Haruki Murakami was born in Japan in 1949. He grew up an only child in the coastal city of Kobe to parents who both taught Japanese literature. Despite this, Murakami was greatly interested in western literature and counts Raymond Chandler, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Franz Kafka as some of his literature influences.
Murakami didn’t plan on being a writer. He owned a jazz club in Tokyo called Peter Cat but at age 29 he sat at his kitchen table and began writing his first novel which would be a great success and the beginning of a prolific literary career.
“I started writing at the kitchen table after midnight. It took ten months to finish that first book; I sent it to a publisher and I got some kind of prize, so it was like a dream—I was surprised to find it happening. But after a moment, I thought, Yes, it’s happened and I’m a writer; why not? It’s that simple.”
Murakami’s style is different from most writers. He says in his The Art of Fiction No. 182 interview that when he sat down to write that first novel he didn’t know how to go about it. Since he hadn’t read much Japanese literature he borrowed “the style, structure, everything” from the books he had read, western books, which resulted in his unique style. This is great advice for all writers who feel they don’t know what they’re doing. Borrow from the masters. Murakami describes his style to be most closely the style of Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World which is one of my favourite books.
All writers have different ways of getting the work done and the novel on the page. Some plan every step of the way but Murakami is an example to the contrary.
“When I start to write, I don’t have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come. I don’t choose what kind of story it is or what’s going to happen. I just wait.”
With the exception of Norwegian Wood, which Murakami says was written as a strategic move to appeal to readers preferring a more realistic novel, all his novels are unplanned. This is pretty amazing once you’ve read one of his novels but he does go on to say that his writing process involves many drafts in which he rewrites sections once the story has revealed itself to him so he can better it.
“In the first draft I didn’t know it was Gotanda. Closer to the end—two-thirds in or so—I knew. When I wrote the second draft I rewrote the Gotanda scenes, knowing it was him.”
This, he says, is the main purpose of revision: “The first draft is messy; I have to revise and revise”. And he goes through four or five revisions spending about six months writing the first draft and then seven or eight months rewriting. It is comforting to know that even with his tremendous talent he also has to work hard to produce that wonderful final product. And work hard he does. He described the very strict routine he maintains when writing a novel:
“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”
Interestingly, Murakami talked about how your location or writing in a foreign country can have a profound effect on the type of book you write:
“During the four years of writing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I was living in the U.S. as a stranger. That “strangeness” was always following me like a shadow and it did the same to the protagonist of the novel. Come to think of it, if I wrote it in Japan, it might have become a very different book.”
If only Murakami would write a book about writing because he has an incredible perspective that I think is very helpful. His way of describing how he goes about creating his protagonists is a beautiful example of this and what I found to be an insightful lesson in how we can approach perspective in our writing.
“Please think about it this way: I have a twin brother. And when I was two years old, one of us—the other one—was kidnapped. He was brought to a faraway place and we haven’t seen each other since. I think my protagonist is him. A part of myself, but not me, and we haven’t seen each other for a long time. It’s a kind of alternative form of myself. In terms of DNA, we are the same, but our environment has been different. So our way of thinking would be different. Every time I write a book I put my feet in different shoes. Because sometimes I am tired of being myself. This way I can escape. It’s a fantasy. If you can’t have a fantasy, what’s the point of writing a book?”
I highly recommend reading his Art of Fiction interview as he is overflowing with gems like this one. Murakami, like most writers, is an avid reader. And like most readers he loves it for the same reason we all do: “That’s the power of the novel—you can go anywhere”.
His novels are a huge hit in Japan and with his work being translated into 50 languages he is a massive international success. What I find equally admirable is that Murakami’s love for literature extends to the translation of some of the West’s greatest novels into Japanese often for the first time.
If you are interested in reading Murakami, I really enjoyed Book Oblivion’s post on the best way to read Murakami and am following this sequence myself.