Haruki Murakami. Strategic choices.

resilience & tenacity

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I was the owner of a small jazz club in Tokyo, soon after leaving college […] During the day, it was a café; at night, it was a bar. We served decent food, too, and, on weekends, featured live performances. This kind of club was still quite rare in Tokyo back then, so we gained a steady clientele and the place did all right financially.

Most of my friends had predicted that the club would fail. They figured that an establishment that was run as a kind of hobby couldn’t succeed, and that someone like me—I was pretty naïve and, they suspected, didn’t have the slightest aptitude for business—wouldn’t be able to make a go of it. Well, their predictions were totally off. To tell the truth, I didn’t think that I had much aptitude for business, either. I just figured that since failure was not an option, I had to give it everything I had … I’m more of a workhorse than a racehorse. I grew up in a white-collar household, so I didn’t know much about entrepreneurship, but fortunately my wife’s family ran a business and her natural intuition was a great help.

The work itself was hard. I was at the club from morning till night and I left there exhausted. I had all kinds of painful experiences and plenty of disappointments. But, after a while, I began to make enough of a profit to hire other people, and I was finally able to take a breather. To get started, I’d borrowed as much money as I could from every bank that would lend to me, and by now I’d paid a lot of it back. Things were settling down. Up to that point, it had been a question of sheer survival, and I hadn’t had time to think about anything else. Now I felt as though I’d reached the top of a steep staircase and emerged into an open space. I was confident that I’d be able to handle any new problems that might crop up. I took a deep breath, glanced back at the stairs I’d just climbed, then slowly gazed around me and began to contemplate the next stage of my life. I was about to turn thirty. I was reaching the age at which I wouldn’t be considered young anymore. And, pretty much out of the blue, it occurred to me to write a novel.

I can pinpoint the exact moment when it happened. It was at 1:30 p.m., April 1, 1978. I was at Jingu Stadium, alone in the outfield, watching a baseball game … I was a fairly devoted Yakult Swallows fan … I was lying on the grass, sipping a cold beer, gazing up occasionally at the sky, and enjoying the game […] The crack of bat meeting ball echoed through the stadium … And it was at just that moment that a thought struck me: You know what? I could try writing a novel. I still remember the wide-open sky, the feel of the new grass, the satisfying crack of the bat. 

Something flew down from the sky at that instant, and, whatever it was, I accepted it.

I didn’t have any ambition to be a ‘novelist.’ I just had the strong desire to write a novel. I had no concrete image of what I wanted to write about—just the conviction that I could come up with something that I’d find convincing. When I thought about sitting down at my desk at home and starting to write, I realised that I didn’t even own a decent fountain pen. So I went to the Kinokuniya store in Shinjuku and bought a sheaf of manuscript paper and a five-dollar Sailor pen. A small capital investment on my part.

By that fall, I’d finished a two-hundred-page handwritten work. I had no idea what to do with it, so I just let the momentum carry me and submitted it to the literary magazine Gunzo’s new-writers’ contest. I shipped it off without making a copy, so it seems I didn’t much care if it wasn’t selected and vanished forever. I was more interested in having finished the book than in whether or not it would ever see the light of day.

That year, the Yakult Swallows, the perennial underdog, won the pennant and went on to defeat the Hankyu Braves in the Japan Series. […]
It was a particularly gorgeous autumn. The sky was clear and the ginkgo trees in front of the Meiji Memorial Gallery were more golden than I’d ever seen them. This was the last fall of my twenties.

By the following spring, when I got a phone call from an editor at Gunzo telling me that my novel had made the prize’s short list, I’d completely forgotten having entered the contest. I’d been so busy with other things. But the novel went on to win the prize and was published that summer under the title Hear the Wind Sing. It was well received, and, without really knowing what was going on, I suddenly found myself labelled a new, up-and-coming writer. I was surprised, but the people who knew me were even more surprised.

After this, while still running the jazz club, I produced a medium-length second novel, Pinball, 1973. I also wrote a few short stories and translated some by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Both Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 were nominated for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, but in the end neither won. I didn’t care one way or the other. If I had won the prize, I’d have been taken up by interviews and writing assignments, and I was afraid that this would interfere with my duties at the club.

For three years I ran my jazz club—keeping the accounts, checking the inventory, scheduling my staff, standing behind the counter mixing cocktails and cooking, closing up in the wee hours of the morning, and only then being able to write, at home, at the kitchen table, until I got sleepy. I felt as if I were living two people’s lives. And, gradually, I found myself wanting to write a more substantial kind of novel.

I had enjoyed the process of writing my first two books, but there were parts of both that I wasn’t pleased with. I was able to write only in spurts, snatching bits of time—a half hour here, an hour there—and, because I was always tired and felt as if I were competing against the clock, I was never able to concentrate very well. With this scattered kind of approach I was able to write a few interesting, fresh things, but the result was far from complex or profound. I felt as if I’d been given this wonderful opportunity to be a novelist, and I had a natural desire to take that opportunity as far as I possibly could. So, after giving it a lot of thought, I decided to close the business and focus solely on writing. At this point, my income from the jazz club was significantly more than my income as a novelist, a reality to which I resigned myself.

Most of my friends were adamantly against my decision, or at least had doubts about it. “Your business is doing fine now,” they said. “Why not just let someone else run it while you write your novels?” But I couldn’t follow their advice. 

I’m the kind of person who has to commit totally to whatever I do. If, having committed, I failed, I could accept that. But I knew that if I did things halfheartedly and they didn’t work out I’d always have regrets.

So, despite everyone’s objections, I sold the club […] I settled down to write my novel and, that fall, travelled to Hokkaido for a week to research it. By the following April, I’d completed A Wild Sheep Chase. This novel was much longer than the previous two, larger in scope and more story-driven. By the time I’d finished writing it, I had a good feeling that I’d created my own style. Now I could actually picture myself making a living as a novelist.

The editors at Gunzo were looking for something more mainstream, and they didn’t much care for A Wild Sheep Chase. Readers, though, seemed to love the new book, and that was what made me happiest. This was the real starting point for me as a novelist. […]

At that point, I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person but with an unspecified number of readers. My readers would welcome whatever life style I chose, as long as I made sure that each new work was an improvement over the last. And shouldn’t that be my duty—and my top priority—as a novelist? I don’t see my readers’ faces, so in a sense my relationship with them is a conceptual one, but I’ve consistently considered it the most important thing in my life. In other words, you can’t please everybody.

Even when I ran the club, I understood this. A lot of customers came to the club. If one out of ten enjoyed the place and decided to come again, that was enough. If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. To put it another way, it didn’t matter if nine out of ten people didn’t like the club. Realising this lifted a weight off my shoulders.

Still, I had to make sure that the one person who did like the place really liked it. In order to do that, I had to make my philosophy absolutely clear, and patiently maintain that philosophy no matter what. This is what I learned from running a business.

After A Wild Sheep Chase, I continued to write with the same attitude that I’d developed as a business owner. And with each work my readership—the one-in-ten repeaters—increased. Those readers, most of whom were young, would wait patiently for my next book to appear, then buy it and read it as soon as it hit the bookstores. This was for me the ideal, or at least a very comfortable, situation. I went on writing the kinds of things I wanted to write, exactly the way I wanted to write them, and, if that allowed me to make a living, then I couldn’t ask for more. When my novel Norwegian Wood unexpectedly sold more than two million copies, things had to shift a little, but that was quite a bit later, in 1987. […]

My style, what I think of as my style, is very close to Hard-Boiled Wonderland [and the End of the World, Murakami’s 1985 novel]. I don’t like the realistic style, myself. I prefer a more surrealistic style. But with Norwegian Wood, I made up my mind to write a hundred percent realistic novel. I needed that experience.

I could have been a cult writer if I’d kept writing surrealistic novels. But I wanted to break into the mainstream, so I had to prove that I could write a realistic book. That’s why I wrote that book. It was a best-seller in Japan and I expected that result.

Norwegian Wood is very easy to read and easy to understand. Many people liked that book. They might then be interested in my other work; so it helps a lot.

Kafka on the Shore
, sold three hundred thousand sets—it’s in two volumes here, you know. I was surprised that it sold that many; that’s no ordinary thing. The story is very complicated and very hard to follow. But my style, my prose, is very easy to read. It contains a sense of humor, it’s dramatic, and it’s a page-turner. There’s a sort of magic balance between those two factors; perhaps that’s another reason for my success. Still, it’s incredible. I write a novel every three or four years, and people are waiting for it. I once interviewed John Irving, and he told me that reading a good book is a mainline. Once they are addicted, they’re always waiting.

Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can write easily, no matter what they do—or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Unfortunately, I don’t fall into that category. I have to pound away at a rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of my creativity. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another hole. But, as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening those holes in the rock and locating new water veins. As soon as I notice one source drying up, I move on to another. If people who rely on a natural spring of talent suddenly find they’ve exhausted their source, they’re in trouble.

In other words, let’s face it: life is basically unfair. But, even in a situation that’s unfair, I think it’s possible to seek out a kind of fairness. […]

Thirty-three—that’s how old I was … still young enough, though no longer a young man. It’s an age that may be a kind of crossroads in life. It was the age when I began my life … belated, but real, starting point as a novelist.  

Image attribution: Photo by Nathan Bajur. Sourced from elpais.com

Words: This slightly abbreviated version of the article, The Running Novelist appeared in the print edition of the New Yorker, June 9-16 2008. (translation, from the Japanese, by Philip Gabriel.) It is supplemented with some words from an interview by John Wray for The Paris Review


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