Plenty of mystery fans were on hand for Iris Yamashita’s reading of “City Under One Roof” at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena on Jan. 10. (Photo by Satsuki Yamashita)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Until recently, Iris Yamashita was best known as a screenwriter who received an Oscar nomination for the 2006 World War II epic “Letters from Iwo Jima,” directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Ken Watanabe. She is now acclaimed for her debut mystery novel, “City Under One Roof.”

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

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

“Similar to Naomi, I did not think that I would be writing a book in the mystery genre,” Yamashita said. “Since I was working in Hollywood, I was trying to come up with an idea for a limited series to write as a sample. I was really inspired by Jane Campion’s [TV series] ‘Top of the Lake’ and that was the first time I started thinking that I would love to try writing a mystery, which seemed like a good genre for a limited or long-running series.”

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

“The idea to write in three female character voices came early on,” Yamashita recalled. “I had read or listened to a number books in that format that I really enjoyed. However, whether to use first or third person was not an easy decision. I began writing in first person and then went back and rewrote everything in third person after I decided it would be slightly easier for jumps in time.

“Which chapter to start with was also a conundrum. I first started with a chapter in the detective’s voice, but then switched to the teen who discovers the body, because it was more interesting to start with the discovery of the dead body. Luckily, I’m using software (Scrivener) that makes it very easy to change the order of 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 are not originally from Point Mettier, and it appears that many of the characters are from somewhere else and are running from something.

“I found the population of the city that inspired the story to be very diverse, so I imagine that people do come from various places outside of Alaska,” said Yamashita, who based her fictional town on the real-life town of Whittier. “But I also met someone who had lived there all his life, so perhaps there are more long-timers in the real city than in my fictional one.

“As far as whether people were running from something, I wanted to keep my characters completely fictional, so I didn’t ask anyone in the real town about their histories or why they were there during my research.”

Each character, including Cara, seems to be hiding something, and that is by design. “I’m not sure how unique that idea is since mysteries usually involve various suspects who all have secrets, but I think telling the narrative in different voices gave the opportunity to delve a little deeper into how the characters’ secrets and their pasts really affected them.”

“City Under One Roof” is also available as an audio book featuring 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 intrigued by the fact that initially the only land route in was by train. “They opened the tunnel to car traffic in the year 2000. The setting really just stuck with me in my mind, but I didn’t come up with the mystery to go with it until recently.”

The sparseness of Alaska’s population is indicated by the fact that it has only one member in the U.S. House of Representatives, while Hawaii has two. Yamashita incorporated another interesting statistic — that over 2,000 people go missing in Alaska each year, an average based on the number of people reported missing since 1988.

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

Help from Family

In the acknowledgements, Yamashita thanks her writing group as well as her husband, John Louis Chan, an architect. “My writing group … consists of professionals in the entertainment industry who are well versed in story telling. They were very helpful in giving me notes. I would bring in a chapter at a time and pass it by the group, who could point out logic holes or let me know if a character’s voice wasn’t working well.

Copies of the new mystery were available at the Pasadena signing. (Courtesy 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.

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

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

Yamashita submitted her first screenplay to a competition where she was discovered by an agent at the Creative Artists Agency. Her big break came when she was recruited to write the script for “Letters from Iwo Jima,” which was named best picture by the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, received a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign-language film, and was nominated for four Oscars, including best picture and best original screenplay. It was a companion to Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” which showed the battle of Iwo Jima from the American side.

Lack of Women, Diverse Writers

Yamashita is also known as an advocate of women and diversity in the entertainment industry. “When I wrote ‘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 that women and diverse writers could really use a leg up. I have mentored diverse women writers in year-long or half-year programs through the Center for Asian American Media, Film Independent and the Korean Film Council.

“I also volunteered on numerous programs and initiatives that promoted diverse writers through the Writers Guild of America, Asian American film festivals or independent film councils by being an instructor, advisor and/or judge. Naomi Hirahara just roped me into being an instructor and judge for her Little Tokyo short story writing contest.

“I think it’s important to tell stories with diverse or female leads. Those stories were considered highly non-commercial when I was coming into the film world, but I think it has changed since then so hopefully, up-and-coming writers won’t run into as many walls.”

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

“Studying virtual reality in Japan for a year was a lot of fun. The technology back then was, of course, much more primitive than today, so we had headsets and controllers that looked much like what today’s gamers are using except that everything weighed a ton, the graphics were very pixelated and the whole set-up would just give you a headache after a while. No one wanted to wear their headsets for more than ten minutes.

“I didn’t really do much in the field other than conduct visual search pattern experiments. My first job after college was working for a Japanese construction company at their U.S. 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 helped me connect more to my Japanese roots, but I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation to screenwriting. I would take night classes in writing after my day job.

“I did get to meet Marlon Brando once through the construction company because some of the research focus was on more eco-friendly construction and both Marlon Brando and the company were part of an environmental consortium, so I helped set him up on a video-conferenced meeting once in the days when video conferencing was very cumbersome.”

The accolades that her novel has gotten from readers and fellow mystery writers came as a pleasant surprise. Both Reader’s Digest and Amazon named it an “Editor’s Pick.” In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly said, “This distinctively original perspective on a ‘community of stragglers, oddballs, and recluses’ heralds the arrival of a major new talent.”

“As a writer, you always have a bit of anxiety about how your work is going to be received,” Yamashita said. “When all the positive reviews started coming in, I thought it must be pretty normal, so my agent and publisher had to keep letting me know how unusual it was.

“But I also have to credit the incredible work that the publicity and marketing team at Berkley Books has done. It’s mind-boggling to know what kind of effort goes into the release of a new book and trying to get attention in a very crowded market with over 2 million books being published a year.

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

Fans of “City Under One Roof” will be glad 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 actually realize how popular the mystery genre was until I wrote the book. I would like to try to continue writing in this genre because I think that would be what readers would expect.

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

Rafu contributor Kathee Yamamoto did research for this article.

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