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Sunday, May 18, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

A TALE OF THE UNEXPECTED

From romance to murder


Already an established writer of romantic novels, Natsuo Kirino (nom de plume of Mariko Hashioka, born in 1951), burst onto the mystery scene with "Kao ni Furikakaru Ame" ("The face on which rain falls"). The novel took the prestigious Japanese crime fiction award, the Edogawa Rampo Prize, in 1993.

Since publishing her first work of romantic fiction in 1984, Kirino has produced over 40 novels and short story collections. "Out," her first work to be published in English, was picked to receive Japan's top mystery writer's award in 1998. The English translation of another of her books, "Soft Cheeks" is now under way.

Why did you choose the English word "Out" for the original Japanese title of your novel?

The idea of "Out" for the title sort of popped into my head before I wrote the novel. In Japan, the word "out" conveys the sense of hakkiri dame (totally worthless). In the book, all the nuances would seem to apply -- to depart, to go astray and to make an exit. By contrast, I couldn't come up with a word in Japanese that conveyed the same feelings, so I came to the conclusion that "Out" was the only word that would fit.

The theme of my novel also suggests that one can become free (to get out) by deviating from what's considered the accepted path, as if another door opens, so to speak.

At what age did you get the desire to write, and was it difficult to break into the market to get your first book published?

I first thought about becoming a writer after the age of 30, which is rather late I'd say. In my 20s I wasn't especially good at anything, and I didn't have a lot of experiences. I was just a young women without a good job. I had no idea of what I wanted to be, or wanted to do -- it was a rough time.

Then from my late 20s I got the idea of becoming a scenario writer, and took up the study in earnest. But fiction struck me as being more interesting, so I changed my focus.

My real debut, so to speak, was after I won the Edogawa Rampo Prize (Japan's equivalent to Britain's Silver Dagger Mystery award), which was about a year after I entered the competition. The work went from draft to book very smoothly in a bit over one year.

Were there any writers who inspired you to turn to writing mystery books?

I enjoyed reading when I was young, and was influenced by many writers including Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), Fumiko Hayashi (1903-1951) and Ryu Murakami in Japan. Among Western writers, I read Flannery O'Connor, Anne Tyler, Stephen King, and so many others I can't remember them all. As for mystery writers, I'd venture to say Patricia Highsmith.

Several barabara jiken (mutilation murders) made the headlines in Japan in recent years. Was "Out" inspired by any of these actual incidents?

There was a barabara incident in Inokashira Park, not far from where I was working, and the case interested me. The victim's wife was initially suspected, and that definitely provided me with ideas for "Out."

When the idea for a housewife committing a mutilation murder began to take shape, I researched the history of such crimes in Japan, and was fascinated to learn it's fairly common for women to be involved. It's a simple physical fact that a corpse is heavy, and this makes it hard to carry. So it would make sense for a woman to enlist the help of her friends.

How much "field research" do you think is necessary for a writer to achieve realistic descriptions? For example, have you ever been to a hospital to watch an autopsy being performed?

I did visit the morgue at a university, but I only spoke to a doctor. He told me about certain things, such as the need to wear goggles to protect your eyes from flying fragments and the color of a corpse that had died of strangulation. The details were very helpful in writing. But I've never actually witnessed an autopsy -- it all came from my imagination, or from what I've seen when chopping up a chicken or fish in the kitchen.

Your portrayals of the Japanese women, with one exception, make them seem rather socially and economically powerless. And it is because of this, they fight back. Do you think things are really that bad for women, or were these characters intended to be exceptions?

No, these are not aberrations, even if "Out" may be a bit extreme. Recently crimes by housewives have been increasing, and more women have become violent. In Japan, full-time homemakers have no economic power of their own, and they socially lead a faceless, anonymous existence. Part-time workers in Japan remain at the very bottom of the economic totem pole; the Japanese educational system needs to do more to support full-time homemakers.

In other words, because these women assume the burden of raising a family and housework, they have become necessary. But some of those trapped in this situation can't handle it. The so-called "silver divorces" that occur late in marriage -- and which attracted interest not long ago -- may be just another facet of "husband killing."

Did you consider changing any parts of "Out" for the English translation?

I don't know if foreigners will take to my novels or not. It may be that my books appeal only to a particular gender or age group, rather than convey a more universal appeal. I haven't been requested to alter the contents for foreign editions, but I might conceivably do some revising if it helps the editor improve upon the contents.

Are there any projects that you have in the pipeline?

Right now I'm in the early stages of a story about Man chukuo (a former Japanese puppet state, 1932-45). It's about the day the country fell, and follows one of the children abandoned by Japanese parents who, along with a Jewish girl, survives to see the founding of a neo-Manchuria. I've already been to China for my research, and I've started on the writing.



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