INTERVIEW with ISAAC ADAMSON  
Jan. 26, 2009
 
Isaac Adamson is the novelist of the popular Billy Chaka series, which to date consists of four books: TOKYO SUCKERPUNCH, HOKKAIDO POPSICLE, DREAMING PACHINKO, and KINKY LULLABY. If you haven’t read any of them, stop reading this interview and go out and buy a copy now. I promise you, these books are unlike anything else you’ve read. The first time I heard of Isaac was in THE NEW YORKER magazine where I saw a tiny ad for a new book called TOKYO SUCKERPUNCH. What a great fuckin’ title, I thought to myself. So I went down to the bookstore, bought the only copy, read the entire thing that night and it instantly struck me as strong source material for a potential movie. The next day, I drove to the Fox studio lot because I was scheduled to pitch my take on a project based on the life of Edward R. Murrow. I brought the novel with me, hoping there would be an opportunity to bring it up in the meeting. So I gave my Murrow pitch, but the executives were lukewarm. Then they noticed the cover to TOKYO SUCKERPUNCH (which has a bright pink cover) sitting next to me and asked about it. I just gave the book to them and said, “I think this would make for a great movie.” About a week later, the executives called me and said Fox Searchlight wants to option the book and wanted me to adapt it. TOKYO SUCKERPUNCH has since moved over to Columbia Pictures with Tobey Maguire attached as star and producer, and Ed Solomon working on the script.
 

 

SO ISAAC, I GOTTA ASK: ARE YOU A WHITE MAN WITH AN ASIAN FETISH? WHERE DOES THIS OBSESSION WITH ASIAN CULTURE COME FROM? I ONCE KNEW A BLACK KID IN HIGH SCHOOL WHO WAS OBSESSED WITH ASIAN CULTURE. HE DRESSED UP EVERYDAY LIKE HE WAS THE LONE WOLF & CUB, SANDALS AND ALL. WERE YOU LIKE THIS AS A KID?

Wish I could say I went to school in a rubber Godzilla suit and packed a bento box lunch, but this wasn’t the case. My first exposure to Asian culture was probably taking karate class in 1st or 2nd grade. And I have pretty vivid memory of watching SHOGUN on TV when I was 8 or 9, especially the part where one of the Japanese dudes urinates on Richard Chamberlain’s head. But I was largely indifferent to Japanese culture until I started working on what would eventually become TOKYO SUCKERPUNCH.

 

TELL US ABOUT THE GENESIS OF TOKYO SUCKERPUNCH. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE THE NOVEL?

I actually started working on it when I was still in college. Didn’t even really intend to write a novel at the time, but I was a film student and discovered writing bad fiction was far cheaper and less logistically and technically challenging than making bad films. A couple years before I’d been blown away by Haruki Murakami’s novel DANCE DANCE DANCE, which, oddly enough, was what led me to the work of Raymond Chandler. I was also a big fan of Mark Leyner. So that book is basically a mashup of Raymond Chandler, Mark Leyner, John Woo, and whatever else was in my brain at the time.

 

WHAT WAS YOUR JOURNEY LIKE IN GETTING IT PUBLISHED?

Though it now seems crazy to me, I never had any doubts that it would get published. Which is probably a good mindset for a writer to have, though totally unrealistic. It wasn’t that I was delusional enough to believe I was writing a novel the world could not live without, but as a reader and frequenter of book stores, I knew there was nothing quite like it out there, for better or worse. I shopped the manuscript around to agents, got the usual rejections, some which were encouraging, some less so. Took about six months to get an agent, another six months for the agent to find a publisher. The manuscript was first at an Avon-Morrow imprint called Spike Books, but then because of a merger wound up at HarperCollins. Partly because of said merger, it didn’t hit the shelves until about 18 months later. The wait was pretty agonizing.

Tokyo Suckerpunch

 

DO YOU REMEMBER THE DAY WHEN I CONTACTED YOU AND TOLD YOU FOX SEARCHLIGHT WANTED TO TURN YOUR NOVEL INTO A MOVIE? I KNOW WHAT THAT WHOLE PROCESS WAS LIKE FOR ME, BUT WHAT IS IT ALL LIKE ON YOUR END?

It was all very exciting but looking back now I was pretty naïve about the process of getting a movie made. After the deal went through I remember thinking, let’s see – Mike will probably be scripting for six months, then it will get greenlit a couple weeks later, then it will shoot for three months, then some postproduction – hey, I’ll be seeing this onscreen in like a year and a half!

 

UNFORTUNATELY, THE EXECUTIVE IN CHARGE OF THE PROJECT LEFT THE STUDIO AND SEARCHLIGHT LET THE OPTION RELAPSE. BUT FORTUNATELY FOR YOU, TOBEY MAGUIRE'S COMPANY ENDED UP WITH TOKYO SUCKERPUNCH WHERE ED SOLOMON (WRITER OF MEN IN BLACK) TOOK HIS TURN AT ADAPTING. HOW DID ALL THAT HAPPEN?

As I understand it, a screenwriter named Dayan Ballweg who’d recently adapted T.C. Boyle’s novel THE TORTILLA CURTAIN first brought it to Maguire’s attention. Maguire’s company optioned the rights and then several months later did a co-production deal with Red Wagon and Columbia Pictures, at which point Ed Solomon was brought on to write the screenplay.

 

I KNOW YOU'VE READ MY DRAFT AND ED SOLOMON'S DRAFT. WHAT SURPRISED YOU THE MOST ABOUT BOTH DRAFTS?

Probably the different treatment Billy Chaka receives in each. He’s more of a straight-up badass in your version and a little goofier in Ed’s draft. I think both aspects are there in the books, so neither direction felt like a complete departure. Ed is working with director Gary Ross on some script revisions right now, so it will be interesting to see how the final product turns out.

 

I DON'T THINK I EVER TOLD YOU THIS, BUT WHEN THE OPTION ENDED AT SEARCHLIGHT, I TRIED TAKING THE NOVEL OVER TO 20TH CENTURY FOX WHERE I KNEW AN EXECUTIVE WAS A REALLY BIG FAN OF THE PROJECT. THE EXECUTIVE MET WITH SPIKE JONZE ABOUT IT, AND JONZE READ THE NOVEL AND LIKED IT. BUT JONZE ENDED UP PASSING BECAUSE AT THE TIME, HIS WIFE SOFIA COPPOLA, WAS PREPPING A MOVIE IN TOKYO (WHICH SHE WENT ON TO WIN AN OSCAR FOR) AND HE DIDN'T WANT TO COME OFF LIKE HE WAS CREATIVELY BITING OFF OF HER. WOULDN'T THIS HAVE BEEN A GREAT FUCKIN' MOVIE WITH SPIKE JONZE DIRECTING?

Hey wait – didn’t he still film some JACKASS stuff in Tokyo around that time? That’s cheating. Funnily enough, when TOKYO SUCKERPUNCH was optioned by Fox Searchlight, I was told the success of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON was a factor. And when Sony-Columbia became involved, I was told the success of LOST IN TRANSLATION was a factor. If it gets made eventually, I believe the success of [insert most recently successful Asian-themed or Asian produced movie here] will probably be a factor.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
Lost In Translation

 

FOR A NOVEL WRITTEN ENTIRELY IN THE FIRST PERSON, THE PROSE IS VERY CINEMATIC AND KINETIC, ALMOST AS IF IT WAS WRITTEN TO BE READY FOR MOVIE ADAPTATION. DID YOU THINK ABOUT THE MOVIE VERSION AT ALL WHILE WRITING THE NOVEL?

Not consciously. But for that book especially, there were lots of action scenes – fights, car crashes, a motorcycle chase – that basically played out the way set pieces do in the movies. Except that in the book, while the guy is fighting he’s also absurdly thinking about obscure 15th Century renga poets or whatever. But I did want to make it action- packed and was at that time a big fan of Chandler’s dictum that whenever you get stuck, have two guys bust into the room with guns drawn. Its chief inspirations were probably more cinematic than literary.

 

I KNOW YOU'VE BEEN TO TOKYO A FEW TIMES. WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE THINGS TO DO THERE?

I love just being there, walking around Shibuya and Shinjuku, or in the older neighborhoods around Asakusa. I like riding the Yamanote Line (not at rush hour), buying Pocari Sweat and Kirin Lager from vending machines. The first time I went was ten years ago now, and I still remember getting off the train from the airport and walking right out into the heart of Shibuya with the walls of neon and all the people rushing about and…it was breathtaking. My girlfriend (now wife) and I just looked at each other in total amazement, speechless. Then we spent the next 45 minutes trying to find our hotel all of 2 blocks away.

The last time I was in Tokyo was probably the strangest trip I’ve taken. I was researching stuff for DREAMING PACHINKO and was there for maybe four days. It was July, Japan was in the middle of a crushing heatwave and I was spending about 14 hours a day walking around. I’d be wearing shorts and a T-shirt and still sweating buckets while some salaryman next to me on the train was in a suit and tie and dry as a bone. Since I went alone and didn’t speak Japanese I spent four days basically without talking to a single human being in one of the most populous cities on the planet. I have friends there now and so though it’s not an experience I’m ever likely to repeat, I found it incredibly meaningful and satisfying a way that’s difficult for me to articulate in any succinct way. Once in a lifetime trip, I guess.

Tokyo

 

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING NOVELISTS OUT THERE?

Not much that aspiring novelists probably haven’t already heard. Read as much as you can. Don’t wait for some perfect, fully formed idea to pop in your head, because it will never come. Write something anyway. Your first drafts will be terrible (sorry). There will come many points where the whole endeavor seems like an exercise in futility, but if you force yourself to sit in a chair day every day staring at that little screen, you’ll find it starts getting easier, and your bad ideas start generating better ones. I don’t believe in muses in any literal sense, but there is something deeply mysterious about the creative process and it works differently for everyone. Find what works for you. On a more practical note, don’t leave a full glass of water sitting next to your unattended laptop if you own a cat. If you take nothing else from this interview, remember this.

 

WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS LIKE? DO YOU WRITE EVERYDAY? WITH MUSIC?

I try to write 5-6 days a week for 2-3 hours a day. On good days I’ll get a few pages in. On bad days I just sit there, fingers mostly idle as I scroll through previous pages, picking off words here and there. It feels like a complete waste of time but I’ve found if I don’t sit through the bad days, the good days start disappearing. Like most writers, I’d love to be able to devote more time to it, though it’s been tough as I’ve now got two young children.

As for music, generally no, although I listened to Angelo Badalamenti’s score for Mulholland Drive constantly when I was working on KINKY LULLABY. I’m working on a book set in Prague now, and while writing a section that takes place during the 1930s I found myself typing to lots of classical music, the drearier the better. So I guess the ‘generally no’ should be amended to ‘generally sometimes.’ And if you have any dreary Eastern or Central European music to recommend, please do so.

 

SORRY, CAN'T SAY THAT I DO. I PREFER TO WRITE TO SOMETHING MELLOW, LIKE AIR OR ZERO 7. DO YOU EVER WRITE IN CAFÉS? PERSONALLY, I LOVE WRITING IN CAFÉS. I LOVE THE AMBIANCE, THE BACKGROUND NOISE, THE ENERGY OF OTHER PEOPLE WRITING AROUND ME.

I used to scoff at the notion of writing in cafés, figuring people who did so were more interested in being seen writing than actually writing. Of course, this was in the pre wi-fi days, when you could assume someone with an open laptop at a café was writing rather than monitoring global credit default swap indexes or whatever.

 

I'VE MET MANY WRITERS WHO DESPISE THE IDEA. DAVID MAMET IS TOTALLY AGAINST WRITING IN CAFÉS. HE ONCE ASKED IN AN ESSAY, "WHEN DID WRITING BECOME A PERFORMANCE ART?"

Lately I’ve come around to cafés though. Sometimes I can concentrate better there than at home (see young children comment above). I also recommend writing on a machine disconnected from the internet.

 

THE FURTHER YOU GOT INTO THE BILLY CHAKA BOOKS, DID YOU FIND THEM EASIER OR MORE DIFFICULT TO WRITE AS THE SERIES WENT ON?

A little bit of both. Easier because I’d already defined the protagonist and the world he inhabits. There was less discovery work to do – I knew what Billy Chaka would do in any given situation, and after the first two books could slip into his voice without much effort. Harder because as you’ve defined a character and his world, you’ve necessarily limited it. You worry more about repeating yourself or falling into a formula. You worry about diminishing returns.

 

TO DATE, YOU'VE WRITTEN FOUR BILLY CHAKA BOOKS (MY PERSONAL FAVORITE IS HOKKAIDO POPSICLE). ANYMORE IN THE WORKS?

That was my Mom’s favorite too, so you’re in good company. No current plans for future Chaka books, but who knows. I could see doing some aging-Chaka-returns-to-a –Tokyo-he-hardly-recognizes kind of book somewhere down the line. He finds out he’s fathered some kid, now a teenager. Kid has run afoul of a powerful, shady corporation with yakuza connections after hacking in and stealing embarrassing info about the company’s secretly transgendered CEO (because, you know, CEOs always store evidence of their darkest secrets on the company servers). Now Chaka would have reluctantly kick some ass to help this snotnosed, annoying version of his younger self escape, etc. Maybe a Billy Chaka like Clint Eastwood in UNFORGIVEN or GRAN TORINO mode.

Hokkaido Popsicle

 

OUTSIDE OF THE BILLY CHAKA BOOKS, WHAT ELSE ARE YOU WORKING ON?

I’ve been working on a novel set in Prague off and on for about the last four years. It’s a big, sprawling, unholy mess having to do with a serial killer, 16th Century Hapsburg ruler Rudolf II, the Soviet-era secret police, the early 20th century demolition of the Jewish ghetto in Prague and an American insurance claims adjuster who gets a weird letter in the mail one day. It’s been a real slog but I feel like I’ve turned a corner (as the recovering alcoholics say) and should have it finished by the end of this year.

 

I UNDERSTAND YOU'VE GONE ON BOOK TOURS AND SIGNINGS. WHAT IS THAT EXPERIENCE LIKE?

I’ve never done a full tour but have done reading and signing events in a few cities for each release. I’ve had the pleasant surprise of showing up in some place I’ve never been to and finding a small group of readers waiting with books in hand, and I’ve had the event where nobody shows up and you’re reading to an audience comprised of a book store employee likely attending under duress. I like to travel and meeting readers is always fun but marketing-wise, it’s a total waste of publisher resources and a boneheaded way to sell books unless you’re already a bestseller to begin with. From what I can tell, the whole idea is predicated on the notion that if you show up at the Banana Lake Barnes & Noble or wherever, the Banana Lake newspaper will be more likely to review your novel that week in its book section. Except hardly any papers even have book sections any more. In ten years I doubt there will be book tours anymore, at least in their current form. The same may be true of bookstores themselves. And it’s already becoming true of newspapers.

 

WHO ARE SOME OF YOUR INFLUENCES?

I don’t know how much if at all their influence shows up in my stuff, but in addition to the people I mentioned earlier, I’m a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguro, Magnus Mills, David Foster Wallace, Franz Kafka, and Carl Hiassen. I’ve recently discovered Kelly Link’s short stories and read novel last year by Carolyn Parkhurst called THE DOGS OF BABEL which was fantastic. BREATHE by Tim Winton was probably my fave of 2008. For the last couple years for obvious reasons I’ve been reading a lot of Czech based stuff – 60s writers Ivan Klima and Josef Skvorecky, as well as pre-WWII guys like Gustav Meyrinck and Pauls Leppin, who are kind of proto-fantasy/horror authors.

 

I HAVE TO ASK BECAUSE CURRENTLY YOU LIVE IN CHICAGO. OBAMA FEVER HAS TAKEN OVER THIS COUNTRY BUT I EXPERIENCE IT HERE IN LA. IT MUST BE VERY HEAVY IN THE AIR WHERE YOU'RE AT?

Everyone is obviously excited about it. I think in Chicago it reached its height during the transition since he was headquartered downtown, about a block from where my wife works actually. The enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that we still have Gov. Blagojevich with us, but with any luck he’ll be history by this afternoon.

Blagojevich

 

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