How does the digital empire of Silicon Valley inspire fantasy fiction? What can it teach us about the culture driving this global force? Today’s post lets us in on the romance, suspense, and even magic tricks one novelist discovered exploring these issues.
I’m here with DC Palter to talk about his sensational debut cyber thriller To Kill a Unicorn. Silicon Valley, the setting of the novel, has been much in the news lately, as sadly the dreams of many of those with start-up aspirations have been crushed by the fall of the Silicon Valley Bank. DC’s novel similarly navigates a world of hopes, dreams, and treachery. In To Kill a Unicorn, there are no failed banks but there is greed aplenty, the kind of greed that devours all that stands in its way.
I posted a complete review of the novel here.
Today, I’d like to find out more about the author, DC Palter, his background, and his approaches to writing.
RC: Congratulations on the release of your novel To Kill a Unicorn. As I understand it, this is your first novel but not your first foray into the publishing world. Can you tell us more about your earlier book, Colloquial Kansai Japanese? It’s a very helpful guide to the dialect of western Japan, the “Kansai” region that includes Kyoto, Kobe, and Osaka.
DC: Sure! Thanks for asking.
When I worked at a steel company in Kobe, I noticed the language I was hearing around me didn’t match what I was learning in textbooks. I started taking notes and eventually realized other English-speakers across Kansai co
uld benefit from a local language guidebook that would explain regional variations and dialects.
Besides, Kansai-ben—or Kansai dialect—is so much more expressive and fun than standard Japanese, so even language learners in Tokyo could benefit from a bit of Kansai-ben. Fortunately, Tuttle agreed and has kept the book in print forever.
RC: In To Kill a Unicorn, you shift from Japan to Silicon Valley. Does the setting of the novel follow your own life course?
DC: I used to write short stories about life in Japan, but after 25 years working in the crazy world of tech startups, it was natural for me to shift focus to the tech world. You’d think there’d be more novels about Silicon Valley, given how central tech companies like Google and Apple are to our lives, but nobody is writing about the world of Silicon Valley. Of course, that may change….
I wanted to write about tech startups, but I couldn’t leave Japan behind in my writing, just as I couldn’t leave it behind in my life. So the novel is about Japanese people in Silicon Valley.
RC: I like the way To Kill a Unicorn is a character-driven novel. Readers are given a very rich portrait of Ted Tatsu Hara, the protagonist. He comes off a bit tactless at first, but as we get to know him, we realize his crusty exterior covers a softer, more vulnerable heart. Ted is a fictional construction, of course, but is there a bit of DC Palter in the mix?
DC: Ted is borderline autistic. He’s completely clueless about dealing with a relationship. He’s far more comfortable with computers than people. That’s definitely me.
But there’s a reason nobody writes novels about engineers or scientists. They’re considered boring, right? Sitting at a computer typing in the middle of the night instead of interacting with other people doesn’t exactly make for riveting storytelling. So I had to find a way to get Ted out of his comfort zone of hacking and into the world where he’s uncomfortable, and just about the worst detective ever.
RC: Reader reviews for To Kill a Unicorn have been glowing. But with any novel, there’s always someone who isn’t pleased with something. [Believe me, I know!] Were you concerned about the response to creating a Japanese-American character, since you’re not?
DC: Although I’m not Japanese or Japanese-American, I’ve lived in Japan a long time, wrote a textbook on the Japanese language, speak Japanese at home, and am married to a Japanese woman who checks everything. I didn’t set out to write a Japanese main character, but that’s what came out of the voices in my head and out of my life.
If we say only Japanese people are allowed to write Japanese characters, the world is a poorer place for the limitations we set on ourselves. That said, the writer has to get the details right. The key for me is authenticity. Do you know what you’re writing about? Have you lived it yourself or done the research? If so, great, I don’t care who you are so long as the characters are authentic.
RC: I found Ted a thoroughly authentic character—down to his bunny slippers and his penchant for good Japanese saké! For me, the references to Silicon Valley were more “exotic” than any of the descriptions of Japanese culture. As a humanities professor in the Midwest, I found your presentation of startups, investors, and hackers pulling me into an entirely new world. I very much enjoyed the way you described the setting of San Jose where Ted lived. Can you tell us more about the setting?
DC: Silicon Valley is usually defined as the strip of land south of San Francisco from Palo Alto to San Jose, but I think of Silicon Valley more as a state of mind than a physical location. It’s a world of unlimited optimism where ambitious young people come up with innovative ideas and venture capitalists give them millions to build it. A few of them change the world and become billionaires while the rest start over with their next big idea. It’s an amazing time in history that’s unlikely to continue for much longer, so we should enjoy it while we can.
RC: Once, when you gave an online book talk that I attended, you were seated in a beautiful, sunny Japanese tearoom. To me, that seemed like the perfect place to find inspiration. Where DID you find the inspiration you needed for your novel?
DC: The chashitsu tea house I use for videos is my wife’s space where she teaches classes here in Los Angeles where we currently live. I write sitting on the floor in the bedroom. Inspiration comes from banging my head against the kotatsu table long enough until crazy ideas pop out like the snacks stuck in a vending machine.
RC: Well it seems all that head banging produced lots of snacks! Your novel is so richly textured with guest appearances from all kinds of moments from American popular culture, least of which is the title, To Kill a Unicorn with the obvious nod to Harper Lee’s famous novel.
DC: Thanks for noticing! I did want to use a modern version of the noir mystery as both a structure and a foil. The beginning of the story follows the script of the movie Chinatown, except the novel is its opposite – Japantown in San Jose, where everything is neat and clean, and everyone follows the rules. Ted is at home in Japantown where he grew up and his family has lived for generations. But outside the 3 blocks of Japantown is the rest of the world and Ted doesn’t know how to operate there.
RC: What does Ted want?
DC: A lot of things. A girlfriend. Saké. His mother’s forgiveness for abandoning her when he went to college. But what he wants more than anything is to find meaning in life. He wants to matter beyond working a boring job. What he needs, though, is to grow up.
RC: I was fascinated by all the psuedo-science in the novel, such as the invention of teleporting, dispatching people out into the ether. I recall you explaining in another interview the trick of magic was not making something disappear, but making it re-appear. Can you elaborate on this with reference to your novel?
DC: Magic tricks consist of 2 parts: the turn where you make something shocking happen, i.e. make a 5-ton elephant disappear. That’s the easy part. The second half, called the prestige, is making it reappear. Nobody watches a magic show to see the magician make the scantily-clad woman disappear. We’re waiting to see where and how she reappears. That’s the part that matters.
So when I was reading Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes about an elephant that disappears from the zoo, I thought, yeah, so what? (Which was kind of Murakami’s point.) Make the elephant reappear somewhere else, then you’ve really got something. And if you can figure out how to make the elephant reappear in the middle of Silicon Valley, you’ve just earned yourself a billion dollars.
RC: In addition to making a 5-ton elephant reappear in the middle of Silicon Valley, what has been the most difficult part for you in writing this novel?
DC: Silicon Valley changes so fast that I had to keep revising the language, the jokes, the memes even as I was writing and editing the novel. There’s a reason sane writers don’t write about current events.
RC: What would you do differently?
DC: If I had it to do over, I’d write a straightforward mystery about a fraudulent startup hiding secrets rather than a mashup of mystery, farce, sci-fi, and manga. But that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.
RC: Yes, your sense of fun certainly comes across in To Kill a Unicorn. What’s next for DC Palter?
RC: Thank you, DC! I hope you have a great dinner.
DC Palter, To Kill a Unicorn (Pandamoon Publishing, 2023)
What a delicious post! This makes me want to read To Kill a Unicorn and Colloquial Kansai Japanese.
I like the connection to the Murakami novel, the unusual take on Silicon Valley culture, and the intriguing detective. Sounds fun.
There are a number of sly references to other works of literature, films, pop culture (more than mentioned here). The novel is just a lot of fun!