James Kestrel, author of the upcoming novel Five Decembers, stops by to chat his new book, his extensive research and working with Hard Case Crime.
I’m a big fan of the folks at Hard Case Crime and the work they do – how was your experience working with them as publisher of FIVE DECEMBERS?
I’m also a fan of Hard Case Crime, and my experience working with them was by far the best thing that’s ever happened to me in the world of publishing. Hard Case’s editor, Charles Ardai, is a terrific writer (see, e.g. Songs of Innocence), and his instincts during the revision process were wonderful. He not only went to bat for the book early on, but he really helped me see the flaws in the original closing chapters and cracked the whip to get me to rewrite them entirely. The book is stronger because of that, and I’m grateful.
It was also a pleasure working with Charles on the cover design. He hired a great painter in Italy named Claudia Caranfa. She read the book, then sent us ten or fifteen rough sketches of cover ideas. We discussed them, picked the concept we liked the best, and then she went to work on a final painting. I’ve never gotten to have that level of input on a cover, and it was a lot of fun. And both Charles and Claudia were receptive to minor changes fairly late in the game. Because the cover shows a scene from the book, I thought it was important that the main character be shown holding the correct model of gun. So Claudia was willing to go back and alter her original painting so that the main character is holding a Japanese Nambu pistol.
You mention both your Grandfather and Great Uncle as great men who fought in the Second World War and how you wish you could give this story back to them. Did you weave parts of their personalities into Detective Joe McGrady?
Both my grandfather and his brother were reserved men, who kept their emotions and their histories pretty much to themselves. I think McGrady shares that with them. But that may also be a character trait of an entire generation. One thing that has always impressed me about the men and women who lived through WWII is how they were called to upend their lives in response to a cataclysmic world event, and then, when it was over, they just picked up where they’d left off. My great uncle Henry was a navigator on a B-24 bomber flying out of Italy. He talked more about fishing and farming than he did about fighting the Germans, so I never realized what his war service had really been like until a year or so ago when I got my hands on a book written by the pilot he’d flown with. I didn’t know how many times they got hit by flak, or how many times he had to put tourniquets on crewmembers and give them morphine, or that they’d crash landed in an Italian field a hundred yards from German lines. It just never came up, and I think that’s probably how a lot of veterans dealt with their experiences.
Given that this novel starts in one place and shifts to a quite different story, where did the inspiration come from for FIVE DECEMBERS? Did you always intend to take the story where you did?
My original idea for the novel was pretty simple. I wanted to write a story set primarily in Hawaii, and I wanted to set it during WWII because it’s just such a fascinating turning point in Hawaii’s history. But then I thought, what if the main character follows leads to somewhere in Asia, and gets caught over there when the war breaks out? So I certainly knew going in that there was going to be a big shift in the story—but I had no idea what was going to happen after the bombs started to fall.
You had said in your acknowledgements that your initial draft came in at nearly seven hundred pages. On the advice of your agent, you cut it down to just over four hundred. How difficult was that process? Was it hard to leave so much on the cutting room floor?
At first I was highly resistant to cutting it. In fact, instead of cutting it, I made it longer, and that really pissed her off. The book you read is written entirely from the perspective of the main character, Joe McGrady. But the original draft shifted perspectives between Joe, a Hong Kong resident named Emily Kam, and a U.S. Marine stationed on Wake Island. My agent wanted me to cut the book down basically because she didn’t think it would be easy to market a 700 page novel. They cost more to print, cost more to ship, and everyone’s afraid that readers lack the attention span to make it that far unless the cover has Stephen King’s name on it. She didn’t give me any particular guidance on what to cut. But when I finally accepted that I needed to make the cuts, it was pretty clear that the story was Joe McGrady’s, and all those other chapters could just go. I do miss them, even if the book is actually better without them.
Maybe someday I’ll pick them up again.
In keeping with your acknowledgements, you noted just how much help you had received in your research. As research and the craft of writing go hand-in-hand, not all authors enjoy the digging. Given how consumed you were in the work, was this a difficult process for you or something you truly enjoyed?
I really enjoyed the research. I live in Honolulu, so it was easy to research the portions of the novel set here. I spent a lot of time walking around Chinatown exploring the old buildings, and a lot of time in the State Library reading old newspapers on microfilm. It’s always fun having an excuse to go into a library. In spite of how massive the internet has become, there are still things you can’t find out on Google. For example, I wanted to know what a Honolulu Police Department detective got paid in 1941, because that’s the kind of thing you need know about your character even if the number never makes it into the book. I couldn’t find that information anywhere online, so on a lunch break I walked over to the law library at the Hawaii Supreme Court, and the reference librarian was able to get what I needed in less than five minutes by pulling an old copy of the Revised Ordinances of Honolulu.
It was a lot harder to research Japan, Hong Kong, and Wake Island. For Japan and Hong Kong, I could at least visit. Prior to the pandemic, my day job had me traveling to Tokyo and Hong Kong a couple of times a year, and my friends and clients in both cities could open doors and answer questions. Wake Island is a lot harder to visit. As far as I know, the only way to get there as a civilian is to be on a Hawaii to Tokyo flight that has a mechanical issue and needs to make an emergency landing. That’s not very practical. But I have a high school friend who somehow became a U-2 pilot, and though he couldn’t say when or why, he’d landed on Wake and could tell me all about it.
On its surface, FIVE DECEMBERS is both a crime and war epic, but it also has a deeply touching love story that is in my opinion, the true heart of the novel. Obviously you didn’t share the exact same experience as Detective McGrady, but did you pull from personal experience when writing about Joe’s romantic journey?
I’m glad that aspect of the book resonated with you. I wanted to write a novel that included a murder investigation (it would have been hard to get published with Hard Case Crime had I not done that much) but I was trying to be a little more ambitious. If you’re writing a novel set between 1941 and 1945, you really couldn’t get away with not mentioning WWII or its impact on the other events. And I think the same is true about a character’s emotional life: if you’ve got a story that stretches over a period of years, you’re going to have to explore what’s going on in your character’s life other than just his job as a homicide detective.
Fortunately, no, none of McGrady’s experiences come from my own. I imagine it would be pretty awkward if the first time you took a woman to bed, you ended up having to kill her neighbor with your bare hands. In 1945 you could maybe get away with that, but these days you’d need a lot of couples therapy.
What are you currently reading?
At the moment I am trying to read a Chinese translation of The Old Man and the Sea. One thing about writing Five Decembers that I wouldn’t have expected is that it made me want to relearn all the Chinese I’ve forgotten since 2004 when I moved back to the US from Taiwan. So I’ve been taking Chinese classes twice a week from a University of Hawaii professor, and then on my lunch breaks I sit down with the book and struggle through as many pages as I can. It’s a bit easier now than it was the first time I tried learning Chinese—if I’d had a smart phone in 2001 when I moved to Taiwan, I can’t imagine how far I would have gotten. There are some amazing language tools these days.
Recently, I really enjoyed Ian Toll’s magnificent three-volume history of the Pacific War, which he finished off this year with Twilight of the Gods. I also loved Stephen King’s newest Hard Case Crime novel, Later, as well as Billy Summers. I’m looking forward to John Le Carré’s final novel, Silverview, though I may put off reading it simply because I know there’s not another one coming and there’s no feeling quite like discovering a new story for the first time.
What’s next for James Kestrel?
When I know, I’ll be sure to tell you. I do kind of have an idea. And it may be somewhat related to Five Decembers, not a sequel, but in a looser sense. The hardest thing about doing the research for Five Decembers was knowing when to stop, and I came across all kinds of great stuff that had no place whatsoever in the book but is too interesting to leave alone. So I guess we’ll see.
I want to thank James for taking the time to answer a few questions.
Read my review of FIVE DECEMBERS.
FIVE DECEMBERS is due for release on October 26, 2021 through Hard Case Crime.