This was the first cozy mystery series I’d ever heard of that’s set in Japan.
I had to talk to Stephanie (SJ) Pajonas about her Daydreamer Detective, Mei Yamagawa. Mei has moved back home to the rural community where her mother lives, after failing at life in the big city. But, as so often with life, that’s probably for the best because Mei’s daydreaming ways make her an instinctive and insightful amateur sleuth.
Stephanie and I chat about what led to her fascination with Japan, learning Japanese, and practicing her language skills on her visits to that island nation.
Links and resources mentioned in this episode
- Click on any of the book covers to go to Stephanie’s books on Amazon
- Stephanie also writes Science Fiction with a Japanese twist. You can learn more here.
- More about Kotatsu, the Japanese heated floor table Stephanie mentions.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with S.J. Pajonas
Alexandra: Hi Mystery readers, I’m Alexandra Amor. It’s a mystery podcast, and I’m here today with S.J. Pajonas. Hi, Stephanie!
Stephanie: Hi. How are you today?
Alexandra: Very well. How are you?
Stephanie: Doing great.
Alexandra: That’s good. All right, well let me give our listeners an introduction to you.
Stephanie (S. J) Pajonas is the author of several books series including the, Miso Cozy Mystery series, which we’re going to talk about later today.
Stephanie is a writer, a knitter, armature astrologer, Capricorn, and Japanophile. We’re gonna talk about that as well. She loves foxes, owls, sushi, yoga pants, Evernote, and black tea.
When she’s not writing, she’s thinking about writing or spending time outside, unless it’s winter. She hates winter. Someday she’ll own a house in both hemispheres so she can avoid the season entirely. She’s a mom to two great kids and lives with her husband and family outside New York City.
Well, it’s such a treat to talk to you today. And the reason I was really intrigued about your books is because they are set in Japan. And you, we mentioned in the bio there that you’re a Japanophile.
How about we start with you telling us where your fascination with Japan came from.
It was around that time that the Miyazaki Anime were really popular here in the United States. So it was like Princess Minauke and all of his great anime, just lovely. And I started watching those, and then I became friends with someone who had actually lived in Japan. So, I asked her question after question about what it was like to live there.
I don’t know how it grew from there, but it just did. I moved to New York, and there is a place in New York City called, “The Japan Society.” And they have Japanese language classes. So I thought, well, you know, I’m an adult, and I’m living in New York City. I’m gonna spend my spare time learning Japanese.
So, that was seven years of Japanese classes in the city when it was great until I had my first child. And along with that it just comes when you’re learning Japanese, you learn about culture, you learn about the food, you learn about the way people speak to each other.
It’s not a language that relies so much like the romance languages where, you know, a table maybe a male, and like a chair maybe a female. I don’t know, it’s gotta be like French, or Spanish or whatever.
Instead in Japan it’s like a level hierarchy. If you’re speaking to your family it’s not the same kind of language or a verb, tenses, verb that you would use with like your boss. Or your boss’ boss. Or somebody you don’t know.
So, understanding culture, and understanding the levels of society became part of learning the language. It became a fun thing to study on my off time. And with that came everything else.
I’ve been to Japan twice. I was there last year at this time actually. And when I just decided to start writing, I decided to take my love of Japan and fold it into my fiction as well. So, then that gives me a chance to study the culture even more, you know, what it’s like to own a bike in Japan. Like the smallest little things that I can fold into my fiction. That’s a lot of fun.
Alexandra: I love that. That’s amazing. And hearing that you’ve been to Japan twice. That was going to be my next question, about whether or not you were writing your books virtually.
It sounds like you’ve had exposure to different places in Japan including Tokyo, I’m assuming?
Stephanie: Yeah. So last year at this time I was in Japan. I was in Tokyo, and I also spent two days in Kyoto. I took the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto on my own, and had a great time there. I think I spent like nine days there last year. I even braved the typhoon when I was there.
Stephanie: A typhoon blew into town, and it was very very rainy. And I spent the day in my hotel, but it was a lot of fun still.
Alexandra: Oh. That’s fantastic.
Stephanie: It was only one day.
Alexandra: We’re talking today about the Miso Cozy Mysteries, and so your main character is Mei Yamagawa.
Tell us a little bit about Mei, and let our listeners learn a little bit about her.
Stephanie: Well, before I started writing the Miso Cozy Mysteries, I was writing my science fiction series. I also write science fiction. And in that series, I had a really really, really competent woman who was my main character.
I really enjoyed writing her. So, for this series I decided I really wanted to write somebody who has a really hard time at life. She doesn’t get along well with work in general. She’s had three or four jobs, and they just haven’t worked out well. And doesn’t know what she necessarily wants to do with her life.
While she’s a very competent and loving person, she doesn’t get along well with the whole work environment. At the very beginning of series, we get to see her being fired from her job, and she has to go home to her mom in her mom’s farm in a rural part of Japan. And when she arrives in town, her best friend’s father, he’s found dead.
They don’t realize that he’s murdered at first, and then it comes out later that he was. But one of the fun parts about writing Mei, is that she is discovering herself over the course of the series. Like what she wants to do.
She put aside a love of painting when she was a kid that she was really good at. And in order to go into business, and to try the, do the whole fast-paced Tokyo life which she realized she wasn’t very good at. So, she comes back to painting, and she realizes that her mom is a really important part of her life.
And the farm that she grew up on is also very important to her as well. So, she has a little bit of a rocky beginning. She doesn’t always make the best decisions, but eventually she does, which helps her grow into what she wants to do with her life.
Alexandra: Oh. Nice. I love hearing that. And I think I read somewhere in one of your book reviews that she feels kind of like a failure, because she’s tried the big city Tokyo life, and now she’s coming back to the more rural life. And did she feel a lot of pressure?
Was it internal pressure, or external pressure that took her to the city initially?
Stephanie: I think that this is a very common thing in Japan. Normally, a lot of the job opportunities, a lot of the modern lifestyle are in the city. So, Tokyo, and Kyoto, and Osaka and all these bigger cities attract people from the rural parts of Japan to the city. And what happens is, all of these rural towns are left to the point where hardly anybody is there anymore. The jobs in those rural towns dry up, and then the towns become like a ghost town.
There’s this new station called, “NHK World.” I’m not sure if you get it where you are, but it’s on my cable system. And this is the Japanese news that is programmed for people outside of Japan. So it’s all English speaking. And I was watching the news once, and they were talking about this rural town, and I wish I had written it down, because I don’t even know where it was. This rural town in Japan that had a…what they decided to do was they found all of the vacant lots in the town, and they put them together into one big lot, and then they sold that lot to…not a department store, a grocery store from Tokyo. Who came out, and built like a big green park house.
All that land, and became a big boom for the town, because it brought in employees who were there to work in the green house. And then it brought in people to work in the area, and it gave the town a new life. And so I thought, “That’s a really great idea for a story, right?” We’ll get this set, and that’s how my Cozy Mystery series was birthed.
I thought that would be a great thing for a story. It would bring in some new people into a small town. Be great for creating new suspects. New people who’re chicken things up, you know. So, that was my original inspiration for the story.
Alexandra: Oh. That’s fantastic.
That’s the thing about Cozy Mysteries, is that they’re so often set in a small town or a rural setting. And so as a writer, we do need to think about getting new people coming to the place where you’ve set the mysteries. So, that’s a really clever idea.
Stephanie: Yeah. So, it was a lot of fun. When I found that story I thought this is exactly what I want to do.
My main character Mei, she does feel like a failure. Like, she left her small town like everybody else does in Japan. It seems like now. She left her small town to go into the city to make a life for herself, and she didn’t really do a good job of it. And so she comes back home, and she realizes that, now that her town has got this business happening, that there are opportunities still there for her. So, that brought about some really great ideas for stories.
Alexandra: The series is referred to as the “Daydreamer Detective”. Can you tell us why that is?
Stephanie: This is one of the reasons why she didn’t do too well. In her previous life in Tokyo was that, she often daydreams her life away. She thinks about like what she could be doing or she dreams that she is the best employee in the job. But she’s actually the worst, or whatever it may be.
But she often lets her imagination take her away from her current life, which is something that I think a lot of us can sympathize with. Sure there has been many times you’ve been caught staring up to the space, because you’re thinking about something else. So, she’s often caught up in her own thoughts in a separate world inside of her head.
It can get her into trouble while she’s supposed to be listening, or paying attention. But other times it does spark new ideas for what may be happening in the mystery. So, I figured it was a fun new way of having my main character do something different.
Alexandra: With all that you’ve learned about Japanese culture, and with the trips that you’ve taken to Japan, do you ever find that it’s a little tricky, translating that when you’re writing about the place, and about the culture?
Stephanie: Absolutely. The good thing is just that, I had sort of been through that before on my science fiction. I had a bit of a testing already done in that regard. So I made sure that anytime that I used a Japanese word in the book that I tried to explain it right away.
In the second book in the series, the Daydreamer Detective braves the winter. It’s winter time, and in Japan it’s very cold in houses, and during the winter there’s a table called a kotatsu, which is like a low table close to the ground. So, it’s like a heated floor table.
They usually come with like a very big blanket that you put over yourself. Lots of people often will have their snack at the kotatsu and they’ll fall asleep. Because why wouldn’t you? It’s so lovely and warm and it’s winter outside. So, when I mention kotatsu in the book I say, “We sat down at the kotatsu”, and I put right after it, “The heated floor table.”
So, hopefully it’s like everybody gets to learn a little bit of Japanese, and understand what it is at the same time. So, I’ve been through that and I know not to introduce too many foreign words in one book.
But it’s also fun to show the different dynamics between people. Mei is a very defferential to her mother. Her mother is, she’s the head of the family. You know, she lays down the rules, and you follow them.
But when she’s with her friends, her personality changes, and warms up a little bit more. Which is more of the friendly Japanese setting. And then, also when she tries, she can be a little bit snappy, but when she talks to other people she definitely shows them respect that they deserve. So, and that’s not something that is necessarily is big in western culture as it is there.
Alexandra: This hierarchical aspect of Japanese culture, do you find that in the narrative, have you had to get Mei to explain it, or is it explained by the way she acts? How does that work?
Stephanie: It’s both definitely. We can tell when she’s talking to her mother that she will defer to her mom on things.
And there are times in the internal dialogue when she thinks that she’s like, no, this is not something we should be doing, you know. Like, “I want to be more modern. I want to be more western, but I know that it’s not going to go over with mom so much. So I’m going to agree with her for now, even if I don’t really agree with her.”
We get to hear her thoughts about whether why she feels the way that she feels. And there have been times when she has come out, and said no, it really shouldn’t be like that. We’re modern women now. We don’t live in 1950’s Japan. We should do it like this. And her mom will listen to her, because she does respect her opinion. The two have clashed on occasions, but I think that, that’s part of life. There are two different generations, and her mom is very conservative and cares about the family farm. And Mei is the new, you know, modern woman, and they both have to bend a little bit to make sure that they can get a long, because they’re living together now.
Alexandra: Right. And one thing I wanted to ask you, because you also have a science fiction series and several other books as well.
Do you find that your readers will read across all your series, especially the ones that ones that are sort of Japanese-focused? Or in other words are they fans of Japan as well? Or do people who read science fiction stick with that series, and then people like mysteries stick with the Mei series?
Stephanie: Good question. This past year started building up my mailing list in inviting more more people to be a part of the mailing list. I gave them the option of giving all of my newsletters. So, giving everything about my science fiction, and my mystery or getting one or the other. And quite a few people want all of them.
So, there’s small subset of people that just want science fiction, and there’s a small subset of people that just want mystery. But then, there’s a huge portion they want all of my newsletters. I think that I appeal to like these three different areas. So, I’m guessing if you did like one of those Venn diagrams with the circles cross each other, and you get that little spot in the middle.
I appeal to some people who like science fiction, and some people who like mystery, and then some people who like Japan. So, I get like these amalgam of people, it’s something I do get written.
I do get letters from people who have written to me, and said that they’ve lived in Japan for a while, and they love my stories because it reminds them of time that they spent there. Or they were work for a Japanese company, and they understand the level of hierarchy, it like, appeals to them.
And I have gotten this from people who grew up there in the 1970’s, which was really cool. And they told me about like, the time that they spent there and how my books bring back those memories for them. So, that’s all really cool.
I’m glad that there are some people who cross over who be both to SciFi and who will also read the mystery, because of the Japanese, like the clue that’s part of all of my books. I think I’ve written one book that had a Korean male protagonist. I love that book, and it’s a great book, but I feel like my Japan stuff is what really speaks to people. So I’ve stuck with that.
Alexandra: That’s great. And I think it’s such a unique premise. I interview a lot of mystery authors, a lot of Cozy Mystery authors specifically, and your books are the first that are really…that I’ve come across…I’m sure they’re others. But your books are the first that I’ve come across that are set in the Far East.
When you had this idea, did you have any hesitation about that it would be difficult to kind of market the books to Cozy Mystery authors or readers?
Stephanie: Oh. Absolutely. But all of my books are hard to market. It was like, “Oh. It’s just another challenge like all the other challenges I’m already used to”.
But it is kind of fun that I can say, well, it’s a Cozy Mystery and it’s in Japan. That’s seriously like my main line. It’s a cozy mystery in Japan, and people look at me and say, “Oh. Okay. Great. That’s awesome”. Yeah, right.
It gets a little bit more needless, but Cozy Mysteries are very easy in that regard. A lot of people who like international Cozy Mysteries like one’s that are set in, you know, like England, or Ireland, or any one of these other international locations seem to gravitate towards my work which is cool too.
I have just been overwhelmed by the fact that this is one of my more popular books. One of my books has 90 reviews now. I’ve never had 90 reviews or anything before. So, it’s a really exciting to see that it is getting picked up a little bit. People are reading it, and are checking it out.
Alexandra: Do you plan to carry on with the series for a while?
Stephanie: I have at least five or six books planned for this one. It might go on from there, of course I’m a little bit of a pantser. I like to feel that my story evolves as I go. Sometimes, something will come back in one book though, I think, “Oh. That will be, that’s a great introduction to like a next book.”
I may not even come across it until I actually write it. But I also have an idea for one of the side characters in this series. She would make like a great protagonist. But also Cozy Mystery maybe in a different part of Japan, with different characters, but yeah, I have plenty of books planned. So will see how it comes.
Alexandra: Do you alternate between the science fiction, and the Cozy Mysteries?
Stephanie: Yes. So, last year I spent the better part of the year working on the first two books. First two books of the Cozy Mysteries, and then getting them ready, which came out early this year. And then I went back to my SciFi for a little bit.
At this point, I think I’m going to be doing, you know, a little SciFi, a little mystery, I’m going to try and make it so that my, each one of my properties gets at least two books a year. This year was only three books. So, I’m hoping for four books next year, so two and two.
Alexandra: This has been amazing Stephanie. It’s been so great chatting with you. So one last question before we go. Well two of the last questions I guess.
How much of your Japanese language have you kept since taking those classes?
Stephanie: You know what. It’s hideous. When I went to Japan last year, I try to use it as much as I could. And Japanese are very flattering. They’ll always say, if you try to use any Japanese with them, they’ll say, [“Foreign Language”.] Which means, “You’re so skilled,” right?
And I know that my Japanese is bad, and so I understand why they’re flattering me. Thank you very much. We’ll speak a little bit in my broken Japanese about where I learnt and where I’m from, which is nice that they’re there. So, they’re so nice and so helpful that it’s great being there and actually using my Japanese.
I wouldn’t say that it’s very good, but when I watch a lot of Japanese on TV, I’m able to pick up a lot of things. I hear the words that I’m used to that I know. I think that my biggest weakness right now with Japanese is sentence structure. I forget how to put sentences together. So, I may remember a lot of words, and get the gist and speaking it back to them. And putting words into sentences is the hardest part for me.
Alexandra: Okay. Yes. Well, I admire you very much. It’s amazing to have a second language like that.
Stephanie: It is a lot of fun.
Alexandra: Why don’t you tell our listeners where they can learn more about you, and your books?
Stephanie: You can find me online. My last name is Pajonas. And so, you can find me at spajonas.com. S-P-A-J-O-N-A-S.com and you can find out [inaudible 00:25:01] social media I’m on Facebook as S. J Pajonas. And I’m on twitter as @SPajonas.
Alexandra: Very good. Awesome. All right. Well, thank you so much for being on the show Stephanie.
Stephanie: Thank you so much for having me. It was great to be here today.
Alexandra: You’re welcome. Bye bye.
Stephanie: Bye. Thank you.