American Citizens League, five years ago. In honor of a family reunion that took place in this town of Watsonville earlier this summer, I begin with this one. Watsonville, located east of Monterey, California, is also the home of award-winning author Laurie King.

NAOMI HIRAHARA

Many city folks romanticize the country, and I’m no exception. Practically every summer my father would load us up in either our hard-top Chevy Impala, Oldsmobile Cutlas, or later Ford van, and drive up the coast of California to his hometown, Watsonville.

It was a home he knew very briefly. Watsonville, nestled in the Pajaro Valley, close to Monterey, was where he was born, but he had been taken to Japan as a mere toddler. He finally returned to Watsonville, living with relatives before coming to Los Angeles and making it on his own.

I don’t remember the drive, but I remember waking up, bleary-eyed, to a world of expansive lettuce fields. It smelled different; I could breathe in deep, and my chest didn’t ache like those days smog alerts were regularly issued during hot summers in L.A. This world even felt different. As I got out of the car, everything seemed to rest at a calm pitch. Nothing bad would happen today.

In the middle of one lettuce field stood a huge weathered Victorian house, the home of my father’s aunt. For me, it was a magical house. Wood bannisters and staircases, rooms with curved windows, doorknobs that were made out of glass. My father’s aunt, tender-faced and bespectacled, would usually be in the center room, her poodle at her side.

In suburban L.A., we hardly had any relatives, but here in Watsonville we were surrounded by kinfolk. Best of all were the girl second-cousins who shyly took me around, showing me a mountain of comic books purchased for all the grandchildren, and now also me. Later in the day, we went into a shack beside the house which was stocked with cans of strawberry preserves and a huge freezer. Inside the freezer were containers of frozen strawberries, as sweet and delicious as any dessert could be.

It was in Watsonville where one relative would show me grafted trees, bandaged in gauze, in his backyard, and I would wonder if the branches were healing from some injury. No, my father explained, it was to produce new fruit. A new combination. My father could explain a lot about the crops in the fields. For even with the few years my father had lived in Watsonville, he understood it.

I, on the other hand, could only absorb it as an outsider. The couple days a year in the country served as an escape, a promise that life could be simpler and kinder, filled with comic books and the sweet taste of strawberries. I was naive, not realizing the discipline, hard work, and innovations that go into the daily work of farming. I did not know the complexities of country life.

I recently returned to Watsonville. Not with my family, but on my own with a colleague for a research trip. This time I was very much awake for the ride, winding down Pajaro Pass, through hills, trees, and dry brush. And then, there it was–even more picturesque than ever.

As we conducted interviews and read documents, I met a very different Watsonville. The world’s center of strawberry production, it’s also the site of simmering tension between farmers and the United Farm Workers. The downtown area is still recovering from a devastating earthquake. Although the town is racially diverse, it is also socially segregated. There’s a lot underneath the stillness.

Yet, with its rolling hills and ocean breeze, Watsonville, I maintain, is one of the prettiest spots in California. Removed from the main highway, it is protected, at least for now, from the sanitized developments that characterize Silicon Valley. Like lines on the palm of a hand, Japanese Americans have criss-crossed over the landscape of Pajaro Valley. There is a rich legacy of those who had begun as sharecroppers and migrant farm workers in Watsonville. Some of them now operate their own farms, multi-million-dollar businesses.

I tell myself if I ever made enough money, I would love to buy a second home in Watsonville where I could write and rest. But then who knows. I’m just a romantic city slicker.

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: inaka (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 136)

Country. I guess in kabuki there’s often an inaka girl and a machi, or city, girl. So in your heart of hearts, are you inaka or machi?

L.A. Mix Profile: Media Escort Ken Wilson

Here’s Ken Wilson in his favorite place–a fishing boat on a lake. He has fly-fished with mystery’s finest–T. Jefferson Parker, C.J. Box, and Brian Wiprud. This particular photo was taken by Parker.

P1010070_1

NAOMI HIRAHARA

So what the heck is a media escort? It sounds slightly nefarious yet glamorous at the same time. Media escorts take authors around to bookstores, either for events or book signings. And you can imagine, for traffic-challenged L.A., these escorts are high in demand.

Think that you need to be a bestselling author to command an escort? After my debut trade paperback original mystery was published in spring of 2004, I hired an escort for a day for a couple hundred of dollars plus gas. There are many excellent escorts to choose from (and I hope to profile more in future posts). But based upon a recommendation from a writer friend, I chose Ken Wilson and was not disappointed.

His mission was to chauffeur me, not to events, but to unscheduled drive-by signings. In a single day, we hit more than a dozen bookstores, from Sherman Oaks to Northridge to Westwood to LAX to Torrance to Studio City. I thought I was familiar with a good many shortcuts through L.A., but Ken knew all the backroads, even at the height of rush-hour traffic.

Of course, I could have driven myself to all these bookstores in perhaps two or three days. But Ken had the connections. He reacquainted me with Lita Weissman, the queen of Borders special events, and introduced me to a score of other chain booksellers, which eventually led to some great in-store events. I can sell the pants off of a product created by friends, but my own work? I get a little tongue-tied, I admit. There are definitely naturally gifted and charming ones, like this author who is tearing up the country in his Suzuki Sidekick.

My friend Carolyn Sanwo of Heritage Source says I’m better at selling myself than most Japanese Americans who are more restrained and have a dignified sense of chanto, propriety (see below). Even so, it is nice to have an advocate to sing your praises alongside of you. Ken is one of the best.

It’s about time to hear it from the man himself, Ken Wilson.

How did you get into the media escort business?

I started in 1981. I had worked at Brentano’s Bookstore in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for two years in the mid-seventies while I was a freelance newspaper and magazine writer. One of my fellow employees went on to become the Warner Books sales rep. In the late seventies, the publishers would send celebrity authors to various cities and put them into the hands of the local sales rep. The publicity department at the publisher would book them onto the local morning TV show and the sales rep would escort them to the TV studio and then spend the rest of the day taking them to local (at that time mostly independent) bookstores to meet and greet the booksellers and sign stock. The practice got to be popular–so much so that my sales rep friend couldn’t do it and still do her job selling books. She recommended an actor friend of ours as a substitute, and after a short time, he decided it wasn’t for him. I then got the call and the rest is history.

I remember that you mentioned that you had written a book on things to do with with children in L.A. What did you learn about book promotion from that experience? (BTW, is that book still in print?)

The book of which you speak, KIDS ON BOARD, published (ironically) by Warner Books was reasearched and written in 1987 and ’88 and published in ’89. It was a real eye opener for me as the book was published on the same date as the Time-Life Warner merger. One of the casualties of the merger was Warner Books’ entire Travellers Bookshelf imprint which was discontinued. Luckily, the book was printed and distributed, but that was all. The publicity department was forced to cancel a big 10-city promotional tour. I was disappointed, of course, but decided to try my hand at booking media on my own. Again, luckily, TV and radio producers seemed intrigued by the fact that an author would do his own pitching and I got booked on most of the programs I approached. It afforded me an opportunity for on-the-job publicist training that I use to this day. Oh, the book went out of print in 1992.

Ken, I find you very unique in your field because you’re not merely driving authors around, but you participate in the promotion, whether it’s talking them up to CRMs (community relations managers) or calling bookstores ahead of time. Is that your typical M.O.?

Yes. As media in large markets like Los Angeles gets harder and harder to book (there’s pretty much no way to get an author onto most morning TV programs unless he or she is a celebrity), I realized it was essential to provide the publicity department at the publisher with a valuable alternative to media.

If you embrace the notion that books are hand sold, one at a time, and that book store employees are in the best position to recommend and hand sell, it seemed obvious to me that, in the down times between interviews, authors would be best served by meeting as many booksellers as possible. We go into the stores, press the flesh with the employees and get the author to sign the store stock. In many stores, that signed stock (now marked prominently with autograph stickers) goes to the front of the store and is placed in a prominent position.

Since I’ve come to know most sales staffs in nearly all of the stores (chains and independents) in Southern California, I’ve learned who best to introduce my authors to, depending on the subject matter of a book.

In the past couple of years, with fewer and fewer authors being toured by their publishers, in-store marketing has become an essential alternative in getting the word out about a book. Authors themselves, often at the recommendation of their publishers, hire me to do this grass roots marketing.

Do you find that there’s a lot of change in CRM/owner/manager bookstore personnel in Southern Cal? How do you keep abreast with such changes?

There is always turnover. However, managerial positions are somewhat static, and since I’m in most of these stores on at least a weekly basis, I keep up with the changes.

In terms of drop-in signings and events, some authors focus solely on independent bookstores, while others concentrate on the chains. Is it a one-size fits all situation or do you think the formula changes with each author? Please explain.

It’s essential to visit both independents and chain stores. I vary somewhat on my approach to each type. I almost always call indies before a drop in as they tend to get embarrassed if they don’t have my author’s books. If I can, I give them a ten day heads up so that, if they want to, they can order books. With the chains, I call a few locations just to see if generally there are books in the stores. Both Borders and Barnes and Noble have the computer capability to see if other stores in the area carry the book in question.

But with small press, sometimes there will be no stores that carry the book. Undeterred, we still press forward with our visits. In many cases, when an author takes the time and trouble to come to a store, we can usually get that store to order copies once we explain what the book is all about.

When an author does a drop-in signing, what materials should she bring with her? Should she call in advance or just go direct to the bookstore? What days are best for drop-in signings?

My favorite thing to bring is a free copy of the book. Talking to store personnel, we determine who would be most likely to read the book in question and get the author to sign and personalize it to that person. It’s amazing how much traction you can get by giving away an autographed copy.

A copy of a favorable review is also a good thing to bring with you. A few years ago a lot of authors began having postcards made that were adorned with the book cover on the front and some laudatory review quotes on the back. So many, in fact, that stores started getting flooded with postcards and no place to put them. I suggest that, instead of postcards, authors should consider book marks. You can still have a facsimile of the cover and couple of positive quotes, but stores will be more likely to accept them because they take up less counter space. And, as most stores will tell you, everybody needs a bookmark.

I call the indies ahead of time, but that’s because I can usually get them to order books based on our relationship. But, if an author calls him or herself and the store says they don’t have the book and wouldn’t be inclined to order it, the author has lost out on the possibility of stating his or her case in person. I can’t emphasize enough how important personal contact is.

The best days to visit stores (at least in Los Angeles) are Monday through Thursday (Friday traffic is terrible and we can’t get to as many stores as on those other days). When you are adding genre stores (like mystery or sci-fi stores) you need to determine the days they are open. In greater L.A., there are some mystery stores that are closed on certain weekdays.

What other services do you offer?

I do publicist work, specializing in Southern California.

Thank you, Ken!

Whether or not you decide to hire your own media escort, Ken has shared some great advice on drive-by signings. His suggestion that writers bring copies of their books as giveaways (a practice that Joe Konrath has embraced in his marathon book tour) is excellent. Ken recommended that I, as a unknown mystery writer, mail about 100 autographed copies of my debut trade PBO to independent bookstores across the nation. I didn’t do it–I didn’t want to spend the extra money and figured that ARCs would take care of that, anyway. But I regret it now because booksellers do love and appreciate signed books. It would have been a great way to launch a series.

Ken is gaining notoriety nationally as he was recently interviewed for a Pages Magazine article on in-store marketing. Look for it in December.

And the most important thing, his contact e-mail: KWMedia@earthlink.net. You can contact him directly if you have any questions about his current rates, etc.

Ken will most likely be on the road today, but go ahead and post any questions and comments for him and hopefully he can get to them at the end of the day.

L.A. Mix Profile is an occasional Wednesday feature of Murderati. Who will be next? Stay tuned.

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: chanto (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 127)

Proper, appropriate, just right. Japanese American parents usually impress this principle upon their children. Years ago, I wrote a column, "The Importance of Being Chanto," for my former newspaper, The Rafu Shimpo. It was later excerpted in the Los Angeles Times and reprinted in a book for Japanese American youth, NIKKEI DONBURI, and then reappeared in my column, “Three Degrees of Separation,” for the Pacific Citizen. It related how "unchanto" I was, much to the chagrin of my mother. I’ll be posting it next month as part of a regular monthly “Three Degrees of Separation” feature, which begin next week.

MIDDLE-AGED NAOMI GETS OUT: Was that me wandering the streets of Hollywood Boulevard on Friday night? Thanks to the guidance and company of thirtysomething brother and his twentysomething girlfriend, I was actually going to a concert that STARTED at 10:30 PM! That’s the time I start dozing off in the middle of Law & Order. We were at the Knitting Factory Hollywood to meet for the first time and support a second-cousin. The music of Bjorkestra was quite excellent; I would encourage New Yorkers to check out the band and more importantly the pianist cousin at their performance at the Tonic in NYC this Friday. And Hollywood Boulevard at 12:45 AM? It’s a madhouse, definitely Blade Runnerish. I would recommend all to have this quintessential Hollywood experience, but it helps if you have L.A. Generation X-er and Y-ers as your entertainment escorts.

Why Publishing Is So Japanese

NAOMI HIRAHARA

While I lived in Japan for a year after graduating from college, I did something that offended my distant relatives. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I recall lying on my futon in an adjoining tatami room and hearing my grandmother explain my behavior to the relatives. "She’s gaijin," she was telling them in Japanese. "She really doesn’t know."

Well, for those who missed the "Shogun" miniseries, being called a gaijin is not a good thing. It literally means "outside person" or foreigner. Basically some fool who doesn’t know better. But to plead my case, I have to tell you that the "rules" in Japan are unspoken. They are definitely there, but no one really articulates them, so you have to step in a minefield to discover what’s really going on and perhaps lose an arm and leg in the process.

I often see parallels between the American publishing world and the Japanese world, both relationship-driven universes. There are certain rules and truths that outsiders don’t know. And yes, as writers, we think that we are insiders because we look the part, our names are part of the system, we can speak the language, we even act like we know. But oftentimes we don’t.

We author bloggers try to posit ourselves as experts, presenting our loyal readers with anecdotal evidence about the "truths" of publishing. But most of us don’t know. Publishing is a more complicated animal, an amoeba that takes different shapes and forms, constantly changing and yet utterly constant at the same time.

I recall reading that Laura Lippman once stated that she was concerned about publishing advice being spread by the web. Not wanting to rely on my faulty memory, I e-mailed her recently and she elaborated in her reply: "My primary worry is that so much info on the Internet is packaged as ‘the’ way, as opposed to one way. There is no single way."

"Good people get dropped," she went on to say. "It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Good books don’t get the attention they deserve. But there are no simple solutions to these problems and I worry that certain approaches achieve Holy Grail status."

Basically, she expressed, those working at mainstream publishing houses do know a lot more than we authors give them credit for. I think there’s something to Laura’s words of wisdom. Yes, our own personal experience may seem like "the truth," but it’s not the whole truth. It might be an aberration, in fact.

If you want more of a big-picture reality of the publishing industry, I would point you to down under, specifically the Australian Publishers Association, who sponsors a fellowship program for writers and publishers from Australia to spend time in U.S. publishing houses and literary agencies.

I think it was Sarah Weinman’s website that turned me on to these reports a while back and I found them illuminating. I recently returned to see that a 2003-2004 report had been added, filed by Rowena Lennox. They are long, more than 70 pages, and more geared towards Australian and personal interests. They are also dated; one report is from 1999 and the second, 2001.

You’ll find superfluous information here about apartment-hunting in Manhattan and AOL hookups (yes, they are dated), but they are also fascinating.

The beauty of these reports are that they are filed by gaijin, new to this country and the New York business scene. Nothing is taken for granted in these reports–the configuration of American chain bookstores, the unique nature of New York publishing houses, the personalities of New York newspapers.

There’s detailed descriptions about the various departments in publishing houses, covers, Internet publicity, and bookstores, along with some corresponding numbers.

Again, with the time lag, there are changes, I’m sure. For instance, the situation of the mass-market book seems different in 2006 than two years earlier. Costco and other big-box stores play a larger role than ever before. Yet the general rigmarole involved in buying and producing a book has most likely stayed constant. What is also apparent is the dedication of editors and other publishing professionals in producing the best book possible.

As I scan these reports, it occurs to me that we writers don’t really have to understand all the details of the industry. We authors really see only a small slice of the larger pie and perhaps we need to do more of what we do best–write. Of course, we still have to have an eye on self-promotion because while the publishers have hundreds of books to shepherd, we just have ours. I just hope that Murderati readers realize what we are offering here on this blog is merely suggestive, not prescriptive.

The irony of it all is that sometimes it does take a gaijin to explain the system.

HOT SUMMER READ: Christine Bell of Mystery and Imagination Bookshop turned me on to Richard K. Morgan’s ALTERED CARBON and it’s been my beach reading for the past couple of days. Morgan’s debut features Takeshi Kovacs, an Envoy from Harlan’s World, a Japanese-East European planet–what would have happened if my ancestors and Harley Jane Kozak’s got together. Most of this futuristic noirish novel takes place in Bay City, formerly San Francisco. It’s got gore, sex, and violence and it’s also incredibly inventive and well-written. A definite page-turner. Brett Battles, I would definitely recommend this for you.

TOFU FOR THE SOUL: All you Angelenos, come out this weekend for this and this.

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: hakujin (SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN, page 1)

White person. Literally. Haku is one way to read the character shiro, the more popular way to say "white." "Jin" is another way to read the character hito, the more popular way to say "person."

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