Posts Tagged ‘Tom Baker’

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.

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

“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

Japanese wheelchair fashions

November 12, 2010

In an earlier entry on this blog, I mentioned meeting Hirokazu Nagaya at his boutique in the Mitsukoshi department store in Ginza. Nagaya’s business, Piro Racing, specializes in fashions and accessories for people who use wheelchairs. In the photo above, he demonstrates how to use a narrow bag with short straps that hangs from a seated person’s knee the way a conventional bag would hang from a standing person’s shoulder.

When I interviewed Nagaya for an article in Japan Close-up magazine last year, he told me that he uses – and sells – this kind of bag because he didn’t like having to leave his wallet out of reach in a bag hanging off the back of his wheelchair.

He also explained the special features of Piro Racing jeans, which I described in the article as follows:

…doctors told him that wheelchair users should not wear jeans because denim is a very stiff cloth that forms thick ridges where the material overlaps along the seams. This is dangerous for people with little or no nerve sensation in their lower bodies, as friction and pressure can cause bedsores – infected erosions of the flesh…

Still, Nagaya loved his jeans, and stubbornly refused to give up on wearing them again. He insisted that his mother [Atelier Longhouse designer Emiko Nagaya] find a way to customize jeans that were both good-looking and safe for wheelchair users to wear.

The jeans they came up with have no seams on the back, though they do have some purely ornamental – and flat – stitching that looks like seams. But that’s just the beginning. Denim cloth does not stretch horizontally or vertically, but it can stretch diagonally to a certain degree. Therefore, the cloth on the front of the jeans has threads running parallel to the wearer’s thighs, in the usual way, but the cloth on the seat is placed at an angle for greater flexibility. The waistband is standard in front, but more elastic in back. The fly has been lengthened, and the zipper has been replaced by Velcro, with a purely decorative metal button at the top.

“The invention came about because of his selfishness,” Emiko said cheerfully.

To read more about Nagaya, and Japan’s increasing degree of wheelchair accessibility, read the full article by clicking on the page scans below to enlarge them. For more about Japan Close-up magazine, click here; for more on Mitsukoshi, click here; and for Piro Racing wedding dresses, click here.