International Thrills: An Interview with Bestselling Japanese Crime Writer,
By Layton Green
This edition of International Thrills is off to Japan and explores the fascinatingly dark world of Fuminori Nakamura, whose crime novels also delve into more literary themes. —The Managing Editors
Fuminori started publishing when he was only twenty-five, and has penned ten novels and three short story collections since 2003. He has won numerous awards for his writing, including the Ōe Prize, the Akutagawa Prize (Japan’s most prestigious literary award), the Shincho Prize for New Writers, and the Noma Prize. Stateside, his novels have been named a Wall Street Journal Best Mystery and an Amazon Best Mystery/Thriller of the Month. The Thief, his first novel translated into English, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Just this fall, he was the recipient of the 2014 David L. Goodis Award for Noir Fiction at NoirCon.
LAST WINTER WE PARTED is Fuminori’s most recent work, and the third novel to appear in English, published by Soho. I had the pleasure of reading LAST WINTER WE PARTED, and was blown away. In short, the novel is about a writer assigned to interview a famous photographer sitting on death row for the murder of two of his subjects—both women who were burned alive. It is a menacing, labyrinthine, deeply layered tale that also manages to be a quick read, and I wanted to reread it as soon as I finished.
I recently sat down with Nakamura and his publisher (Juliet Grames of Soho Press, who provided excellent translation) after a book signing in Chapel Hill.
Thanks for taking the time to chat. Tell us where you are from in Japan, and a little bit about your background.
I was born in 1977 in Aichi, Japan. I spent my four years of college in Fukushima, and since then have lived in Tokyo. I’ve been an avid reader since I was in high school.
We’ll get to your latest novel, LAST WINTER WE PARTED, in a moment, but why don’t you tell us a bit about how you got started as a writer?
I’ve always been a pretty dark person, and starting in high school I wrote a lot of diaries, poems, and fiction. I really liked to read fiction, and when I finished college, I decided to give myself one chance to make a serious attempt at writing a novel. It turned out to be such a good match for me that I decided: you only live once, I’m going to become an author.
You’ve been compared to a number of famous writers, but whom do you consider as your influences?
Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus, Kobo Abe, Kenzaburo Oe, Yukio Mishima, Osamu Dazai, and many others.
What about your body of work as a collective—how do you describe your novels? Do you consider them linked in any way?
My books are described as both literary fiction and crime/mystery fiction. I’m just happy people are reading them, however they think of them. I love all genres of fiction. As for how I describe what I write about, my novels are about the depths of the human heart (specifically, its darker side). The books are not linked per se, although the theme of each new book comes to me as I’m writing the current book, so in that way they are related.
I just read LAST WINTER WE PARTED, and I have to say, I found it a breathtaking piece of literature. A textured, bold, suspenseful literary thriller with a subversive pull and darkly philosophical overtones. It reminded me of a fictionalized, more metaphysical version of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote—and in fact, the book mentions this novel a few times. Did In Cold Blood have a particular influence on you?
Thank you so much for the compliment. I really do like Capote as an author. When I started working on LAST WINTER WE PARTED, I was thinking about art, how art breaks open the heart and mind of the artist, and immediately Truman Capote’s story about how difficult it was for him personally to write In Cold Blood popped into my head. That’s how Capote ended up becoming part of the book.
In LAST WINTER WE PARTED, the central plot is that a writer is interviewing a famous photographer concerning two murders he allegedly committed—immolating two of his subjects so that he could photograph the women while they were burning, and thus create “art he shouldn’t have made” that would have a resonance otherwise unattainable. Do you personally think there is art that shouldn’t be made, or is it all valid? Should novelists ever shy away from a topic?
I want to write fiction that leaves a strong impression on the reader. But I believe all forms of art are valid—and that encountering “dangerous” art as well as “beautiful” art is a good thing (this goes for books, too). I don’t believe that evil originates in art; a person only commits evil when the impulse comes from within. So I happen to write books about crime, but I don’t write them so that readers will try to imitate the crimes in them.
One of the major themes in your novel seemed to be that “people’s entire lives are motivated by their true nature, which they don’t understand.” Do you believe everyone has a hidden true nature? If so, from where does it derive?
I believe everyone has a true self, even if they don’t know about it. That true self derives from things like hidden memories and childhood experiences. It’s the human condition to be carrying that hidden something around.
I also loved the themes surrounding what constitutes human identity, how it is affected by the passage of time, and whether it can be distilled or trapped inside a photograph or other medium. I understand you probably left your philosophy on the page, but can you give us a few thoughts on the topic of identity? What made you choose it?
My themes are always things that arose naturally in my mind. I’ve always been very interested in the hidden part of the human heart, which is, I believe, the core of human identity. The framework for that theme in this book grew out of an image that popped into my head: an eerie photo of lots of butterflies flying toward the camera, obscuring the true subject of the photo.
What are you reading right now? Who are some of your favorite authors?
Recently I’m really into Orhan Pamuk. My favorite author is Dostoevsky.
You write some pretty dark novels—do you ever become unnerved by your own writing?
I have felt like I was being swallowed by my fiction, but I think that’s a good thing. I do write dark books, but I do so with a consciousness of hope. I believe that real hope is found only in the deepest darkness.
What do you like to do when not writing?
I like to take walks. I like movies and music—jazz, classical, rock. And I love watching baseball.
Do you have any advice for new writers?
Self-editing is very important. Print out your work, sit down, and devote real time to reading your work and judging it the way your readers would.
Can you tell us what you are working on now, and about any other future projects?
My new book, Kyodan (Cult X), will be published in Japanese this December. It’s the story of terrorism by a religious cult. The big question at the center of it is, Did God or man create this world? Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, physics, cosmology, and biology are all interwoven. It was serialized over the last year in a newspaper and is now coming out in book form. I’m currently serializing another novel, this one with a gods/demons theme. Both those books are forthcoming in Japanese, but as for what’s next in English, Soho is publishing my debut novel, A Gun (Juu in Japanese), next year.
We look forward to them all. Thank you for talking with THE BIG THRILL.