International best-seller Haruki Murakami has a new short story collection out, entitled Men Without Women. To celebrate, here is an excerpt from his essay “So What Shall I Write About?” published in the Japanese literary magazine Monkey Business. In it, Murakami muses on what it takes to become a novelist by analyzing his own methods and experience, and he gives us a glimpse into his creative process. Although Murakami has published numerous essay collections in Japanese, little of his short nonfiction is available in English. This essay was translated by Ted Goosesen, and it, and this issue of Monkey Business, are a treat.
We are─or at least I am─equipped with this expansive mental chest of drawers. Each drawer is packed with memories, or information. There are big drawers and small ones. A few have secret compartments, where information can be hidden. When I am writing, I can open them, extract the material I need and add it to my story. Their numbers are countless, but when I am focused on my writing I know without thinking exactly which drawer holds what and can immediately put my hands on what I am looking for. Memories I could never recall otherwise come naturally to me. It’s a great feeling to enter into this elastic, unrestrained state, as if my imagination had pulled free from my thinking mind to function as an autonomous, independent entity. Needless to say, for a novelist like me the information stored in my “chest” is a rich and irreplaceable resource.
…Remember that scene in Steven Spielberg’s film E.T. where E.T. assembles a transmitting device from the junk he pulls out of his garage? There’s an umbrella, a floor lamp, pots and pans, a record player─it’s been a long time since I saw the movie, so I can’t recall everything, but he manages to throw all those household items together in such a way that the contraption works well enough to communicate with his home planet thousands of light years away. I got a big kick out of that scene when I saw it in a movie theater, but it strikes me now that putting together a good novel is much the same thing. The key component is not the quality of the materials─what’s needed is magic. If that magic is present, the most basic daily matters and the plainest language can be turned into a device of surprising sophistication.
First and foremost, though, is what’s packed away in your garage. Magic can’t work if your garage is empty. You’ve got to stash away a lot of junk to use if and when E.T. comes calling!
For Murakami, how we eat is a reflection of ourselves. In 1Q84, The Dowager is a wealthy septuagenarian widow who eats natural ingredients and French-influenced lunches like “boiled white asparagus, salad Niçoise, and a crabmeat omelet.” She eats small portions and drinks her tea, “like a fairy deep in the forest sipping a life-giving morning dew.” You get the sense from her diet and table manners not only that she’s well-bred and refined, but almost enlightened. Compare her to Ushikawa, a sleazy lawyer-turned-private-investigator whose family left him and who has no life outside of stalking people under the guise of work. He’s a self-loathing scumbag and he eats like one, too. Where the Dowager eats fresh vegetables, Ushikawa eats processed food like canned peaches and sweet jam buns, and goes days without having a hot meal. The Dowager treats her body like a temple, Ushikawa treats his like a garbage disposal. She is at peace with herself, he is not.
In the introduction to Birthday Stories, a 2004 anthology edited by Haruki Murakami, Murakami writes about the particular weirdness of having his birthday become a public event. January 12 has come around again, so in honor of Murakami’s 67th birthday it seemed apt to revisit the introduction, which also ran as an essay in The Guardian:
Early one birthday morning I was listening to the radio in the kitchen of my Tokyo apartment. I usually get up early to work. I wake between four and five in the morning, make myself some coffee (my wife is still sleeping), eat a slice of toast and go to my study to begin writing. While I prepare my breakfast, I usually listen to the radio news – not by choice (there’s not a lot worth hearing), but because there’s not much else to do at such an early hour. That morning, as I waited for my water to boil, the newsreader was announcing a list of public events planned for the day, with details of when and where they were happening. For example, the emperor was going to plant a ceremonial tree, or a large British passenger ship was due to dock in Yokohama, or events would be taking place throughout the country in honour of this being official chewing-gum day (I know it sounds ludicrous but I am not making it up: there really is such a day).
The last item on this list of public events was an announcement of the names of famous people whose birthday fell on January 12. And there among them was my own! “Novelist Haruki Murakami today celebrates his **th birthday,” the announcer said. I was only half listening, but, even so, at the sound of my own name I almost knocked over the hot kettle. “Whoa!” I cried aloud and looked around the room in disbelief. “So,” it occurred to me a few minutes later with a pang, “my birthday is not just for me any more. Now they list it as a public event.”
A public event?
Oh well, public event or not, at least at that moment some of the people throughout Japan – it was a nationwide broadcast – standing (or sitting) by their radios may have had at least some fleeting thought of me. “So, today is Haruki Murakami’s birthday, eh?” Or, “Oh, wow, Haruki Murakami’s ** years old, now too!” Or, “Hey, whaddya know, even guys like Haruki Murakami have birthdays!” In reality, though, how many people in Japan could have been up at this ridiculous pre-dawn hour listening to the radio news? Twenty or thirty thousand? And how many of those would know my name? Two or three thousand? I had absolutely no idea.
An elephant mysteriously vanishes. A giant frog is waiting in your apartment. Your cat mysteriously vanishes. Two moons hang in the sky. Your wife mysteriously vanishes. A strange man comes to you and asks you to find a sheep, or a woman calls and asks for ten minutes of your time. You might be the protagonist in a novel or short story by acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Look around you. If any of these things sound familiar, you might want to get a new collar for your cat:
1. You drink your coffee black.
2. You have a deep and abiding love for old jazz records.
3. You find it easy to have emotionless sex with strangers. If you were to describe the sex to a friend you would use the most abstract language possible, but you never do because you have no friends.
4. You worship the 1960s and the simple comforts in life: black coffee, old jazz records, emotionless afternoon sex. If, however, you are actually living in the 1960s, you mostly just keep to yourself.
Murakami has always considered himself an outsider in his own country. He was born into one of the strangest sociopolitical environments in history: Kyoto in 1949 — the former imperial capital of Japan in the middle of America’s postwar occupation. “It would be difficult to find another cross-cultural moment,” the historian John W. Dower has written of late-1940s Japan, “more intense, unpredictable, ambiguous, confusing, and electric than this one.” Substitute “fiction” for “moment” in that sentence and you have a perfect description of Murakami’s work. The basic structure of his stories — ordinary life lodged between incompatible worlds — is also the basic structure of his first life experience.