Historical mystery writer Naomi Hirahara discusses how she researches and creates her incredible books and brings the past back to life with her work.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. Why did you start writing historical mystery novels?
Context is important to me—the history of how a person or place came to be. An academician in Japan called my books “journalistic,” an observation which I first interpreted as derogatory but now I believe to be pretty accurate. I’ve always been curious about the outside world. My Mas Arai mysteries are contemporary but have a cold case aspect to it—a historic event is woven into each of them. The mystery that I’m currently working on is a completely historical novel, set in 1944. I’ve written historical non-fiction, too, but with a novel I can use my imagination to color between the lines.
What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally? How do you draw on your past when writing fiction?
I worked as a journalist for a community daily newspaper for ten years. I didn’t know if I could be in a position to write fiction fultime, but devoted my free time working on my debut novel by taking college extension courses. I went freelance in 1997 and ever since then have been able to cobble together a solo writing career.
I’m developing a workshop on creating characters for an upcoming mystery writing conference. I’m going to use an image of cigar box as a place where we store our influences—individuals who’ve made a big impact on us, books, experiences and relationships. I believe when we write fiction, we are opening up that cigar box to access all these treasures. That’s why age can be an advantage, as long as we live our lives ever mindful and present.
As someone who writes about the American/ Japanese experience, how do you research your work? What’s the most interesting lesson that you’ve learned while researching a novel?
My years as a journalist have come in handy because I conducted a lot of interviews for stories and recording oral histories. Transcribing some of those interviews has been helpful in absorbing word choice and cadence. I’ve travelled to various historic locations, ranging from Angel Island in San Francisco to Gold Hill, where the first Japanese colonists settled in mainland U.S. from 1869-1871. Today there are so many digital resources available, from http://www.densho.org to http://www.ancestry.com to http://www.newspapers.com. What can be interesting is examining the holes of histories and contemplating why there is a void.
Talk to me about your upcoming book Clark and Division. What can fans expect from your novel?
I’m currently working on rewrites and I’m so excited for readers to be introduced to my characters. It’s set in 1944 and follows two twentysomething Japanese American sisters, Rose and Aki, who were released early from an American wartime detention camp in California’s Owens Valley to a new life in Chicago. A tragedy befalls the family in Chicago and it’s up to the younger sister, Aki, to sustain her parents while finding out what happened to Rose.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
Chester Himes, who wrote A Rage in Harlem. During World War II, he lived in the Los Angeles home of a Japanese American woman writer while she was held in a detention center and it would be fascinating to integrate our different points-of-view in one manuscript.
Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
After I complete my rewrites for the Chicago book, I’m going to be working on the second installment of my Hawai’i-based series. It’s called An Eternal Lei, and will deal with endangered flowers and sustainable tourism. After that will be another historical novel, Crown City, which will be set in my hometown of Pasadena, California.
What do you think that the current social/ political climate will do to the literary market in the future? What stories and plots do you hope to see/ plan on writing about?
It’s too hard to predict how today’s reality will impact publishing. Books have always served to whisk readers away to new worlds, sometimes fantastical ones and other times stories that focus us on real problems. I plan to continue to unearth hidden stories, my specialty.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?
I just finished reading Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong and plan to host a Zoom book club for other middle-aged Asian Americans to discuss its contents. Hong is also an accomplished poet and I plan to also read her poetry collections, especially the works that explore English language as spoken by immigrants.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
The WriteNow! writing conference which I’m currently preparing for will be held on September 11-12. It’s the annual conference organized by the Desert Sleuths chapter of Sisters in Crime. Because of the pandemic, it will be both virtual and free. So sign up here: https://desertsleuths.com/write-now/.
Thanks to Naomi for answering my questions; it’s been fascinating to here from you!