Writing Backwards

Below is an article I wrote, published in “The Third Degree,” the official newsletter of the Mystery Writers of America. It’s about my experience entering my novel, My Dear Watson, in an international mystery novel competition in 1992. It was written in English and translated into Japanese, but it wasn’t until 2011 that it was at last published in English!

I am a published author. After entering a mystery fiction competition, I received prize money and advance royalties for 25,000 copies of my first novel. However, no one I know—not my friends, not relatives, not even I myself—has ever walked into a bookstore to buy a copy. In fact I can’t even read it! Why not? It’s in Japanese.

To answer your first questions: No, the story has nothing to do with Japan, I don’t speak the language, and I knew next to nothing about Japan when I wrote it. In fact, my book, entitled My Dear Watson, is, as you might easily deduce, a pastiche using Conan Doyle’s characters. I read about the international Suntory Awards for Mystery Fiction in an ad in The New York Times Review of Books and entered it on a whim. The only criteria were that it be an unpublished mystery written in either English or Japanese. A year and a half later, having almost forgotten about the contest, I received a letter notifying me that I was one of four finalists. I was thrilled! What really got my attention, though, was Suntory’s offer to fly me (business class) to Tokyo to attend the judging ceremony and celebration in honor of the finalists.

 Tokyo! This news eclipsed even my recently announced pregnancy. I immediately checked with m doctor and got her approval to make the flight. I brushed up on my nonexistent Japanese and made reservations.

When I arrived, I was greeted at Narita Airport by Mr. Toshimi, a young man from Dentsu, the internationally known advertising agency arranging the details of the competition for Suntory. He was accompanied by the previous year’s winner, Donna Leon, an American woman living and teaching in Italy, who was an honorary guest. We both registered at Hotel Okura, the very luxurious, western-style hotel Suntory had chosen for us, featuring remote control draperies, a “happi” robe and slippers, and a pot of hot tea. After 14 hours on a plane, two hours on a bus, and very little sleep, I was exhausted. I was too excited to close my eyes, though, so I went window shopping and tried to calculate what the ten million yen grand prize would be in dollars.

The next day Mr. Toshimi brought me to a small conference room in Nissho Hall, where I was introduced to two young women who were to be my interpreters. The other three finalists were there, but no one introduced us; they were all older, Japanese men, and I recognized them from my program. I was given bound galleys of my manuscript (translated into Japanese, of course), on which, for my benefit, my name and the title were added in English. Another representative from Dentsu explained to us the schedule of the day’s events, and then, for the ensuing half hour, we did little but wait in silence.

Finally, we were all ushered upstairs into a large auditorium and seated separately near the stage. Press photographers rushed to take my picture. Giggling strangers asked for my autograph, indicating by pointing their pens at copies of my book’s galleys from top to bottom, instead of from left to right. I complied, noticing how rambling my own scrawl looked next to the neatly printed Japanese characters. A small, quiet man introduced himself in such broken English that it took me a moment to realize it was he who had translated my novel and narrowed down all the English-language entries. (The judges later commented to me that they considered the translation very impressive; when I asked how they could tell, they explained that they simply meant the writing itself was good. I thought later that it might well have been better than the original!)

As the lights dimmed, a moderator appeared onstage to welcome everyone. As he spoke, the two young women seated beside me took turns interpreting in whispers. It was soon apparent why two were necessary: after the four hours of ceremony proceedings, one person would simply have gone hoarse.

Then we all sat back and were treated to four short (15-minute) video dramatizations of the competing novels. Two were animated, two featured actors. Mine was last. As it started and I heard my name, I found myself blushing. It was a strange sensation to see my characters animated (in traditional anime style) and speaking a language I couldn’t understand. Some words and concepts seemed to have changed, though whether that was intentional or just lost in translation, I couldn’t tell. The funniest part for me was that the main character, a 50-year-old woman so tall and lean she convincingly masquerades as a man, was depicted as a buxom young thing. Clearly, no matter where you publish, sex sells.

After the films, the five judges were introduced. Sitting each at a dais on the stage, they included four well-respected Japanese mystery writers and an editor of the Japanese version of Ellery Queen magazine. I felt humbled yet somewhat embarrassed that I had never heard of any of them, especially when one woman, Shizuko Netsuke, was described to me as “the Agatha Christie of Japan.”

For the next three hours we all listened to each judge discuss in detail the merits and demerits of each manuscript. Emphasis on demerits, because they made so many negative comments that by the time they started on mine (last again!) I was so nervous I thought my heart would explode. If these are the best entries, I thought, I’d hate to hear what they thought of the rest!

Fortunately, most of the debate about my book centered on whether it should be legitimately considered a mystery or whether it was more of a suspense novel. The judges seemed skeptical about the masquerade part, too. However, they were very kind concerning my style and plotting.

Finally the moderator called for a vote. The two women voted for me and the three men for a retired Japanese businessman. Close, but no cigar. Well, it’s been said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But in this case it was more like $80,000. Not to mention a published book and a Japanese TV movie. I tried not to be frustrated, but losing by only one vote was tough to take. I consoled myself with the fact that, if nothing more, I had won a free trip to Tokyo.

But there was more. After some consultation onstage, it was announced that because the vote was so close (among the 50 invited readers in the audience, as well as among the judges), my novel would be published too, and I would receive a small monetary prize. This was an unprecedented honor. A spotlight hit me and I stood to be recognized. As I left my interpreters behind and stepped up to accept my award (a porcelain bottle of Suntory whiskey), I felt very western, very young, very female, and very pregnant. I bowed modestly and said, “Arigato.”

Afterward, there was a cocktail party at a nearby restaurant, where I met Ms. Natsuke, who congratulated me warmly. I also met the president of my publisher, Bungei Shunju Ltd., and a young woman who was my editor. They were incredibly enthusiastic about my book and surprised that it hadn’t won the grand prize. The next day I met with them (and another interpreter) to discuss the details of my contract.

I stayed on to sightsee a bit more in Japan, but that day definitely gave me more than my allotted 15 minutes of fame. For the 25,000 copies of my book printed (as a high-quality paperback, including a dust jacket and bookmark ribbon), I was paid 6% two months after it was published. The translator got 4%.

In part I believe because American women had won this prestigious Japanese competition for three years in a row, that year was the last to accept entries in English. Now I have photos of my trip, a videotape of my film, and a lovely little book that looks good on the shelf next to the unopened bottle of whiskey. I just wish I could read it.

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