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Author Interview: Michael Pronko

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Lynette Latzko is talking with Michael Pronko, author of Tokyo Zangyo (Detective Hiroshi Series Book 4).

FQ: Does zangyo/working overtime mainly occur in big corporations in Japan, or is it a cultural concept seen throughout all businesses, both large and small?

PRONKO: In Japan, people overwork everywhere, at schools, restaurants, clothing stores, hospitals, and even at so-called “part-time” jobs. The laws for overtime are rarely enforced. There are just too many places to check up on. Demanding overtime reflects some of the power of the hierarchical chain of command to just tell people what to do and when. There’s been some pushback of late, though, and many of my students who’ve graduated and started working tell me they don’t have that much overtime. The situation is worse in large, traditional corporations where things change slowly, or not at all.

FQ: How did the culture of overworking employees start in Japan?

PRONKO: Japanese culture was always based on hard work. Growing rice is labor intensive and the artisan class drew its identity from making baskets, cloth, or whatever product without any real separation between home and work. When a corporate system started in the Meiji Era, and took over after WWII, it became overwhelming. The typical salaryman model meant staying late, going out with colleagues, catching the last train home, and rarely seeing your family. That’s not as common as it once was, but if you’re employed at certain companies, the understanding is you are theirs at any time of night or day and that you stay until the work is done. That said, I’m amazed at how much value, identity and meaning people derive from work, even when it exhausts them. Work, of whatever kind or situation, is taken seriously, and respected.

FQ: Here in the United States, the pandemic has caused workers to quit jobs, and many are refusing to return to work or are generally not putting up with certain work conditions that they may have previously accepted. Some are even realizing they can work just as well from home, and don’t want to return to the stresses of being in an office. Have you noticed a similar shift in the work culture in Japan?

PRONKO: I think it’s less the coronavirus pandemic than the pandemic of depression and stress-related illness that’s caused things to change. Little by little, the tremendous toll has become clear. Primary and secondary teachers are way overworked and quit in droves. Recently more and more young people see their life in terms other than using up their entire life energy for a company. They want a better work-life balance. But I think that’s a slow, gradual change. Too slow.

FQ: I found it interesting that you wrote in your story that Shigeru Onizuka was discovered by foreign tourists dead outside of his office building. Was this a purposeful point saying that Japanese citizens tend to be less empathetic (like many Americans too) in these certain situations?

PRONKO: That was more a comment on the hordes of tourists that were descending on Japan before the pandemic. Pre-corona, there were a lot of tourists visiting Japan. That dropped to zero with the pandemic. But it is true that Tokyoites have the capacity to ignore things in public spaces. I often find myself the first person stopping to help when someone faints or falls ill in a station. After living in Tokyo, though, you really pick up the habit of just heading forward without looking around too much. There’s just too much sensory input in Tokyo and you have to cut it down somehow, even ignoring something serious.

FQ: In your Detective Hiroshi mystery novels, you have brought to light a wide variety of subjects such as Tokyo hostess clubs and human trafficking. Do you have any topics that are taboo, or an issue that you won't write about?

Author Michael Pronko

PRONKO: I don’t feel there are any taboos I wouldn’t write about. I mean that’s the point of detective fiction, in my opinion, to expose problems and re-establish some ethical sense. But I think writing about it with the right attitude is important. So, I don’t know that I have the right take on certain topics. I don’t want to exoticize bad, or strange, sides of life here. Japanese culture encourages the tendency to ignore shameful issues. But on the other hand, Tokyo has a very cosmopolitan attitude and an occasionally critical media. For me, it’s more that I haven’t gotten to writing about some things yet.

FQ: Even though you aren’t supposed to “judge a book by its cover,” I believe all of the covers to your novels really set a great tone for what’s to come inside. What’s your process like selecting the graphics for the covers?

PRONKO: I turn it over to my designer, and good friend, Marco Mancini. I forwarded this question to him and he told me, “For me, the cover has the function to inform and grab attention. Usually, I go with the book’s title and of course the tone of story inside, in this case, a noir feel.” So, I describe the story to him, usually over a few drinks, and he takes it from there. I’m so grateful to have him as a designer and friend. I can just say, I like this, or can you move this or that around. We’re not afraid to argue about it, either, but mostly I rely on his experience and talent.

FQ: Detective Hiroshi and his colleagues are often in scenes happily tucking into some mouthwatering Japanese cuisine. Is this similar to the doughnut-loving cop stereotype in the US, or are you just paying homage to some of your favorite dishes?

PRONKO: In Tokyo, people don’t entertain at home very much because people live far away from each other and homes are much smaller. So, restaurants and drinking places serve as the prime venue for socializing. Those scenes are when the detectives can talk things through. They wouldn’t do that in the office, with the chief hanging around, or standing on the street. They often don’t get a chance to eat during the day, too. But the main thing is that in eating and drinking places, they can speak honestly with each other, and restore their humanity.

FQ: Now that you have written several award-winning novels, do you have any plans on submitting your works to any mainstream publishing companies?

PRONKO: I’ve been focusing on writing mainly, so I’m not sure companies would help me writing better. There are good and bad sides to going indie and to going mainstream. I work at a university which is mainstream company enough for me at this point. But I might be able to find a good home for the books. Maybe some publisher would be interested at some point.

FQ: I noticed that some of your novels are also available in audio. What are the steps involved for getting your finished product into this format?

PRONKO: I got lucky. A book reviewer introduced me to the narrator, Peter Berkrot. He understood the books from the get-go and knew just how to tap the story drama. He gets the characters and the conflicts. All he needs is for me to record a pronunciation guide to some of the Japanese words. He takes it from there. I listen and make comments here and there, but not much. He’s won awards and done a lot of audiobooks of all different kinds, so he brings huge experience to the recording. I’m always amazed to listen to them!

FQ: What’s in store for your next writing endeavor?

PRONKO: I have another Detective Hiroshi novel coming. For now, it’s titled Tokyo Tsuresari, which means kidnapping or abduction. It focuses on a wealthy, bicultural family in Tokyo, and on the money that keeps them living so well. I’m also reworking a guide to jazz in Tokyo, which got set aside when the pandemic hit. I’m also compiling my non-fiction writing on Tokyo life, but that will be done long after the next novel. I also have a few other smaller writing projects going, but sometimes they turn into bigger ones, so I try to keep them contained.

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