Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What I Write About When I Write About Murakami

Unbelievable!  Within the span of about one month, I've had chances to see two of my favorite living authors in person.  I might even go so far as to say that they are my two favorite living authors... it's hard to think of another writer who I clearly enjoy more than Neal Stephenson or Haruki Murakami.

These haven't been special opportunities because of how much I like them, but because of how rare they are.  Both writers are pretty introverted and reserved.  Unlike some writers who clearly enjoy traveling and meeting their readers, Stephenson only makes brief public appearances when promoting a new book, and Murakami is even less visible, at least in this country - he doesn't do the book signing tour thing, and will go for years without publicity.

As a side note: if there weren't enough reasons for me to be ecstatic about living in the Bay Area, this might be sufficient.  Can you imagine a writer only making a handful of appearances, and one of them being in Kansas City?  I am very fortunate.

Anyways, I'd pounced on the Murakami tickets as soon as I heard about them.  In a frustrating-yet-happy development, I discovered that I was far from alone in my excitement: even though it was about a month before the program, the event was already about 3/4 sold out, with the best seats long gone.  Still, I wasn't going to complain about that when I wouldn't have thought I would ever lay eyes on the guy, so I had no regrets about anteing up.

When the day of the event drew closer, I decided to make a full expedition of it.  It was held at UC-Berkeley, and while I love trips there, it's far enough away that I wanted to maximize my investment.  For a few months now I've been idly considering relocating to the East Bay - it would cut down the length of my current commute, be a cheaper place to live, and make it far easier to participate in the San Francisco social/literary/culture scene.  That said, I have very little experience with the East Bay neighborhoods, and wanted to get a better feel for them than what I pick up through places like Zillow.

After a few minutes' study of Google Maps and my own research, I came up with a good game plan.  I would drive up to Fremont, then take BART north.  This is standard operating procedure for me in the East Bay: I don't need to navigate unfamiliar roads, don't need to worry about parking, and can take full advantage of BART's frequent time table.  I could take BART up to a station adjacent to campus, but instead I would detrain at MacArthur, where some of my co-workers commute.

After getting off here, I ambled generally east and slightly north.  My first goal was the Piedmont Avenue neighborhood, but along the way I passed through Temescal.  This alone made the trip worthwhile; I'd heard of Temescal, but hadn't been able to locate it on a map.  Having feet on the ground really helped me get a feel for the place.  I'd assumed that 40th Street was a major road, but at least on this Saturday afternoon, it was quite calm, with just occasional light traffic.  I cut off to some residential streets for most of this leg, and was generally happy with what I saw.  It was an older neighborhood, but seemed pretty well maintained, with a decent amount of foot traffic... I liked seeing parents pushing kids in their strollers and otherwise demonstrating an active family life.

I crossed Broadway and pressed on to Piedmont Avenue.  I was happy with what I found on the Avenue proper, but at the same time, a little underwhelmed.  Given that this apparently anchors a neighborhood and is a bit of a destination in the area, I guess I had been expecting more... more in a quantitive sense more than a qualitative.  What was there looked pretty cool - a little movie theater, used book store, several restaurants, and basically no vacancies - but there just wasn't a whole lot of it.  Maybe it extended further south than I thought, or it could be that there's more retail along side streets that I missed.

After getting an up-close look at the mausoleum and cemetery, I worked my way back to Broadway and then up College.  Once I got past the big box stores on Spring Valley, this was an excellent walk, and possibly the highlight of the journey.  College just seemed really vibrant and fun, with a huge variety of options - not just restaurants (which too often seem to be the only offering in "cool" places) - but also their public library, consignment shops, etc.  It generally seemed higher-rent than Piedmont Avenue, which I suppose is both good and bad.  Best of all, it was clearly a real walking district.... traffic was brisk but calm, and pedestrians ruled the area.

Yet more felicitous discovery: I realized that I was walking through "Rockridge."  Yet another abstract name had been wedded to physical reality!  Success!

Once you get north of about Alcatraz, the retail disappears, and College becomes a pure residential road, even sleepier than further south.  I continued along for a few more blocks, admiring the cool architecture, before breaking one block west as I followed a "bike boulevard".  I gradually realized that I was now officially in Berkeley, and man, is it pretty!  Temescal was now looking dowdy and run-down in comparison.  Here the homes was large, distinctive, historical, and cleverly landscaped.  It was a quiet area, with no sound of auto traffic, and multiple families walking with their kids.

By now I was starting to feel a bit winded.  I'm an enthusiastic walker, but that morning I had already gone on a hike to Monument Peak (about 8 miles over 2000 feet of climbing), and had probably walked another four miles or so from MacArthur.  The North Oakland isn't as steep as Monument Peak, obviously, but is still quite hilly for a residential area.  (Side note: wow, I was really impressed at how many everyday cyclists are out there!  Even by the standards of the Bay Area, this place is swarming with them.)  I was feeling a little sore and a little hungry.

I eventually sat down on a bench just outside a Berkeley residence hall and plotted my next move.  It was close to 6, and I was within a few blocks of my goal.  Yelping the day before had turned up an area dubbed the "Asian Ghetto", a collection of various Far Eastern restaurants that was evidently popular among students.  Seemed cheap and casual, the perfect spot for a solo diner to spend time.  I lined up my route, caught my breath, and then pressed on.

Closer to Berkeley's campus, the population density had visible spiked, and retail was once again taking over.  I passed many tempting alternatives on my way to the Ghetto, and nearly went into a just-opened sushi restaurant, only deterred by its dual identification as a karaoke place.  I passed Telegraph as the vendors were pulling up their stalls, doubled back to enter the Ghetto, whipped out my iPhone to choose which spot to visit, and finally pulled into Thai Basil.

It was really good, but frankly, just about anything would have been.  I ordered the Chicken Pad See Ew, encouraged by a Yelper, and indulged in a Thai Iced Tea. There is outdoor seating at the Ghetto, but I was able to grab a nice tiny table inside.  The bustle and chatter of students was very comforting, and I relaxed as I read through my New Yorker article about early voting in America.

Eventually I was refueled, both with food and stamina, and it was getting close enough to 7 that I felt comfortable approaching Zellerbach.  Twilight was falling as I set foot on campus.  It isn't the first time that I've technically been on Berkeley - that honor goes to my Radiohead concert - but it was the first time I had specifically gone TO the campus, and I enjoyed wandering.  I walked through a historical gate (I think it's called something like Salther?) that they are restoring, and swung up by the Campanile, a tower where they play bells.  I walked past a lot of halls, was tempted to crash an alumni dinner, and heard the fight song being played as people entered a gymnasium to spectate.  Finally I doubled back to Zellerbach, where they were letting people in the doors.

Inside, they were selling paperbacks of most of Murakami's works.  I'm ashamed to admit that, despite my loud love for the guy, I've strictly been a library reader of him so far, and don't actually own any of his books.  I was briefly tempted to get something, but decided against it... I'd prefer the hardcovers, and in any case, these weren't signed or otherwise special.  Instead, I splurged on the overpriced refreshments: a cupcake and a beer set my back $9, more than my feast at Thai Basil.  It's pretty amazing how huge the markup is at venues like this.  I shouldn't complain, though... the beer and sweet were both very appreciated.

They hadn't opened the doors yet, so I wrote out a few questions for Murakami.  The first was a sort of lame query about how different cultures view his use of American commercial icons like Colonel Sanders and Johnny Walker in "Kafka on the Shore".  The second was about his involvement with Steppenwolf's theatrical adaptations of "After the Quake" and "Kafka on the Shore."

They opened the doors and people trickled in to the auditorium.  I was delighted to see that there was a strong Japanese presence this night; waiting in the lobby, I had several times heard people greeting each other in Japanese and bowing.  Reading through the program, I finally learned that Murakami was receiving an award from a Japanese foundation in Berkeley, celebrating the 50th year of a program at the university.  Cool!  From the general chatter in the auditorium, it seemed clear that most people were familiar with and enjoyed his work.

The auditorium filled in, and just a few minutes after 8 it started off in earnest.  The host greeted everyone and talked a little bit about the history behind this evening.  He also personally stressed that Mr. Murakami had requested that people not take photographs, recordings, or videos, and that we respect his artistic wishes.  He explained how the evening would progress, and then introduced Murakami to wild applause.

Murakami, despite his reputation as a bit of a recluse, is a really warm and funny guy.  He opened up by thanking us for being there, then complaining that he was missing the baseball game.  He explained that he is a Rays fan, because they have Akinori, a player who used to be on the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, his favorite team in Japan.  He segued into his biography, telling the by-now-well-known story of how he decided to become a writer after watching an American player hit a double, and described writing and publishing his first few novels.  He explained that he would be reading "Sharpie Crows", and that this story was written just a few years after he started writing.  I was delighted; I love Murakami's short fiction, and think "Sharpie Crows" may be the funniest thing he has written.  He would be reading in Japanese; "I believe that some of you do not understand Japanese.  Well, that is not my fault!  I will be reading it in Japanese, and then Roland will be reading it in English, so we each will read in our mother tongue.  Maybe it would be more interesting for me to read in English and Roland to read in Japanese, but I think that would not be so much fun."

He launched into "Sharpie Crows."  I just loved hearing the sound of his voice - he read smoothly and easily, giving the right intonation and inflection when dialog was spoken during the story.  I particularly enjoyed his rendering of the sound made by the crows during the climax of the book.  The original Japanese word isn't "Sharpie," of course, but it's a word that connotes edges.  From the audience reaction, it was clear that a good chunk of people were fluent in Japanese, and there were ripples of laughter at the appropriate times.  Me, I know just enough that I could identify the occasional vocabulary - "shitsurei shimasu", "ohayoo", etc. - and from the context could generally identify where he was in the story, but that was about it.

There was strong applause after he finished, and then he sat and Roland Kelts took the podium.  He was also a fine reader.  After hearing Murakami's introduction, the tale took on a whole other dimension to me.  I had initially read it as a silly story, but it was now clear that this was actually an allegory of Murakami's entry to the literary world.  Suddenly, everything became clear.  Murakami was the protagonists.  Making cakes was like making stories.  "Sharpie Cakes" was the Japanese literary establishment, and the Sharpie Crows were critics.  Young people liked Murakami and the new cakes; critics were divided over whether his stories were really Japanese, crows were divided over whether these were really Sharpies.  So, if for nothing else, this would already be an educational evening.

They then moved into the interview part of the evening.  It seemed a little awkward at first... Murakami lived in the US for several years and knows English well (he has translated books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Raymond Carver, J. D. Salinger, and others), and speaks well, but it still is not his native tongue, and several times he had to ask Roland to repeat himself.  He also speaks in what, for lack of a better phrase, I'll call "Minnesotan": extremely humble and self-effacing, and also with long pauses.  It often wasn't clear whether he was finished giving an answer, or just thinking.  Several times Roland would start to ask another question, only to have Murakami interrupt and finish answering the previous one.  He would sometimes cross his arms while Murakami spoke, a peculiarly unfriendly piece of body language.  And sometimes it seemed like they weren't totally connecting - Murakami would hear a question, then provide an anecdote or answer around a related topic, without directly speaking to the actual query.

That said, it was still a wonderful conversation.  Kelts clearly knows his subject well, which is more than I can say for some events that I've been to, and after a while they settled into a comfortable rhythm.  Murakami was open, charming, eloquent, and really interesting.  I hate ("hate" is too strong - "am disappointed by") when authors just rehash their books during events, but Murakami seemed really fresh and interesting during this discussion, opening up about a lot of things.  I took some notes, and as usual, will sort of haphazardly recount what I remember in the space below.

At first, the interview was largely concerned about Murakami's relationship with his readers.  Frankly, I thought that all the important stuff had been communicated with great eloquence and humor in "The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes," but there were still some gems that came out.  I tend to think of Murakami as being standoffish, but he is actually very engaged with his readers.  Roland mentioned that he creates websites when new books come out, and is one of the rare authors who actually replies to emails that they receive.  Murakami, smiling, said that he had recently received a "very stupid question," which is "the most fun to answer."  The person had wanted to know whether squids' appendages are arms or legs.  Murakami answered that they are arms, and the suckers are gloves.  "I don't know what that had to do with anything," he confessed, "but that was my answer."

When Murakami first started writing, most of his readers were in their 20s and 30s.  Now, 30 years later, most of his readers are in their 20s and 30s.  This is different from most authors, of course - you would expect an author's audience to generally age along with the author, but for some reason, that is not the case.  Murakami is unable to explain why this is.  He has heard friends say, though, that his books are the only thing that they can discuss with their teenaged children, and he feels privileged that his writing can be a point of contact across generational divides.

They spent a fair amount of time discussing the writing process.  This is something that readers are almost always interested in, and that authors tend to be reluctant to describe, but Murakami gamely tried his best.  When he writes, he "goes down into the dark place of the mind."  He tries to find a quiet, isolated spot, and does his work in there.  When he starts writing, he doesn't have a plan in mind; usually he only can imagine the very first scene of the book.  He reaches the dark place, then begins writing, and is receptive to ideas about where the story goes next.

He amazed me by saying something really shocking and eloquent: writing a novel is a lot like a videogame.  (Murakami: you are awesome!  Not just to say something that flies in the face of the literary establishment like that, but to be adapted to the real world and able to draw on peoples' experiences.)  He explained: in a video game, you start playing, and you don't know exactly what is coming next, so you keep on playing and overcoming challenges until you reach your goal.  He said that when he writes, he switches between two personas: he is both programming the video game and playing the video game.  This is a lot of fun, he assures us.  When he is the player/reader, he puts himself into the mind of someone encountering this for the first time, and gauges their reaction; when he is the programmer/writer, he shapes the experience.

"You make writing sound like SO much fun," Roland exclaimed.

A big theme of his books has been isolation and despair.  He found that these are big parts of his readers' psyche, and he could in some ways speak to it.  When he talks with his young fans, he has found that many of them say that they do not even know their fathers; their fathers are almost like strangers to them, completely out of their lives.  One quirk of his books is that his characters don't really have relationships.  They encounter one another, and interact with one another, but don't really connect in meaningful ways.  He has said that, while his characters may not have relationships, "At least they have their obsessions."  Roland asked him to explain what he meant.  He couldn't really, but I at least feel like I can understand... his characters do not have the external web of human connections that give us comfort, but they do have inner interests and fascinations that provide them with an energy, a focus, a sense of meaning and purpose.

Roland probed a little more about the dark places, and asked Murakami if he could describe some of his obsessions that helped him reach his dark place.  I didn't totally follow this part - it sounded like the continuation of an earlier private conversation that these two had had, and that Murakami was reluctant to continue in public.  Eventually, bashfully, he listed some of his obsessions, which included elephants, refrigerators, ears, cats, and couches.  "I can't explain it," he said, "but these are companions in my dark place."  (I kind of get the impression that this is a situation where "dark place" is an imperfect translation of a slightly different Japanese phrase.  I'd love to read an essay about this to get a fuller understanding of what he means.)

They talked a bit about Murakami's experiences abroad and at home.  This was old hat for me, but it was nice to hear his own voice explaining how he sojourned abroad for several years in order to escape the stifling environment of Japan; how he was shocked by the Kobe earthquake and felt like he needed to return home - "I wanted to help my country.  I am not a nationalist, I do not want you to think that, but I wanted to help the people of my country."  This led to the amazing one-two punch of "Underground" and "After the Quake".  Roland noted that his works seem to have grown darker since that experience; Murakami acknowledged this, but didn't really directly say why he thinks this is.

Another trend: Murakami's early stories were mostly told in the first person - "Boku."  Later on, he started experimenting with third person.  In "Kafka on the Shore", there are two storylines, and one (Crow's) is told in first person, while the other is told in third.  In another story, there are two first person narrators; one uses "Watashi" and the other uses "Boku".  I REALLY want to see what the English translation of this looks like, since we really just have one word for "I".  Basically, he started off in first person because it felt natural.  Lately, as the stories have been growing more complex, he has relied more on third person to communicate the information.

Murakami did a lot of work for "Underground."  For a solid year, he interviewed 60 survivors and attackers.  He found that most of the stories were "boring" - which is only to be understood, right?  Most of our lives are not particularly interesting.  He found that the key was to love the person he was speaking with - to really connect with them as an individual.  Once he had that key, then their stories were no longer boring.

With some time left in the evening, they began reading questions off of the submitted cards.  Here are the ones I remember:

The very first question he was asked: "What is your favorite band?"

For those of you who haven't had the privilege of reading his stories, music plays a very visible role in most of them.  He knows his stuff, and writes about famous jazz artists, hot rock groups, obscure composers, etc.

Murakami says that he listens to a lot of music.  He listens to classical music in the morning.  After dark, he listens to jazz.  When he is driving or exercising, he will listen to rock.  The very first band that he named?  Radiohead.  The very second one?  R.E.M.  Murakami, is there no limit to your amazing awesomeness?  Those are MY two favorite bands!  Next he named Beck, and agreed with Roland that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are good.  He enjoys the Beach Boys.  He likes Jim Morrison, and think he's very charismatic.  He enjoys singing while swimming.  "What?"  Singing while swimming.  "What... how does that work?"  What do you mean?  "Like, do you sing when your mouth comes out of the water?"  No, he... blows bubbles.  (General laughter.)  He particularly enjoys singing "Yellow Submarine."  This man is my hero.

He is a BIG Radiohead fan.  He really admires Thom Yorke.  Thom Yorke is in New York now, and had actually written Murakami to ask if he would be interested in meeting.  He could not, because of this speaking engagement.  "So, thanks to you, I am missing the playoffs AND Thom Yorke."  We showed him much love.

"Do you see your role in Japan as being that of a healer?"

Murakami asked several times for this question to be repeated; I think that "healer" was tripping him up, and was a bit surprised that Roland didn't provide a synonym.  Eventually he got it, and replied in the negative.  He doesn't see himself as having that kind of role.  He writes stories for people, but doesn't think he can provide healing.

"Will you ever write a big book again?"

"Actually, I just finished my new novel last week."  HUGE, thunderous applause.  "It is... a BIG book."  Even louder applause.

This led into a longer answer.  He has been working on this book for a long time, and is happy that it is done.  It will be published in Japan in 2009, and in America "some time after that, I don't know when."  Some people enjoy larger books, but he notes that most Japanese readers read while they commute, and so they complain when he publishes big books - how are you supposed to read a heavy novel while standing in a subway?  He has tried to fix this in the past by using lighter paper to make the books thinner and less heavy, but then people complain that the pages blow all over when the fan is on in the summer.  "I cannot win!" he exclaimed as the audience roared with laughter.

Sometimes, he says, he is walking down the street, and a person will walk into him and say, "Mr. Murakami, I really enjoyed your last novel!"  "I will tell him, 'I am glad that you enjoyed my story, and thank you for telling me about that.  I hope that you will buy my new novel and enjoy it as well.'  Other times, someone will walk up to me in the street and say, 'Mr. Murakami, I was very disappointed in your last novel!  I hated it!'  I will apologize to that person, and say "'I am sorry that you did not like that story.  I have written a new novel.  Please, buy my new book, I hope you like it more.'  So, I say that to everyone, and now to you as well: 'Please, buy my new book.'"  He needn't have asked!

"Do you write with an outline?  And if not, how do your stories come together as well as they do?"

Nope, no outline.  He can't use one.  He comes up with an idea, sits down, and starts writing.  He never knows how his stories will end.  As for how it comes together - a lot of that happens in the revisions, but still, his books are basically done after the first draft, as far as the story goes.  Sometimes some more tampering takes place afterwards - for example, in the Wind Up Bird Chronicle (I think... it MIGHT have been Norwegian Wood), there were just too many stories crammed into one book.  He had to cut it down, so he removed part of the book, and used it in a separate collection.

In case you were curious: he writes using a Macintosh.

"Do you dream vividly?  If so, do ideas from your dream ever enter into your books?"

This had an easy answer: he doesn't dream.  He goes to bed before 10PM each night - "This is late for me," he said, pointedly looking at his watch - and wakes up before 5AM.  When he wakes up, his mind is blank.  It is fresh.  He never dreams, or if he does, he does not remember it.  He has spoken with a psychiatrist about this - the psychiatrist is a Jungian, and is very funny, and 9 out of 10 things that he says are jokes, and Murakami doesn't think the psychiatrist did a good job of diagnosing him - anyways, this psychiatrist suggests that, because Murakami's mind is so creative while he is awake, it fulfills his need to dream.  Most of us don't have that kind of outlet during our day, so dreams are a way for our brain to exercise the imaginative impulse; because he writes stories, he doesn't need to dream.

Following up on an earlier part of the discussion, one person asked whether Murakami thought that isolation and loneliness are still the dominant aspects of the Japanese psyche, or if he thought that has changed during his long career.  He strongly resisted the idea that these traits are uniquely Japanese - he knows them well in his own culture, because it is the one most familiar to him, but he does not believe that they are fundamentally different in the United States or other countries.  People are the same, he says, and the Japanese are not unusual in that way.

Wrapping up the night, Roland asked Murakami if he had found any records in Berkeley's shops. Apparently, he had visited here about 15 years before.  Since then, though, he lamented, most of the record shops had closed.  "Now there are only two left.  Amoeba and Rasputin."  (Long pause.)  "Those are very strange names."  (Long pause.)  "I think there is something wrong with this town."

Of course, that touched off a HUGE laugh and sustained applause, which just grew when stood to bow and leave.  About a quarter of the audience gave him a standing ovation.  I certainly understood the sentiment.  I think that's a part of why I enjoy going to events like this... authors can have such a huge and powerful impact on our lives, changing the way we think, giving us the gifts of new worlds, new thoughts, new experiences.  For those of us who are most touched by the book, we can feel strongly indebted, but there is no real way to repay our personal gratitude to the book's creator.  By encountering the author in the real world, we can make them know how important their work is to us, how greatly we appreciate their work.

I floated on a bubble out of the auditorium, and didn't at all mind the late hour.  My evening with Murakami had not felt like reading one of his books - there were no bizarre events, no fantastical visions of consumer icons - but it was a thoroughly satisfying chance to catch an intimate glimpse into the mind and the warm heart of a favored creator.  It was a rare moment of inspiration, one I will treasure for a long time.

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