WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Welcome to Writers Tell All, James! It’s so great to be able to interview you about your incredible and stellar novel, Five Decembers. Can you tell us a little about the book and why you wrote it?
James Kestrel: I wrote it before the pandemic upended everything, and back then I was traveling a lot between Honolulu (my home), Tokyo, and Hong Kong. Whenever I’m in a new place, I like to walk around and explore the history. And I kept coming back to how these three places were connected, and how the sea in between them had become a chessboard from 1941 to 1945. I wanted to tell a story that grappled with that, and after thinking about it a while (I believe I was on a China Eastern Airlines flight, drinking a Tsingdao, when it all came together) I saw a way to use a character like Joe McGrady to propel a narrative.
MT: A lot of reviews I’ve seen have compared the novel favorably to All the Light We Cannot See, but I loved Five Decembers even more. I also really love the rare, great crime epic. It’s sweeping, it’s massive. Do you mind telling us a little about what it’s like to write such a sprawling novel, both in size and scope, and what research and other elements of the writing process went into crafting the novel?
JK: It was great fun to write such a big book. Everything I’d written previously had been smaller in scale, and crammed into a shorter time frame. Having such a huge canvas and such a long time for the story to play out was like filling my lungs with oxygen. I spent some time researching before I began writing, but then continued it as I was writing. With the research, the hardest part was to know when to stop. I was still researching after I’d sold the book, after it had been edited, and after it had been sent out to reviewers. When my editor at Hard Case finally confirmed that there was no longer any chance of changing things, I stopped researching because it would kill me to find something I wanted (or needed) to fix, if fixing it was an impossibility.
I spent a lot of time in the basement of the Hawaii State Library, which has a microfilm collection of all the local newspapers during the relevant time period. I also got a copy of the 1941 Oahu telephone directory, which was priceless, because then I knew where all the businesses were located. I ordered maps from the period, so I wouldn’t risk driving my characters down any streets that didn’t yet exist. And I spent a lot of time at the Waialae Country Club, hanging out with my 83 year old boss and his cronies, and listening to their stories.
Hong Kong and Japan were obviously much harder to research. Accurate period maps of Hong Kong were easy to find, and (because of my day job) I had a connection to a former Hong Kong detective. Tokyo was pretty much burned to the ground during the war, much of it on a single night. So walking around Tokyo isn’t a particularly good way of learning about what it was like in 1941—except there is one neighborhood, Yanaka, that miraculously escaped bombing. It’s a good way to get a handle on what Tokyo would have looked like. I also had some friends in Japan who take hospitality to another level, and they put me up for three nights in a hot spring town, in a guest house that used to belong to the Emperor. I’m not sure I want to know what they paid for that, but it was a fantastic way to become familiar with traditional Japanese domesticity (albeit on the high end).
MT: How do you manage the amount of information, historical and general, that goes into a novel? I’ve read some criticisms of other historical novels about the unnecessary factual information in the novels used to make the novels seem more authentic, but it feels like you use just enough, with sparse, almost poetic language. What books inspired you to write Five Decembers? What are your favorite novels, what are your favorite crime novels, and what are some of your favorite historical novels you feel have had a great impact on you, in general and in writing this novel?
JK: I research as deeply as I can, because I want to know things that would inform my characters or improve my understanding of them, even if those particular details don’t actually make it into the book. Case in point: I wanted to know what a Honolulu detective’s annual salary was in 1941. It’s the sort of thing you need to know, because it will dictate what kind of house he lives in, what kind of car he drives when he’s off duty, etc. But you don’t need to write a scene where he looks at his pay stub and multiplies it by 24. So I try to find out everything I can, but then try to let the story dictate what gets written down.
MT: What was your journey like to writing this novel—both in “becoming” a writer, whatever becoming might mean to you, and also in getting the novel published? I loved Hard Case Crime, and I’m so interested in how the publisher got its hands on such a brilliant novel too!
JK: This one is a bit tricky, because James Kestrel is a pseudonym. This is the tenth novel I’ve written, and the seventh I’ve published. I wanted this book to stand apart, though. The way I got to Hard Case Crime was pretty straightforward: my agent sent me a list of a dozen or so publishers she wanted to submit to, and I asked her to add Hard Case. The entire time I was writing the novel, I thought it would be a perfect match. And I am so glad it ended up where it did. Hard Case has a fantastic (brilliant, even) editor named Charles Ardai who was not only instrumental in reshaping the book from its first draft, but who has also been an unwavering champion of it since the day he made an offer.
MT: Do you feel the novel has any particular relevance today? I think about McGrady, the protagonist, and his sort of forced exile during the war, and there’s a sense of claustrophobia, of great change and unrest that rings true today, too. When were you writing this novel and were there any events going on in particular you feel affected the way the novel was shaped?
JK: I hadn’t thought of the forced-exile connection to our current world, but now that you point it out, it’s definitely there. I wrote this book before the pandemic, though, so that certainly wasn’t intentional.
MT: Language and style is such an important part of your novel. You have this beautiful, poetic style that’s filled with these unfurling sentences, and also a lot of staccato-like precision. When you write and revise, how closely do you pay attention to the actual style of your prose, and what’s that revision process like for you?
JK: Wow—thank you! Sometimes I’ll read passages aloud to make sure they have the right rhythm. The book is told from a close third-person perspective, so I wanted the prose style to echo the character of McGrady as much as possible. When he’s thinking like a beat cop, the sentences come out like he’s banging out a report on a rusty typewriter. But I had to spend some time adjusting the sentence structures and the pacing in the middle section of the book to better fit the scenes in which McGrady has been knocked out of his element and off the course of his investigation. He’s not thinking like a cop there, but like a bewildered man trying to keep a handhold on the world.
MT: The quote often attributed to Toni Morrison, about writing the novel you’ve always wanted to read, is something I’m always interested in. Do you feel you’ve read that sort of novel before, and if so what might it be? If not, do you think Five Decembers is the book you always wanted to read, or do you think that’s still coming?
JK: I’ve never talked to him, but I believe James Ellroy must have felt that way while writing The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential.
MT: What book or books do you feel Five Decembers might be most in conversation with, or paired with for the most interesting effect? What about other forms of art? Does it work as a response or complement any other work in a way you want to draw attention to?
JK: What an interesting exercise—like a wine and cheese pairing, but for books and other forms of art. When I was writing the story, I’d often listen to 1940s jazz. It wasn’t something I’d listened to at all before getting into this novel, but I it certainly put me in the right frame of mind.
As for book pairings, I would be interested to see what other people think of the comparison with All the Light We Cannot See. Now comes the embarrassing moment where I have to admit that I have not yet read that book. It came out shortly after my son was born, so I was kind of tied up. Then I was writing my book and the last thing I wanted to do was read an acclaimed World War II novel. What if it knocked my socks off, and I stopped writing mine? What if his voice was so powerful I couldn’t hear my own, and started borrowing his? But now I can read it, and I will.
MT: What’re you working on next? Can we expect another book from you in the near future, and if so, do you mind sharing any information about the novel?
JK: Right now I am trying to work my way out from beneath a mountain of pandemic-induced lethargy. I do sort of have an idea, though, inspired by some research I did for Five Decembers which had no direct connection to the book. All I can say is that I was researching denominations of US currency in circulation in 1941, inspired by the fear that I’d have McGrady hand someone a $5 bill, only to be told by a notaphilist / mystery reader that there was no such bill until 1954. My fear turned out to be ungrounded, but in the process I stumbled across something incredibly interesting.
MT: Thank you so much for letting me pick your brain, James! It was such a thrill reading your novel, and I hope others will pick it up as well. It’s a great novel and really deserves all the attention it’s getting and more. Thank you so much again, and I can’t wait to see more from you!
JK: Thank you so much. I’m truly humbled that you read the book at all, let alone that you enjoyed it.
Buy Five Decembers here.
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