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Interview with Matthew O’Connell on his book Spirit of the Fox

Interview for

Author Name: Matthew O’Connell

Book Name: Spirit of the Fox

Book genre: Psychological Thriller, Suspense/Mystery, Japanese Folklore 

Bio: Matthew O’Connell is an American Fiction writer specializing in the mystery and suspense genres. He has currently published two novels, The Painter of Time (2015) and Spirit of the Fox (2018), both of which quickly became Amazon #1 Best-Sellers. His work has been acclaimed by the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, Daily Press, and more.

Matt holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational psychology and in 1993 he co-founded an assessment technology firm called Select International, Inc.  He is an award-winning entrepreneur and author or co-author of over 200 professional articles in I/O psychology, as well as the business best-selling book Hiring Great People. In 2018, Matt sold Select International, and published his second novel, Spirit of the Fox, and focused on becoming a full-time novelist.

Matt has lived and worked in Japan and Mexico and speaks Japanese and Spanish fluently. Matt and his wife Mari split their time between Incline Village, Nevada (on the shores of Lake Tahoe), San Diego, and Tokyo, sharing their lives with their dogs and cats.

Book Blurb:

 In SPIRIT OF THE FOX divorced parents David and Chieko search for their missing daughter amidst an epidemic of suspicious suicides that baffle detectives.

Meiko Wright wants nothing to do with the mother who abandoned her nine years ago. Spending a year in Tokyo, where her mother lives, won’t change that fact. But when she takes a nasty fall in a Shinto temple, she wakes with no memory of her mother… or anything of her past life.

After years apart, Meiko’s mother Chieko is determined to make up for lost time. But when her daughter mysteriously disappears, Chieko promises she won’t lose her again. Along the trail of clues, the detectives working Meiko’s case discover a pair of suicides linked by a strange seductress and matching fox tattoos. Afraid her daughter may be next, Chieko visits a local shaman who tells her dark spirits could make her attempt for a rescue impossible.

With time running out, Meiko and her family must uncover the mystery of her mental captivity before she loses herself and her only way home forever.

SPIRIT OF THE FOX is a cerebral mystery novel at the intersection of science, spirituality, and folklore.

Could you tell me a bit more about your book? 

The book takes place in Japan and centers around a unique Japanese folklore related to fox possession, directly affecting the main character Meiko.  Since ancient times in Japan, some women were often thought to be possessed by the spirit of the fox, which possessed them to control and manipulate men.  The book raises questions about what is really happening to Meiko: is it really fox possession, or is something else at work? From what I’ve heard from readers, they tend to enjoy learning about the Japanese culture and folklore that surrounds the plot (and don’t mind the detailed descriptions of the Japanese food, either!).   

What inspired you to write the book?

I’ve always loved Japan and Japanese culture. I studied there in college (which was when I was first exposed to the fox spirit folklore that much of the book revolves around), worked for a Japanese company, and learned the language. It just so happens that my wife is Japanese, and we watch Japanese TV every day, visit Japan at least once a year, and plan on moving there next year. So, you could say that Japan was a starting point. Combine that with a love for mystery/suspense fiction, a fascination with folklore, and a desire to write a story that addressed the age-old “science vs. mythology” debate. In the middle of this Venn diagram lies Spirit of the Fox.

What was your process of writing the book? 

First, I laid out the general premise and flow of the book. I like to get the entire story mapped out, with the content of every chapter outlined, at least in terms of answering questions like: “who are the key players,” “what is happening,” “who’s point of view are we seeing things from,” and “what purpose does the chapter serve in moving the story along.” Next, as I like to do whenever I write fiction, I conducted a lot of research to make sure that everything had a firm foundation as far as the folklore and general Japanese culture were concerned. After everything was outlined and researched, it just came down to sitting and writing the chapters out. I treat the outlines as handrails, not handcuffs.  If in writing the actual content I want to go in a different direction, that’s fine, as long as it’s consistent with the flow of the novel.  The most time-consuming aspect of writing, for me at least, is coming up with the initial outline, which gets refined, and then refined more. By the time the book is ready to get published, I have gone through and revised it at least ten times.  

Why should people read your book?

Spirit of the Fox isn’t just an engaging story that makes you think. It introduces you to a culture and world with which you might not be familiar. Past this, I like to think that my writing style is unique when compared to many of the other mystery/thriller authors out there. I like to move the story along, but at the same time, I like using suspense as a tool to infuse lots of ambiance throughout. My goal is as much to help the reader absorb the feel of the setting as it is to deliver a thrilling plot. I think this can be somewhat of a lost art, especially in this genre, and I’d wager that any reader that appreciate can that would really appreciate the book.

What is so special about your story?

What I believe stands out about Spirit of the Fox is the multiple layered components set in place that prevent the plot from becoming one-dimensional. First, you have the straightforward mystery component that revolves around the main character: Meiko’s memory loss, her newly developed alter ego Hana, and trying to piece together the “why” of it all.  Next, you have a parallel mystery/suspense component: a chain of suicides, a dynamic pair of detectives, and trying to see how it all connects back to the story. Alongside this, you have the relationship-focused family component: Meiko, her mother, her father, and her grandmother, all with specific relationships with one another that arc and evolve over time. And, underlying it all, you have a story that revolves around all of these cultural intricacies and descriptions that are unique and fresh to a lot of readers. One of the things I’m most proud of with Spirit of the Fox, if nothing else, is that all clichés are out the window – it’s unlike any suspense/mystery novel you’ve read before.

Who is your ideal reader?

The ideal reader of my novels is curious, open-minded, and bored of the ordinary. If you’re a reader who steers towards the classic who-dunnit-style mysteries or the “disgruntled-cop-catches-the-bad-guy” trope, my books might not be for you. But if you’re the kind of reader who likes to soak themselves in the setting, delve into unique time periods and cultures on occasion, is willing to be patient as the story and its characters evolve, and, when the pay-off comes, enjoys a book that makes you think, I think you’d enjoy my novels.

How did you celebrate finishing writing your book?

To be honest, I don’t remember. When it comes to writing, I’ve found out that it really is more about the journey for me than the result. I work on a novel for years: outline, research, revise, repeat. I love the process like nothing else, but once the book actually gets published, it almost feels anticlimactic when its released. It’s a feeling of finality, and although I’m really proud, there’s a hint of sadness… although I’ve never done it, I can see why writing sequels is so attractive to many authors. Once you create a world, it’s sad to walk away from it. That being said, it creates a drive for me to write more, and to create new worlds. I suppose getting to work on creating the next story is my way of celebrating the creation of the last one.

Who is your favorite character in the book? 

I love Aiko’s character. She’s very logical, she’s strategic (as a high-level Shogi, or Japanese chess, player often is), and she’s adept at interacting with a wide range of people. Beyond this, she’s relentless: once she gets focused on something she doesn’t let it go, and she isn’t afraid of bending some rules to get the information she needs.  As far as the inspiration for Aiko’s character, there isn’t a singular source. My wife is a lot like Aiko – not necessarily in the “bending the rules” sense, but in being extremely logical and persistent.  She has far more patience than I have, and once she starts on a problem, she won’t stop until it’s finished.  There’s probably a little bit of Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher rolled into Aiko’s character as well.  I also love how she challenges her daughter Chieko’s purely scientific/logical view of the world.  Even though Chieko has a PhD in psychology, and is a practicing therapist, Aiko is in many ways the more adept psychologist. As a person with a PhD in psychology myself, I’ve certainly had the same experience on more than one occasion.

If your book would be made into a movie – what actor would you want to play your main character and why?

I’m not too sure to be honest with you. Meiko is a complex character, especially considering that she has multiple personalities throughout the story. If the book was to be made into a movie, the actress would need to really embody that, and being bilingual in English and Japanese would be a serious plus. If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them on Instagram, Goodreads, or my other social media!

What is your favourite book? 

I first read through the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a freshman in high school, and thought it was completely magical. I’ve re-read it every 5-7 years since then (at least 4 times), and I’ve seen the movies at least that many times. I’d have to say it’s my favorite. Come to think of it, it has been a while… I guess it’s about time for another time through. 

What author do you look up to?

There are multiple authors. I find myself drawn to a broad range of genres, and in fact, I like books that sort of defy genre labels. On this note, my favorite writer right now is probably Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. I love his work because it tends to border on the fantastic, and brings in alternative realities.  He creates an interesting and stimulating environment that makes you think, and also question your beliefs about what is possible. I also love everything that Michael Gruber has written, which again, borders on the fantastic, yet falls mostly into modern fiction, with some elements of suspense. In addition to them, there are just so many authors like Dan Brown, David Benioff, and Matthew Pearl (to name a few) that I really look forward to reading out of respect for their ability to tell a great story. 

What would you do if your book became an international bestseller?  

I’d probably get some of my best friends together and arrange a golf trip somewhere nice – eat some great food, drink some great wine, smoke some cigars, and just hang out and laugh! Of course, I do that 2-3 times a year anyway so we’d have to incorporate the bestseller component somehow. Jokes aside, I’ve been fortunate to receive a number of awards of the years, whether it’s an entrepreneur of the year award, a best paper award in industrial psychology or reaching #1 bestseller on Amazon. Awards are great, but at the end of the day, one person enjoying my work versus a thousand enjoying it brings me the same amount of joy. It sounds cliché, but again, the joy is in the process, not the outcome. I’m a lot more focused on the book I’m currently writing than I am about how a previous book performs financially.   

Anything you want to share with my readers?

Speaking of the book I’m currently working on, it’s a ghost story set in Lake Tahoe. I’ve finished the first outline, but I’ve been going back and rethinking a lot of it trying to make it even scarier. As it stands now, it’s a ghost story wrapped in a mystery. I want to incorporate some elements that make the “spirit” part of the story more compelling and ultimately more frightening. I’m also trying to incorporate more of a dialectic that challenges the reader to question their beliefs about ghosts, spirits, demons, etc. In order to do that, I’m currently doing a lot of reading into hauntings, apparitions, possession, and exorcisms. It’s really quite fascinating. I’ve finished the outline and have a draft of the first dozen chapters finished. 

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