Friday, June 15, 2012

Apocalypse Now: An Interview with TOKYO HEIST Author Diana Renn

Congratulations to Diana Renn, whose Japanese art mystery, TOKYO HEIST, arrived in bookstores yesterday. Diana and I both happened to have spent our honeymoons in Japan, and I was thrilled to get an early peek at her book, which was selected for the Summer 2012 Kids' Indie Next List and the Kirkus Reviews New and Notable Books for Teens list!

From Diana's website: When sixteen-year-old Violet agrees to spend the summer with her father, an up-and-coming artist in Seattle, she has no idea what she's walking into. Her father’s newest clients, the Yamada family, are the victims of a high-profile art robbery: van Gogh sketches have been stolen from their home, and, until they can produce the corresponding painting, everyone's lives are in danger -- including Violet's and her father's. Violet's search for the missing van Gogh takes her from the Seattle Art Museum, to the yakuza-infested streets of Tokyo, to a secluded inn in Kyoto. As the mystery thickens, Violet's not sure whom she can trust. But she knows one thing: she has to solve the mystery -- before it's too late.

How did you become interested in Japanese art and culture?

I think I've been a Japanophile since childhood. I grew up in Seattle, which is infused with Japanese culture. I vividly remember learning to sing "Sakura" in grade school for the cherry blossom festival, and reading Japanese folk tales (but don't ask me to sing one line of our state song!) Over the years, Japanese friends and students certainly fueled my interest in learning more about Japanese culture. My interest in Japanese visual art really took root on a trip to Japan, and blossomed later when I volunteered at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. Working in their paper/print conservation department, I got to handle, and view up close, an extraordinary collection of Japanese woodblock prints.

The descriptions of Japan are lovely and vivid. How much time have you spent there? Had you visited the country before writing the book, or did you go as part of your research?
Thank you! My husband and I went to Japan for our honeymoon several years ago, for three weeks. We took trains and tried to see as much as we could. That's the only time I've been there. It wasn't a research trip; I wasn't writing this book at the time. But some experiences and images in Japan became early seeds of this novel. I started writing Tokyo Heist (under a different title) soon after we returned home. I wanted to return to Japan for research, and almost did when my textbook publisher wanted to send me there. But by then I had a baby and the logistics of traveling so far were complex. For research I had to rely on my extensive notes and photographs from the trip, help from Japanese friends, travel guides, movies, YouTube tourist videos, and Japanese art - anything to help me virtually return.

What inspired you to write a mystery set in the art world? Have you ever read or written your own manga?

This is my curse: I love art but I cannot draw or paint. I'm a museum and art gallery junkie. I simply love art; I could look at it all day. I wish I had a shred of art talent or skill. I do have many friends and family members who work in various roles in the art world. And the art world and its potential for mystery have long fascinated me. Writing about art is fun for me because it makes me feel I'm part of the art world and connected to visual art in some way. As for manga, I worked in a comic book shop many years ago, and I did look at some manga then. But that was way back in the 1990s; manga wasn't as widely available in English as it is today. We were always playing anime films in the store, so anime was more in my consciousness. I love Japanese woodblock prints, and when I learned that the roots of manga are in these prints, I became fascinated by that connection. I did read quite a bit of manga while I was writing; I wanted to know my character better and to read what she would read. I also wanted to see if I could borrow some of manga's style, using words as my medium. I love the creative possibilities that manga presents, all the different ways of telling a story. I have never tried creating manga myself, but would love to try writing a manga story. I'd have to hire an illustrator, though!

How did you keep track of all the characters and red herrings? Did you storyboard and/or chart the mystery?

I had no outline when I began the novel. For a long time I actually resisted the idea that I was writing a mystery. My writing group staged an intervention and insisted it was a mystery. Once I embraced that and consciously tried to use some of the genre conventions (suspects, clues, red herrings, reveals), the writing came faster. I kept character "files" and added details to keep track of their back stories and motivations. I have about four fat notebooks filled with longhand notes, and that's where I tried to figure out plot problems as they arose. In later revisions, I storyboarded some action scenes, but given my lack of drawing talent (see answer to #3 above) that wasn't always so helpful! During one extensive revision, I created a color coded calendar on a white board to document the time frame. But I did quite a few drafts before I started going back and trying to impose some sense of logic and order. It took me a long time to learn that mysterious writing, or a mystery atmosphere, is not the same thing as writing as mystery. Mystery demands clarity. At some point the writer has to know what's going on so they can help guide the reader through clues. Embracing the mystery genre really forced me to make hard decisions, organize my thoughts, and sharpen my story.

Did you know how the mystery was going to end when you started writing, or was it a mystery to you, too, that unfolded as you wrote? Did you surprise yourself? (Did the characters surprise you?)

I knew the ending, but how to get there was a mystery for a long time. I wished I'd had a neat outline from the get-go. I revised more times than I can count. I'm not kidding. I have stacks and stacks of manuscript printouts in a closet. Every draft helped me see my way through to the final version. Once I'd figured out a piece of the puzzle, it was exciting to go back and tweak things to help the puzzle piece slide into place. Here's what surprised me most: when I ran into plot problems, often the answers I sought were under my nose - in the characters themselves, or hinted at in previous scenes. Then it was just a matter of bringing them out more. Characters definitely surprised me; several secondary characters wanted bigger roles than I'd given them, and were able to help advance the plot. And there's one character who I kept changing from good guy to bad guy, back and forth, until I finally paid attention to him and figured him out. I was surprised and interested throughout the writing process, so I hope readers will be too.

Tokyo and Kyoto seem to embody the modern vs ancient/traditional aspects of Japan, respectively. Which do you prefer, and was it important to you to show different aspects of the country?

I love both cities; they do have different vibes. I also love how these two cities defy their own stereotypes. Yes, Tokyo is "modern" Japan - yet there is tradition to be found there, in the lush and quiet parks, in the ancient temples amidst the skyscrapers, and in the numerous museums devoted to Edo culture and art. Yes, Kyoto is "traditional" Japan with its countless temples and its cobblestoned streets in the Gion District - and it's quieter -- but it has its share of tall buildings, bright signs, shopping meccas, and other urban delights. It was very important to me to show the different aspects of these particular cities as well the country. I love the dazzling variety to be found in Japan, the mix of ancient and contemporary, as you've pointed out, and the juxtapositions of different neighborhoods. It's why I have Violet in one scene traveling through time in an urban museum, then going outside to all these different districts in Tokyo. I wanted her to be constantly disoriented and fascinated and doing double-takes. This is also a novel about perception, and how things are not always what they seem. Showing the many sides of Japan was one fun way to explore this idea.

The character of Edge doesn't have that many scenes, yet he's such an interesting and important presence throughout the book. How did you go about keeping him at the forefront even though he's mostly away at camp?

I kept Edge -- Violet's BFF and secret crush -- in the forefront because I imagined Violet doing so as she traveled. I sensed that she would always be reserving a little part of her mental energy for Edge, even while she's super busy trying to hunt down art and not get killed by gangsters and save lives and all that. Her thoughts of him are kind of like an app that's always on and quietly working on your phone, in the background, consuming energy. When I thought of Violet mentally carrying Edge with her around Japan, I found places to bring him into the reader's consciousness too. I looked for places where his comments would naturally float back to her, or a time when he'd haunt her dreams. When she travels, she frequently sees things that remind her of him, or has experiences she's dying to share with him, and she's typing him an ongoing email without hitting "send." Haven't we all felt like that at some point, about someone? Tapping into that universal feeling of missing someone also kept Edge present, or, I should say, made his absence more palpable.

Because we're the Lucky 13s, we have to ask: do you have any superstitions or lucky charms?

For as long as I can remember, I have gotten out of bed with my right side touching the floor first, for luck. I actually sleep on the left side of the bed, so this makes for a fairly complicated twisting maneuver, and it has actually landed me on the floor more than once. I have no data to suggest that this superstition of how to start my day on the right foot works. I also compulsively pick up pennies. I have a black cat. The black cat's not really a lucky charm though - she's cost me a fortune in vet bills. Who knows, maybe that's why I compulsively pick up pennies!


Diana grew up in Seattle and now lives in Boston with her husband and son. She graduated from Hampshire College and earned an M.A. in English and American Literature from Brandeis University. After graduate school, Diana taught ESL, writing, and literature, worked in educational publishing, and authored several ESL textbooks. She also traveled whenever possible, and taught English in South America. In addition to writing for young adults, Diana writes short stories and essays, which have been published in a variety of magazines and literary journals. When she's not writing, Diana enjoys bicycling and taiko drumming. TOKYO HEIST is her first novel.

Where to buy TOKYO HEIST:

Barnes & Noble

Where to find Diana:


This interview was conducted by Lucky13s member Sarah Skilton, whose Contemporary YA novel BRUISED will be released Spring 2013 from Abrams/Amulet Books. The interview is part of an ongoing series of interviews with The Apocalypsies -- YA, MG, and children's book authors debuting in 2012.

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