June 14, 2010
Seeking mono no aware in and with literary art: Colin Marshall talks to experimental novelist Todd ShimodaTodd Shimoda is the author of 365 Views of Mt. Fuji, The Fourth Treasure and now Oh!: A Mystery of Mono No Aware. Shimoda calls his stories “somewhat experimental, post-modernish, dealing with Asian or Asian-American themes to some degree, but also broad questions of existence,” or “philosophical mysteries.” His latest novel documents an embodies a search for the elusive Japanese literary concept of mono no aware. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio show and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
These three novels of yours form a loose trilogy. The obvious way I can tie them together is to say all of them take place, in full or in part, in Japan. But in your own mind, what holds these books together?
There's a playoff between a certain Japanese art form and a modern-day technology or science. In my first book, 365 Views of Mt. Fuji, there was the woodblock print artist and kind of a mad scientist in the world of robotics. There's a playoff between those two, arts and technology. The Fourth Treasure was about a shodo or calligraphy master in Japan. He has a stroke, so the science in this case is neuroscience, looking at the idea of what makes us a human being from a scientific point of view as well as from an artistic point of view. In Oh! the art form is mono no aware, a Japanese poetic term that deals with more the traditional Japanese-style poetry and literature. The technology, in this case, is social networking, specifically the use in Japan of suicide clubs, people that come together and discuss suicide.
This particular interaction of art and technology in your novels, is this something you think about when you look back at your books and say, "Yeah, that's what I did," or was that what you wanted to do going into each of them?
A little bit of both. This mirrors my own life: other than in writing, my background is in engineering and educational technology, where I studied cognitive science. I've had both sides: the artistic form, as well as the science form. There's always been, in my own mind, a dichotomy or conflict going on between the two sides that want to control my life. At this point, the writing side is winning, but the other side always makes a little more money, so there's a trade-off between the two.
But the older I get, the more I'm willing to sacrifice any financial comfort for just getting the writing done. I'm moving toward that direction, but I still have one foot in technology and science. For my obsession or my passion, it's definitely my writing. I don't really write autobiographical things all, but I think that's probably the most autobiographical part of my writing: this idea of art versus science, or even modernity versus classical life. You say the word "versus." Do you think that it does count as what we would understand as a conflict, or is it something more complex than that?
Sure, it's definitely more complex. I would say there's a lot of similarities in the way those two things come together, in the way a writer works or an artist works as well as a scientist. You think of a scientist as really logical, but on the other hand, a scientist can be more intuitive, reaching into the subconscious to solve problems as well as the writer can. I think there's a lot more to it than what everyone on the street would think: "Oh, this laid-back artistic life, versus the hard-core thinking, logical scientist life." There's a lot more overlap than this "versus" kind of thing would imply.
How has your thinking about these issues evolved over the course of these three novels? In 365 Views of Mt. Fuji, there do seem to be characters who, when you first start reading, stand for certain things: there's one who's very much into robotics and thinks almost in the terms of a robot, and there's characters who are very artistic and who are to the other end of the spectrum extremely, it seems like. As you go through your books, the elements of the characters intermingle to an extent that nobody seems to necessarily represent any mode of thought. Does this make any sense, first of all?
Yeah, it does. The characters may start out as two-dimensional, involved in some aspect of life: the main character in The Fourth Treasure, the daughter of the calligraphy student, she's in graduate school studying neuroscience and tends to be rigid about that. She writes a journal; she writes about the neurochemical that she's learned about that day. She goes along and discovers her own real life, and how it's tied into this idea of calligraphy as an art form. She really starts to go toward the other side of her life, the more intuitive, more subjective and more — I would say — subconscious, even, where things are emotionally deep down inside her. There is this idea of character development, starting out at one extreme and trying to understand the other side of life, going back and forth.
It really is a good way for a writer to work, I think, because it develops this natural conflict that helps the narrative work in a real, natural way. It doesn't seem like forced. Some books you read, it's kind of a forced conflict between two characters put together that really would not even want to be together at all. They could just leave if they really wanted to. But this is more an internal kind of conflict. That works more naturally.
The art component of the latest book, Oh!, it's, of course, mono no aware. Here in America, moving in circles of enthusiasts of Japanese culture, of Japanese film, of Japanese literature, that term gets thrown around so much. One comes to believe that it is a widely known thing in Japan as well, but you have your character Zack Hara, a Japanese-American, go seek out mono no aware. He's in Japan doing that. He finds that, in Japan, this is a term that's a bit musty, consigned mostly to the realms of rarefied literary criticism. Is that the case? Is that what any of us would find if we went over looking for this?
To my understanding, that's true. I talked to a lot of Japanese people about it when I was doing research on the concept, and most Japanese, when I posed the question, wouldn't even answer me back. All of a sudden this vacuum would open, everything would get swallowed up, and I wouldn't hear from them again. The people who would actually talk to me about it might have heard of it, but didn't really understand what it was about. The Japanese people that did know about it had some training or studies in advanced Japanese literature and poetry, but for the most part it's not a term used in everyday language.
It's kind of dropped off the radar in Japan. You consciously have to go search for it and study it. On the other hand, the feeling of aware, at least — maybe not the more technical mono aware — is still felt in Japan. It's devolved from this original idea of a pure emotional response to something and moved towards sadness. Now it's even more like wretched. It's this more negative feeling rather than this poetic feeling of the original aware that was in Genji. It's changed, and I think it's a negative feel towards it now. In my book, I try to revive it as a more naturalistic feeling, how we react to our emotional life and how we express that. Any kind of emotion can be a beautiful experience, even the sad ones, so that's what I was trying to do with the term.
It does seem to get defined, such as it can be defined, in English-language literature about a specific Japanese novel or a specific Japanese filmmaker or what have you, as a feeling of bittersweet sadness at the transience of things. You can kind of tell, even if you don't know much about it, that it's being de-complicated for you. It seems like a concept there are so many nuances to that you could go down into the rabbit hole as far as you want and never hit bottom. Is that correct?
Oh, that's totally correct. I was trying to write a nonfiction monograph about the concept for a publisher. It was kind of half memoir and half literary criticism, or literary theory, trying to understand the concept. I just couldn't explain it well. I was having so much trouble with it that I was wondering if I had my own problems with my emotional life. It's where the whole idea for the book came about originally. I actually put in some of the nonfiction stuff that I originally wrote about it, kind of like the main character was writing about it as he was doing research on it. It just goes round and round; like you said, it goes in the rabbit hole, keeps going down and around. You don't know where you're going to come out, or if you're even going to find something at the end.
That's what makes the ending so much more powerful. Finally, there's some kind of resolution to Zack's own emotional crisis. One of my friends who read the book said it best: "You know, while I was reading the book I really liked the story, but this mono no aware thing was just confusing me. I thought I understood it at first, then you said something else, no, that's not really what it is, but at the end, then it just came to me. 'Oh, I understand."' Doing it in the fictional format actually helps. At least it helped me come to terms with what the deep meaning of the term is.
Of course, the subtitle is "a mystery of mono no aware," and it is a mystery novel in the beginning-middle-end sense. There's some formal overlap with the mystery genre as well. Having an ending or other moments to illustrate mono no aware for this protagonist, Zack Hara — is that the main advantage you get making a novel out of this, rather than making a book that's a factual, nonfiction, first-person account, "Todd Shimoda Goes in Search of Mono no Aware, and Here's What Happened to Him"?
That's the main advantage. I, obviously, don't want to give away anything about the ending, but he does encounter the Japanese suicide clubs. That becomes real powerful in the book. Of course, I personally would not want to get that close to a Japanese suicide club.
Yes, he gets very close indeed.
Right. There's that advantage in the fiction a format. When I was writing the book in my own memoirs, I realized that my life is pretty boring, as far as any great emotional traumas. I've had a pretty easy emotional life, I discovered when I was writing it. There've been little things that I think have been real powerful to me that helped me write my books, but for the most part, I've been pretty mellow as far as any tragedies or any great accomplishments. For me to write about mono no aware was a little bit difficult. I could write about real subtle things, but I needed some big, punchy epiphany about emotions. The novel form allowed that to happen.
What could you use from your own life? The only obvious thing is that Zack Hara also happens to be a third-generation Japanese-American. Was that it, as far as what you could take from your own life? You could give that to Zack, and then you had to make up everything else? Or were you able to use other elements? Maybe you say it's been boring, but surely there's plenty you can pull.
I did use some other things in my life. He's an English teacher in Japan and so was I, his grandfather emigrated from Japan and so did mine. That was a big aspect of my life, trying to understand my grandfather getting on a boat when he was sixteen or fifteen and coming over here by himself. My grandfather had a truck. I think it was a GMC truck, rather than the Chevy truck in the book. Chevy sounded a little more sexy than GMC. Plus, GMC was bankrupt at the time. There was a lot of emotional attachment to my grandfather. Zack commits some petty crimes. I have to admit, when I was in Japan, I probably committed a petty crime or two, but I'm not going to say what.
When I travel, I find myself having more mono no aware moments, maybe because you're in a different environment and you're kind of out of your comfort zone. I really feel more of what kind of person I really am when I'm actually pushed to experience something foreign or new. Having Zack go to Japan was one reason I did that. I was in Japan; having never been there before, and, third-generation, you're pretty much all-American. I knew a little bit about Japanese culture, but not very much. When I went there, it was fairly foreign to me too, but being a Japanese-American, I could start to see some of the Japanese side of me come through. There was that kind of understanding of my own roots, and so Zack goes through the same thing.
There is a lot more to it other than just his being a Japanese-American. As far as the main story theme about his emotional epiphany, that was purely fictional. But I could see it happening; I could see myself being pushed to more extremes and finding out more about myself, but I'm not sure I really want to go to that level.
In a lot of the Asian-American literature that I've read, especially focusing on, say, a third-generation Asian-American, you do see this pattern where you have the generation that came over to American, you have this generation being focused on, then you have the ones in the middle, less interested in the country of their heritage. It's the couple of generations down — the ones that, as you said, are pretty much all-American
— that then pick it up again, go back in search of it. Was that the same for you? Were you at the end of a chain that had not forgotten about Japan, but had gotten less interested in it through the years?
I think so. My father, when he was growing up in Colorado through World War II, it seemed like there was a push to push down the Japanese side and focus on becoming an American citizen. He didn't speak much Japanese. I didn't learn anything from him, Japanese-wise. I was at a school with maybe two other Japanese-Americans. It was very limited contact, very limited cultural upbringing. I'd go to see my grandparents, and they'd serve all Japanese food and speak Japanese. We'd go to the Buddhist temple sometimes. But when I went home, it was all back to white bread America at the time. I was interested in literature, but I read all European and American.
I think I first read some Yukio Mishima — I was like, "Whoa! This is so different from the European fiction I've been reading." Then I got interested in Japanese literature, particularly Kobo Abe, who's one of my all-time favorites. I started reading the fiction and realizing there's this whole cultural side of Japan that I knew nothing about, from my superficial upbringing, Japanese food and that kind of thing. The whole different Japanese psyche, almost. Then I really wanted to go to Japan and experience Japan. Of course, reading Kobo Abe and Yukio Mishima, you get kind of a skewed view, the other side of Japan. But I searched out both sides, the real traditional, cultural Japan as well as the underground, rough side of Japan, and found both. I got inspired to do my own fiction based on those Japanese authors.
In Mishima, there is that sort of elaborate worship tradition/despair, and in Kobo Abe there is the part of Japan no one ever seems to talk about outside of Japan, and maybe inside Japan as well. Those authors, then, influenced the way you explored or saw Japan when you finally got to go there?
Definitely. I lived in a funky little apartment, and it was near a railroad track. I'd found these underground bars I would go into and meet some rough characters. I felt like I could be in a Kobo Abe book, you know? It was so great. I absolutely loved it, and got in trouble a couple of times, nothing serious. I could fit in pretty well. People though I was Japanese at first. Of course, when I started talking in my limited Japanese, there was all sorts of surprise and, "What's going on with this guy?"
But that helped me open some doors. I would be treated a little bit differently because they knew I was more American than Japanese. There was that uniqueness factor about me that made me some friends of these rough characters. That was more real than going to a tea ceremony, or a lot of the more traditional art things. I experienced both, but I really got down and dirty; that helped my writing more.
All the westerners I talk to who go to Japan have the same story. If they can speak Japanese, it's always the surprise from the Japanese themselves: "You can actually speak? No, you can't actually speak." But you had the reverse, then: they thought, "Wait a minute. You learned Japanese after another language?"
My limited Japanese, they thought I could speak fluently just by the few words I could say with a good accent. I was really not very fluent at all, and I'm still not. You could communicate without a lot of words there. There was this gut language you could get into. The more you drink, the easier it is.
This gritty urban Japan, where a lot of this drinking can go on, the Japan Kobo Abe wrote about, this Japan you saw when you were there in the eighties, also the Japan that Zack Hara goes to — how does this come to be a Japan that is so interesting? Maybe that is something only Kobo Abe readers like you and I would say, but it is interesting. How has it become a Japan that isn't talked about much in literature, focused on much in even modern depictions of Japan in narrative?
I'm not sure. There are authors that do that well, and other authors that just want to stay away from it and focus more on the classical look of Japan. A lot of Japanese people would not want you to experience the street, urban grittiness kind of Japan. They want Japan to have this nice kind of image. It depends on the author's predilection, what he or she is interested in, as well as their experiences in Japan. Most people want Japan to have a good image, the traditional face the want to show the world, so it may be difficult for most people that go there, when they meet your average Japanese person, to have them take you down into the wilds of urban Japan.
Abean Japan, I'll call it for the purposes of this discussion, is something his readers will recognize in Oh! They'll also recognize certain formal things and certain qualities of the layout. It's filled with illustrations by your wife, it's got full pages of art. The thing that, as a Kobo Abe reader, struck me first was the little iconographic illustrations before each chapter. Was that deliberate as an homage, or did it just happen to be something you liked and that's in his books as well?
That's the other thing that ties these three books together. My wife's an artist. She studied classical Japanese calligraphy, but she's more of an abstract artist, so she took the classical Japanese training and went to an artistic abstract form with it. In each book, there's a different style of art that ties the story together. That's another way these books are tied together. In Oh!, she did the main art first, the more like sumi-e paintings. They're kind of photographs and drawings on rice paper, done with a wash, then she adds brushstrokes to them. That's an idea of the subjective mono no aware experience.
I said, "Zack's kind of an amateur artist, so he's probably going to do some sketches that will go with the chapters." It was my suggestion to her that she do these little iconic sketches, one per chapter, tying the story together. I was definitely thinking of Kobo Abe; there's always some weird little artistic form, sketches that go along with the story. Everything I do has something to do with Kobo Abe, something that I consciously think about or something that subconsciously comes through. When you mentioned that, I thought, "Oh yeah, you're right. That definitely was a Kobo Abe-esque kind of thing."
What's especially interesting is, the actual narrative of the book, it's told in the first-person by Zack Hara, and this is a guy who doesn't have much of an emotional life. He's worried, at times, that he doesn't experience emotions like other people, and he certainly hasn't experienced something as complex as mono no aware. What I found interesting with the Kobo Abe connection as well is that, that's never something he wrote his characters as having — an emotional deficiency — but at the same time, anybody who reads the books thinks they do. They have that kind of prose to them. I want to ask not so much about Abe but about creating a character with emotional troubles or a flatness that a reader can still engage with. How did you frame this challenge in your mind? How did you go about it?
Okay, that's a good question. Originally, when I was trying to come to grips with mono no aware, I realized I was not fully understanding the concept. There was that initial spark of, "What's a person to the most extreme emotional deficiency I could think of, how would they understand mono no aware? What would they have to do?" I was thinking also of Camus and The Stranger, how his own emotional flatness led him into all sorts of trouble. The best endings are something that emotionally punches the reader in the gut, so to speak. I wanted a huge emotional experience at the end.
It slowly builds up, but the ending almost comes out of nowhere. It lends power to the emotional experience of the ending. The story was actually fairly easy for me to write. I'm not sure why that is, to write about somebody without emotions. I think I wrote it in four months, the first draft, anyway. Zack really took over the writing at some point, so it started to come fairly easily. Sometimes I struggle mightily trying to get something down, but this went pretty smoothly.
I quoted you in the beginning of the interview: you describe yourself as being a bit of an experimental storyteller, writing in an experimental way. The way we're talking now, it doesn't make Oh! sound conventional, but if you hold up your books all together, it appears to be, in some sense, less experimental than a book like 365 Views of Mt. Fuji, whose pages are all laid out in this very unconventional way with sidebars and illustrations in all sorts of places. And this book, of course, looks like an art book: it's got a lot of illustrations, it's got pages dedicated to art, it's got factual components. Do you see this book as being equally experimental, or more so, or less so? Where does it stand in terms of the techniques you use and how unconventional you get?
I would say it is more of a straightforward story than the other two. 365 Views I originally wrote in hypertext format; that's why it seems to be scattered all over the place. Hypertext, you know, is how you write web pages: you can click here and go to this storyline or to this page. It's that idea of going back and forth. Originally, I wrote it for a CD book kind of thing, but it didn't ever get published. We had to turn it into a paper book. That's why it seems so much more experimental.
The Fourth Treasure was maybe one step back from that. It has several different narrative elements, from journals to chemical formulas to interludes to back in historical times. Oh! is more of a straightforward story; the experimental thing is just trying to create a book about some obscure Japanese term called mono no aware. The book could have been too obscure, or it could have just fallen flat and really not worked at all. I think the experimental part is that. Yeah, there is a little bit of nonfiction in it, and art, of course, but it's a pretty straightforward narrative structure. It's definitely less experimental that way.
That's why I say, the book itself, taken as a whole, could be either the most experimental one you've done, or the least, depending upon how you frame it. At its core, the whole premise is more experimental than your other books have been. But I wanted to get an idea, as far as the nonfiction monograph you began about mono no aware — correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe you had to talk to a lot of people about their experiences with this concept, to research various disciplines' point of view on it. Was that what the basic M.O. was when you first started researching this subject?
It wasn't the entire thing. I did a lot of research in libraries. It was even before the web; you had to actually go to a library. I did some work with research librarians and found some fairly obscure references. One was a PhD dissertation by somebody who wrote about aware. There were other books that had been translated. There wasn't a whole lot of English work on mono no aware, which is all I could really handle reading. There was a difficulty in finding anything good about it. I did talk to a professor in Japan and ask him what his concept of mono no aware was. He goes, "Well, it's difficult..." In Japan, "difficult" is a common word trying to explain something. He said, "Let me look into it." He actually did surveys with his students and found out that most of his students who were younger hadn't even heard of the term, but they did have an idea of the feeling of aware, anyway, this feeling of desolation.
At the time, the Japanese economy was so bad that they could relate that to the economy. Prime ministers were coming and going every few months. There was a desolate feeling in Japan. I think the aware feeling was there, but as far as the poetic term, it wasn't so well known. I talked to a few friends I knew from Japan. I didn't really get much. I just said, "I've got some stuff, but I've got to add more," so I started writing my own personal mono no aware moments, were I would describe an experience that hit me, that I remember well, that I caused me to either want to write a poem or write a book about the idea.
I traveled around the world, and a lot of that came through because of traveling, but even looking around my own neighborhood I found certain things, like this old, gnarly tree that was in the middle of a parking lot. They didn't cut the tree down, but they boxed it in this tight wood structure; it was just hanging on in this parking lot. It would flower beautifully in the spring, and I just felt this tree had this idea of mono no aware about it. Little things like that I wrote about, but trying to incorporate all that — I'm not a poet, so that was kind of hindering me in some ways. I couldn't express that more in a poetic kind of way. I'm definitely more of a novelist, so I eventually came around to write about it in a fictional form, a novel.
Even aside from the complexities of something like mono no aware, in Western eyes, Japan seems like a place both very exciting but also, in many senses, strangely, unreasonably sad. You mentioned the whole economic issues and political problems, but news stories come across to the English-speaking world about the hikikomori, the kids who wall themselves up in their rooms and never come out, decide to give up on life. In Oh!, of course, there's the suicide clubs.
It seems unfathomable to an American that people would get together in a group and all want to commit suicide just because they have lost the will to live. It's hard to conceive in the West, at least that I've found. What do you think is going on there, as far as a place so advanced, a place that has so many things going for it, also has these pockets of utter despair that goes to an extreme people don't necessarily think about outside of there?
That was a topic I did a little bit of research on when I was writing Oh! and trying to look into it. It's a deeply complex issue. I don't know that I have a grasp on it to say in-depth things about it, but I would say that, as far as suicide goes, there's always been the traditional Japanese suicide where you've dishonored somebody or the family name or your own name or your master, so you feel so despondent that you take your own life in a ritualistic way, or in some ways you're also doing it to make a point. Yukio Mishima did his suicide for that reason.
But today there's been a real spike of young people committing suicide; that's occurred in just the last few years. In some ways, it's facilitated by the web and finding other people with similar problems you can talk to. Unfortunately, in some cases, that's, "I'm going to commit suicide, and here's how I'm going to do it. You want to come along with me?" There's this idea of, "Oh, there's at least somebody feeling the same way I am, that will understand what I'm trying to go through." There's one anthropologist I read who said there's the absence of ikigai, or the worth of living, among suicide web site visitors. Their view of suicide is a way of healing, in some ways.
Most suicide victims you hear about do it in privacy, by themselves. This idea of group suicide is different, and facilitate by the web. There's always been the traditional lovers' suicide, too, of two people committing suicide because they couldn't express their love or be together. This is something new in Japan, and I don't know if anybody has a good handle on exactly why it is occurring, or the type of psychology that it's demonstrating. Maybe there hasn't been enough research done. For me, as far as a mono no aware tie-in, it's almost the ultimate poetic act of coming to grip with your emotions and wanting to express it. That's why it is tied in to the story fairly tightly.
In the story, the reader gets a slow reveal of information about what mono no aware is or might be. They get a slow reveal about Zack coming to grips with it, and of course about the background of his grandfather. I think to your other books as well. In 365 Views, the reader is slowly revealed just what's going on with this eccentric family of artists/geniuses, and in The Fourth Treasure it's slowly revealed what the interconnections are between these characters in modern-day Berkeley and seventies Japan.
For all the experimentalism you can find in your books, it seems to me there's also a love for what you'd find in a classic mystery novel, the way information is released to the reader to keep the satisfaction of reading at a high at all times. You have a theory of satisfaction on your blog about this. Is this something at the forefront of your mind when you're writing, to give the reader the optimal amount of details, to keep them always on the edge in that sense?
You're right. I think of a traditional mystery kind of story arc. I like hard-boiled detective mysteries; it's kind of my guilty pleasure for reading. It doesn't have to be guilty, but it's a pleasure. That's the way those stories are plotted; I've really picked up on that in my own plotting. It's more of a classical kind of approach. I think postmodernism does that well, though. You can take different genres and make it your own in different ways. It's not a straightforward mystery, but it uses mystery plotting; in that sense, it's somewhat postmodernish, meaning kind of a pastiche of styles thrown together and hopefully it all works.
I do like a straightforward story every now and again, in my own reading, but I also like real experimental works, just to see how different writers do different things, to see what works and what doesn't work. I'm a blend of the two: I can do a straightforward mystery kind of plotting, as well as the experimental vein. I'm still trying to figure all that out. It's both conscious and subconscious.
Some of the writers I have on the show, they'll say things about how it's too late to write a straightforward mystery novel, because the form's been done too much; there's nothing left in the well. But then, I do think of books like yours that can as use as much genre stuff as they want, because they balance it out by doing new things formally, or they balance it out by using those genre elements to exploring things. No Raymond Chandler book ever explored mono no aware that I know of. Is that something you might agree with, that these literary techniques that are time-worn, you can use them if you find a new way of putting them altogether, if that makes any sense whatsoever?
I think that's absolutely right. I write for me as well as for readers. I write something that I feel is me. When I first started writing, I tried writing more traditional genre; Stephen King was real popular, so I started out writing, like, horror, then there was this satirical story that became published, so I tried to write like that. I wrote five or six novels, trying to fit into a genre, finding something I was really good at. Nothing was really working. Then I said, "Well, I'm just going to write what I want to write, and the way I feel, and see how it goes."
That's when I wrote 365 Views of Mt. Fuji, which found a publisher. It'd be hard to define the genre for that, so I've decided that it's up to me as an artist, a writer, to find my own way and use what I like, things I think are interesting and unique and different, and just go that route. I think that's more of an honest approach. Other writers figure that out a lot earlier than I did. I could be a lot further along if I'd figured that out right away, but I got all the bad books out of my system. At least now I can focus on something a little more me, and good, I hope.
We discussed that fact that your books all include art by your wife, and this one is the most lavish. It's got an edition out from Chin Music press that integrates it very well, uses different kinds of paper and full color, so on and so forth. How did your books become so inseparable from the art? First of all, it doesn't seem to me that you would go back to writing books that are just text — there's always going to be some art component, right?
I like the visual feel of the book. There's no reason not to have a visual appeal to it. It helps me to have Linda, my wife, work on a project with me. We never really sit down and say, "Oh, here's chapter one, it's about this, could you illustrate it like this?" It's never that way at all. It's more about, "Here's my story idea." I give her the basic outline and fundamental plot, but that's usually about it. She says, "I'm going to explore that in an artistic format." She goes off and does her thing, and I do my thing, and it's never an illustrated book. It's more complimented by the art.
It helps me to have someone to talk about it with in a non-writing sense. I can talk to her about the general ideas, and she has a totally different approach. That helps me become more creative, because I have to keep up with her; she's a really outstanding creative artist. I have to be just as good. For several reasons, yeah, we'll always work together on projects. If you're just going to write text, it's going towards the digital format. There's going to maybe not as many printed books in the future; I don't know if that's necessarily true or not, but when we do a book, we want to focus on coming up with a beautiful visual thing people will treasure as much as the story, but also as an object in itself.
With my eyes on the publishing industry, as I've kept them interviewing authors about books, it does seem to me, especially seeing books like Oh!, that the industry for printed books kind of belongs — or will belong — to these publishers who want to make the richest books, the most physical book medium-using books as possible. If something is just text, it's a better product on an e-reader. Oh! would not be a better product on an e-reader, because you couldn't do most of what's going on visually. Is that something you find plausible, that things are going that way, but is that also the way you want to read books? If you just pick up a book, you would rather have a book that integrated art, was more of a feedback loop between text and art, than not, right?
I definitely like those kind of books. Linda and I can share that experience in different ways, looking at the book from an artistic point of view as well as a story/text point of view. It's more interesting for me to see how all that works; that's what I like to see and that's what I like to do. The more books like that I can find — I collect a lot of them. There are a lot of hardcore book collector-type people that also like the attention to detail, the typography, the pages, the feel of the book itself. When people first pick up Oh!, they say, "Oh!" — yeah, literally, "Oh!" — "It's so substantial! It feels like a book!" They flip through it, run their fingertips across the pages, they say, "This feels great, I like this so much!" That's important to us. If we're going to spend money on printing a book, jeez, it's so expensive, we really want that experience to be as pleasurable as possible.
There's another project I wanted to make sure to ask about, one readers can call up your web site and read details about it. We mentioned Kobo Abe, we mentioned his influence on you and how he's a favorite novelist of both of ours. You have a project, Why Ghosts Appear, which is a sequel to The Ruined Map, a particularly good hard-boiled novel from Kobo Abe. How did you decide you would need to write a sequel to this book?
The Ruined Map's the only novel I've read at least five times. It's just utterly captivates me. I really don't know what happens. Every time I read it, there's a different experience. It could be because my life is different at the time, or I've read something different in a different way. Very few novels can do that.
I should say, not to cut you off, but since you're such an enthusiast of the book: there's going to be a lot of people listening who haven't read any Kobo Abe, so as somebody who's read The Ruined Map five times, how would you describe it?
It's a deeply complex psychological study of a woman, seen through the eyes of a private detective, whose husband goes missing. The more he digs into the life of the wife and the husband who is missing, the deeper he gets into the psychology of the underbelly of Japan. He keeps slipping. The first scene is his car slipping on a slope, and the whole book is his slipping, trying to go up the hill and slipping, going off the road. It's wildly difficult to grasp what's going on, but you just kind of forget about it and go along for the ride and see what's going to happen.
It's got elements of surrealism that Kobo Abe does, but it's less surrealistic than his other books, so it's a little more realistically written. The way it keeps going down and down and down, it's difficult to say what is happening a lot of the time, but I find you don't need to necessarily understand what's going on. I wanted some closure to this damn book, which has really frustrated me as well as found such enjoyment out of. I said, "What happens to this nameless detective, with his life?" I started imagining all sorts of things. When I was living in Japan in the eighties, 20 years after The Ruined Map takes place, I wondered, "What would he be doing today? What would his life be like?"
Eventually I put together a new case for him, which also hearkens back to the case in The Ruined Map. They kind of play off each other through the sequel. It's really an homage to him, as well as my own frustration: "What really happened with this woman? What happened?" So I came up with an additional story line, interplayed the two, and it was actually the funnest project I've written in my life. I loved every minute of it. If you've never read Kobo Abe, some of his work can be way out there, and some of it can be so gripping, realistic. I think this one closely follows his style in The Ruined Map.
Approaching Kobo Abe's body of work, his sensibility, the world he creates — it does seem like he has a world of his own in his books — coming at it as your source material, as your canvas, as the realm you'd be working in, is this like a treasure trove to do what you want with, or is this forbidding, like you've got to handle with care because this is the legacy of your favorite author you're working with?
More the treasure trove. I find it so creatively freeing. His stuff always works for me in some way; sometimes it's a little grating, but it still works in a story sense. I find it a great treasure trove of ideas and how to write. But in Japan, he would be the master and I would be his apprentice. There's more the hierarchical, rigid structure of how to interact. If he was alive and I tried to write a sequel, I'm sure he would try to nix that idea. I would find it difficult to approach him even to say, "I would really like to write the sequel." But he's not here anymore, so I feel a little but freer in approaching that. This freedom of the way he writes really ties into the way I write as well. It's been a good experience to get into his writing style through writing this sequel.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.
Posted by Colin Marshall at 12:15 AM | Permalink