Murakami by The NY
“What is he like? Is he a kind man?” I was asked by an anxious administrator who had been assigned to guide me through Tokyo’s Aoyama neighborhood to Haruki Murakami’s office, which was in a discreet, unmarked building on a side street. She visibly deflated when Murakami’s assistant answered the door, accepted delivery of me, and sent her off to wait out our lunch meeting at a nearby train station. It was 2010, and in Japan at that point Murakami was a celebrity of a magnitude unrivalled in the literary world. His behemoth three-volume novel “1Q84,” published in 2009 and 2010, sold more than six million copies in the country. When he participated in the 2008 New Yorker Festival, tickets sold out in minutes, and fans claimed to have flown to New York from Japan, Korea, and Australia to see him in person. They had travelled so far because Murakami is also, famously, reclusive and rarely participates in public events.
He talks about being “surprised and confused” by the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to his first attempts at fiction. That confusion may have fuelled something in him. His narratives are almost always inquisitive, exploratory. His heroes, hapless or directed, set off on missions of discovery. Where they end up is sometimes familiar, sometimes profoundly, fundamentally strange. A subtle stylist and a self-willed Everyman, Murakami is a master of both suspense and sociology, his language a deceptively simple screen with a mystery hidden behind it. In his fiction, he has written about phantom sheep, about spirits meeting up in a netherworld, about little people who emerge from a painting, but, beneath the evocative, often dreamlike imagery, his work is most often a study of missed connections, of both the comedy and the tragedy triggered by our failures to understand one another.
This interview has been adapted, with Haruki Murakami, from staged conversations we had at the New Yorker Festival in 2008 and 2018.
Haruki Murakami: The last time we did an interview was ten years ago, and many important things have happened in those ten years. For instance, I got ten years older. That’s a very important thing—at least to me. I’m getting older day by day, and as I get older I think of myself in a different way from in my younger days. These days, I’m trying to be a gentleman. As you may know, it’s not easy to be a gentleman and a novelist. It’s like a politician trying to be Obama and Trump. But I have a definition of a gentleman novelist: first, he doesn’t talk about the income tax he has paid; second, he doesn’t write about his ex-girlfriends or ex-wives; and, third, he doesn’t think about the Nobel Prize for Literature. So, Deborah, please don’t ask me about those three things. I would be in trouble.
Deborah Treisman: You just depleted my store of questions! Actually, I wanted to start with your most recent book, your new novel, “Killing Commendatore.” The book is about a man whose wife leaves him. He ends up living in the home of an old artist, a painter. Once he gets to that house, many strange things start to happen, and some of them seem to emerge from a hole in the ground—a kind of empty well. I’m wondering how you came up with this premise for the novel.
It’s a big book, you know, and it took a year and half or so for me to write, but it started with just one or two paragraphs. I wrote those paragraphs down and put them in the drawer of my desk and forgot about them. Then, maybe three months or six months later, I got the idea that I could turn those one or two paragraphs into a novel, and I started to write. I had no plans, I had no schedule, I had no story line: I just started from that paragraph or two and kept on writing. The story led me to the end. If you have a plan—if you know the end when you start—it’s no fun to write that novel. You know, a painter may draw sketches before he starts painting, but I don’t. There is a white canvas, I have this paintbrush, and I just paint the picture.
There’s a character—or an idea—in the novel that takes the shape of the Commendatore from the Mozart opera “Don Giovanni.” Why is this idea—this character—at the center of the book?
Usually I start my books with a title. In this case, I had the title “Killing Commendatore,” and I had the first paragraphs of the book, and I was wondering what kind of story I could write with them. There is no such thing as a “Commendatore” in Japan, but I felt the strangeness of the title and I appreciated that strangeness very much.
Is the opera “Don Giovanni” important to you?
The character is very important to me. I don’t use models, generally. In my career, I’ve used a model for a character only once—he was a bad guy, somebody I didn’t like much, and I wanted to write about him, but just that once. All the other characters in my books I have made up from scratch, from zero. Once I make up a character, he or she moves automatically, and all I have to do is watch him or her moving around and talking and doing things. I’m a writer, and I’m writing, but at the same time I feel as though I were reading some exciting, interesting book. So I enjoy the writing.
Video From The New Yorker
The main character in the book listens to opera as well as various other musical pieces that you mention in the book. Often your characters listen to specific bands or genres of music. Does that help you work out who they are?
I listen to music while I’m writing. So music very naturally comes in to my writing. I don’t think much about what kind of music it is, but the music is a kind of food to me. It gives me energy to write. So I write about music often, and mostly I write about the music I love. It’s good for my health.
The music keeps you healthy?
Yes, very much. Music and cats. They have helped me a lot.
How many cats do you have?
None at all. I go jogging around my house every morning and I regularly see three or four cats—they are friends of mine. I stop and say hello to them and they come to me; we know each other very well.
When The New Yorker published an excerpt from “Killing Commendatore,” I asked you about the unreal elements in your work. You said, “When I’m writing novels, reality and unreality just naturally get mixed together. It’s not as if that was my plan and I’m following it as I write, but the more I try to write about reality in a realistic way, the more the unreal world invariably emerges. For me, a novel is like a party. Anybody who wants to join in can join in, and those who wish to leave can do so whenever they want.” So, how do you invite people and things to this party? Or how do you get to a place when you’re writing where they can come uninvited?
Readers often tell me that there’s an unreal world in my work—that the protagonist goes to that world and then comes back to the real world. But I can’t always see the borderline between the unreal world and the realistic world. So, in many cases, they’re mixed up. In Japan, I think that other world is very close to our real life, and if we decide to go to the other side it’s not so difficult. I get the impression that in the Western world it isn’t so easy to go to the other side; you have to go through some trials to get to the other world. But, in Japan, if you want to go there, you go there. So, in my stories, if you go down to the bottom of a well, there’s another world. And you can’t necessarily tell the difference between this side and the other side.
The other side is usually a dark place?
Not necessarily. I think it has more to do with curiosity. If there is a door and you can open it and enter that other place, you do it. It’s just curiosity. What’s inside? What’s over there? So that’s what I do every day. When I’m writing a novel, I wake up around four in the morning and go to my desk and start working. That happens in a realistic world. I drink real coffee. But, once I start writing, I go somewhere else. I open the door, enter that place, and see what’s happening there. I don’t know—or I don’t care—if it’s a realistic world or an unrealistic one. I go deeper and deeper, as I concentrate on writing, into a kind of underground. While I’m there, I encounter strange things. But while I’m seeing them, to my eyes, they look natural. And if there is a darkness in there, that darkness comes to me, and maybe it has some message, you know? I’m trying to grasp the message. So I look around that world and I describe what I see, and then I come back. Coming back is important. If you cannot come back, it’s scary. But I’m a professional, so I can come back.
And you bring things back with you?
No, that would be scary. I leave everything where it is. When I’m not writing, I’m a very ordinary person. I respect the daily routine. I get up early in the morning. I go to bed around nine o’clock, unless the baseball game is still going. And I run or I swim. I’m an ordinary guy. So when I walk down the street and somebody says, “Excuse me, Mr. Murakami, very nice to meet you,” I feel strange, you know. I’m nothing special. Why is he happy to meet me? But I think that when I’m writing I am kind of special—or strange, at least.
You’ve told the story many times about how, forty years ago, at a baseball game, you suddenly thought, I can write a novel, though you hadn’t even tried to write before that. And you said in your memoir, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” “It felt as if something had come fluttering down from the sky and I had caught it cleanly in my hands.” That thing was this ability to write—or maybe just the idea that you could try. Where do you think it came from, and why did it come to you, if you’re so ordinary?
A kind of epiphany—that’s what it was. I love baseball, and I go to the ballpark often. In 1978, when I was twenty-nine, I went to the baseball park in Tokyo to see my favorite team, the Yakult Swallows. It was opening day, a very sunny day. I was watching the game and the first batter hit a double, and at that moment I got a feeling I could write. Maybe I’d drunk too much beer—I don’t know—but at that time it was as if I’d had some kind of epiphany. Before that I hadn’t written anything at all. I was the owner of a jazz club, and I was so busy making cocktails and sandwiches. I make very good sandwiches! But after that game I went to the stationery store and bought some supplies, and then I started writing and I became a writer.
That was forty years ago. How has writing changed for you in that time?
I have changed a lot. When I started writing, I didn’t know how to write—I wrote in a very strange way, but people actually liked it. Now I don’t much care for my first book, “Hear the Wind Sing”; it was too soon for me to publish. Many years ago, I was sitting on the train in Tokyo, reading a book, and a very beautiful girl came over to me and said, “Are you Mr. Murakami?” “Yes, I’m Mr. Murakami.” “I’m a great fan of your books.” “Thank you so much.” “And I have read all of your books, and I love them.” “Thank you, I appreciate it.” Then she said, “I loved your first book the most—that’s the best one, I think.” “Oh, you think so?” And she said, “You have been getting worse.” So I got used to criticism. But I don’t agree. I think I’m getting better. For forty years I have been trying to get better, and I think I have.
That girl on the train makes me think of a jazz musician whose name was Gene Quill. He was a sax player who was famous in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. And, like any other sax player in those days, he was very influenced by Charlie Parker. One night, he was playing at a jazz club in New York and, as he was leaving the bandstand, a young man came up to him and said, “Hey, all you’re doing is playing just like Charlie Parker.” Gene said, “What?” “All you’re doing is playing like Charlie Parker.” Gene held out his alto sax, his instrument, to the guy, and said, “Here. You play just like Charlie Parker!” I think there are three points to this anecdote: one, criticizing someone is easy; two, creating something original is very hard; three, but somebody’s got to do it. I’ve been doing it for forty years; it’s my job. I think I’m just a guy who’s doing what somebody’s got to do, like cleaning gutters or collecting taxes. So, if someone is hard on me, I will hold out my instrument and say, “Here, you play it!”
You’ve said that writing your first two books was very easy, and then it became a little harder after that. What do you struggle with?
When I wrote those first two books—“Hear the Wind Sing” and “Pinball, 1973”—I found it easy to write, but I wasn’t satisfied with the books. I’m still not satisfied with them. After I wrote those two books, I became more ambitious. I wrote “A Wild Sheep Chase”—my first full-length novel. (The other two were more like novellas.) That took time—three or four years, I guess—and I really had to dig a hole to get to the spring. So I think “A Wild Sheep Chase” was the starting point of my real career. The first three years, I was writing while I was working as the owner of a jazz club. I’d finish my work at two in the morning and then sit down to write at the kitchen table. That was too much for me. After the first two books, I decided that I would sell the club and become a full-time writer. But the jazz club was doing well, and everybody advised me not to sell it.
Don’t quit your day job!
Then I wrote “A Wild Sheep Chase.” I wanted to write a big book.
And was it easy to write the bigger books, or was it more of a challenge?
When I wrote “A Wild Sheep Chase,” I was very excited, because I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I couldn’t wait for the next day to come so that I could find out what would happen next. I wanted to turn the pages but there were no pages. I had to write them.
Do you ever have a day where you have no idea what’s going to happen next? You sit down and you can’t write that day?
I haven’t experienced any writer’s block. Once I sit at my desk, I naturally know what’s going to happen next. If I don’t, or if I don’t want to write something, I don’t write. Magazines are always asking me to write something, and I always say no. I write when I want to write, what I want to write, the way I like to write.
Do you think you work out your plots in your sleep?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t dream. Stories are stories; a dream is a dream. And for me, writing itself is like dreaming. When I write, I can dream intentionally. I can start and I can stop and I can continue the next day, as I choose. When you’re asleep and having a good dream, with a big steak or a nice beer or a beautiful girl, and you wake up, it’s all gone. But I can continue the next day!
A few years ago you told me that, while you were working on a novel, you kept a list of ideas or phrases, like “a talking monkey” or “a man who disappears on the stairs,” and that when you finished the novel and sat down to write stories you said, “Each story must have two or three things from this list.” Do you work that way often?
That was when I wrote six stories at one time. So I had these key words to help me. With a novel I don’t need that. My rule is to try something new every time. Most of my early books I wrote in the first person. In “1Q84,” I wrote three third-person characters. That was kind of a challenge for me. Most often, my narrator, my protagonist, is a guy I could have been but who isn’t me. A kind of alternative of myself, you know? In life, I am myself and I cannot be other people, but in fiction I can be anybody. I can put my feet in other people’s shoes. You could call that a kind of therapy. If you can write, you’re not fixed. You can be anybody else—you have that possibility.
You started running at about the same time that you started writing. I know some people like to write in their minds as they walk; the rhythm of walking helps them. Are you thinking about writing while you’re running?
No, not at all. When I’m running, I’m just running. I empty my mind. I have no idea what I’m thinking while I’m running. Maybe nothing. But, you know, you have to be tough to write for a long time. To write one book is not so difficult, but to keep writing for many years is very close to impossible. You need the power of concentration and endurance. I sometimes write very unhealthy things. Weird things. Twisted things. I think you have to be very healthy if you want to write unhealthy things. That’s a paradox, but it’s true. Some writers led very unhealthy lives—like Baudelaire. But, in my opinion, those days are gone. This is a very complicated world, and you have to be strong to survive, to get through the chaos. I became a writer when I was thirty years old, and I started running when I was thirty-two or thirty-three. I decided to start running every day because I wanted to see what would happen. I think life is a kind of laboratory where you can try anything. And in the end I think it was good for me, because I became tough.
Writing, like running, is a solitary pursuit. You went from a very social life in a jazz club—where there were people around you all the time—to being alone in your study. Which is more comfortable for you?
I don’t do socialization much. I like to be by myself in a quiet place with a lot of records and, possibly, cats. And cable TV, to watch the baseball game. I think that’s all I want.
You said once that your life’s dream was to sit at the bottom of a well. You’ve had a number of characters do exactly that. There’s a character in “Killing Commendatore”—Menshiki—who does it. Why?
I like wells very much. I like refrigerators. I like elephants. There are many things that I like. When I write about the things I like, I’m happy. When I was a kid, there was a well at my house, and I always looked into that well and my imagination grew. There’s a short story by Raymond Carver about falling into a dry well. I love that story very much.
Did you ever try going down a well?
No, no, no. It’s dangerous, you know. Only in my imagination. But I like caves, too. When I am travelling around the world and I see a cave, I enter the cave. I like caves, and I don’t like high places.
You’d rather go down than up?
Some people say it is a kind of metaphor for the subconscious. But I’m very interested in the underground world.
You said in a Paris Review interview a few years ago that the driving force of your stories was “missing and searching and finding.” Do you think that’s still true?
Yes. That is a very big theme of my fiction—missing something and seeking it and finding it. My characters are often looking for something that has been lost. Sometimes it’s a girl, sometimes it’s a cause, sometimes it’s a purpose. But they are looking for something important, something critical, that was lost. But when the character finds it, there will be some kind of disappointment. I don’t know why, but that is a kind of motif in my fiction—looking for something and finding it, but it’s not a happy ending.
Often the men you write about are somehow lost, emotionally or existentially. They don’t seem very at home in the world.
You know, if the protagonist is happy, there’s no story at all.
Your novels usually revolve around a mystery. And sometimes you solve the mystery and sometimes you leave things unsolved. Is that because you like to leave things open for the reader, or because you’re not always sure of the solution yourself?
When I publish a book of fiction, sometimes friends call me and ask, “What happens next?” I say, “That’s the end of it.” But people expect a sequel. After I published “1Q84,” I understood everything that would happen next. I could have written a sequel, but I didn’t. I thought it might feel like “Jurassic Park 4” or “Die Hard 8.” So I kept that story in my mind only, and I enjoyed it very much.
Do you think you’ll ever write it down?
I don’t think so. I think it will stay in my mind. The protagonist of the sequel is Tengo’s daughter at age sixteen. It’s a very interesting story.
Then it’s no “Die Hard 8”!
And there is a prequel to that book.
In your mind only?