Interview: THE LAST TRAIN by Michael Pronko

“Gripping and suspenseful, this fast-paced thriller unfolds on the streets of Tokyo, where a clever and cold-blooded killer exacts revenge.” —Booklife Prize Rating 10.00


Detective Hiroshi Shimizu investigates white collar crime in Tokyo. When an American businessman turns up dead, he’s called out to the site of a grisly murder—or is it just suicide? A slip or jump off the train platform? A security camera video suggests the killer was a woman, but in Japan, that seems unlikely. Hiroshi and ex-sumo wrestler-turned-detective Sakaguchi scour Tokyo’s sacred temples, skyscraper offices and industrial wastelands to find out what was in the past of one Tokyo woman that drove her to murder.


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Genre: Mystery & Thriller | Content Rating: PG-13

“For anyone who loves crime and cop novels, or Japanophiles in general, this is a terrific thriller. Fans of Barry Eisler’s early novels will find the same satisfactions here.” ~Blue Ink Review, starred review


What is your favorite scene in The Last Train?

I love the ending, but don’t want to spoil anything. Overall, I like the scenes in the temples. Inside the temple grounds, which can be sprawling in Japan (no taxes), it’s always a shift in consciousness. The temples are calm, traditional, formal, quiet, while the rest of Tokyo is the opposite. The temples are strikingly beautiful, designed by principles of balance and spirituality and humanity. Temples create a sacred space where you become more spiritual. The scene I like best is a funeral where the bad guy, a femme fatale named Michiko, is watching the funeral she’s responsible for. The detective, Hiroshi, is there to see who’s at the wedding. It’s still not clear to Hiroshi if the deceased American committed suicide or was killed. So, Hiroshi is watching a Japanese-style funeral for an American man and looking over at a beautiful Japanese woman sitting to the side and at the friends of the dead man and trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s pouring down rain, so everyone’s under umbrellas, making it more confused. It’s life, death, and our human attempt at figuring out what’s going on in the world.

What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?

In addition to writing about the opposite sex, the antagonist, Michiko, is from a different culture, Japan, and from a working-class family. Her reasons for doing what she does and thinking what she thinks and feeling what she feels were hard to get my mind around. But that’s part of the pleasure of writing different characters, imagining them. The work of a writer is to imagine the interior life of a person with a different set of gender, culture, work, life experiences. On the other hand, she exhibits characteristics I appreciate and aspire to. She’s smart, organized, hard-working, unafraid. I wish I were that way, so writing those ideals is the way in to her mindset. To get outside of one way of thinking and feeling, writers need to work with a lot of tools—imagination, sympathy/empathy, compassion, psychology. If I only wrote about characters who were exactly like me, the novels would be boring and limited. Awareness of universal experiences and positive values set together with awareness of difference is a hard balance, but doable.

What makes The Last Train special or unique to you? Can you give us a little story behind the story?

To me, it’s unique because it is written not from a Japanese point of view, nor from a non-Japanese point of view. It comes from twenty years of living in Japan, working with Japanese, talking and being with them. I’m not sure if I have become more Japanese, but I’m sure I’ve shed a lot of my American-ness. Or merged the two in a new mix. Over two million non-Japanese live in Japan, and they have different insights into life here. So, it’s a bit like in America, where immigrant writers had, and still have, a unique take on the American experience. Those immigrant American writers helped to see America more clearly. In my novel, I write about Tokyo life from a slightly outside, but experienced point of view. “I never thought about that before,” is one of the comments I regularly received about the essays on Tokyo life I published. I’m getting similar comments on the novel. In the same way as an academic specialist on Japan who is not Japanese has a special insight into the culture, I think fiction writers offer different views based on their experiences. I go out a lot in Tokyo, and have written about music, art, politics and life here, so I wanted to draw on those two decades of observing and writing for the novel.

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Everything can be a trap, and I’ve had my share. Still do. Let me pick three of the worst. First, I think it’s easy to be satisfied with a draft too soon. I used to underestimate the amount of time needed to make the final draft the best it can be. It’s a trap to think, “It’s done! Glass of wine, please.” It’s sometimes at that point, or into the glass of wine, that the best ideas emerge. So, set down the glass, turn the computer back on, and rewrite. Second is ego. I work in academia where the ego factor can get very inflated, very pretentious. Like academics, every author has a ballooning ego that can take off in a strong wind, but which can throw your mental navigation system off. I think it’s better focus on process, not product. The process keeps you humble. Another trap for me was my romantic view of writing—scrawling out lines in a basement garret with no heating and all that. Writing is extremely hard work without much support. It’s best to shuck off the romance of it and think of it like a job. A great job and better than most, I’d say, but more like playing classical music or performing brain surgery than gleefully penning inspired prose while beautiful Muses dance around me in a circle. Not thinking of writing as work is a big trap for me. It’s surprising to me how I can use almost anything, everything from laundry to self-pity, as a way of avoiding the work.

How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?

Doing some research in the UT Austin library a few years ago, I came across one of Jack Kerouac’s notebooks. Inside, there were a dozen pages of sheer raving and childish glee when his first book, The Town and the City was accepted for publication. He was thanking god, blessing the world, rambling on in this teenage way. But then, it took him seven years to get his next book, On the Road, out after that first novel. Publishing my first book woke me up to get my butt in the chair on a regular basis. I used to write when I was inspired. And I was inspired often enough to get a lot done. The hard, cold, physical fact of a book changes your thinking because you’re in touch with a lot of people who read it. I felt thrilled and pleased, which is natural, but then that pleasure was something I wanted to turn into energy to do more and better on the next book.


Michael Pronko has lived in Tokyo for twenty years, but was born in Kansas City, a very different world. After graduating from Brown University in philosophy, he hit the road, traveling around the world for two years working odd jobs. He went back to school for a Master’s in Education, and then took a teaching position in Beijing. For two years, he taught English, traveled China and wrote. After more traveling and two more degrees, another M.A. in Comparative Literature in Madison, Wisconsin and a PhD in English at the University of Kent at Canterbury, he finally settled in Tokyo as a professor of American Literature at Meiji Gakuin University. His seminars focus on contemporary novels and film adaptations, and he teaches other classes in American indie film and American music and art. Pronko has published three award-winning collections of essays: Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo (Raked Gravel Press 2015), Tokyo’s Mystery Deepens (Raked Gravel Press 2014), and Beauty and Chaos: Essays on Tokyo (Raked Gravel Press 2014). He has published books in Japanese and two textbooks in both English and Japanese.


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