Interview with Bangkok-based Novelist Ezra Kyrill Erker

 | Fri 21 Mar 2014 09:29 ICT

Author Ezra Kyrill Erker is, truly, what people would describe as a citizen of the world. He grew up in Switzerland, Australia, the Netherlands and across the South Pacific and received much of his education in the United States, before deciding later in life to settle first in Japan and then again in Bangkok as a journalist. His work reflects this global perspective as much of what he writes, though often rooted in Asia, speaks to themes that cross cultural and geographic barriers. His latest work, Salaryman Unbound, is a great example of this as it speaks to the difficulties of mediocrity and aging, themes that transcend any specificity of place.

Though working in Bangkok at the moment, Mr. Erker graciously answered via email some questions about his process, his thoughts on darkness in literature as well as advice for young writers.  


You’ve been darting around the world for much of your life but seem to have found a home in Japan and countries in South East Asia. What about these places compels you?

It’s something intangible, I think. When I landed in Japan on a three-week trip, something about it immediately felt very comfortable, even though in language and culture it was about as foreign a place as you could find. And after I got better at the language, it was the first place I’d visited where people listened more than they spoke, and for the average introvert it’s a huge relief not to have to resort to repetition and draining overemphasis to get your point across.

Three weeks turned into eight years, and on the way back to Europe I landed in Thailand. It had always been a transit point that I looked more forward to than most destinations, and again I couldn’t force myself to leave. I had some books in me and knew in Europe I wouldn’t have the time to write them, so I missed my flight and entered the world of journalism.

I’m one quarter Filipino, so perhaps the Asian connection runs deeper than I’d considered while growing up in the West. My grandfather never returned to his birthplace, but for me Asia has always felt like home.

When you’ve hit a wall how do you get the creative cogs turning again?

Life, as it does, inevitably gets in the way. Your day job gets busy, crises and responsibilities pop up, illness, laziness or cynicism take hold.

You need a bit of discipline – pushing the pen across the page on a regular basis, or tapping at the keyboard during a fixed time slot. You might not always get as much done as you’d like, but you’ll get nothing done if you don’t start.

A bit of diversion helps. Read a classic book, see a quality film, listen to good music, go somewhere new. Don’t go for the easy options but the ones that make you think a bit.

And you also need a bit of obsessiveness. Guard your privacy and your time. Snarl at people if you have to. Scribble nonsense during sleepless nights, then edit it later when you’ve calmed down.

Tell us a little about your process—do you adhere to a strict schedule? Are you a morning writer, an evening writer? Is there any specific music you listen to? Any rituals?

It’s hard to keep a strict writing schedule when you also have to pay the bills, so for me it’s snatches of time here and there. It takes my creative brain a while to get going, so nights are more productive, but for most people I’d recommend writing first thing in the morning if you can.

Many writers I’ve talked to are creatures of habit, trying to recreate a proven routine, but I change things up constantly, writing in coffee shops, on planes or beaches, in notebooks or laptops. I’ve found that for early drafts, writing longhand is always more productive than typing.

Your latest book, Salaryman Unbound, is quite dark—do you find yourself drawn to dark themes and characters? If so, why?

You could make the case that reality is dark and pessimism closer to truth. I’m still undecided on that, but it wasn’t a conscious decision to make a dark book. I wanted to take a stab at crime, which I’d never tried before, and there aren’t too many happy crime novels out there. My first story collection was also quite dark at times, though; a lot of times that darkness is an element of the type of story I want to tell.

On this question of darkness, as pre-interview research, I read some of your most recent tweets and found this one, in reference to the current conflict unfolding in Eastern Europe, particularly interesting and was wondering if you’d come up with an answer: “Why does looming darkness inspire such advances and scathing introspection in the arts?”

I guess that was during a bit of banter with a specialist in noir and German expressionism. But it’s hard to deny that the arts run deeper, darker and truer when used as a countercultural outlet. The ‘isms’ preceding the two world wars in Europe are still remarkably relevant. The rock music that came out of the protests of the ’60s is perhaps better than what has come in more peaceful times. Hemingway said ‘War is never not a crime,’ but he also said it taught him everything he knew about human nature.

But enough with darkness—what things excite you most about being a human alive in the year 2014?

Hmm, that’s a tough one. The difference between today’s smartphone and one from five years ago is remarkable. In five more years it will completely transform again. It’s dizzying trying to keep pace and guessing what humanity is capable of. Every model of where our progress leads, though, for the environment, for human sustainability, is not so much exciting as deeply worrying.

That said, personally I have little to complain about and take a lot of joy taking daily steps into the unknown and unknowable.

What advice can you give a young writer like myself? Are there any books you believe are essential for a beginning writer to read?

Simply read voraciously. I could recommend dozens of books, but sometimes the most influential discoveries are the ones you stumble upon. Travel a lot. Try out new pursuits. Be a little selfish when you have to be but don’t summarily dismiss others or their ideas.

Keep ears and mind open and it’s possible to keep evolving creatively.

Only in the past year, for example, have I discovered photography as a hobby, and that increased visual awareness has had a marked impact on the way I write.

And lastly, what projects are you working on at the moment?  

‘Project’ is too calculated a word, but I’m finishing up two disparate books. One is a coming-of-age love story and the other a more old-fashioned mystery.

The summary for author Ezra Kyrill Erker’s latest book Salaryman Unbound reads as follows:

Iwasaki Shiro, a 46 year old salaryman in Tokyo is having a midlife crisis. Unexceptional in his IT job, he works in the shadow of his boss’s charisma. His children are embarrassed by his mediocrity and his wife rarely thinks of him as an individual. He has nothing to show for decades of conformity and doing the right thing.

Shiro needs purpose in his life, so he begins to plot the murder of a neglected housewife on his street. He takes trips to scout places to dispose of a body, researches knives and arteries, and buys a neurotoxin while on a business trip in Thailand. His plans transform his personality – he can stand up to his boss, keep his children in line, wear the trousers in the marriage – but as he gets ever closer to doing the deed, it becomes clear there is more going on than he suspected.

Salaryman Unbound is a taut, literary crime novel set in contemporary Japan.

To purchase his book, go here.