Monday, May 23, 2011

Scene of the Crime with Author I.J. Parker

Today on Scene of the Crime, I have the pleasure of interviewing the author of one of the best historical mystery series going.

Award-winning author, I.J. Parker, former Associate Professor of English and Foreign Languages, writes the Sugawara Akitada mysteries set in 11th century Japan.

Here's a brief description of Parker's main character from her website:

His noble family fallen on hard times, Sugawara Akitada works as a minor official in the Ministry of Justice in Heian Kyo, capital of Japan in the 11th century. The post is boring, but there are bills to pay, servants to maintain and a diminished estate to keep up as best he can. However, Akitada also has a sharp mind and an inquisitive nature, both of which get put to the test as he unravels murders and mysteries that carry him from the depths of the most common peasant hovels to the sacred halls of the Imperial Palace itself. Bound not only by his sense of decency and honor, but the strict codes and social structure of Ancient Japan, Akitada must step carefully while gathering clues to solve the puzzles before him.

The series numbers eight books, and here they are listed in series chronological order. (Don't let the publishing dates confuse you!)-- The Dragon Scroll (2005), Rashomon Gate (2002), Black Arrow (2006), Island of Exiles (2007), The Hell Screen (2003), The Convict's Sword (2009), The Masuda Affair (2010), and The Fires of the Gods (2011).

To whet your appetite, here's what Publishers Weekly has to say about her latest book, The Fires of the Gods:
Starred Review. Parker raises the stakes considerably for her fallible but honorable series sleuth in her excellent eighth mystery set in 11th-century Japan. Ministry of Justice senior secretary Sugawara Akitada is already on edge with the impending birth of his second child, having lost his firstborn to illness, when he receives devastating professional news. As a result of interference by controller Kiyowara Kane, Akitada has been demoted to junior secretary, with his incompetent subordinate promoted to his old position. The outraged Akitada seeks an interview with Kane, only to be left waiting in the antechamber without getting an explanation for the slander campaign against him. To make matters worse, he soon comes under suspicion of murder, and he must disobey his superiors to solve the crime himself and clear his name. Parker masterfully blends action and detection while making the attitudes and customs of the period accessible.

If you'd like to learn more about I.J. Parker, you can visit her website, or "like" her page on Facebook. Now on to the interview!

What was the very first book you remember reading and loving? What makes that book so special?

I stayed up all night reading GONE WITH THE WIND and FOREVER AMBER when I was a teen.  I suppose it had something to do with my age and gender, but the books were also paced well.  I’m well over the romance genre by now.

Outside of your writing and all associated commitments, what do you like to do in your free time?

I keep a garden.  The mixed border is my specialty, but a part of my property is for cottage garden flowers.

If I were to visit your hometown, where would you recommend that I go? (I like seeing and doing things that aren't in all the guide books.)

I live near the ocean and the bay.  A number of rivers feed into those waters and driving or riding a bike around those gorgeous waterfront neighborhoods is a great pleasure.  A lot of waterfowl, like ducks, Canada geese, egrets, herons, and pelicans have their habitat here, and the grounds are generally beautiful.

You have total control over casting a movie based on your life. Which actor would you cast as you?

Helen Mirren
Probably Helen Mirren because I like her work.

Who is your favorite recurring character in crime fiction?

Oh, God!  I have so many I cannot pick only one.  There are characters I miss terribly:  Keating’s Inspector Ghote, Dexter’s Inspector Morse, Wingfield’s Frost.  And there are a few I look forward to meeting again:  McCall-Smith’s Mma Ramotswe, for example, or Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe, or Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano.

Before your very first published mystery, what else had you written (short stories, articles, unpublished manuscripts)?

Professional articles on the Romantic poets and some fairly awful regency romances. (I shouldn’t admit to the latter).

What did you do the first time you saw one of your books on a shelf in a bookstore? How did you celebrate when you first heard you were to be published?

I’m not one of those people who get thrilled by seeing themselves in print. So holding the book in my hand does nothing for me.  In book stores or libraries I’m more likely to get depressed when the books aren’t there or aren’t all there, though in a library that may mean they are checked out.  There was no celebration for the first book, or the first story.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy signing the contracts.

I know that research for your series is done with translations and the help of scholars who specialize in that period of Japanese history. How do you go about finding these scholars to ask them for help?

By now I own almost all the books that are useful for my period in Japanese history.  In addition, I’m a member of Premodern Japanese Studies, an online site where I can ask questions of the scholars if necessary.

I don't know if you've seen it, but I love Parnell Hall's video about book signings. What is the most unusual experience you've had at a book signing or author event?

I.J. Parker
Yes, I have seen it.  And it’s hilarious, if you don’t find yourself in that situation. I have been there a number of times, alas.  In fact, I cannot remember a signing that went smoothly and sold enough books to make my expenses worthwhile.  And there are always expenses, even when the publisher pays for the tour.  The worst one was at a Barnes & Noble store where my little group and I were directed to a corner that also served as sleeping quarters for a homeless man.  He was very put out by our presence and let us know it by constant complaints. I persisted for an hour or so, because people had questions, but I did not sell a single book that day.  I no longer do book signings.

The way some people talk, the only way to read now or in the future is with some sort of electronic device, like my husband's Nook. What is your opinion of eBooks, and how will they affect you as a published author?

I like the advent of electronic publishing.  My experience with print publishers (and I have been with two of the big houses) has not been stellar.  I like the fact that authors have an option now and may do much better financially by self-publishing via Kindle and the other formats.  In fact, I’ve just put four of my novels on Kindle at a much lower price than my publisher-owned Kindle books. I also like the fact that I have control over pricing and cover designs.

What will happen to traditional publishing is another question.  The industry is in trouble.  I still love a book where you can turn pages, and so I hope that there will always be those, but we may get to the point where only bestselling titles will be available in print, and a reader’s choices will become very narrow.

I hope you're wrong about there only being bestsellers in print, but I don't think you are. I foresee in the near future that publishers will only have advanced reading copies in electronic form, which means I'll have to adapt.

Thank you so much for spending this time with us. I hope there will be many more adventures for Sugawara Akitada!


  1. Interesting interview. I hope she's wrong about e-books. I'm just old-fashioned enough to resist them. I just plain love "real" books. I was stunned that she doesn't get a big thrill to see her books in a bookstore. I nearly fainted with joy when I saw mine right at the cashier's desk.

  2. Thoughtful questions and insightful answers, not the usual "ask everyone the same questions and see if they can be clever" interview. Well done.

  3. Barbara-- The only time I think eBooks make sense is for travel. Sure would cut down on the weight of my suitcase!

    Dana-- Thank you. I'm glad you stopped by!


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