An Exclusive with Author Matthew O’Connell:

Matthew O'Connell sat down to chat with us about his new mystery novel Spirit of the Fox, which takes readers on a thrilling ride into Japanese culture and beyond. Clearly, Matt is passionate about writing, but the award-winning entrepreneur is also passionate about giving back, so much so he donates part of the earnings from his books to causes that help animals, whether they are dogs and cats in the United States or elephants in Africa.

Spirit of the Fox is brilliant. It takes you on a mysterious journey that is simply captivating.


An Exclusive with Author Matthew O'Connell:

In Spirit of the Fox there are three powerful female characters, with the grandmother Aiko being the most powerful of them all. Where did you get the inspiration for her character?

I love Aiko's character.  There's not one individual per se that serves as the inspiration.  She's sort of an amalgam of a number of strong, female individuals that I either know or have known or have experienced through fiction over the years.  She's very logical, is a high level Shogi (Japanese chess) player, who is adept at interacting with a wide range of people because her husband used to work for a Japanese trading company.  She's relentless and once she gets focused on something she doesn't let it go, and isn't afraid of bending some rules to get the information she needs.  My wife is a lot like that - not about bending the rules but about being extremely logical and persistent.  She is way more patient than I am 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 in there as well.  I also love how she challenges 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.  I've certainly found that to be true on many occasions in my life.

What did you do before you were a writer? Did it help prepare you for becoming a full time writer? 

I'm an industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologist by training.  I co-founded a technology firm in 1993, called Select International that focused on human assessment, whether that was for pre-employment hiring, or development.  It was founded in Mexico, where Mari and I lived for over 2 years.  I was in charge of R&D for about 20 years, which I loved.  It was a creative process that allowed me a lot of freedom.  We worked with a wide range of Global 1000 companies, including 80% of all North American automotive manufacturers.  At one point we conducted approximately 12,000 assessments per day, 365 days a year, in numerous countries and languages.  It was a fantastic company with a wonderful group of employees.  One of the things I'm most proud of is that we either won or came in the top 5 numerous times for best mid-sized companies to work for in Pittsburgh, where the company was based.  We sold the company in May 2018 to PSI, which is one of, if not the largest assessment firm in the world.  Building that company will likely be the greatest achievement of my life.

As part of my job I did a lot of research, and ultimately published a good deal of applied research in technical journals.  It was fantastic because I got collaborate with a lot of top-notch researchers, both in our organization and in numerous universities.  Scientific writing, however, is very structured and well defined.  In many ways it prohibits you from being too creative.  I often used to think that you couldn't really say anything unless you had a citation to support that it had either been said or shown before.  That's obviously an exaggeration, but not by much.  After 20+ years, having worked on numerous projects, developed dozens, if not hundreds of assessments, and written over 200 scientific papers, I started to lose interest in the whole thing.  I gave up being head of R&D because I just couldn't give it the attention it deserved.  I've always been an avid fiction reader.  At some point I realized that what I wanted to do was write a novel.   It was during this time period that I wrote both The Painter of Time and Spirit of the Fox.

I would be in meetings dealing with various business issues, meeting with clients, etc., for a couple hours a day, and then focus on my writing.  I found fiction writing to be more intellectually stimulating than working on anything to do with the organization. So, being able to sell the company has freed me up to work more on my writing.  Hopefully, that will reduce the turnaround time between novels moving forward.

Spirit of the Fox is infused with Japanese culture, and you lived in Japan for a while. What did you learn from living there and how did that work its way into your book?  My wife is Japanese and I met her at Earlham College as an undergraduate before I ever studied Japanese.  As with most liberal arts colleges there was a language requirement, and despite studying German, or more precisely attending German classes for four years in high school, I was completely inept at German and didn't want to study it again.  Fortunately, Earlham had a great Japanese program.  This was in the early/mid 80's and Japanese companies were making major inroads into the US and world markets.  So, knowing that I wanted to be with Mari for the rest of my life, I thought it would be a good idea to learn about her culture and language.  So, I started studying Japanese and spent my senior year at Waseda University in Tokyo.  I fell in love with Tokyo and Japan, which has remained a long-term relationship for me.  While I was studying at Waseda, one of the classes I took dealt with Japanese folklore.  One of the things I learned about was folklore related to fox possession.  That was in 1985, and I guess it germinated for about 30 years before I decided to write a novel that used it as a focal point.  In addition to the culture, I think that Japanese writers have significantly influenced my writing style.  Japanese novelists tend to have a more ethereal nature to the way they write.

When you read Murakami, Kawabata, Mishima, and even modern crime novelists like Higashino, you get a feeling that you are floating through the story.  There's an ambient quality to them that, with notable exceptions, I find hard to compare to novelists in the West.  They have much subtler arcs and when you finish the book it seems like you must be missing a couple of chapters because it could have kept going on.  They seem to be much more open to allowing a lack of closure to exist, which can be very frustrating to a lot of readers, but also wonderful in so many ways.  Life itself lacks closure.  We tend to impose closure and structure on it because we have a need to make sense of things.  We want to wrap things up and put them into clean, discernable boxes that are easy to understand.  Eastern cultures don't impose that need as much as we do in the West.

I heard that you have visited 41 countries, what country is next on your list and why?  

Mari and I love to travel and experience new cultures.  I just started keeping track of where we've been last year and realized that we've visited 41 countries.  We don't have a checklist per se and we've been back to countries like France and Italy numerous times and will likely go back many more as opposed to trying to add on new ones just for the sake of increasing the numbers.  Having said that, we will be visiting Nepal and Bhutan this spring and Morocco in the fall, which are all new to us, so that's exciting.   Nepal and Bhutan just seem to be so exotic and different from anywhere else.  We're planning on taking a helicopter to Everest Base camp, which should be an amazing experience.  Neither one of us wants to climb Everest, or any mountain of that size, but landing at base camp sounds amazing.  Visiting Morocco, riding camels and camping in Berber camps in the desert also sounds incredible.


You are an avid supporter of causes that protect animals around the world. What inspired this passion?  


As with many things, the more you know, the more you become interested and engaged.  Both Mari and I love animals and truly relish our time with our pets.  Several years ago we set up the Matt & Mari fund at the San Diego Foundation.  They put us in touch with a number of experts who helped us learn about causes that were of interest to us.  Those interests all tended to be centered on animals, and wildlife conservation, both here in the U.S. but also around the world.  When we were in Kenya on safari we were introduced to the David Sheldrick foundation that saves baby elephants whose mothers have been killed by poachers for their tusks.  While it's heartbreaking to think that an elephant is killed every 15 minutes, just for their tusks, it was heartwarming to see the dedicated people work with these beautiful young elephants.  So, when you see these things first hand, it's hard not to get involved in some way.  As an entrepreneur I tend to be pro-business.  At the same time, I grew up in Buffalo in the 70's when you couldn't eat any of the fish from Lake Erie or most of the surrounding lakes because of mercury poisoning from the steel and chemical plants.   That is absolutely unconscionable to me.  I've always felt that "and" is a superior conjunction to "or".  You can have a vibrant, growing economy, and still protect the environment, raise animals in a humane matter.  It's as much about education as anything else.  When people learn about what is going on and how easy it is to rectify these situations I think the majority of people would support these causes.  You don't have to be extreme to be humane

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