interview by d.j. kirkbride


D.J.: I live in Milwaukee, and we've got butter burgers out here. You ever had those?

Isaac: (laughs) I have. Only once. I was up in Milwaukee for a wedding, and we stopped for some on the way back.

D: I just had some, and I'm in pain.

I: (chuckles-- perhaps wondering what the hell is going on with this jack-ass supposedly interviewing him. Or that could just be my own shit.--D.J.)

D: But they're delicious, so it's worth it.

I: Yeah, exactly.

D: Okay, first of all, I'm a big fan of the Billy Chaka books. When I reviewed them for tastes like chicken, a lot of people were like, "I gotta check those out." But for people not in the know, why don't you tell them a little bit about Billy Chaka and his adventures and nonsense. [I meant "nonsense" in a good way.]

I: He's basically this journalist who works for a teen magazine called Youth In Asia, which is kind of like a Tiger Beat publication focused on hip new trends going on all throughout East Asia. Although, (laughs) for whatever reason, every time we catch up with him he's in Japan.

D: (I laugh, even though my grasp of world geography is such that I didn't know that Japan wasn't East Asia. Never questioned or even considered it.)

I: And every time he's over there, he ends up getting in some kind of wacky mystery that he stumbles his way through.

D: Now, Youth In Asia, that magazine's out of Cleveland in the books--

I: Yeah.

D: I was born near Cleveland--

I: Okay.

D: And I don't remember seeing anything at all like that on the stands.

I: (laughs politely)

D: I was just wondering why you decided on Cleveland. I thought it was kind of funny that he happens to be from there.

I: Kind of. I wanted to make it the most un-Tokyo-like place I could think of, that people would still recognize.

D: Ah.

I: More or less, it was just a potshot at Cleveland, to be honest. (laughs)

D: Dude, what's up with that?

I: I don't know.

D: No, I kid.

I: Well, you know.

D: I don't remember the town.


D: (laughs nervously) Sorry. Yeah, I was wondering if it was just because there's such a big difference from Japan.

I: Yeah. I just thought the idea of having this magazine set there would be kind of funny.

D: It is. Well done.

I: (laughs)

D: So where did the name Billy Chaka come from? Because it's a fun name to say.

I: Yeah, it's kind of funny. I get asked that sometimes, and I don't really know. It was there when I first started writing the three page sketch that became Tokyo Suckerpunch, the name just popped out. Looking back now, I've noticed that it kind of has some similarities, just the sound quality, with Jackie Chan.

D: I never thought of that.

I: Yeah, I was watching tons of Jackie Chan at that time, so that could be it.

D: Gotcha.

I: But it's a name that causes some confusion, because, with the last name, people are always wondering what ethnicity he is.

D: Yeah, I kinda wondered about that, too, when I first started reading Tokyo Suckerpunch. But he's just a schlub from Chicago-- I mean, not Chicago-- Cleveland!

I: Yeah. (laughs) I just picked the name because I liked the sound of it. That's why I stuck with it.

D: It's a cool name. With Tokyo Suckerpunch, the name and the cover really pop. I totally judged that book by the cover. I hadn't heard of it, but picked it up. Do you have any input on what the covers look like?

I: Not really. I think the guy who does them does an excellent job. People are always telling me how much they like the covers.

D: Oh, yeah.

I: For Tokyo Suckerpunch we talked a little bit about it, conceptually. For the next two, once in a while I'll send the guy pictures that he can work off of, but the end product ends up looking like nothing I envisioned, which is typically a good thing.

Both: (laugh)

D: Yeah, they're awesome. Do you have a cover yet for the fourth one you're working on?

I: We don't. I'm just finishing writing it right now.

D: Oh, you're still finishing writing it.

I: Yeah. I have to literally finish it within the next week and a half.

D: Crunch time.

I: Yeah.

D: Now, I read the first two books, Tokyo Suckerpunch and Hokkaido Popsicle, and those were awesome. I haven't gotten the third book yet-- Dreaming Pachinko-- but I read that it was less comedic or absurd than the first two.

I: Yeah.

D: Is that the growing evolution of the series? Is that something you're trying to do, or is it just coming out that the stories are less comedy based?

I: I think it's just coming out that way. It's not like I set an agenda or anything. "Oh, it's time to get serious now that I'm getting older."

D: (laughs)

I: Nothing like that. It's still, I think, pretty wacky. But Dreaming Pachinko had a bunch of World War II stuff, so it would've been pretty strange to make the tone of it too wacky, because they're talking about the firebombing of Tokyo and all the people that died. So, it's kind of a hard balance to strike with that one.

D: Yeah, I guess. With Tokyo Suckerpunch being about a crazy filmmaker, and Hokkaido Popsicle being about a crazy rock band-- yeah. I guess WWII would need a different tone.

I: Yeah. (laughs)

D: Have you always been interested in Japanese culture? Or was it that you were going to write this book and started researching it?

I: Kind of a little bit of both. I mean, I was sort of interested in it, but I wasn't a huge anime or manga guy. I just thought it was interesting. Really, when I first started writing this little sketch there were going to be all these Asian gangster guys that bust in on Billy Chaka while he was,.. I don't even know what he was doing. He was just hanging out at a bar or something like that.

D: (chuckles)

I: Then I thought, "Well, let's make them Yakuza." So, right away, that kind of narrowed it to Japan, and it just sort of went from there. The more I researched about it, the more I got into it.

D: You've actually visited Japan?

I: Yeah. I've been there a few times now. But not as much as I would like.

D: Had you been there when you wrote Tokyo Suckerpunch?

I: No. (laughs)

D: So that was sort of a "made up" Japan. I mean, no first-hand experience?

I: Yeah. And pretty "made up", too. There are glaring inaccuracies there. But the type of book it is, I don't think people really care. It's not meant to be taken seriously.

D: Right. Yeah, but you fooled me. I was like, "Cool. Is that what it's really like?"

Both: (laugh)

D: So,.. (pauses) my questions are so sloppy. I can't read them.

I: (laughs)

D: So, you're on the fourth book right now. Do you write them as you go, or do you have an ending planned for Chaka and his adventures?

I: No real ending planned. This will be the last one I write for a while, I think. I want to try to do something else a little bit before this becomes the only thing I know how to do.

D: Right. I was wondering if you had something else-- either another series or a stand-alone book.

I: It'll probably be a stand-alone book, even though I-- (laughs) only have the fuzziest idea what I'll do after this. A lot of writers have no problem saying, "I'll write this when I finish this!" But right now I'm having a hard time seeing beyond the two weeks I have to get this thing done!

D: When you write the books, do you have everything plotted out? Do you just kind of feel it, or do you have structure when you write?

I: Typically, I have a rough idea, then I'll start writing. I'll get about a hundred pages in or so, and then I'll panic because I have no idea where it's going. So at that point I'll write a fairly detailed outline of where it's going, which will take me the next 100 or 150 pages before which, by that time, will be totally useless because I'll have violated it all over the place.

D: (laughs)

I: So, it's not a real organized process for me.

D: Do you go back and plant clues to make it look like it was all planned?

I: A little bit. Although, a lot of times I'll plant clues not knowing what they're leading to more so than go back and plant the clues on purpose. I usually get an idea of what the ending is going to be when I'm about half-way through. It's just reaching that that becomes the goal.

D: I was reading somewhere, probably on the Internet because I'm on there way too much, that Fox Searchlight had an option at one point for Billy Chaka movies? What happened with that?

I: They had the option for about a year and a half, and then the studio guy who bought it ended up going to another place-- which is fairly typical-- but the property stayed behind. It just sort of withered on the vine over there. There's another company that's just recently picked up the rights to it. So recently, in fact, that I'm not really at liberty to disclose any information at this point. (laughs)

D: Holy crap! Breaking news!

I: It sounds really stupid. I don't know why. They've just got some weird customs out in Hollywood that I don't understand. Anyway, yeah, someone else has bought the rights. Whether it eventually turns into a movie or not, I don't know.

D: Was this something that while you were writing it you thought would be a really cool movie, or are you fine with them just being books? The movie would need a weird tone. It'd be a fine line.

I: Yeah.

D: I guess it depends on who they get to make them.

I: The first one, especially, would be decent for a movie, because there's way more action than the other ones, and it's just goofier. But, like you said, it would depend on how it was made, because it could be a really horrible movie, too. (laughs)

D: They could easily make it too campy or something.

I: Yeah. Or they could do it like Austin Powers in Japan or something like that. It could kind of go that way, but I do trust the people who are involved with it now. They're smart enough to make it a good movie if they decide to make it.

D: When you're writing, do you think of specific people as the voices of the characters? I know some writers like to think of an actor playing a certain character...

I: For Billy Chaka, I don't so much. I think it's partially because he's written in the first person.

D: So, you're Billy Chaka.

I: Right.

D: Deep down inside.

I: So you see everything through his eyes. For other characters, yeah, sometimes I'll think of actors. Of course, it can also be a convoluted thing. I'll be like, "Well, I kinda wanna write this guy as Crispin Glover, only he's a Japanese record executive," or something like that.

D: That guy from Hokkaido Popsicle?

I: Sort of. I mean I didn't actually envision Crispin Glover in anything.

D: Okay. Because he'd be like Crispin Glover if he was 80.

I: Right. (laughs) With that guy, I was thinking more of Mr. Rogers, only really deaf.

D: A deaf, Japanese Mr. Rogers.

I: Right. That's where the sweaters came from.

D: Oh yeah! Nice touch. So, you're knee-deep in the fourth book now, but are you still doing web design stuff as well? Or has writing totally taken over now?

I: Well, it's kind of funny. That web design thing appeared on my first bio on the back of the book. I worked at a web design firm, but I was just doing copywriting. Everybody thinks that I design web stuff.

D: Ah, because everything I see about you says "writer and web designer."

I: Yeah.

D: So that's a fallacy!

I: You can squelch that rumor now.

D: We'll nip that in the bud.

I: I did a lot of advertising and copywriting stuff. But for the last year and a half, I've been supporting myself writing. But not supporting myself very well. (laughs)

D: Oh, no.

I: I think I'm gonna have to go back to the day job world for a while.

D: Really? The books seem pretty popular. I mean, you're on the fourth one, so that's a good sign.

I: Yeah.

D: Do you have a set time when you write everyday? Or is it whenever the mood strikes you?

I: When I had a day job, it was always early morning. I had to write from five to seven. If I ended up doing anything else, that was fine, but I was satisfied with that. Now that it's all that I've been doing for the last year, usually I get up and goof around the Internet for an hour or so, and then drink a bunch of coffee. Work my way to writing around 8:30, go to at least lunch, and then get a little bit of editing afterward. But usually all the good stuff happens in the morning.

D: Sounds like my writing technique. Except the part where you write.

Both: (laugh at D.J.'s admitted laziness)

D: It's like, "Oh, I'll check the Internet and see what's going on!" Then it's two in the afternoon. "Holy crap!"

I: Time flies.

D: Do you do a lot of rewrites when you're done with a book, or are they fairly close to the first drafts?

I: The first one wasn't very close to the first draft, but it's hard for me to even remember. With the last one, I didn't do much rewriting. The first two, I did. This one, we'll see how it goes.

D: With the third one you were like, "I've already done two of these, I don't need to write new drafts."

I: I don't know. It's kind of weird using the term "draft", because on computers you don't even really have a draft in the same way that I think writers did when they were typing on typewriters. They had it all printed out, and had to cross out everything and retype. With computers, it's just constantly revising the sentence, even as you write it. As far as revisions when I get it back from the editor, I had a lot more on my first two than on the last one. But who knows? Maybe this one will have more than all of them combined!

D: Can you say anything about the fourth one, or is it top secret?

I: It'll be called Osaka Nocturne.

D: (laughs) Okay.

I: And this one takes place in Osaka, this big city in western Japan. It's similar in a lot of ways to how Chicago is to New York, as far as its standing compared to Tokyo. It has partially to do with bunraku puppetry.

D: What is that?

I: It is one of the ancient dramatic arts-- kind of like noh or kabuki. It's a puppet theatre. They have these big puppets that are four feet tall, and they're worked by these three man teams of guys, head to toe in black so you can't see them. It's really elaborate and sophisticated puppet theatre. It's not Punch & Judy.

Both: (laugh)

D: Okay, yeah. I forgot about bunraku. I kind of recognize that. At my old college our fine arts professor was trying to get some people in to do that. But I think he got them the year after I graduated, so I never really saw it. I totally forgot about that. That's pretty cool.

I: Yeah. It's a neat art form.

D: Is that something you read about and thought would be something to work into the book? Or did you start writing, and the puppetry angle just popped in your head as you were doing it?

I: Actually-- even before I started Tokyo Suckerpunch-- I saw this program about bunraku on PBS, and I thought it was pretty weird. I had it always in the back of my head to try and do something with that. And this time I decided I had enough other themes to conjoin with that.

D: That's true, because the first two dealt with movies and music, which Americans can relate to. So now, this one is maybe a little more specific to Japan. I mean, we have puppetry here, but nothing like bunraku. Your readers have read enough now that they can go with anything. Was that your thought behind it?

I: Somewhat. Part of it was that I also wanted to get outside of Tokyo for this one. And Osaka just happens to be the first place where bunraku was practiced, so it worked out that way.

D: Have you been to Osaka?

I: Yeah. I went in January. It was a lot of fun.

D: When you go over there for research, does the publisher pay for it?

I: I wish. (laughs)

D: Aw, crap. See, I imagine all these things because of movies and whatnot-- or Billy Chaka! His publisher pays for everything!

I: Nope.

D: My publisher doesn't pay for anything either. I had to buy the tape we're recording this on.

I: No way.

D: No. I'm just kidding.

I: (laughs)

D: No. I'm not kidding. But whatever.

Both: (laugh)

D: I love the names of the books. Do you have fun coming up with them? Do you have lists of crossed out potential names?

I: Not really. I usually only have one or two, and I go with the name I like more.

D: They kick ass. Actually, Tokyo Suckerpunch-- there was some website, and I put a link to the recommendation I did for your books for tastes like chicken, and the editor of the site got back to me and said, "I wanted to name my band Tokyo Suckerpunch, and now this guy writes a book called that!" Ha! Too slow!

I: (laughs)

D: But all the names are pretty great. Osaka Nocturne-- I like that one, too.

I: Good. I'm glad you like it. I'm still trying to talk the publisher into using it.

D: Really?

I: I think I'll win, though. We'll see. (laughs)

D: Have they had trouble with any of the other titles, or are they usually pretty much like, "That sounds cool."

I: Yeah, they're usually just kinda like, "Eh,.. that sounds okay."

D: (laughs)

I: I told them I'd be flexible on this one, but they haven't really given me any alternatives, so we'll see.

D: One of the things I've found interesting throughout all the books is Chaka's love for the geisha. When you're in Tokyo, did you ever visit a geisha?

I: No.

D: You just like the idea of them?

I: Yeah. That's more the idea. There are almost none left. Those that are around, usually are these middle-aged ladies. It's a culture that's kind of been replaced by the bar hostesses there, because they serve pretty much the same function, only without all the art training and singing. But, yeah, as for real geisha, they're almost non-existent. And they're prohibitively expensive, for anybody just thinking they could go over there and try to hook up with one. (laughs) It's just not gonna happen. So that part of the books is just a fantasy element, playing with a cultural archetype, I guess.

D: Have you gotten much feedback from Japanese readers about the books?

I: Not too much. I've gotten a few from people who say they liked it, but not much else. Tokyo Suckerpunch just came out in Japan in May. None of the other ones have been translated.

D: I was wondering what a Japanese person would think of the interpretation of their culture. It'll be interesting to see how it does in Japan.

I: I don't know. With the first one, especially, they'll probably think, "What the hell is this?"

D: (laughs) It's like an imaginary Japan.

I: It really is. That one doesn't make any pretensions of being authentic. But some people just have this reading mindset that anything they pick up is authentic and serious. I've had some weird comments like, "It's not really like this!" I'm like, "Are you kidding me?"

D: Yeah. And there's not really a writer in Cleveland writing about Asian pop culture and solving mysteries!

I: Yeah.

D: Okay, there's this one question I have to ask for tastes like chicken.

I: Okay.

D: The question is-- and you can think about it if you want-- do dogs have lips?

I: (pauses) Do dogs have lips? They do. They're just kinda inside-out.

D: They're inside-out?

I: Yeah. That's all I can think of. All I have is cats.

D: How many cats do you have?

I: Two. A boy and a girl.

D: Right on. What are their names?

I: Mao and Petey.

D: Nice.

I: How about you? You have any pets?

D: No, I don't. I used to have this cat named Skeeter. She's still at my parents' house. I don't want any other cat because she's this awesome fat cat. Pretty easy going. Doesn't really do anything. She'll let you pet her occasionally. All other animals seem too needy. Especially dogs.

I: Yeah.

D: Yeah, I was spoiled by Skeeter. In fact, I'll probably kidnap her when I go home to visit tomorrow.

I: (laughs)

D: I can't afford cat food. Only for myself, anyway. I can't feed another animal!

I: Yeah.

D: (D.J. starts wondering how long he can go on about Skeeter and eating cat food, then he decides against it.) Okay! Those are all the questions I have. Is there anything you want to say to the readers of tastes like chicken, about why they should read Billy Chaka's adventures or get cats?

I: Um,.. not really. I think they can use their own judgment on most matters in life. My advice would be pretty useless to them. (laughs)