PW: Did you have a series in mind when you published your first Rei Shimura mystery, The Salaryman's Wife, in 1997?
I just wanted to get a book in print and was pleasantly surprised when my editor wanted another. I intended to explore a different aspect of Japanese culture in each, but found the series was really about the experiences of a young woman trying to grow up. Her changes drive it. A series is great for reworking themes I feel I haven't satisfied.
Do you have a target audience?
I planned to write for travelers interested in Japan and for bicultural readers. A lot of nonfiction covers the East; my narrative happens to be a mystery.
How much of yourself is in Rei?
I'm asked often whether she's a real person. If I'm similar to anyone, it's her fiancé, Hugh. My own ideas do come through. I noticed recently that five of my eight books have touched on the war. As a Navy wife in Japan, I was interested in the military's impact on Japanese society. In The Samurai's Daughter, about comfort women, I wanted to find out whether they were different in the '40s. What happened with the Japanese could happen elsewhere. There's a capacity for light in everyone, and a capacity for great darkness. War is a recurring bad character. The more Rei understands, the more she's able to find her place.
Why is much of your current book, The Pearl Diver, set in restaurants?
I focused on food because I love cooking and want to know what characters are eating. So Rei decorates a restaurant. I spent a wonderful year of preparation. Having worked in restaurants when younger, I went back into kitchens. Surprisingly, women don't work on the line often, they're ghettoized in desserts. I enjoyed putting Rei's Aunt Norie into the kitchen breaking rules, a foreign woman of a certain age the other employees would be afraid of.
Why this book now?
There's a biorhythm in my writing. With small children I write closer to home, setting books in places I can go. When I started on The Pearl Diver, my son was just one and my daughter four, so I used Washington where I could do research. Now I have more mobility and the next is set mostly in Japan. I'm planning a week-long trip to walk through the scenes and check details.
Was your pearl diver character based on fact?
Yes. I belong to a group established for abandoned war brides and was haunted by their stories. My ikebana teacher lived the whole Japanese-American experience and was even in a camp. Later she took in cast-out women. Women were the divers in Japan and Korea. Stereotypically, they withstand cold and pain longer than men.
How do you stay fresh?
The assumption is that people want to read the same book over and over—they become attached to certain aspects. That's why series sell. Early on Rei had a Japanese boyfriend, Takeo, to whom one camp was attached. I got some pretty heated e-mail when she returned to Hugh. I'm trying to show life for someone with two strong passionate relationships. Takeo is perfect for the next adventure. Museums were looted in Iraq and many objects went to private collectors. Rei is engaged to determine whether anything reached Japan.