Murakami GQ Korea Interview - Part 1
As Levi kindly mentions in Conversational Reading, the blog site of the excellent Quarterly Conversation, I translated a Haruki Murakami interview three years ago for my old blog, from the January 2007 issue of GQ Korea. I felt compelled to translate it because it’s an extraordinary interview. First of all, it is 10 pages long. Second of all, as many of you know, Murakami is famously elusive and generally shuns interviews. So it was a big surprise to me how relaxed and even effusive Murakami was in this particular interview.
The interviewer was a Korean journalist, Jin Young Lee, who was also a journalism student at University of Hawaii at the time. I’ve no doubt that she played a vital role in disarming Murakami; she found my interview online, and contacted me. We corresponded a few times, and it was easy to see why Murakami opened up to her in such a way.
Anyway, I’ve decided to post the interview in several parts in this blog, as I let my old blog, selfdivider, expire. Lee interviewed Murakami twice, once on 10/10/06, and on another occasion on 11/30/06, when Murakami was tired and grumpy, having returned from receiving the prestigious Franz Kafka Prize for Literature in Prague. According to her brief intro to the interview, Murakami is into watching Lost and listening to Billie Holiday.
Lee: It’s not your first time in Hawaii, right? I’ve imagined that you’ve certainly been here before, from reading your sensitive and accurate description of Hawaii in Dance Dance Dance.
Murakami: The first time I came here was 20 years ago, and I even have a few friends here now, as I’ve visited quite often. Among the Hawaiian Islands, my favorite is Kauai. I like Kauai so much that I’ve bought a house here. It’s quiet and peaceful in Kauai; here, I can concentrate well on any writing project. Three or four years ago, I wrote half of Kafka On the Shore while I stayed here for three months. The other half, I wrote in Tokyo, in another three months.
L: Do you have a specific plan for your stay in Hawaii this time around? Perhaps another novel?
M: I’d like to rest a little bit before beginning on a novel in December but I don’t have a specific plan for it yet. I always start a novel from a state of tabula rasa. If I think to myself, “I have to write something in such a way,” it becomes burdensome. All I need is the first scene. But such a scene has to be incredibly concrete, alive, and definite. I don’t plan ahead for characters or story, but I become confident once I have that first indelible scene, that I can finish the novel to its conclusion.
L: Every character from your novels has a distinctive individuality. How can you create such unique characters without thinking of the story’s plot or its conclusion?
M: I don’t create my characters. Instead, I like to observe people. In my head, I have what you might call a “Character Drawer,” where I keep the essential images of the people I’ve observed. A person is a mystery. If I could, I’d like to follow a person to his or her house, to observe. What kinds of books would she read, what does she wear, with whom does she converse? In such a way, when one character becomes complete, I keep such a character in the “Character Drawer” in my head, and I take the character out whenever I need to. So when I need a character for my novel, I know exactly which drawer to open.
L: You wrote in an essay once that you thought the age 40 might be a critical juncture in anyone’s life. That such a belief was why you wanted to write a work that you knew you couldn’t attempt after the age of 40.
M: I remember that. I think Norwegian Wood was such a book, as I wrote it when I was 38.
L: Given that it was a novel that was most widely read even among your books, critical discussion of Norwegian Wood still hasn’t abated in Japan. I’m thinking, especially, of the many criticisms that were levied against you for peculiar kinds of sex scenes which could not be commonly found in mainstream Japanese literature. Critics accuse you of writing such sex scenes with a calculated intent to be sensationalistic on your part, to pique the readers’ interests.
M: The funny thing is, before I wrote Norwegian Wood, the same critics attacked me for not depicting sex or death in my work. It was one of the reasons why I took it as a challenge to treat sex and mortality as themes in Norwegian Wood.
L: Do you always set such challenges or goals for yourself when beginning a novel?
M: It’s the same way with any novel. After I described a skinning of a character in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I received numerous phone calls from my readers. They all asked in complaint - “Why! Why! Why! For what reason did you write such a repulsive thing, Haruki-san?” The reason was the same for me: it was a challenge to write something violent and cruel in lively detail. Call it a responsibility one throws upon oneself. I guess it’s like exercising. This month, it’s the right biceps, next month, the thighs, the next come the shoulders. Like so.
L: When I think of the sex scenes in South of the Border, West of the Sun or in After Dark, it seems to me as though you’ve completely mastered depicting sex with words. No doubt about it.
M: Ha-ha. Is that so? Many readers assume that I enjoy writing such sexual scenes, but that’s not true at all. When I’m writing such a scene, I’m so embarrassed and ashamed that I don’t know what to do with myself. But each time, I say to myself: Haruki, this is your duty! You must not stop!part-2
Murakami GQ Korea Interview - Part 2
There are many Murakami bits & pieces that never saw English translation; I dunno, I guess they are deemed too slight to merit translation? His portraits of influential jazz musicians are delightful - The Believer published a few sketches a couple of years ago. I also like personal essays that Murakami seems to have published in various newspapers in the eighties… and I saw a book called Haruki Murakami’s Whiskey Pilgrimage of Europe. Yes. The book is nothing more than Murakami going around Europe, drinking whiskey, talking about jazz, dispensing petite morsels of Murakami aphorisms.
Anyway, part 2 of the Murakami interview conducted by Jin Young Lee, for GQ Korea. Excuse my translation, once again -
Lee: After writing Norwegian Wood, which sold 6 million copies worldwide, what did you gain and what did you lose?
Murakami: Well, I’m certain that Norwegian Wood is a well-written novel, since it’s a beautiful thing that so many people continue to love that story. Everybody likes love stories. I do, too. But Norwegian Wood doesn’t really reflect my literary style. That’s why I started to worry, since who knows when, whether people would think if Norwegian Wood is my best, representative work. Because that’s not true. Norwegian Wood is a traditional realist novel, but I don’t consider myself a realist writer. Norwegian Wood was a type of a challenge for me. I wanted to prove to myself that I can also write a realist novel.
L: Then which novels might we call “Haruki-style” novels?
M: Books like Kafka On the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which are progressively post-modern.
L: What do you wish to gain from writing novels that stand in direct opposition to realism?
M: I want to guide the readers to the surreal world of imagination. As they read such a world conjured by me, I’d like them to feel that such a world is a part of their reality. I truly believe that within everyone’s heart, such a surreal world exists. I’d like people to look upon that surreal world and enjoy themselves.
L: Let’s say someone would like to get to know you and your work given a strict time constraint. Which books would you recommend?
M: Mm. That’s a difficult question. As you know, I’ve been writing for 27 years. It’s a long time to be writing. The characteristics of my work vary according to each period - the first ten years, the next ten… in such blocks of time. If I must choose a few among my work, I’d say Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Norwegian Wood, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and Kafka On the Shore. Because they are the works I’ve invested most energy into. I’ve never re-read those books, but I remember them down to every nook and cranny; I worked very hard on them. On average, I usually finish a short story in five to seven days, so I can’t retain my stories in my memory for too long.
L: I don’t know if you remember, but is Hear the Wind Sing really your first novel? How was your apprentice-writing before that book?
M: Yes. It was really my first novel.
L: Who was your first reader?
M: My wife. Even though she says she doesn’t remember (laughs). Then and now, I only seek the opinion of one person - my wife - before sending my manuscript to the publisher. She is an incredibly sharp critic, a person who knows how to really read. She gives me many great advices.
L: What novels of yours are her favorites?
M: After Dark and South of the Border, West of the Sun.
L: Even though South of the Border, West of the Sun treats sexual infidelity as one of the themes?
M: That’s what I mean. I don’t understand why but she REALLY liked the novel. She treated me very kindly for a few days after reading the book, too, making delicious things for me every day.part-3
Murakami GQ Korea Interview - Part 3
Continuing, Jin Young Lee’s interview with Haruki Murakami which ran in the January 2007 edition of GQ Korea. I’m sick of posting Murakami interviews, so I’m just going to splice the remaining parts into this post, the final installment. Sorry if it’s too long for you & it’s clogging up your tumblr dashboard. Life is tough that way. Once again, my translation is suspect -
Lee: What do you do with all that money you actually earned from your popular books?
Murakami: Freedom. I buy freedom and my time. Those are the most valuable and expensive things in life. Since I don’t have to worry about making money, I gained freedom, which I can use to concentrate solely on writing. My freedom is most important to me.
L: I’m sure additional stress is attached to such a gain of freedom. It is a happy thing to be an author who sells a lot of copies, to be read so easily by so many people, but doesn’t that happiness also become a source of stress for you? Isn’t there a literary prejudice against such a “popular” writer?
M: Prejudices are only opinions. I don’t care for them. I only want to carry out a serious story through the lightest prose and easiest vocabulary achievable. Say that a writer has created a work in which complex prose has been achieved through a dizzyingly difficult language, but the story is empty. That’s a real tragedy; there’s nothing more tragic than that in the world. There is no rule that says you can create a literary masterpiece only through writing difficult prose.
L: How do you handle all those criticisms concerning you as a writer?
M: I became stronger. Imagine that you have become famous suddenly. In order to survive, you must become stronger. People who start out by saying that you are an internationally great writer, so on and so forth, ultimately end up using you. It’s like riding a rollercoaster. When Norwegian Wood sold like hotcakes everywhere, I became depressed. Such a heavy burden on me. As you know, it’s a publishing truism everywhere in the world that critics hate writers of bestsellers.
L: But even Goethe once said that a writer who cannot expect one million readers to read his work should not even attempt a single word. Was Goethe wrong?
M: Of course he’s wrong. According to my standards, at least. Even if the number of my readers is very small, I’d still write as I do now. Because I need to express myself, however I can. I can’t stop. It’s my destiny; I write because I have to.
L: Then, is there a book that you wrote, even with the knowledge that it won’t sell so well? Like a film director who makes a movie, despite anticipating its commercial failure?
M: I never wrote to write a bestseller, but at the same time, there isn’t a novel I wrote, pushing ahead like a bulldozer, thinking that I’d be the only reader of it. How would I put it… I’d say my readers are in a certain way addicted to my style of writing. They are loyal readers. That’s why I know that they will put up with reading my next novel, even if it’s just so-so. Although they probably wouldn’t buy my book if it’s really bad, I at least have confidence in myself that what I write won’t be that bad.
L: Where is your final destination, as a writer?
M: My goal is to write a book like The Brothers Karamazov
L: What aspects of that novel are you talking about? Its complex and varied characters and structure?
M: Sure. But that’s not everything. There is an entire universe contained in The Brothers Karamazov. So many different facts of life, life systems, world-view, stories… these are all in that novel. There is always something to learn, no matter how many times you read it.
L: It’s already well known how much you admire The Great Gatsby, too. But there are many readers who read Fitzgerald’s novel learning of your preference, who ended up not liking it. What do you like so much about The Great Gatsby?
M: That’s a difficult question. How shall I put it… The Great Gatsby is like a textbook for me. I learned how to structure a story, how to move characters and create dialog, how to shape prose, all through that book. I read it countless of times, and I still read it. I always learn something from it when I read it. Fitzgerald’s choice of words is excellent, his prose impeccable, and the story itself is marvelous.
L: You finally translated The Great Gatsby, after preparing for years and years.
M: Yes. I was thirty-four years old at the time. I promised myself to translate The Great Gatsby as best as I can, before I turned sixty. I still have a few years to go until I reach sixty, but I finished the translation of The Great Gatsby last October. I heard that in ten days of publication, 140,000 copies were sold. I think there were many readers who were waiting for the translation.
L: How would you criticize your translation of The Great Gatsby, objectively speaking?
M: I think I did well. There are five or six translations of The Great Gatsby in Japan, but my version is probably the best one.
L: Where does such confidence spring from?
M: There’s no need to think about it. It’s a fact. As I was translating, I carefully thought about which Japanese words or phrases would substitute well for the original Fitzgerald version. It was an excruciating process, but fun at the same time.
L: In addition to writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut, is there a Japanese writer you like to read?
M: Kenzaburo Oe. I don’t read many works by Japanese authors, but I like Oe’s work. Since I was young, I preferred the western literature. I was especially addicted to Russian literature, and after I learned English, novels written in English.
L: Is there a writer working today that you can compare to the writers mentioned above?
M: Mm. Not yet, as far as I know. There are writers I like, but I haven’t found a writer that made me say “I’d like to write this way” upon reading the work, as I had when I was young.
L: Once, in an essay, you wrote that a student of writing sent you her manuscript for your feedback. You said that you agreed to read it because she promised a bowl of unagi-don (eel-rice). Can anyone expect your feedback/criticism if he or she promises you free unagi-don?
M: Did I really say that? These days, I tend to not criticize anyone’s manuscript. I politely refuse when I receive such requests. Besides the point of being of actual help to the writer or not, I personally don’t like to criticize, item by item. But if a fabulously beautiful woman came to me and said “Please read my manuscript,” how can I tell her no? (Laughs)
L: Fine. If a pretty woman came to you and asked, “How can I become a great writer like you?” What would you say to her?
M: Let’s see… I believe that in order to be a great novelist, what’s involved is not a matter of ability, but a matter of instinct. I never thought to myself that I was born with the ability to write. In me, there is only that instinct which forces me to write. Only if you have such an instinct, you will feel the desire to write, its compulsion. Like fate.
Jin Young Lee’s interview breaks off here because Murakami wins the prestigious Franz Kafka International Prize for Literature and has to fly to Prague to accept it. She catches up with the visibly tired writer for her follow-up interview, ten days after his return from Prague -
Lee: Thank you for making time for me. Even as I was dialing your home and cell phones, I couldn’t shake off this feeling that I had no right to be doing so, because I know how much you cherish your freedom and privacy. Although I’m sure you are not so convinced, as I sit here in front of you with a photographer and various assistants in tow.
Murakami: I believe you. I couldn’t answer you in time because I was very fatigued from the Prague trip. I’ve refused every interview request since the award. But I made an exception for this interview, as I consider my previous experience with you special in many ways. Thanks for understanding.
L: How was Prague? You do look a bit tired.
M: Prague was great, but the Award Ceremony wasn’t a happy affair. Too many reporters. I made it clear from the beginning that TV broadcasts of the ceremony must be limited to the regional stations in Prague, only. But I found out later that the film was sold to Japanese stations. The news was broadcast throughout Japan. I still feel perturbed about it. That’s why I’ve cut myself off from all media contact. My defensive mechanism for such things became even more hyper-sensitive.
L: You seem like a type that doesn’t get angry easily, Haruki-san. What kinds of things give you displeasure?
M: Reporters and photographers. People who work for the media.
L: Wait, please withdraw my name from such a list!
M: Okay. You’re an exception.
L: I understand the kind of ambivalence you feel toward such literary prizes, but isn’t being awarded by such a prize a cause for happiness, as a writer?
M: Honestly, it’s not. I have no interest in literary awards. Most people don’t remember who won the Nobel last year or the year before. All they remember is a good story, a good novel. For me, readers mean everything. If readers remember my novels, that’s enough for me. Since literary awards are meant to be forgotten, they have no special importance for me.
L: Your works are now internationally recognized, and many people will probably remember your name in future generations. Despite this, do you feel that you have more to learn, as a writer? Or are you satisfied now with the ability you possess?
M: Have I really become such a writer? I’m just enjoying this process of writing, that’s all. Even if someone were to tell me, “Haruki-san, you don’t really have to write anymore,” I’d continue to write. When some people have time left over, they go to the movies with their girlfriends, while still others might go to baseball games, but I write. Because I want to.
L: What’s usually on your desktop when you write?
M: Keyboard, computer, coffee. I’m addicted to caffeine. When I lived with a cat, I always had a cat by my side, too, although I can’t have a cat anymore, now that I travel exclusively. Also, before I stopped smoking in 1983, I smoked a lot at my desk. But when I write, I’m the type to organize and clean my desk systematically.
L: Does your life become as systematically organized when you write, like your desk?
M: Yes. When I’m not working on a book, my life is confusion itself, but once I start a novel, I become very bureaucratic. I wake up at four in the morning, like a businessman, and I write until nine or ten in the morning, undisturbed. I don’t skip a day, so I can maintain the flow and the direction of where I’m headed in my writing.
L: Are there times when you become tired of words or sentences?
M: No, at least not yet. I think I’m a workaholic. If I’m not working on a novel, I’m still writing something. For the past five or six years, there was not a day when I didn’t write. Whether it be an essay or a work of translation, I write without fail.
L: When you reminisce back to your childhood, what comes to your mind?
M: My cat. My cat was my friend, my younger sibling. I don’t know why I’m so crazy about cats. I like how they are soft and warm, and individualistic, kind of like me.
L: What were you passionate about during your teens?
M: Hmm, back then, I only read books and watched movies. When I was in high school, I had a girlfriend with whom I watched movies. I liked films by Godard or Truffaut, but my girlfriend preferred happy melodramas to anything serious or sad.
L: What did you focus on in your 20’s?
M: I have no other memory of my 20’s aside from working. I worked like a man possessed. Because I got married when I was still a student, I had to make money. I opened Peter Cat, my jazz bar, so I had to pay back the loans I took out to open that place.
L: What would you say your biggest ‘event’ was, in your 30’s?
M: That I became a novelist. If one became a novelist after desiring to be a writer, it’s nothing to be surprised of. But I became a novelist despite the fact that I had no inclination at all to be one. I’m so thankful for that; it’s really the biggest blessing this life has given me.
L: You are fifty-eight now, right? What kinds of things make you happy these days?
M: When I was twenty years-old, I liked going on dates with girlfriends. Now, I’m the happiest when I’m writing.
L: I’m sure this discussion we had about writing will continue, even after this interview is over. But no matter how many constructive and fruitful discussions there are concerning literature, there’s no escaping the fact that this world is headed in an unfortunate direction, nor can anyone be pragmatically saved from real pain and duress by reading words. What is the power of literature, then, according to you?
M: I received a fan letter once from a reader in Korea. She was a twenty year-old girl, but after reading Norwegian Wood at two in the morning, she said she couldn’t resist the intense feeling of wanting to make love to her boyfriend, so she ran to his house right away. If it’s a good story, I believe the story should be able to move not only its reader’s emotion but his or her action itself; it should not stop at merely moving someone emotionally. It should be able to elicit a direct reaction. A great story works in any language. People use different languages in Korea, America, Russia or Vietnam, but when they see a good story, they all react with the same emotion, in sadness or happiness. Political strife among different nations in the world keeps worsening, but I believe that literature is working, even amidst this chaos, with a power that can change the world. Story has power. More so than any political or societal conflict.
It’s interesting to compare these GQ Korea interviews with the more recent 1Q84 interviews that I posted (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)… Murakami, in the 2007 interviews, seems more brash. i.e.: Murakami classifies himself as a progressive post-modernist in these interviews, whereas in the more recent 1Q84 interviews, he posits that perhaps what he’s regarded as experimental and post-modern in his fiction have come to now be a kind of realist fiction after all.
(Top image is by Jerry Brown, taken from this site. Bottom image is a still from the film adaptation of Norwegian Wood. A bunch of images in the middle, I’m to listless to list right now…)