Me: I have to finish my ninth book, but this one is hard. I think all this alone time is starting to get to me.
Snarky Muse (SM): What do you mean alone time? You’ve got me—I’m your inspirational muse.
Me: I still feel alone. I’m starting to think it’s unhealthy. All I seem to do is have long, meandering talks with myself. I also scratch myself way too much. Then I look down at the marks and can plainly see the ragged scratches on my shins from my own fingernails. Then I start wondering why I’m so itchy down there. Have I got some kind of exotic skin condition? So I DuckDuckGo the various possible skin conditions I could have, and rule out—systematically—eczema and hives.
SM: I’m sure readers find that all fascinating (rolls eyes). But let’s move on, shall we?
Me: Then I wonder if the cat has fleas again, and this might be the reason for the itchiness. So I want to grab the cat and turn him upside down, and scour his little body for those brown pests. But first I have to hunt for the cat all over the house, and finally find him under the bed blanket right behind me!
SM: That’s one slick anecdote for the archives. So, about “Plum Rains on…
Me: But I don’t see any movement under the cat’s fur. Now I’m thinking maybe it’s just the advent of the warm weather. So, what I’m saying is be prepared for the neurosis that accompanies a long time by oneself.
SM: Neurosis might be a recommended condition for reading Plum Rains on Happy House, wouldn’t you say?
Me: Well, I wouldn’t go that far…
SM: Tell us the inspiration behind this, err, unique story.
Me: Inspiration? Well, I live in Japan, and it’s a place I know well. The book’s dedication probably says it all:
This book is for Japan. It’s the place I call home—though it may not want me to. For over 25 years I have grappled with the dos and don’ts of my host country, destroying the language in conversation, giving up, resuming more study, eventually resigning myself to the boundless plateaus of almost-speech.
And Japan abides. Like a patient steward, it absorbs the frolics and the ribbing, while providing a solacing habitat in which to write and teach and parent and grow.
I came over to Japan in the 80’s and I’ve lived in some pretty seedy guest houses—what we call gaijin houses—because there may be a few non-Japanese residents (though the majority of residents are usually Japanese).
In creating the tenants of Happy House, I just mingled the characteristics of a few of the unique people I’ve met over the decades in Tokyo and in Los Angeles. In some cases, I didn’t need to exaggerate at all.
Plum Rains on Happy House is a detective story. A fellow named Harry Ballse invites the protagonist, nicknamed the Ichiban, to Japan. But the residents of Happy House all deny any knowledge of this mysterious Harry Ballse.
Of course, some readers may pick up on the references to the 1973 film The Wicker Man, about a policeman who is lured to a Scottish island to investigate the report of a missing child. It’s a game of deception. The islanders are playing with him. The paganism and the sexual activity the sanctimonious policeman finds so objectionable are simply part of the selection process—to see if he possesses the characteristics to burn in their wicker effigy so that the village will have subsequent successful harvests.
In Plum Rains on Happy House, the Ichiban must undergo his own horrific sacrifice to appease the house. My novel is a tribute to that remarkable film, and it has the same, foundational plot lines, but I’ve laid down a hearty layer of satire and lots of lunacy.
SM: This has been your most ambitious work yet. Does it take a neurosis to write like this?
Me: I should be offended by that question, but I will say that nothing is easy. If women will forgive me the metaphor, creating Plum Rains on Happy House was like giving birth—it hurt a lot. There were points when I considered giving up because it was just too hard. I’m not a funny person, but I have little trouble dreaming up wacky stories and characters.
The residents of Happy House had to be distinctively quirky. I didn’t know how bawdy things were going to become, or how much depravity would creep its way into the story. But once I had the characters, they took charge, and I relegated myself to being, more or less, their stenographer.
Dialog was also something I paid close attention to. Of course, sharp dialog is vital in any story, but for this kind of back-and-forth humor to succeed, I felt it really had to have zip. Just like a comedian practices his delivery line, the dialog exchanges had to have real punch. As with most writing, dialog should say a lot , with very little. The communication isn’t in the words being said but in the subtext. Good dialog says it without saying it. If you want a reader to read every word, you have to make every word count.
One quick example from Chapter One has the resident of Room 3 (nicknamed The Goat) explaining to the new resident about his missing foot:
“I saw you looking at the bottom of my leg.”
The Goat scowled. “Obviously, you can see that no longer exists.”
“It’s in Cambodia.”
The Goat went into a cross-eyed fluster. “What is?”
Sometimes readers need to work a bit to understand the exchange, and I think they appreciate that. Dialog is an organic process. It’s the way characters talk in my head, and I think I know how to write them because they are all a part of me. It all works toward satisfying the element of what a good scene often comes down to: one person trying to get something from another.
SM: Some of the dialog is just plain nonsensical.
Me: Tom Rickman said, “Dialog works the least well when it’s telling you what’s going on.”
Mix that in with the baffling idiosyncrasies of Japan and its language, and the vexing stages of culture shock—which frame the Ichiban’s misadventure in Happy House, and readers may have to follow closely what is happening, especially those uninitiated to life in other countries. I’m hoping this confusion is a part of the magnetism of the story. After all, the old guesthouse is haunted:
“Happy House is an amoeba everlasting, a floating world—capturing and sealing the self-indulgence of the red-light districts, the bordellos and the fleeting, delightful vulgarity of ancient Japan, an eternal time capsule of the flamboyant and the boorish.”
SM: It’s a bit of a shocker, though, what happens to the poor guy, no?
Me: Stephen King says, “I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.”
SM: How’s the reception been?
The book has received mixed reviews. Of the nine books I’ll soon have up on Amazon, Plum Rains on Happy House was the first to receive a customer review of one star—perhaps rightfully so: the reader was “disgusted” by some of the more explicit scenes, and I think that was my fault; the earlier cover gave no indication of the sexual content within, and this poor woman was clearly ambushed. With the one star, I know I’m finally an author, and wear it as a badge of honor.
There are, however, cultural elements in the story that some will not understand: the usage of the various slipper customs inside a house, the daily beating of the futon, the laundry poles, the shockingly steep stairwells, the neighborhood garbage trucks that play cute tunes to let you know they’re coming, the confusion between the colors of blue and green.
The dichotomy of substance versus form also plays an important part in underscoring the tension—in the way one swings a tennis racket, or walks in a swimming pool, or plays baseball, or eats particular dishes: What should predominate—what you are doing or how you are doing it?
On another level, the story examines language acquisition and the role of structure within the learning process. The residents all have their various opinions: As teachers, should English be taught through some kind of lock-step formula, or would one be better off approaching it in a more hands-off manner, rather like painting? Everyone seems to have an opinion.
The idea of structure comes to the forefront again when discussing what one character, Sensei, calls the hidden structure of the house, which, like the neighborhood (or any cityscape in Japan) appears as an amorphous sprawl. But look underneath this sprawl and one sees the organism. The randomness, or chaos, embraces a flexible, orderly structure, likening the house to an amoeba that has the ability to alter its shape. Similarly, this amoeba can be seen as a microcosm of Japan as a whole.
SM: A hidden structure, huh?
Me: That’s what I said.
SM: Maybe you’re right about all this alone time.
Me: I’m not alone—I have my Snarky Muse!
SM: (agonized expression) Don’t remind me.