GABINO IGLESIAS: Who are you and what role do books play in your life?
NICOLÁS OBREGÓN: I guess the second question helps me answer the first: I’m Nicolás Obregón, a novelist, so you could say books play a pretty fucking important role in my life. I wrote a book about a lonely Japanese detective on the case of a murdered family which came out last year called Blue Light Yokohama. The sequel, Sins as Scarlet, will come out at the end of this year (the summer in the UK.) The third one some time in 2019, and a fourth one in 2020 — the distant future!
As for who I am, that’s a bit more woolly. 33? Aries? Good at accents, except when under pressure? My background is Spanish and French but mostly I grew up in London. I now live in Los Angeles and I’ve just finished a book set here. So that’s the basic stuff. (If you don’t want the deep dive, skip to question 2!)
Like a lot of kids, my childhood was split in two. In London, I was with my mum who was juggling a being young single parent with getting a degree in human rights law. We were poor as shit but our council flat was full of love and books. Then, like night becoming day, it’d be Christmas, or Easter, or summer holidays, and I’d fly out to be with my dad in Madrid. He’s fiercely good-hearted but was kind of distant back then. Even though that side of my family are really warm people, Spain to me was just this middle class, Catholic bubble which didn’t really hold much meaning to my life back in London. Going there felt like pressing pause on who I was.
Looking back, I think that being from two different places is an incomparable gift. Having two languages, two cultures, two value systems, two streams of art, all of that is a tremendous advantage. The flip side is that when you’re from two places, you’re from no places. (That’s something I’m particularly interested about and pretty much the spinal column of my aforementioned next book, out later this year).
Anyway, I grew up feeling disconnected and my way of grappling with who I was, was to swamp myself in books: dystopian literature, crime fiction, Haruki Murakami, and, perhaps more importantly, Ryū Murakami. I enrolled in a bunch of things and swiftly dropped out again.
After traveling the world for a bit in my early 20s, I fluked my way into a travel magazine. That led to me being sent to Japan, which eventually led me to writing my debut novel, Blue Light Yokohama, (which is another way of saying led me to changing my life).
Realistically, writing is the only job I can think of that I’m ever going to be more than proficient in. Sure, there are plenty of things I could do, I just can’t imagine my heart being in it the way it is for writing. Bailey said: worthy books are not companions—they are solitudes.
Philosophical grandiloquence to one side, books are what I do pretty much all day long. I’m tremendously fortunate but at the same time, it’s a job. Reading for pleasure now pretty exclusively revolves around topics of research. I suppose you could say books help me do my job at the same time as actually being my job.
So to bring this back to the original question, what are they to me? Books are fundamental to me in making sense of the world, making sense of myself. They allow me to stop being me and to become someone else, somewhere else. Without putting too fine a point on it, they’re everything.
At the moment, I’m reading a lot on Franco’s Spain for a future novel idea: the normalization of dictatorship, literal thought police, living in terror, so on. It feels a bit like I’ve come full circle and finally started connecting with a place that has always been in me, even though I’ve never really been in it.
That became an essay but I dunno, who are you? is a long-form question, man!
GI: You’ve changed countries a few times. What happens to books when you move?
NO: They’re wrenched screaming from my breast, like Sophie’s Choice. No, basically they’re in lots of boxes in my mother’s attic. When I moved to LA, I’d just been given my book deal so I promised myself I’d only bring stuff that was central to my research. On an almost daily basis, I’ll think of some passage I want to read, or something I want to check and then I’ll realise it’s back in London.
GI: Can you give us ten crime favorites from your shelves?
NO: Okay, strap yourself in. (Given the question below, I’ll leave out Japanese titles here.) Recent discoveries are Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke and IQ by Joe Ide but down the years, I’ve often found myself thinking about Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. The infectiously charming Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos is a work of art — not strictly ‘crime’ but somewhere between literary and narco-lit so I’m counting it. There’s William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, the progenitor of tartan noir, about a hard-drinking philosopher-detective who investigates 1970s Glasgow’s societal fabric just as much as the murder he’s tasked with solving.
Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace is a nightmarish, merciless novel set in postwar Japan, brutalised by bombs and disease, where no-one is who they say they are and the smell of death -always smelling of apricots- hangs everywhere. A harrowing but personally inspiring novel.
And of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention Raymond Chandler. Now when that name is called to mind, people often point to his unique use of description — he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food etc. I understand why it gets so much attention, after all, when prose can be described as ‘Chandleresque,’ it makes sense. But I think the fact that his writing is so witty can actually mask its real underlying quality and the less obvious similes can be overlooked.
There’s a simple genius to gun barrels being likened to the mouth of 2nd Street Bridge, or a woman’s eyes being compared to strange sins. But as a kid, what I really fell in love with were his quieter, more reflective passages — particularly the blunt yet melancholic monographs of LA: ‘When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him.
More than anything, I grew up loving the sense of city Chandler evokes, the seediness trickling through the sidewalk cracks of Downtown, the snobbery smirking from the private estates in Bel Air. It seemed so disparate, yet at the same time, it was all Los Angeles, forever embracing contradiction. Picking one title is no easy task but, for me, when it comes to the mystery genre, Farewell, My Lovely is the classic of classics — scandal, seduction, scores — it’s all there. If the planet were suddenly doomed tomorrow and little time capsules were sent into space to preserve human culture, this book would get my vote for the one marked crime fiction.
One of the biggest influences any book had on me is All is Silence by Manuel Rivas. He has created a melancholy and literary oil painting of his homeland, Galicia, the green, rain-swept region where Franco was born. The title is taken from a verse by Rosalía de Castro, a poet who was known for what Galicians (and Lusophones) call saudade. The word resists simple translation into English but approximates to something like a deep feeling of longing, loss and nostalgia. Indeed, it’s the lifeblood of this story, which itself is almost an extended poem. Set in a poor coastal town in the 60s, the outer layer of the book centres on three childhood friends who find an abandoned school discovering hidden contraband inside. This is when a man in a white suit and a Panama hat fires a warning shot and says: The mouth is not for talking. It’s for keeping quiet. The trio grow up and Rivas goes on to explore tobacco smuggling, the torment of longing, and small-town menace. But at its heart, this is a novel defined by its opening words spoken by the man in the white suit — the plague of fear that infected Spain for so long and the inability to speak out against oppression. A Trojan Horse of a book.
When the Fox hears the Rabbit scream he comes a-runnin’, but not to help. The way I see it, there are crime novels and then there’s the Silence of the Lambs. This book has had all the superlatives under the sun thrown at it and rightly so. In Clarice Starling, Thomas Harris has created one of the most interesting heroes in any genre and while the entire thing is taut and graceful with so much suspense-building and narrative chicanery to drink in, it’s the characters that really set this book apart — particularly the much-loved psychological chess game between Starling and the charming archfiend, Hannibal Lecter. (So gripping is their relationship that it renders the actual antagonist of the story, Buffalo Bill, almost secondary). When we first hear of The Doctor, it takes the form of a warning: “…It’s the kind of curiosity that makes a snake look in a bird’s nest… We both know that in interviews you have to back-and-forth a little but tell him no specifics. You do not want any of your personal facts inside his head.” And, just like that, we know this is precisely what’s going to happen. For my money, The Silence of the Lambs should be compulsory reading on any creative writing class.
Finally, we come to the top of my list, and I’m not just talking about crime fiction. Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in Their Eyes (originally The Question of Their Eyes) is for me, quite simply a perfect story. It centres on a retiring prosecutor who decides to write a book based on a cold case; a young woman who was raped and murdered in her home. The narrative jumps between the case unfolding at the time, and his exploration of it years later, the two threads always complementing and confounding each other. Sacheri straddles so many themes in this novel — justice, corruption, evil, love, rejection, revenge — it can almost sound like the plot would be secondary. Yet The Secret in Their Eyes is so elegantly and poignantly hewn that the mystery and action is never overlooked and those who crave the classic conventions of the genre will be satisfied. But this novel does so much more than stay in tune, set against the backdrop of Argentina’s Dirty War, Sacheri eventually asks the reader questions about human nature itself. As if that weren’t enough, it has the best twist I’ve ever read. Without this book, I never would have started Blue Light Yokohama, let alone finish it and escape my shitty office job. Señor Sacheri, te amo.
GI: Which five Japanese authors would you out on a “must read before you die” list?
NO: This is hard! I’ll stick to (mostly) contemporary writers to simplify this. First and foremost, there’s Natsuo Kirino. In amongst her glittering and much-celebrated bibliography, I’d plump for Out, a novel about four women working nights at a factory. When one of them murders an abusive husband in self-defence, they all agree to dispose of the body and divvy up the insurance. It’s a brutal book with some queasy moments and of course there are twists and tension galore in the fragile integrity of the shared sacred. But Kirino goes so much further than this, examining class, jealousy, loneliness, lust, misogyny and, ultimately, hatred — all of it set against a backdrop of economic downturn and the desperation of what it is to be a woman in an empty suburban existence. The wonderful title gives you a taste of the economy in Kirino’s writing, but there’s also real poetry dripping from her pages. Consider the way she describes the protagonist’s entire existence in just a few lines: When stones lying warm in the sun were turned over, they exposed the cold, damp earth underneath; and that was where Masako had burrowed deep. There was no trace of warmth in this dark earth, yet for a bug curled up tight in it, it was a peaceful and familiar world. Down the years, I come back to Out time and again.
Number two on my list would be Seichō Matsumoto, particularly highlight Points and Lines. Following an apparent love-suicide, two detectives embark on a dizzyingly millimetric investigation that hinges on train timetables and corporate malfeasance. Published in 1958 by one of Japan’s most enduring mystery writers, Points and Lines is a fascinating glimpse into postwar Japan. Coming out of the crime genre for a moment, anything I’ve ever read by Kazuo Ishiguro has been a pleasure. But The Unconsoled is a work of thought-provoking, disquieting and kafkaesque genius. Theoretically about a famous pianist who arrives in an unnamed European city to perform, he’s plagued by an inability to remember what’s expected of him. But it’s what goes on beneath the narrative that chills, like being awake in a nightmare. One scene in particular still makes me shudder to this day.
I confess to having fallen out of love with Haruki Murakami long time ago, having read practically everything he’s ever put out (in translation anyhow). I still remember when he wasn’t a household name, at least in London, and clearly I’ve become a little desensitised to the middle-aged guy likes jazz, cooks spaghetti and meets a much younger woman insert-frequent rumination-and-plot-here schtick. (Somehow, I think he’ll be able to take this on the chin). That said, I completely understand why he’s blown up all over the world and I still vividly recall the feelings he provoked in my 13-year-old-self the first time I picked up Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Murakami engulfed me in those twin worlds and threw big fucking logs on the fire of my interest in Japanese culture. One way or another, he has to be a before-you-die list.
Last but absolutely not least, I’d highlight Ryū Murakami, my Maradona. An incredibly interesting and talented writer, of all his works, I’d have to stick with In the Miso Soup. It’s a terrifying and beautifully-written book about a tourist guide, Kenji, who is contracted by Frank, a strange American with plastic in his face, to show him a good time in Tokyo’s sex scene. Kenji is disturbed by Frank from the off, wondering if he’s responsible for the gruesome murder reported in the news. I think The Guardian described it as ‘like script notes for American Psycho — the Holiday Abroad,’ but while the two books do share some themes, I think they’re very different experiences. It’s true that In the Miso Soup does have shocking grotesquerie on the page, but it’s also a philosophical book, funny, contemplative, quickly addictive, lonely. And in Frank, I feel Murakami has created one of the greatest antagonists in fiction. And for all of his exploits and disturbing traits, what’s really so unsettling and compelling about this book is that ultimately Kenji tries to understand him.
GI: There’s music at the core of Blue Light Yokohama. Do you listen to music while writing? Any other weird rituals?
NO: Music absolutely informs the mood of scenes and characters in my books, it certainly drives the spirit in my writing. Whole characters have come out of songs. I’m currently writing the third Inspector Iwata book and one of the characters is a salaryman-come-serial killer who is completely unremarkable during the day, but abducting girls by night. As well as being a homicidal monster, he’s absolutely obsessed with 90s music. I might have Bananarama’s Cruel Summer or Michael Bolton’s How Can I Live Without You? blaring in my apartment while I get into the ‘Mr. Sato Zone’. But then when it actually comes to the writing itself, I need silence, (or light human ambience). Hearing the construction reverberate outside works for me, loud conversations in Silver Lake coffee shops do not. Joe Hill talks about needing silence to let the voices in and that’s exactly how I feel about it.
In terms of weird rituals, I like to be barefoot. I like to look at certain images or pieces of art, even if just on a postcard to help cultivate a certain mood before writing. When I’m afflicted with a plot problem or just plain ole self-doubt, I’ll go for a walk or a swim. Oh, and coffee. Gallons and gallons of coffee.
GI: If you can buy all at the same time; kindle, paperback, or hardback? Why?
NO: If I’m picking one, I’d go for HB. Physically easier to read than PB and I dig the extra artwork and little flourishes hardback gives you.
GI: What was your first thought when holding your book for the first time?
NO: Fuck me.
GI: What was the last book you read that blew your mind?
NO: Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry; tremendous. Though People Who Eat Darkness blew it just as hard. If it wasn’t non-fiction, it would have made my 10 above.
GI: What’s the hardest part of having to plug a novel?
NO: Everything. Hustle sucks, man. I’m told a give a good talk and I do well at author events, so on. I just don’t really dig that whole side of writing. That said, I’m aware that I’m fortunate enough to be published by some established names around the world. Much of the plugging is done by them. For a lazy person who doesn’t have that natural ability to sell themselves, in way this is a godsend. On the other hand (and I’m aware that this will likely sound hollow to those who haven’t taken this publishing route), you sometimes wonder exactly wonder how much plugging is happening with your book, who it’s being put in front of, etc. This isn’t a criticism of the marketing of my novels at all, I’m just saying that not being in the loop sometimes can feel a bit like you’re in an echo chamber. If you don’t have the big publisher behind you, the control belongs entirely to you.
GI: Tell folks in 5k or less what BLY is about and why they need to buy it right now.
NO: I think the elevator pitch which got the thing sold was probably something like: ‘lonely detective in Tokyo solving weird ritualistic murders, think Se7en in Setagaya’.
In terms of what it’s about? Like I said above, it’s about Kosuke Iwata, a lonely Tokyo murder cop tasked with solving a family homicide, the heart of the patriarch ripped from his body and a black sun drawn on the ceiling in charcoal. Iwata is a man of few words, he lives in an empty apartment filled with boxes, boxes he cannot bring himself to unpack, haunted by an old 60s love song that goes round and round his riven mind: Blue Light Yokohama. Iwata is a replacement inspector, something the men of Division One make clear, the previous inspector having killed himself by jumping from Rainbow Bridge. Iwata is paired with the truculent Assistant Inspector Noriko Sakai, who takes few prisoners and even less shit. After reviewing the crime scene, she asks him what the black sun symbol means. Iwata says he doesn’t know what the symbol means but he knows what the murderer means by it: I am here. I am not finished.
Between them, they hunt the Black Sun Killer through the infinity of Tokyo’s grey, obstructed at every turn by ultra nationalists and corrupt cops. As their own damaged histories reveal themselves, a grudging bond is formed between Iwata and Sakai. But the Black Sun Killer strikes again and it’s clear he’s not finished. When the detectives finally connect the dots, they deduce a pattern. Can Iwata and Sakai stop the devilish shadow man before he completes his grotesque mission?
That’s my (long-winded) pitch. And then in terms of why someone should buy it? Well simply put, because I flatter myself to think it’s unlike most other things. BLY is pretty atypical crime fiction. Though it respects and loves its genre, it’s more preoccupied with people in pain, rather than blood and guts, murderers, and tough guy cops hellbent on justice. Those tropes are present (though Iwata is no tough guy) and don’t get me wrong, I love them, but I’m more interested in exploring the unsaid, the unseen, what people lie about. Blue Light Yokohama is often described as raw and visceral or beautiful and poetic. Split the difference, I say. So yeah, if that sounds like something folks would enjoy, then they should buy it RIGHT NOW.
For more info and my badly-composed photography, your dear readers can zip over to: obregonbooks.com