Radio Nippon presents, “Sugahara Akiko’s EDGE TALK” Part1
Guest is Setsuko Amano
Tonight's guest is Setsuko Amano, a novelist who wrote the mystery novel Koori no Hana (Flower of Ice) published by Gentosha Inc. This novel, which was Setsuko Amano's first work and completed shortly before her 60th birthday became a hit TV drama special that aired this September featuring a cast which included the actress Ryoko Yonekura. In tonight's interview, we will be asking Ms. Amano to reveal to us some of the anecdotes behind the creation of her novel.
S: Good evening.
A: Good evening. I'm Setsuko Amano. Thank you very much for having me.
S: Your novel Koori no Hana has been very well received by the public. Is it your first mystery novel you've ever written?
A: Yeah it is.
S: And this, your first novel has already been adapted into a TV drama which was broadcast as a special to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Asahi Television company and it was aired over the weekend of Saturday the 6th and Sunday the 7th of September, wasn't it?
A: Yes it was.
S: I think such a fantastic reception is rare for an author's first work which not many authors can expect. Can I just ask you how you feel about the way your work has been received?
A: To be frank, I feel so relieved. That's the only real thing that comes to mind as so many things have happened to me and I feel blessed to have had the success which the book has enjoyed.
S: It's almost like some kind of Cinderella fairy tale, where you've made such a fabulous debut as a novelist. I think your novel is fantastically written and is also very deep, in fact I was actually wondering what you would be like in person and even felt that you could have quite a masculine personality but I'm amazed at just how beautiful and youthful and talented you are.
A: Oh, thank you so much.
S: Yeah, so have you been writing novels for a long time?
A: Not really, it was my first attempt.
A: I've just started writing.
S: Wow so it's not like you've got a few novels of several hundred pages' worth of material already written and stashed away?
A: No, not at all.
S: Oh really. Then at what age did you start writing?
A: I started writing at the age of 56.
S: You've been writing since you were 56 years old. So it's almost like an idea came to you straight out of the blue and you just picked up your pen and started writing?
A: Yeah, something like that. The thing is, I'd reached a certain point in my life and all I knew was my years spent working and nothing else. I guess when I was coming to the end of my fifties I came to view turning sixty as somewhat of a turning point. After nearly 40 years of working in just one field and fast approaching 60, I asked myself how I should deal with the loneliness that I would feel along with my getting ever older. I think I started thinking like this when I was getting closer to 60. I asked myself what else I could do other than my job and I found that something which I had always taken pleasure in was reading and also that my preference in genre was strongly geared towards mystery and suspense.
S: I see, so you had always liked mystery as a reader yourself and you decided to try and have a go yourself at writing a mystery novel of your own when you were 56.
A: Yes, that's right.
S: What kind of job had you done up until your change of direction in becoming a writer?
A: Well, in my 20s and 30s, I was a kindergarten teacher and in my 40s and 50s, I got involved in the development of teaching materials for young children.
S: Are you still working?
A: That's right.
S: So from now on, you'll be continuing both professions side by side?
A: I'd like to be able to say yes, but I don't think that is going to be the case. You see, the development of teaching materials for young children does require you to have contact with them and the job of a kindergarten teacher is not something that you can carry on in forever, there does come a time when you have to call it a day and the prospect of having nothing to focus my energy on when I stopped working filled me with dread. The idea of being able to write even just a little at a time was a real ray of hope for when the time comes and I do actually have to leave my job.
S: Well, I think that you've more than achieved that when we think of the wonderful success that you've had.
A: It would be an exaggeration to say that I'd had it all mapped out in my head in terms of the way I wanted my life to unfold. There have been lots of little bumps and such along the way but I feel I can honestly say that for the most part, things have turned out the way I wanted them to.
S: That's a very nice thing to hear indeed. Talking with you, you're very soft-spoken and your kindness comes through in your voice, as does your passion towards your work, speaking of which, did you always feel that you had the right qualities for a career in childcare? For example, feeling comfortable in the job or liking children and having the warmth necessary and such?
A: Well, I have to thank you for mentioning warmth as a factor, that's probably the best word for describing what it takes for a job such as mine. In truth, I've never really thought about warmth as being something that is required in my job, but it's probably having some kind of warmth that allowed me to come this far. When my book came out, so many people I know asked why on earth I had written a thriller and not something about children. I even asked myself after that, because the idea of writing something about children had never once occurred to me, it still hasn't. When I think of why it never struck me as an idea, I'd have to say that it's probably because I had given so much of myself to the world of child development over 40 years and I had burned out, not in the sense of pushing myself too hard or anything like that, but rather that I had contributed everything that I had to give and there was no need for me to write about children and my mind just naturally moved on to pastures new.
S: I know what you mean. As people we really are multifaceted, aren't we?
Radio Nippon presents, “Sugahara Akiko’s EDGE TALK” Part2
Guest is Setsuko Amano
S: So, the longer you live, the more you come to think of those things that you've always had an interest in but never had the chance to do. When you actually put some energy into those things, you develop a great drive that pushes you on and I think having that is some kind of proof that you've had a full life.
A: I agree with what you're saying. A job is essentially something that puts food on the table, but reading has always been my hobby. Although reading by its very nature is a passive activity and you simply take in what you have read, writing, by contrast, is a very productive activity which allows you to express your ideas. Having spent many years taking in what I had been reading, I think I naturally developed a desire to express my own ideas.
S: And you've obviously got a splendid talent for writing and I think in a way, mystery novels are a creation of logical thinking. For example, there is a complex structure of twists in the plot all nicely woven into the storyline and the story unfolds through the gradual development of these twists. These twists and such are a stimulus to the reader. Like when you're in the middle of reading something, you wonder how the events that you read link to the overall plot and that's your normal reaction as a reader, right? I believe an ability to draw up a scenario with several twists and turns to construct a maze of narrative is really what a writer needs and this ability is different to the skills needed in essay-writing, I mean, you have to be so creative in the way that you map everything out in your head even before properly putting pen to paper.
A: Yeah, it might be quite different from essay-writing.
S: I think so. When it comes to brainstorming and constructing a plot, some people might use a flow chart or develop a collection of ideas. How did you go about this task?
A: Well, as far as Koori no Hana is concerned, I always had a rough outline of the course of the story and plot as well as the key elements in the story, one of these was to make it crystal clear who the culprit was to the readers from the very beginning. I always knew that that was the approach I wanted to take. In addition, I never wanted my culprit to voice their reason for murdering the victim, yet this would always be obvious to the readers. I wanted the story to leave my characters still being in the dark about this. This was the construction that I had my heart set on.
S: So that was the characteristic of the plot that was most important to you?
S: It's common to see a mystery story develop through the eyes of a hero searching for a culprit, isn't it?
A: Yes, I agree.
S: And another common thing in mystery and suspense I think is to have the culprit's motive for their crime remain unrevealed until you get close to the end of the story and at that point and you even come to sympathize with the offender in a way as you get to know their reason. Don't you think so?
A: Yes, I do.
S: And I believe this second characteristic is more prevalent in your novel.
A: Yes, certainly. Also, as for the small episodes in the story, they came to me while I was just living day to day and writing the book. I was determined to never change the rough outline of the story from the beginning to the end and with regard to the order of the events, there were many times when a good idea came to me and to make this new idea work, I had to go back and rewrite what I had done before.
S: So you've gone through the process of rewriting.
A: Absolutely, I had to rewrite passages a lot.
S: It's still really hard to believe that this novel is your very first work, judging from the plot and the inclusion of the devices necessary for a mystery story and these devices are all nicely placed throughout your story which holds the readers' interest. The more devices that are used in a book, the more people tend to react positively by saying the author is skilled or talented or various other comments and certainly your novel is very rich in this department. Thinking about this, out of all the books you have read, who do you think has influenced your writing?
A: I think, first and foremost, Mr. Seicho Matsumoto.
S: I thought of his work whilst reading your novel as well.
S: Your detective character is also very special, it almost feels like we no longer get people as dedicated as that in Japan.
A: Particularly amongst detectives.
S: And the character of a detective who is so dedicated that he is always thinking about the case day or night, even when he is with his kids. A person who is always going over things in their minds, putting things together and working out the missing pieces of the puzzle using their intuition. And I think this kind of character is often featured in Mr. Seicho Matsumoto's works as well. I really like this kind of character, because they have a special, attractive quality as a person who works tirelessly. Also, in the case of your main female character, she is also surrounded by an air of tension, yet she is also an attractive character and the way you wrote you both of them really leaves a lasting impression on the reader.
A: I think it's a case of putting yourself in the role of the criminal and exploring and describing their feelings and emotions and also doing the same thing for characters like the detective who work to solve the crime. You have to place yourself on two different sides of the fence to explore the character's emotions.
S: It is this sense of tension between the two sides that gives the drama such power as it progresses.
A: And when you write the character of the murderer, with that comes a certain kind of fatigue. When you spend time writing from the perspective of that character, you feel compelled to move your attention back to the detective character of Toda, you want to go back to him and become him once more, then when you at last manage to do that, you eventually feel drawn back to the character of the murderer once more because you are then tired of being the detective. Writing the book was very much that process repeating itself.
S: Really? That adds another layer of interest to the process of writing for me. Listening to you, I was thinking 'Wow, so that kind of process is involved'.
A: Well, I don't know how other authors relate to their characters, but as this was my first work, I definitely felt a kind of kinship with my characters when I was writing the book.
S: There is definitely a feeling of excitement that builds up on the part of the reader when they read the book, thanks to the depth and true-to-life nature of the two main characters, I think that is very strong in your book.
A: Thank you very much.
S: I really got engrossed in it and ended up reading it all in one night, not being able to put it down.
A: I feel mystery and suspense falls into the category of entertainment so it needs to be fun to read. The fact is that if a book isn't engaging, it's not worth anything, there's nothing complicated in the books. You think about how to make it interesting and how to engage the reader and make them feel excited or nervous and feel the suspense, then the books are fun. I've experienced this myself with books I've bought. I've read lots and the authors whose works I have read have made me feel like that as a reader. There have been times when I have been reading on the train and forgot to get off or missed my stop. I was that involved in what I was reading. When you look back upon times like that, while you did miss your stop, that time was substantial and worth something. Ever since I was young, I've felt many times that works that can make us feel like that are something truly special. When people who have read Koori no Hana say that they stayed up all night reading it not realising the time and such, I feel as though I have been able to give something back after having so many great experiences myself and it makes me truly happy.
Radio Nippon presents, “Sugahara Akiko’s EDGE TALK” Part3
Guest is Setsuko Amano
S: In a way, we see a lot less novels that are truly deep and worth reading nowadays. In particular people who are older than us and no longer in their 50s or 60s must have a hard time finding something that gives them happiness or satisfaction to read but I'm sure they would all thank you.
A: Thanks for saying that.
S: I very much look forward to reading your second and third books but I bet it must have taken you 3 or 4 years to finish writing your first work?
A: It took me 4 years to complete it but there was a period of six months during which, I didn't feel like writing. Although there were lots of ideas in my head, I didn't want to commit them to paper and my motivation was lacking. So overall I spent 3 and a half years writing, but from start to finish the whole thing took about 4 years in total. And all this was written when I had time off work.
S: So you finally finished writing whilst working and what surprises me even more is that I heard that you published your own novel.
A: Yeah, I did.
S: I think it's a rare way of getting your first novel published. Don't you think so?
A: A lot of people tell me that my case is rare and I hear comments like that but I don't know how the publishing industry really works, but yes, I did publish my work.
S: And what happened after your publication? Did your novel naturally come to attract readers through word of mouth?
A: This is what I was told afterwards, but apparently it was well received seeing as it was a self-published novel and I only published 1000 books.
S: Oh, really?
A: Yeah because it was all self-published, only 1000 books were published.
S: Really? So how long did it take for your work to be picked up by Gentosha Inc. as part of their range?
A: Well, 8 or 9 months after I published it originally, my work came out in book form. There was apparently talk of several television companies wanting to dramatize both before and after its publication in book form. Well, I actually don't know about this very well but the television people said that the obvious choice for the lead role was Ryoko Yonekura and only she would do.
S: You kind of feel that way when you read the book too.
A: Haha, well that was what I was told then. And once the plans to dramatize it were finalized, it became a paperback, that's the order of events. From starting out as being published in book form to becoming a paperback book took a little bit over a year I think.
S: And since being published by Gentosha Inc. I assume the sales figures have been very good, based on the merits of the book as a story.
A: As a book I was told that it sold 20,000 copies, which is good for an unknown author new to the industry. I was surprised when I was told that the publishers would run 10,000 copies and I was concerned about whether they would sell as I was just starting out as an author. However, it ended up selling twice that and so it was a success as a book.
S: That's right. And as a paperback edition, it will go on to sell even more won't it?
A: That would be lovely if it did.
S: Well, there must be lots of people out there who don't yet know the story and those who may have missed it when it was on TV, I think that we can only expect your book to enjoy even greater success. I look forward to continuing our discussion and learning more about the book next week. Thank you very much.