Of Fairy Tales and Folk Tales

by Naomi Hirahara

My mother she butchered me,
My father he ate me,
My sister, little Ann Marie,
She gathered up the bones of me
And tied them in a silken cloth
To lay under the juniper,
Tweet twee, what a pretty bird am I!

–"The Juniper Tree" by the Grimm brothers

Gasagasa_cov_4koMy mother doesn’t like the cover of the Japanese version of my second mystery, GASA-GASA GIRL. The publisher doesn’t understand my book, she wrote in an e-mail. Looks like something for teenagers.

But when I first saw it, I loved it. Immediately. It’s in manga style, with cartoon characters. My amateur sleuth, a seventysomething Japanese American gardener, is grappling with some young man while his tomboyish daughter stands holding a smoking gun.

The cover alerts readers that the book inside may be a fairy tale. No, I silently respond to my mother’s electronic comment, this publisher totally got the book.

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Inevitably at some writers conference, book event, or blog, there will be an author who explains that it’s best to write what you know. I always cringe when I hear that remark and double cringe when another writer counters that writing what you know is the most boring thing ever.

You see, readers will look at me and firmly place me in the "writing what you know" camp. After all, my main character in my series is inspired by my father and all the men I wrote about while I was a reporter and then editor for a Japanese American newspaper for more than 10 years. It’s a very quaint and precious behind-the-scenes story but is nowhere close to evoking the oohs and aahs of let’s say, a white guy writing about a geisha in the mid-twentieth century. Because certainly he did the hard lifting, while I must have sat there and documented what was right in front of me, like a teenager with a Super 8 camera (I know, I’m dating myself.)

But writing any kind of fiction is just that — writing lies for entertainment and illumination. Doesn’t matter if the subject matter is close and all around you, or back in the distant past or future or in another country or world. When you sit down at that computer or desk, what you’re doing is creating a new universe — it can be one that is very similar to the one you live in, but it cannot be the exact same reproduction. Characters that are based or inspired by real people cannot be tied down to reality — there will come a time in your manuscript that they will loosen their rope ties or break their metal shackles and go on their own way. It just has to be.

Anyway, what do we really know? Do we totally understand our friends, parents, children, spouse/partner and even ourselves? (If we did, there would be a lot less substance abuse, divorce, child neglect, and family discord, I’d imagine.) Can we imagine what loved ones are feeling, thinking at all times? Have we shocked ourselves at how we’ve reacted during a time of crisis? Those of us who write about familiar characters, settings and locales may be recreating what we THINK we know. But it’s indeed just one interpretation.

For those in the mystery genre, plot also forces us to be universe creators. Whether we write traditional mysteries, thrillers, police procedurals, noir stories, or PI novels, we are actually treading in to the arena of folk tales and fairy tales. Because how in the world can our amateur sleuth — a common baker, p.r. professional, or gardener — keep tripping over those dead bodies? We know your average FBI agent doesn’t have that kind of non-stop exciting life (I’m sure there’s a lot of paperwork that needs to be filled out on antiquated computers). We’ve heard how most crime labs are destitute and to process one DNA test might take the length of a whole season of CSI. And private investigators — talk about mundane work!

Yet in our hands, these people become something else on the page. I’m convinced their stories are our society’s contemporary folk and fairy tales. Just check out Grimm’s fairy tales; they are definitely more noir than fanciful. Some impart lessons; others are just gruesome. Some are light and humorous. All present an alternate reality, where a common villager can transform into something quite extraordinary.

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As I’ve mentioned on blogs and speaking engagements, my father, up to this time, hasn’t read any of my books in the series — and now there are three of them. Even though he was born in California and has lived here for most of his life, he feels more comfortable reading Japanese.

I say "up to this time," because things have changed with the Japanese translation.

Instead of waiting for my author’s copies from the Japanese publisher, I run to the local Kinokuniya Bookstore in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo as soon as I hear that Shogakukan’s version of GASA-GASA GIRL has come in.

My first stop afterwards is to my parents’ house. My father grabs the book out of my hand before I’m barely inside. He rushes to the light and examines the front and back covers and goes straight to the end of the book, where there’s a five page essay on me and the series.

"The person writes that she’s hoping for more books on Mas Arai," he reports.

There will be, I say, as I’ve just forged a deal with a new publisher. (This time hardcover, yay!)

He then asks me what’s going to be the heart of the fourth book.

"Drugs," I say in Japanese.

"Drugs?" My father frowns and considers this topic. "This guy’s a gangster," he then proclaims.

I wonder if I’ve insulted my father — perhaps guilt through literary association — but when I look more closely at his bespectacled face, I believe that his eyes are glimmering.

The next time I see him, he has finished the book. "Kora," he says. Hey! "You wrote my story."

But you’ve never been in New York, the setting of the translated book, I tell him.

He doesn’t seem to hear my words. When I leave, he walks onto our cement porch. "Our friends are waiting for the next installment," he says. "They are wondering what will happen next."

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WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT CHARACTER AND UNIVERSE BUILDING?
S.J. Rozan and I will be leading a workshop, "Credible Characters, Credible Worlds," at MWA’s inaugural two-day Crime Fiction University during Edgar Week. Our session will be on Tuesday, April 29, at 2 p.m. at Lighthouse International in New York City. 

13 thoughts on “Of Fairy Tales and Folk Tales

  1. billie

    I love the image of your father taking the book from you and reading in the back. And then saying you wrote his story! That must have been a wonderful moment for you.

    And I love that cover, too!

    Congratulations on your deal!

    Reply
  2. j.t. ellison

    Oh, Naomi, it is so good to see you back here! I’ve missed your perspective.

    Fabulous post. I got tears in my eyes when your father rushed for the book.I like the thought of being a universe creator. We then get to inhabit these worlds, where the fun of writing comes in.

    Congrats on the new deal!!!xo

    Reply
  3. Naomi

    Hi, guys! It’s nice to be visiting here at Murderati. One thing that amazes me is how flat and global we’ve become. I was informed about the Japanese book through e-mail from my editor (received a copy of the cover, front and back), found out about a review in the Asahi Shimbun–one of Japan’s big papers–through an e-mail from my uncle in Japan, and most recently was e-mailed an image of the book on a shelf at a train station store in Tokyo. And here in L.A., you can easily buy books in Japanese, Korean, Chinese, etc.

    Just wait, J.T., when your book is translated into Italian. Won’t that be fun?

    Reply
  4. Louise Ure

    Naomi, your posts are always a joy.

    I fall more into the “write what you’re afraid of” category. Or maybe “what you’re afraid of becoming.”

    Clearly that’s not true for you. Your books are such an anthem to your father and his generation.

    Reply
  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    That is a lovely, sly story about your father. Like JT, I’m choked up.

    I think that cover will bring you LOTS of new readers – very, very smart marketing.

    Stories from LCC – actually, when this many of us go to a conference we really should do a group wrap-up (although I have to say that I’m still groggy from altitude sickness today – a bunch of us were affected. The day after is no good because we’re all scrambling to catch up from the extended weekend.

    Reply
  6. Naomi

    Louise–

    “Afraid of becoming,” interesting. How about “afraid of what you are”? Fear seems central to so much writing. Actually fairy tales and children’s stories revolve around fear (at least the real good ones do).

    And Alex–

    Yeah, I can understand that it’s hard to process the convention when you’re busy playing catch-up. But by the time everyone’s caught up, our attention is already on the next convention!

    Reply
  7. j.t. ellison

    LCC was a lot of fun. Though I’ve learned that if you aren’t feeling well, you need to think long and hard about attending a conference. I had fun, I think I did alright on my panels, I sold lots of books (Rue Morgue was great, and we sold-out, even better.) But I wasn’t myself, at all. Every time I tried to play, I had to go back to my room to get horizontal after about an hour, which dramatically curtailed my ability to connect with readers. Saw an awful lot of writers, which was glorious, but I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time getting to know the people I don’t already know.

    I was feeling better by Saturday, but it was too little, too late. So word to the wise, if you’re not 100%, think about it.

    That said: it was so incredibly awesome to play author girl with Louise and Alex and Toni and Pari and Rob. Met DA Davenport, which was great to put a face to the excellent comments found here. Murderati was on the lips of a number of people. There’s something exceptionally cool about being introduced as the Friday columnist for Murderati and having the audience members nod.

    So, back to Naomi’s wonderful post. Do you read your books in Japanese?

    Reply
  8. Tom, T.O.

    Hi, Naomi,

    How exciting! New contract, and in hard cover, and a great cover on the Japanese publication of GASA-GASA GIRL. (I’ve got to get downtown and get a copy! Are the first two available in Japanese?)

    Perspicacious insight: fairy tales. Very well put. I always think of superheroes as fairy tales/SF, and of course, MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM and THE TEMPEST (FORBIDDEN PLANET) as fairy tales/SF, but never mysteries; but you’re right, of course. Thank you, and hope to see you soon.

    Reply
  9. Naomi

    Altitude sickness and sickness in general–important to remember. I’m going to have to keep the former in mind when my husband and I make our way to Denver in July. Besides being hydrated, what else can you do to offset the side effects? And regarding being sick or close to sick when you travel, I recommend not only Airbornne, but Zicam–you put it up your nose (no comments from the peanut gallery) and it really works. Use it the minute you’re feeling under the weather.

    And Tom, St. Nick or should it be St. Tom?–GASA-GASA GIRL is number two in the series. SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN will be coming out in Japan in April and I can’t wait to see the cover for that one. The third will also be released in Korean this year, so I’ll be making a trip to L.A.’s Koreatown for that one. Call before you go to Kinokuniya in Little Tokyo (talk to Sherry) to make sure the book is in stock. News of the book has made its way in the vernacular press, so it might be sold out right now. You can get your hands on the latest Japanese mysteries translated into English there, as well as our American/European standards, including Sujata Massey and Barry Eisler. It’s such a cool bookstore and getting more and more popular with the younger set interested in anime and manga.

    Reply
  10. Naomi

    St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne. So I’ll be joining the home of a lot of other ‘Rati members. (Do I hear St. Martin’s party?)

    And regarding the question whether I read Japanese, I do, but veeeeeery veeeeeeery slowly. I was attempting to read Banana Yoshimoto’s KITCHEN in Japanese with my English-version of the book on my right and kanji dictionary on the left but I didn’t get very far. I’ve just leafed through GASA-GASA GIRL and will read it since I (hopefully) know what’s going on. Mas’s name is “Masu” throughout–funny.

    Reply
  11. Tom, T.O.

    Oh, Naomi,

    How caught up in the moment–senior moment–can I be? Of course GASA… was #2! I’m too used to thinking “latest” and spun off a comment before thinking it through. Sorry ’bout that, but you should be used to me by now: remember, I thought your young readers book was going to be out this past autumn, not next.

    Kinokuniya is a fine store. I’ve bought a number of books there (in English–I have no Japanese), and taken my granddaughter there (she’s a Manga enthusiast), as well as to the Japanese Museum (we’re members); she’s quite interested in Japanese culture, so we make a day of it when we go, and she samples the favorite foods of her Manga heroes and heroines.

    St.(?) Tom

    Guess I’ll owe you TWO bottles of wine!

    Reply

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