Milena Michiko Flašar was born in 1980, the daughter of a Japanese mother and an Austrian father. Her 2012 novel, I Called Him Necktie, was a bestseller in Austria, won both the Alpha Literary Prize and the Euregio Pupils’ Literature Prize, and was long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award. In 2017, Flašar won the Niederösterreich Cultural Prize in Literature. She studied comparative literature at the University of Vienna and currently is the literary fellow with the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Arts, and Culture. Her latest novel is Mr. Kato Plays Family and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
Ms. Flašar wrote her responses in German and they were translated into English by Caroline Froh, who also translated the novel for readers of English. We’d like to thank Ms. Froh for her assistance in facilitating this interview.
What was your inspiration for Mr. Kato Plays Family?
I was inspired by the documentary Rent a Family Inc. by Kaspar Astrup Schröder. It’s about a man who runs a rental agency for family members. He himself plays father and husband as one of these so-called stand-ins, and the simple fact that a profession like this even exists grabbed me immediately. Our modern society is apparently a deeply lonely one. The demand for a person who will make us feel like a part of something speaks to a corresponding empty space.
Are Mr. Kato, his wife, Mie, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
Of course, certain attributes always work their way in as I’m writing. That can’t be avoided. By and large, however, these are fictional characters. I invented them. Or better yet: they invented themselves.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
I wrote Mr. Kato Plays Family straight through. I started at A and finished at Z. Everything foundational is still in the revised version. I only cut or added little things later.
Do you own a dog? If so, can you tell us a bit about them? If not, do you have a type of dog that you dream of owning (like Mr. Kato)? Do you know their name?
Once, while on vacation in Pran (Slovenia), we befriended a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Aviva. He was just a puppy at the time. Delightfully small and playful. Ever since, we’ve been dreaming of owning a dog just like him, although at the same time, we are aware of the level of responsibility owning a pet requires… so the dream will probably remain a dream.
Can you imagine ever posing as a family member for someone as Mie and Mr. Kato do in the novel? Is there a circumstance you can think of where you would want to hire someone like them for yourself?
I personally don’t think I would want to play the main role. The idea of posing as a mother or daughter sounds pretty intense because it is challenging. But a more minor, supporting role, like a guest at a party, for instance, that I would do. As for myself, I would love to rent a dog like the one mentioned above. As a temporary family member (maybe an afternoon or two), a dog like that would make for a nice companion.
Is there something that you have not yet done, but dream about and hope to do before you die?
I would love to go back to school, ideally for Japanology or, maybe also, Japanese Art History. The idea keeps popping up. Because of my busy schedule, though, I can’t ever seem to get around to it. But who knows? Maybe in ten years? You shouldn’t postpone anything/push anything off. Sometimes (see dog) it’s also just nice to dream.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
That’s a hard one. I don’t keep a list in my head, and don’t really have role models, either. Authors I have truly enjoyed, however, are: Stefan Zweig, Thomas & Klaus Mann, Kawabata Yasunari and Tanizaki Jun`ichiro.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
Because my parents, and my mother especially, are avid readers, I thankfully never needed to hide books from them. They are far too open and liberal-minded for that.
Is there a book you've faked reading?
I haven’t faked reading anything. Understanding, however, I have probably faked at least once or twice.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
I buy books based on content on principle. The cover doesn’t play a role. It is nice when it speaks to me as well. But if not, it doesn’t bother me. The story takes place between the covers.
Is there a book that changed your life?
I have to go back to Anne of Green Gables. Because I was a child when I read it and so the impression it left was especially deep, Anne’s decision to become a writer had a lasting effect on me. After reading, it was clear to me as well: I was going to be a writer.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
At the moment I am a big fan of Nakamura Fuminori. He writes excellent books that aren’t just crime novels like it says on the cover. They are much more than "just crime novels." They are existential depictions of being-human and being-flung-into-the-world. The Thief is a must-read for anyone who enjoys reading that sort of thing and allowing themselves to be stirred into contemplation.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
Films by Kore´eda Hirokazu—Still Walking for instance or Nobody Knows—account for some of the most formative cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. I adore his storytelling style. He never lapses into sentimentality but still manages to move you with the power of his images. The last thing I saw of his was The Makanai on Netflix. What was so amazing was the levity with which he reproduces the Maikos’ coexisting in such a small space! I swear I could taste the food being cooked right there on my tongue.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
To spend an entire day at the famous "Scramble Crossing" in Shibuya (Tokyo) and watch people as they cross the street. The way they go by each other, each in their own specific direction, it’s almost like a dance! That paired with a to-go cup of coffee would be a perfect day for me.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
Hmm… I think I would prefer to pose questions without hoping for an answer. To write is to question, which means writing is searching. There are no ready answers. And when you do get lucky, it’s only ever short-lived.
What are you working on now?
I have been traveling a lot recently, on tour for my new novel, Oben Erde, unten Himmel (Earth Above, Sky Below), which came out in February. Because of that, I haven’t been able to write. That said, ideas are starting to formulate in my mind for a short story collection I’d like to tackle in the fall.