'Earthquake Bird' celebrates with Japan edition

by Angela Jeffs

Susanna Jones has had one terrific year. Her first novel, “The Earthquake Bird,” was unanimously applauded by the British press when launched in May. Since then it has been snapped up for translation rights in 11 countries, including the U.S. and Japan. Plus an option has been taken up to make it into a movie, with scripting under way.

When we meet, the Japanese edition of “The Earthquake Bird” has been out less than a week. She has been busy with interviews and, of course, it’s exciting to see it in bookshops here. “I’ve been here three months, and leave tomorrow for London. Then it’s home for Christmas.”

Her own home is on England’s southeast coast. “A lot of writers live in Brighton.” But home for Christmas means her parents’ place in Hornsea on Yorkshire’s Humberside, where she was born and grew up. “It’s a far sleepier resort town than Brighton, catering to tourists in the summer but that’s about all.”

With her father a university professor and her mother a teacher (now a school inspector), Susanna grew up in an academic atmosphere, always wanting to write. “At school, good teachers encouraged me. When it came to study, I chose playwriting at Royal Holloway. Again I was aware I was learning how to write, rather than what to write.”

She came to Japan as a JET baby in the second year of the program. Nagoya was not the most exciting city, but she loved the school where she taught, and Japanese culture. When life in the U.K. proved dull by comparison, she opted to teach in Turkey for two years, which she portrays as idyllic in some respects and difficult in others. “I had a lovely lazy life on the coast in the sun. But it was no fun being hassled (by men) if I tried to do anything independently.”

Again, life as a returnee to the U.K. failed to live up to expectations. So she came back here in 1994, with a long-term view to save money to do a master’s degree. It was during that first year, living and working out in Chiba, that she began attending Liane Wakabayashi’s creative writing workshops in Tokyo.

“I knew Liane from a writer’s workshop in the States, in Vermont,” Susanna explains with a warm modest gravity, very down-to-earth and careful with her words. “We were a small group here — just five — and I began with a piece concerning my relationship with a Turkish boyfriend.”

She describes Liane as a great editor. “She never pushed us in any direction, but would make us work the same piece over and over again. She really made me look at my work. Now I’d get bored (rewriting so much), but at the time it really helped hone my craft. I’m very careful about my sentences. I don’t like to waste words.”

She took her MA in creative writing at Manchester, focusing on the novel. Writing novels proved a bit flat after drama, but she got a lot out of it all the same. Then it was back to Tokyo (always the plan) to finish her dissertation, a novel called “The Cicada Trees.” “It was very safe. By the time I’d shown it to a few agents, I was already well along with ‘The Earthquake Bird.’ “

Stepping beyond all boundaries of safety with “The Earthquake Bird,” Susanna found her voice. She set the story in Tokyo because she knew how she wanted it to feel. The title came early, but the characters developed slowly. “Critics have called it various things — a psychological thriller, a suspense chiller. It’s certainly very dark.”

Lucy is a translator living an extreme life, in a relationship with a Japanese guy. When her friend Lily turns up dead in Tokyo Bay, Lucy finds herself being arrested and interrogated. Deaths have occurred throughout her life, for which she may or may not have been responsible. Here’s another one.

The timing of “The Earthquake Bird” coincided with the discovery of British hostess Lucy Blackman’s body in a cave on the coast not so far from Tokyo. Luckily perhaps, the press failed to make much of it. There were a few comments, but bearably so.

“When I completed the book, I didn’t show it to anyone before sending it to the agent who accepted it. It was so different from anything I’d written before, I wasn’t sure what I thought of it myself. I’ve already drafted a second novel, and I’ll spend the early months of 2002 reworking it for publication next autumn.”

The new book has no title yet. But it concerns a middle-aged Englishman looking for the perfect Asian wife. “It’s set on a boat going from Japan to China, their stories told in alternate chapters. If I have any constant theme, it’s the attraction people have for one another — independents who bump into one another, and what happens next. I’m not interested in family sagas. Loners and misfits are much more interesting.”

Susanna has spent the last three months polishing up her Japanese. “I have this idea to translate Japanese fiction into English as a counterbalance to my own work. Writing can be very lonely. It’s fun to come here, catch up with friends, go to ‘onsen’ and karaoke, and eat. The success of ‘The Earthquake Bird’ has allowed me to do just that.”

Recently she heard she had been awarded the John Creasey Memorial Dagger award as a newcomer to crime fiction. “I’m happy to be labeled a crime writer, but surprised. ‘The Earthquake Bird’ isn’t at all the conventional crime novel. It’s a ‘whydunit’ rather than a whodunit.”

It has been a funny couple of years, she says. (Indeed! How many young women receive a ceremonial dagger for skulduggery for Christmas?) For those writers not having such luck, she suggests a creative course as the best remedy. “If your work’s not being received well, something is wrong. I can be confident about my writing now because I listened to criticism. But I’m always aware there’s room for improvement.”

Angela Jeffs has a book out: “Insider’s Tokyo,” which takes you to significant but neglected corners of Tokyo that not even natives know about. Published by Times Books International in Singapore (ISBN 981 204 911 8), it’s available in the usual bookshops or can be ordered from