Join acclaimed mystery writer and blogger, Jonelle Patrick, for a lively chat about life, Japan, and her new novel, The Last Tea Bowl Thief.
If you’re a mystery buff and you’re not familiar with Jonelle Patrick’s popular Only in Tokyo mystery series featuring Detective Kenji Nakamura and English interpreter Yumi Hata…you’re missing out! In Nightshade, the first in the series, our heroes join forces to investigate a suspicious set of suicides, but end up discovering the dark side of Tokyo’s underground clubs. Good stuff!
The Last Tea Bowl Thief is Jonelle Patrick’s new standalone mystery just released last week. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to connect with the author and get some behind-the-scenes info about her new book!
MHL- You moved to Tokyo in 2003, and I understand you now live part time in San Francisco and part time in Tokyo. What initially motivated you to move to Japan? What was the transition like for you? If you could pick one, or, ok, maybe two things, what do you love most about Japan?
JP – Ha, that answer has changed soooo many times since the first time I woke up in Tokyo with killer jetlag at 3:00 am, and the only food available for HOURS was weird red bean soup from a vending machine!
But there’s one thing I love about Japan that has never changed: I’m still surprised by something eye-opening, every, single, day. Most of the time, it’s something entertaining, like the werewolf shrine or an exhibit of insanely detailed sculptures made from Japanese snack packages. Occasionally, it’s something squicky, like the plastic-wrapped “Seasonal Special” pack of cod testicles sitting right next to the red snapper at the supermarket. And sometimes it’s downright irritating, like noticing the only two empty seats on the crowded subway car are the ones next to me. Again. But they’re all experiences worth having, because it’s the squicky and irritating bits that make me stop and think. I’m sure it’s no surprise that the American character in The Last Tea Bowl Thief suffers the same indignities and makes many of the same embarrassing mistakes that I have, but I think those are the kind of things that give readers a feeling for what it’s like to see a culture from the inside, instead of just pressing their noses against the glass..
MHL- I had fun exploring your blog, Only in Japan. You give your readers the skinny on everything from modern kimono fashions to discovering how lucky your name is. And you treat us to some great-looking recipes—I’ve added your summer rice bowl dish to my must-try list! Japanese culture sometimes seems so dissimilar to American culture. What are some of the differences you notice? Or are we more similar that we think?
JP – After living in Japan for so long, I pretty much think that people are people, all over the world, and every country has some people who are polite, some who are rude, some honest, some skeevy. But there’s one huge difference I’ve noticed in Japan, and it happens every February. Allergy season arrives with a vengeance, and suddenly, everyone is wearing masks. Wait, they wear masks for allergy season? Didn’t anyone tell them that allergies aren’t contagious? But saving others from getting sick isn’t why they do it. It’s because making other people worry that you have germs they might catch is just as bad as actually dosing them with your nasties. Annoying or inconveniencing other people is seriously frowned upon in Japan, and the comfort of all is valued much more highly than the freedom of individuals. As you can imagine, this social pressure goes way beyond concealing the sneezies and snifflies, and it’s got a major dark side. One thing I really enjoyed exploring in The Last Tea Bowl Thief is both the shiny and the tarnished sides of that coin, and all the unexpected ways that way of thinking plays out.
MHL- Your first four mystery novels in the Only in Tokyo series feature recurring characters, the English translator Yumi Hata and Detective Kenji Nakamura. The Last Tea Bowl Thief marks a departure from the series. Your new novel is both a mystery and historical journey spanning different eras in Japanese culture. What was the inspiration for the story? Was the writing process different for The Last Tea Bowl Thief than the Only in Tokyo mysteries?
JP – Writing The Last Tea Bowl Thief was really different from the other books, because they all wend their way straight from crime to solution with a few wiggles and side trips along the way. The Last Tea Bowl Thief has two different storylines that not only have to be engaging and page-turny by themselves, they have to intertwine and come together in a way that builds to a satisfying conclusion for both. The crazy thing is, anytime I changed ANYTHING, it rippled out through both of the stories, rearranging all kinds of stuff that I didn’t anticipate. That’s why this book took twice as long to write, but it was totally worth it, because I got to build in something that has always delighted me as a reader: a character who was quite different in real life than he is remembered by history, and the reader gets to enjoy some knowing laughs at the truth.
MHL- What do you hope that your readers take away from The Last Tea Bowl Thief?
JP – What I really hope is that it will take readers away! Far, far, away from our current reality, if only for a few blessed hours. Right now, I’m devouring historical fiction and international mysteries by the truckload, because my favorite way to escape the doom scrolling is to jump into a book set in a time or place where the worst thing that might happen is a little murder. I’d love it if people feel like they’re living behind the curtain in Japan while they’re reading The Last Tea Bowl Thief, and that it’s a world they can’t wait to get back to.
One tea bowl. Two strangers stuck at dead-end jobs with nothing in common. Except that the mysterious tea bowl may be the key to unlocking both of their futures…
MHL- I know that you’re a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime among other genre associations, so I’m thinking that you read a lot of mysteries? 😊 What else do you enjoy reading for fun? What is your reading “guilty pleasure”?
JP – OMG, I love reading mysteries so much that the walls of my writing cave are lined with more than eight hundred of them (and those are just the ones I might want to re-read AIEEEEE.) But my secret guilty pleasure is…sci-fi. I know you’re a fan of the spooky, and there’s something I think horror and sci-fi share: don’t you love to dive into a beautifully-written reality that resembles ours closely enough to feel at home, but is shockingly different enough to make you think about our own world differently? In my case, truly genius science fiction—like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”—makes me question everything from the nature of art (can those achingly poignant Cornell-like works still be considered art once you know they were made by an AI?) to how utterly entertaining it would be to imagine how biohacking could be used for body-mod fashion on the black market.
MHL- Can you share any secrets from The Last Tea Bowl Thief—that aren’t in the blurb—with our readers?
JP – Ooo, great question! I’m so glad you asked me that, because I do have a great story for you.
Sometimes I set out to research one thing, then something utterly unexpected ends up being the takeaway instead. For example, one time I tarted myself up for an all-night Tokyo steampunk event, convinced it was sure to be God’s gift to novelists. But at 3:00 am, there I was, out in the rain in Shibuya after the trains stopped running. I finally gave up trying to beat all the other stranded revelers to a cab and found a comic book café instead. That’s where I spent the rest of the night, propped in the corner of a booth, admiring how many different kinds of shoes were left politely outside each cubicle, and how many distinct styles of Japanese snoring there are. Guess which experience ended up making it into a book?
But this time, the opposite thing happened. While I was writing The Last Tea Bowl Thief, I discovered something amazing, but I couldn’t put it in the book. I was visiting the convent outside Kyoto that I’d chosen as a setting because it checked all the boxes: old enough to have been well-established in samurai times, within a few days travel from the character’s hometown, and a pilgrimage destination with a famous Jizo figure known for healing. But while I was roaming the grounds and dutifully noting benches for characters to sit on while waiting and settings for fraught conversations, I discovered that it had been the site of a terrible tragedy. The convent had been standing in that same location for 1200 years, but in May of 2000, an arsonist burned it to the ground. Worst of all, the famous centuries-old wooden Jizo figure perished in the fire too. But as the sorrowing nuns sifted through the ashes, they discovered a secret so deep it had been kept even from the convent’s founder—the sculptor who carved the Jizo figure had secretly concealed a metal box inside it. Inside the box were over 3,000 tiny carved Jizo figures, all of which survived the fire. So, out of that dreadful act of destruction came a profound message of rebirth! A faithful replica of the original wooden Jizo figure continues to dispense hope and healing to this day. But alas, as much as I was dying to weave that into The Last Tea Bowl Thief, the convent and its healing saint are part of the samurai era characters’ reality, so I had to regretfully leave that Jizo unburnt and allow it to keep its secret for three hundred more years before being reborn by fire.
MHL- Finally, fans want to know: Will readers see Yumi and Kenji return?
JP – Yumi and Kenji will never disappear for long! I’m not sure what book I’ll be starting next, but just last month they resurfaced in a little novella called “It Was You” that’s not for sale, but can be had for free by Japanagram newsletter subscribers and the lovely readers who host pop-up book clubs for The Last Tea Bowl Thief.
Jonelle, thank you for a great interview!
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