How a ‘Gold Tooth’ from Marrakesh and ‘Kung fu’ from Dengfeng Inspired Stories
Koi Kye Lee in conversation with author Simon Rowe
Simon Rowe, an author- photographer- lecturer and avid traveller, lives in the samurai castle town of Himeji, Japan, and writes from there. He has recently brought out a collection of short stories titled Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere.
Born and raised in Central Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, he moved to Australia where he graduated from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Simon Rowe not only has a passion for words, but also indulges in photography. Many of his works have appeared in TIME (Asia), the New York Times, the Weekend Australian, the South China Morning Postand the Paris Review. His short stories have been published in Flesh: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology (2016), Another Time Another Place: A Collection of Short Stories (2015) and Noir Nation: International Crime Fiction No. 3(2013). He holds an MA in Writing from Swinburne University of Technology and is currently a foreign language instructor at Kwansei Gakuin University. He recently published another short story, ‘The Summer Hills of Pourerere’ , a story that talks of three teenage misfits forging a path through a harsh rural environment.
In this exclusive interview, he talks about travel, writing and teaching from Japan, the inspiration behind his stories, and his life as an English lecturer.
Kye Lee: Your stories have appeared in numerous publications. What made you start writing and for how long have you been writing?
Simon: That’s a long story! Growing up in rural New Zealand during the 1980s, my window on the world was National Geographic magazine. Naturally, I wanted to be a travel writer and photographer. My first story was about backpacking from Melbourne to Cape Tribulation in far-north Australia. I sold that tale to a newspaper in Melbourne and with the money bought an onward ticket. This became my existence for the next fifteen years and took me around the world three times. I finally settled in Japan where I now write short fiction, screenplays, and a blog called ‘Seaweed Salad Days’, about life in a traditional Japanese neighborhood.
Kye Lee: Do you draw inspiration from your surroundings? What makes you choose Himeji as your creative locale? Was there something in the city that captured your attention?
Simon: Japan is ‘death by stimulation’, so as a foreign resident I feel like I die daily. The other night in a bar, I met a man who used to drive tanks for the Japan Self Defence Force. He told me that he quit that job to work for a Tokyo security firm, drove Madonna and Whitney Houston around when they toured Japan, and now teaches full-contact karate. These are the people you meet on a Monday night! When I came to Japan in 1997, I couldn’t speak any Japanese. I also couldn’t get a visa as a freelance journalist, so I signed on as an English teacher. My handlers sent me to Himeji, a castle town of half a million people located beside the Seto Inland Sea in western Honshu, and this is where I live today. It’s full of spirited people, lively festivals, samurai history —and an even livelier nightlife precinct where it’s best not to ask anyone’s history. This is where the short story ‘Good Night Papa’ unfolds.
Kye Lee: Your title story, ‘Good Night Papa’, was adapted into a short screenplay in 2013. It was an amazing achievement! The story explores a father’s heartache and life’s misfortunes. How did this story come about?
Simon: One evening I was passing through Uomachi, or ‘Fishtown’, as our nightlife precinct is called, and a classic saloon car rounded the street corner in front of me. Seated behind the huge, dark-suited driver was a young, beautiful woman wearing kimono. The incongruity of this scene set me thinking. Who were they and where were they going? The story of a moonlighting call-girl driver and his mysterious passenger grew from these questions. I later wrote the screenplay adaptation, which I set in Honolulu, for the 2013 Asia Short Screenplay Contest. Actress Michelle Yeoh judged the entries and the prize was production of the screenplay. The main character, Papa Matsumoto, is played by Hidetoshi Imura, a Los Angeles-based Japanese actor.
Kye Lee: Some of the stories in your book seem to be based on themes such as triumph over adversity and perseverance. Was there a reason why you based them on these themes?
Simon: A good story needs conflict, a dilemma, or a problem to be solved. There must be some kind of pressure exerted on the characters to drive the plot forward. This is what keeps readers turning pages; they want to find out how the characters will deal with their situation. I use themes of triumph, redemption, forgiveness and empathy to give positive meaning to their efforts.
Kye Lee: I thought ‘The Girl Who Made the Kung Fu Master Cry’ was a powerful story. You wrote about perseverance and hard work. How much legwork or research did you put into it?
Simon: ‘Legwork’ is a fantastic choice of word. I almost lost my legs at the Songshan Academy of Sport in Dengfeng, which is home to the Shaolin temple. I spent two weeks learning basic Kungfu movements under the tutelage of She Decheng, a former Shaolin monk. He was the inspiration for my soft-spoken protagonist, Wu Xiaobo. Back in 2008, She Decheng’s school was small and housed in an old hotel. Training took place on the open street, meals were large and hearty, and there were always a number of foreign students in attendance. For ‘The Girl Who Made the Kung Fu Master Cry’, I drew on research I had done for a travel story which appeared in The Australian.
Kye Lee: Your short stories are set in various countries. Did you write any of these while you were travelling? Or it was your experiences recollected from your travels that helped you come up with these tales?
Simon: My tomes of curry-stained, mango-splattered travel journals still inform my writing. I shifted to writing short fiction out of disillusionment with the direction travel journalism was taking many years ago. Social media now allows anyone with a mobile device to be a travel writer-photographer, and news websites prefer mostly info-heavy stories these days. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just that the narrative-driven travel story has been edged out by ‘The Ten Best Places to Visit in Japan’ or the ‘The Top Ten Must-try Restaurants in Kyoto’. I’m trying to keep the narrative alive, albeit in a fictional form.
Kye Lee: You write beautifully, and you are able to transport the readers into the stories and make them feel like they are part of it. Did this skill come naturally to you or did you have to work at acquiring it? How did it happen?
Simon: Thanks! When you sit in a run-down cafe overlooking the busiest market in Marrakesh, and you sit there for an entire morning beneath a slow-turning ceiling fan, drinking glass after glass of fragrant mint tea, served to you by a waiter in a grubby white jacket and with a gleaming gold tooth, you think—hey, this could be a great story setting! I guess what I mean is, storytelling should evoke a ‘sense of being there’ in the reader’s mind, and that only really comes from being there yourself.
Kye Lee: You seem to be interested in photography as well seeing that your photos have also been published before. Have any of your photographs inspired you to write your stories?
Simon: Only one — a black and white photo of a drunk fisherman in a seaside village in Mexico, taken in 1993. I had just returned from fishing for octopus with two young men and was passing back through the village when this guy busted out of a bar with a bottle in his hand and his cowboy hat tilted like he’d just ridden the wildest horse in town. It was ten a.m. With his permission I took his photo. Years later it inspired me to write ‘Weed’, a short story about three hapless characters who discover a huge bale of marijuana while clearing seaweed from their harbour.
Kye Lee: Have you ever considered writing a novel or trying any other genre other than short stories?
Simon: I’m a fan of big stories in small packages. I have been working on a micro novel called Velo City, which I post on Instagram. This is a dystopian tale set in Japan, when nuclear disasters, high fuel costs and frequent earthquakes have forced people to abandon technology and return to pedal power. ‘Velo’ means ‘bicycle’ in French, and this story is a classic ‘good versus evil’ tale with themes of biracialism, environmental degradation, government ineptitude and, of course, triumph over adversity.
Kye Lee: You teach creative writing and media studies to ESL learners at Kwansei Gakuin University. What impact has your teaching had on your writing?
Simon: Teaching is also learning, so when I read my students’ short stories, I tell myself I have the best job in the world. I have been developing a writing course to teach storytelling techniques to ESL learners and I’m fascinated by the insights and ‘new meanings’ students create from their texts. Also, because storytelling transcends linguistic and cultural divides, there are times when I feel more like a student than a teacher. The Japanese are great ghost story tellers. ‘The Gem Polishing Unit’, which is set at a Japanese university, is my shot at writing a ghost story.
Kye Lee: Is teaching students in Japan different from teaching in Australia where you studied? Has that had an impact on your writing?
Simon: Growing up in New Zealand and Australia, we are encouraged to read widely and draw on personal experience to develop our critical and creative thinking skills. Here in Japan, the Ministry of Education puts greater emphasis on maths and science, rote-learning and test-based assessment. Many students simply don’t have time to read beyond their prescribed texts, let alone have an adventure. Therefore, when summer holidays roll around, I tell my students that their homework is to have an adventure —and to come back and tell me a good story. Their stories inspire my own.
Kye Lee: Do you have any favourite writers, artists or music that inspired you to write or influenced your writing?
Simon: American travel writer Eric Hansen’s books Stranger in the Forest, Motoring with Mohammed and The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer remind me that no great story ever came from inside your comfort zone.
Kye Lee: What is your writing routine?
Simon: Life always seems to get in the way of plans, so I write whenever I can. I spend more time thinking about writing than actually writing. Thinking, drinking, writing—yeah, that’s it. One routine I never waver from is telling my kids ghost stories before bedtime.
Kye Lee: What do you think of ASEAN writing, especially in context of where you live? Do you have any favourite writers among them?
Simon: I’ve read Japanese writers Yasunari Kawabata, Junichiro Tanizaki, Haruki Murakami, Ryu Murakami, among others. To be honest, I don’t find much joy in Japanese literature. A lot of what I’ve read is heavy in self-reflection, self-pity, abstract ideas, and a depressing fascination for the dark side of the human condition. That said, Yukio Mishima’s The Sound of Waves (1954) is a wonderful coming-of-age love story set on an island in western Japan in post-WWII Japan. I thoroughly recommend it.
Kye Lee: Would you like to share with us what you plan to write next?
Simon: I’m working on a female detective series of short stories set in the port city of Kobe. The first installment is called ‘Pearl City’ and follows Mami Suzuki, a single mother and hotel receptionist by day, detective by night, as she pursues pearl robbers, cheating husbands and underwear thieves through the alleyways of Kobe. I’m a big fan of the hardboiled detective genre; Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are my favourite writers. Alexander McCall Smith’s highly enjoyable No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency has also been a huge influence. Mami Suzuki is my answer to his Precious Ramotswe.
Koi Kye Lee is a senior journalist with an appetite for current affairs and politics. She has worked in both Malaysia and Singapore. Her first fiction was published in Write Out Loud, a compilation of short stories by young Malaysian writers.
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