Interview with Dianna Renn, Author of Tokyo Heist

Diana Renn is the author of Tokyo Heist, a YA mystery set in Seattle and Japan.  Tokyo Heist will be in stores June 14, and Diana dropped by the virtual offices to introduce herself and chat about her book.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Describe yourself in 140 characters or less.

[Diana Renn] I write mysteries for teens. I love travel. I’m an amateur taiko drummer. I grew up in Seattle and now live in Boston. I struggle mightily with word counts – I think I ran over 140!

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Can you tell us a little about Tokyo Heist?

[Diana Renn] Tokyo Heist is a mystery set in Seattle and Japan. Violet Rossi, a 16-year-old manga fan and aspiring artist, is supposed to spend the summer with her distant artist father and work in a comic book shop. But her dad’s painting commission in Japan changes this plan, as does an art heist: Van Gogh drawings have been stolen from the Yamadas, her dad’s new clients. Someone demands a painting that corresponds to the drawings, and unless the Yamadas can come up with it fast, all of their lives are in danger. Violet’s visual skills and knowledge of manga help with her sleuthing, as does her friend Reika, who’s spending the summer in Tokyo.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] How did you come up with the concept and the characters for the story?

[Diana Renn] A few years ago, while attending a summer festival in Japan, I noticed an American girl wearing a brightly colored summer kimono and combat boots. I wondered what her story was. My image of this girl straddling cultures grew into Violet months later. I also came up with the character of Violet’s moody and estranged father, an artist, pretty early on, as well as the Japanese couple from whom the van Goghs are stolen. I liked the idea of a girl from a chaotic family being drawn to what she perceives as a more orderly family. Other characters evolved gradually, over the course of numerous drafts.

In terms of the concept, I resisted labeling the book a “mystery” for quite some time, even though it had many elements of mystery. (Stolen art, anyone? Family secrets? Hello?) It eventually became clear that it had to be a mystery, with real suspects, clues, reveals, the whole deal. Once I made that decision, the writing came easier and became more fun, and I still got to explore the character and culture dynamics that had interested me in the first place.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What was the most challenging aspect of writing the story?

[Diana Renn] Working out the mystery plot. It took years! I started without an outline. (Note to self: don’t do that again). I created a tangle of seemingly unsolvable problems. Then I tried to fix everything, throwing myself into brainstorming lists and graphic organizers to keep ideas straight. (Note to self: do that again!) I now think of my book not so much as a “whodunit” but a “whodini” (or Houdini) – I felt like an escape artist, trying to get out of the chains I’d created. I wasn’t even sure who the bad guy was when I began, let alone the logistics of the various crimes. Nightmare. But once I started figuring things out, other parts fell into place. So the most challenging aspect, plotting, ended up being the most fulfilling. I solved this weird, intricate puzzle, and now I hope readers can too!

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What three words best describe Violet?

[Diana Renn] Creative. Determined. Introspective.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What is Violet’s most prized possession?

[Diana Renn] Her sketchbook. She’s an artist who would love to share her work with a wider audience, but she is intensely private and living in the shadow of her artist father. That book is the one place where she feels free to express herself and explore ideas. It’s where she makes sense of her world, drawing the people and experiences in her life. It’s also where she works out much of the mystery she’s trying to solve, usually in comic book form.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What are your greatest creative influences?

[Diana Renn] Reading other writers always inspires me. I read widely and often. I went to graduate school for English and American literature, and I used to teach, so I’m sure that has influenced my writing. At the very least, I know how to do effective research!

I’m really most inspired and influenced by visual art, even though I am not a visual artist myself. I love going to galleries and museums, or just looking through books of art. Van Gogh is one of my favorites. I love how there’s this perception of him as a brilliant artist who dashed off masterpieces, when in fact he was a serious student of art. He would do countless sketches and studies of his subjects before putting a brush to canvas, really working through his ideas. When I see a van Gogh painting that seems utterly perfect, but then think about the work that went into it, I’m in awe.

I’m also influenced by music and dance. Those art forms make me alert to patterns and rhythms. Listening to a song over and over, while visualizing my story, helps me to work through tough plot points. In writing Tokyo Heist, I listened to a nine-minute recording of a Japanese koto song played by Masayo Ishigure. For years. Mostly in the car – I’d drive for miles and play this song. I can’t play the koto but I now know every note of this particular song! It really helped me to visualize and refine my story, and to evoke Japan for me.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What three things do you need in order to write?

[Diana Renn] It used to be steaming hot coffee, total silence, a stretch of time. With a small child, all of those things have become luxurious commodities. I’m happy with snatches of time, and childcare. I still have the coffee, but it’s often lukewarm.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] If you had to pick one book that turned you on to reading, which would it be?

[Diana Renn] Comet in Moominland, by Tove Jansson. It was one of the first novels I read on my own, and it was the most exciting thing I’d ever read. Something fascinating happened on every single page. I went on to devour the whole Moomintroll series, and these battered copies still occupy a place of honor on my shelves. To this day I love the simple but expressive line art illustrations of the whimsical creatures, as well as the exciting adventures and quests balanced with moments of introspection and quietude. The Moomintroll books are adventure stories for introverts. Brilliant.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What is the last book you read that knocked your socks off?

[Diana Renn] I’m a huge John Green fan, and The Fault in Our Stars blew me away. I can’t remember when I’ve cared about two characters as much as I’ve cared about Hazel and Augustus, and their connection is so well-rendered. I love the big questions the book takes on and doesn’t always answer. I love how the story could lapse into cliché and melodrama but repeatedly resists.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

[Diana Renn] I’ve been studying taiko drumming for two years, and I play and occasionally perform with a group here in New England. I hang out with my family – I have a husband, a young child, and a needy cat, plus family in Seattle whom I visit often. I read in almost every spare moment I have. I rarely watch TV.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] How can readers connect with you?

[Diana Renn] I’m easy to find! I have a website, http://www.dianarennbooks.com, and can be reached by email via that site. I lurk in the usual places online: Facebook, Twitter (@dianarenn). I’m also on a group blog called Sleuths Spies & Alibis with six other authors. We all write mysteries for young adult and middle grade readers, and we’re all debuting in 2012 or 2013. If you’re a mystery fan, please stop by and check out our site!

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Thank you!


You can purchase Tokyo Heist from your favorite bookseller, or by clicking the widget below. Available in both print and digital