From Iwo Jima to Alaska: Screenwriter Yamashita becomes celebrated mystery novelist

Many mystery fans attended Iris Yamashita’s reading of City Under One Roof at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena on January 10th. (Photo by Satsuki Yamashita)

By JK YAMAMOTO, Rafu Author

Until recently, Iris Yamashita was best known as a screenwriter, earning an Oscar nomination for the 2006 World War II epic Letters from Iwo Jima, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Ken Watanabe. Now she’s being celebrated for her debut crime thriller City Under One Roof.

The story, which begins with the discovery of a disembodied hand and foot on the shore of an Alaskan bay, is set in Point Mettier, a tiny, remote town where everyone lives in a single high-rise building.

Like established mystery writer Naomi Hirahara (“Clark & ​​Division”), who was an invaluable source of advice, Yamashita’s concept for her first novel began in a different form. Hirahara sold her first mystery, Summer of the Big Bachi, 20 years ago after working on various iterations of the story.

“Like Naomi, I didn’t think I would write a book in the mystery genre,” Yamashita said. “Ever since I’ve been working in Hollywood, I’ve been trying to come up with an idea for a limited series to write as an example. I was really inspired by Jane Campions [TV series] ‘Top of the Lake’ and that was the first time I thought about how I’d love to write a crime novel, which seemed like a good genre for a limited or long series.”

Each chapter is titled after one of three characters, all female, and the story is told from their perspective, albeit not in the first person.

“The idea of ​​writing with three female voices came up early on,” Yamashita recalls. “I had read or heard a number of books in this format that I really enjoyed. However, it wasn’t an easy decision whether to use first or third person. I started writing in first person and then went back and rewrote everything in third person after deciding it would be a bit easier for time skips.

“What chapter to start with was also a mystery. I initially started with a chapter in the detective’s voice but then switched to the teenager discovering the body because it was more interesting to start with the body discovery. Luckily I use software (Scrivener) that makes it very easy to change the order of the chapters.”

Iris Yamashita

The investigator is Cara Kennedy, a detective from Anchorage. One of the locals is 17-year-old Amy Lin, whose mother runs a Chinese restaurant. The Lins aren’t originally from Point Mettier, and it seems that many of the characters are from somewhere else and are running from something.

“I found the population of the town that inspired the story to be very diverse, so I imagine people come from different places outside of Alaska,” said Yamashita, who based her fictional town on the real-life town of Whittier. “But I also met someone who’s lived there all their life, so maybe there are more long-time residents in the real city than in my fictional one.

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“As for people running from something, I wanted to keep my characters completely fictional, so during my research I didn’t ask anyone in the real city what their story was or why they were there.”

Every character, including Cara, seems to be hiding something, and that’s on purpose. “I’m not sure how unique this idea is, since mysteries usually involve different suspects who all have secrets, but I think telling the narrative with different voices gave an opportunity to delve a little deeper into the real implications of the mysteries.” characters and their past.”

City Under One Roof is also available on audio, starring voice actors Aspen Vincent as Cara, Shannon Tyo as Amy, and Anna Caputo as Lonnie, a mentally challenged woman with a pet moose.

Yamashita first discovered Whittier through a documentary over 20 years ago and was fascinated by the fact that the train was initially the only land route. “They opened the tunnel to car traffic in 2000. The setting really stuck in my mind, but it was only recently that I realized the mystery that goes with it.”

Alaska’s sparse population is evidenced by the fact that there is only one member in the US House of Representatives, while Hawaii has two. Yamashita added another interesting statistic — that over 2,000 people go missing in Alaska every year, an average based on the number of people reported missing since 1988.

“I believe there are a number of factors that contribute to this large number, including the size of the state — about one-fifth of the entire Lower 48 — the vast swathes of the country that are wilderness, and the harsh climate.”

help from family

In the acknowledgment, Yamashita thanks her group of authors as well as her husband, John Louis Chan, an architect. “My writing group…is made up of entertainment industry professionals who know storytelling. They were very helpful in giving me notes. I brought in a chapter at a time and passed it on to the group, who could point out logic holes or let me know when a character’s voice wasn’t working well.

Copies of the new puzzle were available at the signing in Pasadena. (Courtesy of Iris Yamshita)

“I often used my husband as a sounding board when I got stuck on something, and he also read through an early draft and gave me a few notes that I incorporated.”

She also thanked her sister Satsuki and the extended Chan family for their support.

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The book is dedicated to Yamashita’s mother, Kayoko, who passed away in 2005.

“I think I inherited my creative genes from her,” Yamashita explained. “She loved telling stories and always wanted to write a book but never quite finished it. I had published a couple of short stories before I became a screenwriter, and both were based on stories she told me about her life.”

Yamashita submitted her first screenplay to a competition, where she was spotted by an agent from the Creative Artists Agency. Her big break came when she was hired to write the screenplay for Letters from Iwo Jima, which won Best Picture by the National Board of Review and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association received and was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. It was a pendant to Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” which showed the American side of the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Lack of women, different writers

Yamashita is also known as an advocate for women and diversity in the entertainment industry. “When I was writing ‘Letters from Iwo Jima,’ the status of women and diverse writers for feature films was pretty pathetic – 95% white and 86% male – so it seemed like women and diverse writers could really use a leg. I have mentored various women writers in year-long and half-year programs through the Center for Asian American Media, Film Independent, and the Korean Film Council.

“I have also volunteered for numerous programs and initiatives that have sponsored various writers through the Writers Guild of America, Asian American film festivals, or independent film councils, by serving as an instructor, advisor, and/or judge. Naomi Hirahara just got me to be an instructor and judge for her short story writing contest in Little Tokyo.

“I think it’s important to tell stories with different or female leads. When I got into the film world, these stories were considered highly non-commercial, but I think that’s changed since then, so hopefully aspiring writers won’t encounter as many walls.”

Born in Missouri and raised in Hawaii, Yamashita has lived in Guam, California and Japan. While her first love was always writing novels, she studied engineering at UC San Diego and UC Berkeley, and majored in virtual reality at the University of Tokyo.

“Studying Virtual Reality in Japan for a year was a lot of fun. Of course, the technology back then was much more primitive than it is now, so we had headsets and controllers that looked similar to what gamers today, except everything weighed a ton, the graphics were very pixelated, and the whole setup would just be a headache after a while. Nobody wanted to wear their headset for more than ten minutes.

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“I haven’t really done much in this area other than experimenting with visual search patterns. My first job out of college was working for a Japanese construction company in their US research office. After that, I worked at an engineering software company called SolidWorks.

“Living in Japan for a year and working for a Japanese company has helped me connect more to my Japanese roots, but I don’t know if there’s a direct connection to screenwriting. I would take evening classes in writing after my day job.

“I met Marlon Brando once through the construction company because part of the research focus was on greener construction and both Marlon Brando and the company were part of an environmental consortium, so I helped him set up a video. Conference session once in times when video conferencing was very cumbersome.”

The accolades her novel received from readers and fellow crime writers came as a pleasant surprise. Both Reader’s Digest and Amazon called it an “Editor’s Pick”. In an starred review, Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “This intensely original perspective on a ‘community of laggards, oddballs and recluses’ heralds the arrival of a great new talent.”

“As a writer, there’s always a little fear of how your work will be received,” Yamashita said. “When all the positive reviews came in, I figured that must be pretty normal, so my agent and publisher had to keep letting me know how unusual it was.

“But I also have to acknowledge the incredible job that the advertising and marketing team at Berkley Books has done. It is amazing to know the effort that goes into publishing a new book and trying to grab attention in a very crowded market with over 2 million books published each year.

“Another big surprise was how warm and welcoming the writing community was. Other established mystery writers such as Naomi Hirahara, CJ Box, Mary Kubica, Lisa Gardner, Laura Griffin, Ann Cleeves, Samantha Jayne Allen, and Alma Katsu have been kind and gracious in giving me great blurbs, while other writers have been very supportive to spread the word through their podcasts and social media.”

City Under One Roof fans will be happy to know that Yamashita is already working on a sequel. “There are repeat appearances of characters from the first book, as well as some new ones. I didn’t really realize how popular the mystery genre was until I wrote the book. I’d like to try to continue writing in this genre because I think that’s what readers would expect.

“But who knows? I might use an alias and try to turn some of my unproduced scripts that aren’t mysteries into books.”

Rafu contributor Kathee Yamamoto did the research for this article.