Posts Tagged ‘Japan Writers Conference’

A tiny speck of immortality

October 4, 2018

Earlier this year, at my local public library, I was looking for the novel “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie. Unfortunately, they didn’t have it. But there on the “L” shelf I spotted “Country of Origin” by Don Lee. I remembered reviewing this book when it came out in 2005, so I picked it up and – hey! A tiny speck of immortality.

Tiny shard of immortality

I’m sharing this to show that I have been reviewing books for a long time. Over the past 20 years, I’ve written and published about 300 reviews covering somewhere north of 320 books. And I’ve done numerous author interviews on top of that.

The reason for this self-hype is that I will give a presentation called “Anatomy of a Book Review” at the twelfth annual Japan Writers Conference in Otaru, Hokkaido, on Oct. 14. The conference is a free event that would be well worth paying for.

There will be nearly 40 presentations this year, covering an array of writing topics. You can read descriptions of them (listed alphabetically by presenters’ first names) here.

And you can find some of my more recent reviews, and many by my colleagues, at The Japan News’ Bound to Please page.



Voices from the 2013 Japan Writers Conference

November 10, 2013

Last weekend I flew down to Okinawa for the Japan Writers Conference. It’s a free annual event at which English-language writers from a variety of fields give presentations about the art, craft and business of writing. Over the next several weeks I plan to blog about some of the things I learned there, but for now I’ll let a few of the other participants speak for themselves through this video:

If you want to get in on the action, the next conference will be held in Iwate in the autumn of 2014.

Vikas Swarup at the Japan Writers Conference

November 11, 2012

Vikas Swarup presented a sneak preview of his next novel, “The Accidental Apprentice,” to the Japan Writers Conference in Kyoto yesterday (Nov. 10, 2012). The book will be published in Janaury.

Swarup’s previous novels are “Q&A” (the basis of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”) and “Six Suspects” (which Swarup mentioned is also in the process of becoming a film).

Swarup, appearing at the Japan Writers Conference for a third consecutive year, gave a reading of the opening pages of “The Accidental Apprentice” before taking questions from conference-goers.

It begins with a young Indian woman named Sapna Sinha sitting in a jail cell, reflecting on how she came to be accused of murder. She traces her troubles back to the day when, on a lunch break from her sales job at an electronics store, she visited a temple seeking expiation over a death for which she feels responsible. (It sounded as if this was not the death that led to her murder charge, but presumably all will be made clear as the novel unfolds.) At the temple, an old man plucked her out of the crowd, introduced himself as a fabulously wealthy industrialist whose companies produce everything “from toothpaste to turbines,” and said he wanted to recruit Sapna as his heir — if she would agree to undergo seven tests.  It sounded like a fishy deal, so Sapna sensibly refused. At least, she refused at first…

In the question-and-answer period after the reading, Swarup said he believes it is important to start a story with a strong hook, so readers will stick around to see what happens.

In addition to being a best-selling novelist, Swarup is also the consul-general of India for the Osaka-Kobe area. He therefore referred to himself as a “weekend writer” whose day job keeps him too busy to write during the week. But he cheerily remarked that having a non-writing career freed him from some of the concerns that likely burden full-time fiction writers, such as meeting deadlines or trying to guess the tastes of the market.

All three of his novels so far have been set in India. He said that people in this country sometimes ask why he doesn’t write about Japan. He tells them that if he did, his stories would be all about yakuza gangsters — and his Japanese friends might not like that. But his characters couldn’t be ordinary Japanese people, he says, because they are too nice, calm, polite and orderly to write exciting stories about them.

Spoken like a true diplomat.

2012 Japan Writers Conference animation

October 30, 2012

Did you know that Tom Baker is stylish British animator?

It’s true – but I’m not that Tom Baker. (His website is here. )

The Tom Baker whose blog you are reading now is neither stylish nor British, but I can lay claim to a half-evening-long career as an animator. The following video contains all 65 seconds of my entire body of work:

The point of this video is to promote the 6th annual Japan Writers Conference. I’ve been to the past three JWCs, and I highly recommend them to anyone in Japan who is interested in writing in English.

This year’s event will be held Nov. 10-11 at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto.

For all the details, visit

2011 Japan Writers Conference set for Kobe in October

February 16, 2011

The organizers of the Japan Writers Conference, an annual English-language event held in a different Japanese city each year, have just circulated an e-mail announcing the basic details of the 2011 conference, to be held in Kobe in October.

I attended the two most recent conferences, in Kyoto and Tokyo, and found them very worthwhile. All sorts of writers attended – including poets, novelists, journalists and critics – and the dozens of presentations covered a wide range of topics related to the creative, technical and business aspects of writing.

You can read my recap of the 2010 event here, and you can watch video clips of my own presentation at that event here. My topic was “Interviewing Creative Subjects,” and I had a few more points to make on that topic in an earlier blog post.

And now, I’ll had the rest of the current post over to JWC coordinators John Gribble and Bern Mulvey:


This is to announce the Fifth Annual Japan Writers Conference. It will be in Kobe this year at Kobe Shoin Women’s University on October 15th and 16th. Please mark your calander and plan to join us.

This is also a call for presentation proposals. All published writers, translators, editors, agents and publishers who would like to lead a session are invited to submit proposals. Those who have presented at past conferences are (of course) welcome to submit new proposals. But we especially encourage proposals from new submitters. One of the strengths of the past Conferences has been variety, and the best way to foster variety is to feature new presenters each year.

Please forward this to any friend or colleague who would be interested. If you know someone the conference organizers might approach—either living in Japan or planning to visit Japan next fall—please send us your suggestion. If you have contact information, that would be a great help.

Detailed information follows, but briefly, a proposal needs to include a brief bio, including publication credits, the type of presentation you wish to make, a title, a summery of 50 words, a longer abstract (150 words) and any special requests you might have. Standard sessions are fifty minutes long, but if you have something special in mind, please let us know and we will accommodate if possible.

Presentations on all genres and all aspects of writing and publishing are welcome. The deadline for presentation proposals is June 1, 2011.

As in the past, the Conference will be free and open to all who wish to attend. This is possible because all the presenters and organizing staff volunteer their time and talent, and the use of the site is donated by the hosting institution. As a result, the Conference cannot offer any payment, reimbursement, lodging, or help in securing visas or travel permits. So please don’t ask.

Proposal Guidelines

When planning your proposal, keep your audience in mind. Your listeners will be writers and others, such as translators, editors, publishers, and agents, concerned with creating the published written word. While teaching, literary studies and private self-expression are certainly worthy activities, they are not the focus of this Conference. Ask yourself as a writer or other word professional these questions:

What information do you have which could be useful to others?

What writing, rewriting, editing, or marketing techniques have worked for you?

What topic would make for a lively and enlightening discussion?

What publishing or other professional opportunities do you know about?

What will an attendee take away from your fifty-minute session that he or she will find worthwhile?

You may submit more than one proposal.

The only qualification one needs to be a presenter is to have published. This does not mean that you need to have published a lot or in some high-profile journal. Your book (if you have a book) does not have to be on a best seller list. You do not have to have won any awards or to have appeared on TV. You simply need to have written, edited, translated, or otherwise worked on a piece of writing which has made it to the public eye. That is, published.

Proposal Deadline and Format

Using the following format, please send your ideas for a presentation by June 1, 2011. Send your proposal in the body of an email (no attachments) to both these addresses:

In your subject line give your name, “JWC,” and the date.

In the body of the email, give:

1. Your name (or names)
2. Contact information (email, telephone. These remain confidential.)
3. Your publications (Need not be complete, but give names of journals and genre for short pieces; title, publisher and date for books; venues and dates for plays, and so on)
4. Title of presentation. (20 words or less)
5. Type of presentation (short lecture with Q&A, craft workshop, panel discussion, reading with Q&A, etc.)
6. Short summary of the presentation (50 words or less)
7. Abstract of the presentation (150 words or less)
8. Personal and professional biography (50 words or less. Include mention of your publications, as this will be part of the Conference program)
9. Anything else, such as special equipment needs or questions.

Your proposal doesn’t have to be a “finished” document to submit. There will be time to shape and polish your ideas for a presentation. But there are a set number of session slots available and if you are interested in having one of them, please let us know soon. Again, the deadline is June 1, 2011.

John Gribble
Bern Mulvey
Co Co-ordinators, 2011 Japan Writers Conference

“Interviewing Creative Subjects”

November 19, 2010

At the 2010 Japan Writers Conference last month, I gave a presentation on interviewing creative subjects. It was based on what I have learned over nearly a decade of journalism in which I have often interviewed authors, actors, movie directors and other creative people.

Many of these people are celebrities, but I never approach my task as a “celebrity interview.” Instead, I focus meeting a “creative subject” whose work – a book, a movie, or a collection of art – I now have the chance to discuss with them. I believe it is much more interesting to learn about what they were thinking as they made their creations, and how they went about doing it, and what they hope to accomplish, than to pry into their sex lives or gush over their designer clothing.

I find “celebrity” journalism boring. But “creative subjects” fascinate me.

But because they are often celebrities, many of these people have been interviewed dozens or hundreds of times before, and they are tired of it. They have stock answers to all the predictable questions. If those are the only questions you ask, you’ll wind up with a bunch of quotes that many of your readers will have seen before, which will make for an unexciting article.

To get new answers, you must ask new questions. And that takes research.

Internet prep

In the part of my presentation shown in the video below, I describe some of the ways you can do pre-interview research on the Internet. Check YouTube for interviews the person has already done. Follow your subject on Twitter. See what Wikipedia and Imdb have to say, but double-check what you find there.

This sort of preparation improved the results of my interviews with the actors Bob Amaral, Christian Bale, Rachel Nichols and Marlon Wayans. Watch the video to hear how.

Look beyond their usual field

You can sometimes get a new angle on a creative person’s work by asking about things they have done slightly outside of their usual field.

If you are interviewing a movie actor, have they also done work on the stage? Have they done voices for animation? If you’re interviewing a painter, sculptor or architect, have they ever worked on stage or movie sets? Has your movie director also done TV ads or music videos? Has your musician ever worked on a soundtrack for a movie or video game? Did your novelist have a cameo role in a screen adaptation of their work?

Look for these things in your research, and then turn them into specific questions.

In the video below, I describe how this worked for me when I interviewed novelist Nicholas Sparks.

Write questions like an English major

Apply the tools of literary criticism and analysis to your reading or viewing of the subject’s work. Look for recurring themes, watch for stylistic patterns, and observe how plots are structured and characters are revealed. Then, turn those observations into questions.

Creative subjects love it when you show that you are ready, willing and able to intelligently discuss their work. This helps get them more enthusiastic about the interview, so that they will open up more than they might have, and possibly tell you something new.

In a previous entry, which you can read here, I described how I used this technique when interviewing Sylvester Stallone about the last Rambo movie. In the video below, I describe how it worked when I interviewed director Scott Derrickson about his remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

Ask questions like an English teacher

Like many native English speakers who live in Japan, I first came here to work as a language teacher. It was often a challenge to get students to speak in class. Two bits of jargon I often heard at school were TTT (teacher talking time) and STT (student talking time). We teachers were supposed to minimize TTT and maximize STT.

Some of the ways in which teachers get students to talk can also be used by an interviewer to get a subject to talk. Watch the below video to find out more.

Prepare questions, but not a script

A list of questions is indispensable for a good interview, but the list shouldn’t control the interview. To keep your subject feeling relaxed and open, you should use the list as a guideline to nudge the flow of an otherwise natural-seeming conversation.

There are many ways to order the questions on your list, but it helps to think about one of following three patterns:

Long, then short
Easy, then tough
Vital, then weird

Watch the video below to hear me elaborate on that.

If you want to know more about the Japan Writers Conference, visit the official site here, or read my notes on other presentations I attended here.

2010 Japan Writers Conference: A look back

November 18, 2010

Last month, I attended the fourth annual Japan Writers Conference (JWC) in Tokyo, which I previewed in an earlier entry on this blog. Like last year’s JWC in Kyoto, which featured a presentation by “Slumdog Millionaire” author Vikas Swarup, the consul general of India in Osaka, this year’s event included presentations by Japan-connected English-language writers working in a variety of fields. (And this year, I was one of them.)

Hour-long presentations were going on simultaneously in three different rooms throughout the two-day event, so it was impossible for one person to attend all of them. What follows are some notes on what I learned from some of the sessions I was able to go to.

Suzanne Kamata on marketing

Suzanne Kamata is a novelist (Losing Kei) and anthology editor (The Broken Bridge and Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs""Love You to Pieces) who lives in Shikoku, far from the centers of the English-language publishing world. And yet, she has found ways to market her books.

Word of mouth, she said, is the main way books become known. Luckily, the Internet makes that a little bit easier for those of us who don’t live in New York or London. In addition to the obvious advice of promoting your book via Facebook and Twitter, she mentioned one very smart-sounding Internet idea that I would not have thought of: Offer review copies to the hosts of relevant podcasts, and try to get them to interview you.

She also suggested networking through organizations such as SCBWI and SWET, both of which are active in English in Japan.

For further reading, she recommended the books “A Book is Born: 24 Authors Tell All""A Book is Born,” “The Frugal Book Promoter” and “Over 75 Good Ideas for Promoting Your Book""Over 75 Good Ideas for Promoting Your Book.” She also mentioned the Web sites “Buzz, Balls and Hype” and “Library Thing,” the latter of which gives copies of books (which you would provide) to its members to review.

Visit her Web site here or follow her on Twitter here.

Margi Preus on fact-based fiction

Margi Preus lives in America, and she has written children’s fiction based on her own country’s shared history with Japan (The Peace Bell""The Peace Bell andHeart of a Samurai"" Heart of a Samurai).

Factual research is important for this kind of writing, but Preus stressed that all the rules of fiction still apply.

One thing this means is that your main character must want something. The Peace Bell is a book about an inanimate object – a temple bell that was taken from Japan to the United States after World War II and then returned as a gesture of friendship many years later. Obviously, an inanimate object has no desires that could drive a story (unless, perhaps, it is a yokai story of the type mentioned in John Paul Catton’s presentation, below), so Preus created a little Japanese girl who wants the bell to return. The story is mainly about events in the girl’s life.

Heart of a Samurai is a novel based on the life of 19th-century historical figure John Manjiro, a teenage Japanese fisherman who, after a shipwreck, was rescued by an American whaling ship and wound up living in the United States at a time when Japan was closed to the outside world. The real-life Manjiro wanted to go home (and eventually did) but Preus didn’t think his desire was a strong enough to serve as the motive for a novel. Instead, she imagined her fictional Manjiro dreaming of becoming a samurai. In Edo period Japan, whose centuries of peace and stability came at a price that included the suppression of social mobility, this should have been impossible. But after Manjiro’s return to Japan, he really did become a samurai. Preus said she wrote her book with the idea that this had been his dream all along. And who knows? Maybe it was.

She also mentioned that fiction, even historical fiction, requires conflict – inner conflict, interpersonal conflict, or external conflict. You have to look at the known facts and imagine which type of conflict those facts could support.

Also, as with ordinary fiction, you have to decide where to begin. A key factor in choosing an opening scene is looking for an incident or a moment that raises a question about how something is going to turn out. And in deciding what real-life scenes to include in your story, she said, choose the ones that move your story forward (or can be made to) while discarding those that tend to sidetrack.

Visit her Web site here.

Holly Thompson on YA fiction

YA stands for young adult, and generally refers to novels aimed at readers in their teens. Thompson has already published fiction on either side of this demographic (“Ash""Ash” is an adult novel, and “The Wakame Gatherers""The Wakame Gatherers” is a children’s picture book), and she has a YA novel in verse called “Orchards” due out from Delacorte/Random House in February.

Thompson said that YA novels are usually told from the first-person point of view of a protagonist who is 14-18 years old, but the main intended audience is slightly younger, aged 12-18. “Children typically are reading up,” she said. “They want to read where they are going.” But she also mentioned that a lot of adults these days are reading YA fiction. (The Harry Potter books would be the biggest example.)

She also made a distinction between YA fiction and “middle grade” fiction, which is aimed at a slightly younger audience aged 8-12. Middle grade books tend to run from 20,000 to 40,000 words, while YA tends to be 40,000 to 80,000 words – with science fiction and fantasy often running much longer due to their world-building requirements.

YA stories may be set in the past but should take place in the protagonist’s present. In other words, the young person should experience the story as a young person, not as an old person looking back. Parents may feature as important supporting characters in middle grade fiction, but they tend to be absent or minor figures in YA, in which the young protagonist has a larger degree of autonomy and lives in a more self-sufficient world where their age-mates are more important. Thompson said that edgy or formerly taboo subjects are OK at the upper end of the YA age scale, but authors should be more cautious at the lower end.

Visit her Web site here or follow her on Twitter here.

Peter Mallet on Japan in contemporary Western fiction

Mallet began his presentation by slamming the movie “Lost in Translation,” which got a lot heads in the room – including mine – nodding. He complained that the movie was full of stereotypes, with no sympathetic Japanese characters, and not a single Japanese in all of Tokyo who spoke English well.

I would have gone even further myself, and said that there were no sympathetic characters of any nationality. The movie should have been titled “Boring People Feeling Sorry for Themselves.” I enjoyed watching it for the scenery (“I know that street…I’ve seen that view…I’ve even been in that elevator!”), but those were minor, transient pleasures. The rest of the movie left me with absolutely no desire to see it again.

But in the West, “Lost in Translation” was showered with awards and got a baffling 94 percent on the Tomatometer. That’s just how it goes. Sometimes I am right and the rest of the world is wrong.

Mallett said that it was not surprising for foreign residents of Japan to dislike this movie. To explain why, he cited British novelist and former Tokyo resident Tokyo Year Zero (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)""David Peace as having said that people from the West come to Japan to reinvent themselves, and they construct their own Japan around them while they are at it. Then they become annoyed when someone else’s fictional work contradicts the fiction they have chosen to live in.

It’s an interesting observation, but it doesn’t mean that foreign residents of Japan dislike every thing written about the country. For example, books that I have greatly enjoyed in recent years include Barry Eisler’s John Rain series, which begins in contemporary Tokyo before ranging around the world, and Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler’s Samurai Mysteries, a YA series set in the Edo period. Eisler scouted out his locations in person, while the Hooblers did their research in American libraries. In both cases, they created Japans I could believe in.

As for Mallett, the foreign writers on Japan whom he admires include “An Artist of the Floating World""Kazuo Ishiguro, who, although Japanese by birth, was raised and educated in the UK and writes only in English…Meira Chand, formerly a long-term resident of Kobe; and the thriller writerTOKYO"" Mo Hayder, who lived briefly in Japan.”

Mallet also read a passage from his own not-yet-published novel “Appassionata,” describing an evening walk through Osaka that ends at the door to a love hotel. He concluded with the remark, “Osaka – my Osaka – is now fiction, like everything else in the book.”

Niall Murtagh on writing nonfiction about Japan

Murtagh won positive reviews for his Japan memoir “The Blue-Eyed Salaryman: From World Traveller to Lifer at Mitsubishi""The Blue-Eyed Salaryman,” which describes his experience of working for Mitsubishi Electric. It was published in English, and has been translated into Japanese, German, Russian, and Czech.

Among his advice for aspiring nonfiction authors were the following points:

Sales to publishers of nonfiction are usually made on the basis of one or two sample chapters, so you don’t need to have finished the entire manuscript to start shopping it around to agents or publishers.

Publishers may want a book to straddle genres for marketing purposes. For instance, his own work could have been categorized as a travel memoir or a business book.

Overall tone is more important than overabundant detail.

If you are afraid that people mentioned in the book may not be pleased with it, defuse their reaction by making sure to thank them nicely in the acknowledgements.

Visit his Web site here.

John Paul Catton on the Japanese supernatural

Catton, whose novel “Time Hunter: Kitsune""Time Hunter: Kitsune” uses magical kitsune foxes in a modern science fiction tale set in Tokyo, gave an overview of traditional Japanese cosmology and mythology, pointed to some examples of how Western writers have used them (Neil Gaiman in particular), and also suggested ways in which these elements might be further exploited in modern writing.

For example, in discussing the ancient character of the Yuki Onna (literally “Snow Woman”) who chills everything around her, Catton rhetorically asked what might have become of the energy represented by the heat she had removed. Answering his own question, he suggested that we imagine an opposite character who heats everything around her. If the two characters were connected by quantum entanglement, the heat absorbed by one could be dispersed by the other – a nifty example of modern physics reinforcing old folklore, and definitely something a fiction writer could work with.

He also showed an artist’s rendering of a hypothetical creature that scientists say is what dinosaurs might look like if some of the smaller bipedal ones had survived to the present day and evolved humanlike intelligence. The being looked a fair bit like a kappa, a folkloric Japanese creature with green skin, webbed hands and a beaky face. Again, the fictional possibilities readily present themselves.

He discussed the Shinto creation myth and various types of yokai beasties in a similar vein. It was fun stuff.

Visit his blog here or follow him on Twitter here.

Patrizia Hayashi on “W-plotting”

Hayashi is one half of the writing duo (with partner Sasha Tomaszycki) who publish novels under the joint pen name of Gabriella Hewitt.

As she described it, the W-plot is a template that is widely used in genre fiction and also screenwriting. It begins with the protagonist’s fortunes falling as they suddenly face a problem, rising as they deal with the problem, falling again as they face a major setback or catastrophe, and then finally rising toward the climax. If you draw this pattern on a piece of paper, it looks like a W.

Hayashi used the movie “Sister Act” as an example, but W-plots are said to be everywhere. Not long after hearing her talk, I watched a vampire movie called “Daybreakers,” which I soon realized also had a textbook W-plot.

Visit her Web site here.

…and yours truly on interviewing

This year I didn’t just attend the Japan Writers Conference; I gave a presentation myself. I previewed it here, and I’m going to summarize the rest of it in another blog entry. Stay tuned!

(UPDATE: Here it is!)

Meanwhile, here is some coverage of the JWC on other blogs:

Art Plus Tokyo



Tokyo Writer

Gabriella Hewitt

Beneath Gray Skies

Sylvester Stallone, the 2010 Japan Writers Conference, and me

October 7, 2010

The fourth annual Japan Writers Conference will be held Oct. 10-11 in Tokyo, with about 30 writers from various genres and media giving presentations on the technical, artistic and business aspects of their careers.

One of them will be me. I’m going to give a talk on “Interviewing Creative Subjects,” based on my own experience of interviewing novelists, actors, artists, movie directors and other creative people for newspaper features stories.

Sometimes you’ll be the first to discover a creative person, but in many cases the people you will interview have been interviewed before – especially movie people. They tend to have answered the same old questions a thousand times, and they have a supply of canned answers ready to go.

But these are not the questions you want to ask, or the answers you want to get.

If you ask new questions, you will get new answers.

Then you can use those answers to write an article that contains quotes and information that your readers haven’t seen before.

Two years ago I did an interview with Sylvester Stallone that illustrates at least three of the points I will make in my JWC presentation.

1. Look for themes in the work

The topic of the interview was the fourth movie in Stallone’s Rambo series, which was about to open in Japan. I attended a screening of the film before the interview. (Seeing, reading or listening to your subject’s latest movie, book or album is the minimum starting point of the preparation you should do.) I was put off by the unrelenting violence, and I was shocked to see that footage of real violence was mixed in. The movie takes place in Burma (or Myanmar) and one of the real-life clips showed a Japanese journalist named Kenji Nagai being shot to death by government forces.

At first, I couldn’t think of any questions that I would enjoy asking Stallone – who directed and cowrote the film, as well as starring in it – but my preparation for the interview also included going to the video store and renting the three previous Rambo movies to see if any patterns emerged. I realized that the new film was far more cynical than its predecessors. In the first movie, Rambo uses violence to justifiably (if extravagantly) defend himself against corrupt police who are persecuting him. It’s tragic, but at least the guilty pay for their sins. In the next two movies, Rambo uses violence to make the world a better place, by rescuing forgotten American prisoners in Vietnam or helping to liberate Afghan villagers from Soviet invaders. But in the new movie, Rambo’s violence accomplishes nothing. The world is left at least as badly off as it was before, and the few surviving characters are all a lot less happy at the end.

So, I asked Stallone if this reflected an evolution in his worldview. He gave me an earful about how, “As you get older you get more cynical.” He expanded on that bleak theme with some eloquence.

2. Ask the hard questions – softly

I went into the interview thinking that his inclusion of Nagai’s death was tasteless and offensive. But I would have gotten nowhere in the interview if I had asked, “Why did you do such a tasteless and offense thing?”

Instead, I mentioned that I recognized this particular scene from among the real-life footage he used, and then I asked how he hoped, or expected, that Japanese audiences would react to it.

I was trying to sound curious rather than hostile. This approach worked. Stallone seemed quite happy to answer the question, perhaps because he knew he was talking to someone who had paid close enough attention to his film to notice this detail, or perhaps because he was eager to discuss it and I had presented myself as someone who was ready to listen to his answer. I showed him that I was looking for an explanation rather than an argument, and he gave me an answer I could use in my story.

If your interview subject made a creative (or even political) choice that you disagree with, don’t pick a fight. Simply state what they did and then ask a neutral question that requires them to explain themselves, such as: “What were you trying to accomplish by doing that?” “What went into that decision?” “How do you anticipate (or hope) that people will respond?”

Interview subjects are likelier to open up and explain themselves to you if they think you are an understanding observer rather than an argumentative adversary.

3. An interview is not a review

Reviewing is good training for interviewing, because it gets you in the habit of analyzing creative works. But while a review is about what you think, an interview is about what the creator thinks. You should be more concerned with drawing out his or her ideas than with justifying your own.

If I had simply reviewed the 2008 “Rambo,” I would have been harsh. But my job as an interviewer was to get Stallone to explain himself, and then to pass those explanations on in ways that would be interesting and informative to readers.

Of course, a certain degree of description is unavoidable, and I began my article by calling “the fourth film in the series…the most violent, horrific and cynical yet.” I think that counts as fair warning to the type of moviegoer who would be put off by such fare, and I think it is a characterization that even Stallone would readily agree with. But beyond that, most of my article reports what he told me about his ideas – ideas that my questions showed him I was ready to listen to.

“Rambo” will probably never make my list of all time favorite movies. It’s too close to reality in its horror. But after eliciting Stallone’s explanation of the philosophy behind it, I can now say that I understand and respect what he was trying to do.

And those are insights that I was able to pass along to my readers.

For more in this vein, come to my JWC presentation at 10 a.m. on Oct. 11 (it’s a Monday, but a national holiday). A map to the campus venue in Nerima Ward, Tokyo,  appears below. It is next to Ekoda Station on the Seibu Ikebukuro train line, and not far from Shin Ekoda Station on the Oedo subway line. Be aware that the main gate will be closed, and visitors will have to follow the signs to a gate on the south side. For more info, visit or follow JapanWritersCon on Twitter.