Haruki Murakami: 5 Things We Learned from his Book Festival event
One of the hottest of hot tickets at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival was the chance to see Haruki Murakami, the 65-year-old Japanese author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood, 1Q84 and nine more novels. The fact that his genre-defying, beguilingly metaphysical works provoke almost unprecedented devotion amongst readers is evidenced by the fact that his newest book, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, sold a million copies on its first three days of release in Japan. It’s fair to say he’s kind of a big deal.
He’s famously reclusive, keeping his public image under strict control – at this event no photography or recording was permitted, and the signing session after the event was conducted behind a curtain so no curious onlookers had the chance to take a cheeky selfie – but he did let slip a few gems during his hour of conversation. Here’s what we learned:
He likes to keep things simple
In Japan, we are living with the 'other side' easily. In Europe it is harder to get there
If one clear point came across about Murakami it is that he doesn’t like to overthink things. 'People love good stories', he said, and while he was happy to entertain suggestions of connections between his novels ('oh really?' was his puckishly brief go-to response), it was clear that he doesn’t think about it.
Interestingly, he pointed out that in Europe and America people are intensely analytical about everything, whereas in Japan people just take things as they are. This, he said, makes it easier for Japanese audiences to 'just read' his stories. 'In Japan, we are living with the "other side" [the supernatural/mystical] easily. In Europe it is harder to get there'.
He enjoys Springsteen
In a similar vein, Murakami attested to the virtues of the 'simple and strong' rhythms of American rock as being particularly good for his famous early morning running routine. 'Are we talking about Bruce Springsteen?' asked the interviewer. 'We are', was the revered author’s dry response.
But he saved his greatest musical appreciation for the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, about whom he is to publish a book of essays in Japan shortly: 'he knows what is the right note', said Murakami, on a theme he was evidently passionate about. 'His music is always right, always persuasive, always perfect – I’d like to write a story like he writes music'.
He finds writing about sex embarrassing, but necessary
Sex or violence is simply the door to the unconscious; you have to go there to open the door
Asked about his vivid sex scenes, Murakami admitted it was 'embarrassing – but sex or violence is simply the door to the unconscious; you have to go there to open the door'. This was getting at one of the things that defines Murakami’s writing; his ability to inhabit that unconscious space: 'I have a big basement in my mind', he confirmed. 'It’s dark and scary. This is my asset – my imagination'.
He keeps fit to keep working
Murakami made a direct connection between longevity as a writer and physical condition. 'If you’re not a genius you have to do something for physical strength', he said, and then referring to his own writing, 'you have to be strong to go down to that darkness and come back'. Despite his resistance to analysing his work, this is clearly a secret he has successfully cracked about writing: if you want to uncover the darkest corners of the mind, you will need to look after your body. Especially, he added, if you’re over 40.
He’s not about the craft
Murakami’s appreciation of the mystical clearly doesn’t extend to the art of writing: 'I think of myself as an engineer, or a "tinkerer"… I tinker'. His approach is practical, and he particularly rejected the notion of there being a ‘gift’ of writing: 'It’s useless to think about how much talent I have. I’m doing my best to write a good story'.
He seems to be doing a pretty good job of it.