From the beginning, Haruki Murakami wanted to get away. He left Kobe for Tokyo, Tokyo for Europe and America. I met him five years ago and was instantly drawn to the man behind the art. Like Haruki, I am a writer who wanted to escape. For me, the destinations were reversed: I left America for Europe, then Japan. These days we arrange visits in Tokyo and New York around our itineraries. I landed in Tokyo three days before this interview; the following day, Haruki boarded a plane.



Nomadic spirit

Interview & Text: Roland Kelts


Roland Kelts: What's the value of writing so far from home? Why have you written so many books overseas?

Haruki Murakami: It's easier for you to write about your own country when you're far away. From a distance, you can look at your own country as it really is. I wrote "Norwegian Wood" when I was on several Greek islands, and in Rome and Palermo, Italy. "Dance, Dance, Dance" was mostly written in Rome, and partly in London. The first half of "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" was written in Princeton, and the latter half in Cambridge. And I wrote "after the quake" in the middle of Tokyo, in an isolated little house owned by my publisher. I guess I have a nomadic spirit inside me that I can't keep down. Because I know that each one of those books is connected to each of the places where they were written. When I think of them, the scenes of the locations where I wrote them comes to mind.

R: Why did you write those books in those places? Any reason?

H: For me, to write fiction is to have a certain kind of relationship with the imagination. This requires me to escape from daily life, at least to some extent. That's why I want to go to a different place to do my work. Whether it's Japan, America or Europe, as long as I have a place where I can concentrate on my work, I don't think it matters where I am. At the moment, northern Kauai is my favorite place to write. The fact that it rains a lot in Kauai also allows me to focus more directly on my writing.

R: Does each place affect your writing differently? Can you see how they colored your imagination in the books?

H: Good question. I don't know, exactly. But I don't think they really do. Once I face my desk and focus and enter into the world inside my head, no matter where I am, for me, it hardly really ever matters at all. It ends up being irrelevant once I enter my imagination, I guess.

R: So, you're not only traveling physically, you're actually journeying metaphysically into the self, into the imagination. You told me once that the trip into the imagination is fraught with dangers - like falling into a well, a metaphor you use a lot in your novels and stories. What are those dangers?

H: In almost all cases, the objective of a trip is paradoxical. You ultimately want to return to the starting point safely. Writing fiction is the same; no matter how far you go, or a how deep a place you go to, in the end when you finish writing, you have to return to the place where you started. That is the final destination. However, the starting point to which you return is never the starting point where you actually started. The scenery is the same, and the faces are the same, and things placed there are the same. However, something fundamental has changed significantly. That's what we discover; it's your discovery. To know that difference is also one of your prime objectives - or at least to acknowledge that difference.

R: Does that mean that travel and making art are connected by the trip?

H: Yes, in that sense, traveling and writing fiction may be a similar experience. You first start by visiting nearby places, convenient places, places everyone knows about, and then gradually, you start traveling to more distant, deeper and darker places - even more dangerous places. Just like a surfer goes farther away from the shore to find bigger waves. That's probably in the very nature of the traveler and the fiction writer.

R: Pico Iyer told me that you are the first and only serious Japanese novelist who can "straddle East and West," and that your writing is part of what he calls "the global consciousness." That's pretty high praise. Why do you think a guy from Kobe is being called a global writer?

H: Well, I have in my own heart a world that is deep, dark and rich. And you, in your heart, have a world that is also deep, dark and rich. So in that sense, even if I'm living in Tokyo and you are living in New York, or Timbuktu or Reykjavik, Iceland, it means that we each hold inside ourselves something that is the same in nature or quality, regardless of place. And if we trace that quality to a much deeper place, we will discover that we live in a common world - a world we can just call 'story.'

R: What does that world look like?

H: It's beneath reality, like an underground, really. And in our underground, there are long tunnels stretching out in all directions, and if we seriously intend to do so, and also if we are fortunate, you and I will be able to encounter one another somewhere down there. Actually, the word "global" is something that I can't really understand, because we do not necessarily need to be global. We are already what I call "mutual." If we use the connection of our world called story, I think that that's enough to keep us connected.

R: One of the deepest connections I felt with you was when I first read the first page of "Norwegian Wood." The narrator, Haru, is on a plane landing in Hamburg, Germany, and he's about to have a crisis connected to the love of his youth. How do you feel when you're on planes?

H: Every time I fly in an airplane, I recall the beginning of an old Gershwin song called "I Can't Get Started." The lyrics go something like this: "I've been around the world in a plane / Settled revolutions in Spainc" So, that's why every time I board a plane, I think of the Spanish civil war. And when I think of that, I think of Ernest Hemingway. And when I think of Hemingway, I think of plane crashes. And then, of course, I start trying not to think about that song anymore. But I can't help it.

R: Planes are boring. Do you write on planes? What do you do when you're in the act of traveling?

H: Sometimes I take my small DVD player with me and watch old Jean Luc Goddard movies. As you know, those great old Goddard movies are hardly ever shown on planes.

R: Okay, you're about to take off tomorrow for distant lands. I hate asking you this, but here goes: What are your three favorite overseas destinations?

H: First would be Boston, Massachusetts in America, because it's the most convenient and satisfying city for collecting secondhand jazz records. Plus, there are many delicious Indian restaurants in Boston - and you can find Samuel Adams draft beer anywhere in town. You can also run the marathon there - which I've done a few times. In Europe, I really like Stockholm, Sweden. Again, there's a wonderful secondhand record shop there, and I visited that store every day for three days straight. The owner is a fanatical collector of great jazz records. And here's something unusual: The passengers on the subways in Stockholm are almost all talking on their cell phones all the time. It's very surreal. I also love Sydney in Australia. Although most of the people there wear boring clothes, because the fashions are really casual and simple, the food and wine in Sydney is excellent. How mysterious! Also, the aquarium and zoo in Sydney are both unique and wonderful. Unfortunately, there's not a single good secondhand record store there. Maybe that will change in the future.


Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami was born in Kobe, Japan. He attended college in Tokyo, where he later opened a jazz bar called Peter Cat. His first novel, "Hear the Wind Sing," was published in 1979; his fifth, "Norwegian Wood," was a bestseller in Japan and made him famous. He has lived in Europe, the United States and Japan, and has taught at Princeton and MIT. He is the author of over 30 works of fiction and nonfiction in his native language, 10 of which have appeared in English. The eleventh, "Kafka on the Shore," will be published in 2005. A few weeks before this interview, he submitted his forthcoming novel, which will be published in Japan in September.