Simon Rowe - “I wanted to flip the stereotype of the hard-drinking male detective” - Hindustan Times

Simon Rowe - “I wanted to flip the stereotype of the hard-drinking male detective”

May 18, 2024 05:28 AM IST

Originally from New Zealand, Rowe has been living in Japan and writing about the country and its culture for more than 25 years. His debut novel, Mami Suzuki, is about the escapades of a contemporary Japanese single mother who manages the front desk of a hotel by day and moonlights as a private investigator by night

How and when did you make the move to Japan?

Author Simon Rowe (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Simon Rowe (Courtesy the publisher)

I came to Japan in March 1997, so 2024 will mark my 27th — half of my life. I live in the medium-sized city of Himeji (west of Kobe, in western Japan), which is famous for Himeji-jo Castle, a World Heritage-listed 400-year-old samurai castle.

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My decision to go to Japan was one made of necessity as much as curiosity. Pre-internet days, travel journalism was a good industry to be in. However, it was becoming very competitive. For me, the allure of Japan was its mystique and the fact that it was not widely written about as a travel destination. My mother happened to notice an advertisement for English language teachers needed in Japan — with full-time work visa sponsorship. That was my ticket to write about Japan. So, I taught English in the afternoons and wrote travel stories in the mornings.

224pp, ₹499; Penguin
224pp, ₹499; Penguin

What made you decide to start living in Japan?

There’s certainly a big difference between visiting a place and living there. My wife is Japanese and we have two children (12 and 16), so the decision to reside has been one based on the need for our kids to grow up with a strong sense of their Japanese identity. As a gaijin (foreigner), the lifestyle is “death by stimulation”. This is an endless source of inspiration for my writing, be it blogging about my neighbourhood, writing short stories, or just tapping out haiku on my antique Princess 300 typewriter.

How has living in Japan impacted your writing style and themes?

Having lived in Japan for so long, it feels completely natural — and logical — to use it as a setting for my fiction. It is what I know best. Years of researching and writing about Japan, as well as English teaching (which feels more like a cultural exchange than teaching), have given me a solid base of knowledge to work with, while travel provides inspiration for new writing projects.

What drew you to travel writing and what do you like most about it?

I grew up in rural New Zealand reading National Geographic magazines. Looking back, it now seems logical that I’d end up combining outdoor life and adventure with journalism. Travel writing should be about “transporting” the reader in a way that both entertains and informs. Sadly, narrative-style stories (the traveller’s tale) have been all but replaced with the info dump (”The 10 best cafes in …” or “The five best mountains to climb…”) which neither enlighten nor inspire.

Where did the inspiration for Mami Suzuki come from?

Mami Suzuki’s character is a composite of friends, acquaintances, students, and people I know or have met in Japan. While she embodies the “fighting spirit” of the modern Japanese woman, her situation also highlights the plight of single mothers who must battle to make ends meet, often working more than one job.

Why a woman detective? I wanted to flip the stereotype of the hard-drinking male detective (with a woman waiting for him at the end of a bar) for him on its head. In my novel, Mami is the one who drinks a little more than she should, and she has her male friend (Teizo) waiting for her at the end of the bar each time. Finally, after interviewing two male Tokyo PIs in 2023, I realised just how few female sleuths exist in Japan. They do exist, however, mostly specialising in cheating husband cases. What an intriguing job!

Who are your favourite Japanese writers and have you ever turned to them for inspiration?

My favourite writer currently is Kaoru Takamura, author of the two-volume Lady Joker. I only began reading her books after I’d finished writing Mami Suzuki. But her fabulous character portrayals of downtrodden men who decide to take revenge on corporate Japan has reinforced my belief that writing from beyond one’s comfort zone (Takamura’s characters are ALL male) can bring out the best in a story. Finally, Raymond Chandler’s novels, which feature his hard-bitten private dick, Philip Marlow, and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, have shaped my ideas on how a good mystery story should be written — simply, but with panache.

What are some of the biggest challenges and rewards of being a writer in Japan?

The biggest reward is having Japanese readers tell me how much they enjoyed reading Mami Suzuki: Private Eye. As a male foreigner writing from the POV of a Japanese middle-aged woman, this means a lot. Living in Japan, the pressures of work and family life leave you time-poor and exhausted, so the greatest challenge for me is not having the energy or the time to write. Luckily, my job as an English teacher at a women’s university near Kobe gives me lengthy summer and winter holidays, which I use to write in solid, productive bursts. As a writer, I feel that I inhabit two parallel universes: one for family and work, the other for storytelling. The two rarely meet, except at dinner time when everyone is talking at once. My wife has never read a single story I’ve written in 27 years!

What are some of your favourite places in Japan that inspire your writing?

The sea inspires my writing immensely. I have been an avid sea kayaker for more than 20 years, and the sea is therefore a strong theme which runs through Mami Suzuki: Private Eye. Not only in the island and coastal destinations where Mami conducts her investigations, but also in word choices (”She navigated the backstreets” or “restaurant lanterns bobbed like fat jellyfish on the evening breeze”). For a sense of authentic Japan, I recommend you start in Kobe, a charming, bustling port city in western Japan that has it all — great food, ambience, historical and modern architecture, and friendly internationally-minded people. It’s also Mami Suzuki’s hometown! Other places which feature in the book are: Ishigaki island in sub-tropical Okinawa (Japan’s most southern prefecture), Himeji city (my home), and the islands of the Seto Inland Sea where “lost worlds” really do exist.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers who dream of living in Japan?

Go equipped with knowledge of Japan’s culture, customs and etiquette. While watching Japanese movies and dramas will put the traditional Japanese mindset into a modern context, reading widely will also help you understand its “etiquette minefield”. Knowing some basic Japanese words and greeting are also appreciated, even though many young people speak some English these days. I would suggest start by learning the numbers first, as these are used across all aspects of daily life (prices, times, dates, counting items).

What are some practical tips for navigating the logistics of living in Japan as a writer?

Japan is a country where the train network is vast and efficient, meaning you can travel almost anywhere with ease. This is great for writers as it allows them to explore. There are also many famous places associated with modern-day and classic literature (writer’s houses, museums, libraries); for example, there is the Haruki Murakami Library (The Waseda International House of Literature) located inside Waseda University in Tokyo. Murakami also grew up in Kobe!

Accommodation is plentiful — both modern and traditional — and priced reasonably. This means you can enjoy your own “writing retreat” somewhere atmospheric and stimulating. It may even provide you with a setting for your new story!

Arunima Mazumdar is an independent writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone on Instagram.

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