Notes from Haruki Murakami’s appearance at the 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday


Haruki Murakami appeared at the 2014 Edinburgh International  Book Festival and talked about The Wind Up Bird Chronicle with the Guardian’s John Mullan on Saturday.

These are my notes from the events. No recording was allowed. I am satisfied I have tried my best in the note-taking.

The director of the book festival said this event was a “highlight of the festival” and he has worked many years to bring Murakami to Edinburgh.

The director said Murakami had requested the audience to respect his privacy and not to take photos.

I sat on the fourth row.

HM had chosen to discuss The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (WUBC) for this event. It’s been nearly twenty years since it was published.

Noriko, the translator at the event (rarely used) worked as a waitress at Peter Cat, the jazz bar owned by HM and his wife.

The moderator, John Mullan opened with a story that happened a day before the event. He was in London and was carrying WUBC at a cafe and ordering coffee. One of the owners said What a coincidence and reveals herself to be a HM fan. John told them he was going to interview HM the next day. The other owner heard this and dropped his cup. “You’re not lying”, he asked. The female owner showed John her copy of Norwegian Wood. John: “Life becomes a Haruki Murakami novel”.

HM wrote his first novel in 1979. First-person narrative. He was uncomfortable writing in the third person. He felt that was like “looking down”. He “want(s) to be at the same level” – “it’s democratic”. For 10 years, he did not give his protagonist names. He felt it was “arrogant” and “presumptuous”. It was WUBC that he first gave his protagonist a name.

HM took 20 years to write in the third person. It was Kafka on the Shore.

John described Toru Okada, the protagonist in WUBC as passive (“things happen to him”) and possessing a negative self-image and quoted a line said by Toru that he possessed no “external distinguishing characteristics”. HM was surprised: “He said that???”

HM has forgotten a lot about his own novels. Once he’s done with them, he never re-reads them. So throughout the session, he always says “Really?” to John when asked to comment on specific incidents or lines from the novel. Really funny. The audience enjoyed it.

HM thinks that Toru is not passive but “strong”, “confident” and “modest”. HM: “In fact, he’s my hero”, “When I was younger, I wanted to be like him. I want to be a quiet person, live a quiet life.” He no longer sees him as a hero. HM: “Life is strange.”

John comments on the extraordinary things that happen to HM’s characters. HM: “When I write fiction, I need interventions… Intervention takes him (the protagonist) to another world.”

HM says that things that happen in his novel are things that happen to him (“That’s what happens to me in my life.) HM: “in those days, my cat is missing.”; “I like ironing (the audience really enjoyed this)… my wife brings her blouse and shirt, I iron.”

HM takes 2 years to write a novel. He writes everyday. Interventions help “open a window and get fresh air”. Interventions help him entertain himself and prevent him from being tired of writing.

JM comments on the stories within the stories in HM’s novels. HM said that the stories within the stories allowed him to write in the third person. The first person narrative “need(s) something else.”

Regarding the skinning incident in WUBC, HM: “I was scared when I was writing it… all the translators complain to me… writing the book was scary to me.”

Basball bat – “Yes, it’s scary… I hate that.”

HM: “violence and sexual things. I need that… I don’t like to write (that)… but for the story’s sake.”

JM comments on how he feels the characters in WUBC are cursed by World War II. HM: “Everybody is cursed. The world is haunted. We are living in the dark part.”

HM quotes Woody Allen. The actual quote: “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

HM: “We have a bloody history. History is our collective memory… I inherit those memories from my father.”

HM said he was interested in the Manchurian war. His cousin was there.

John: “Can I ask you about the well? What it’s all about?” (I got really excited here.) HM: “Is my life dream to sit at the bottom of the well. I don’t know why.”

On writing about the well, HM: “my imagination is vivid and strong. I was really happy.”

JM asked about the role coincidences play in his novels. HM: “I love Charles Dickens. His books full of coincidences.” He also refers to Phillip Marlowe whose novels has many dead bodies. Too many dead bodies, “even for LA (Los Angeles)”. That gets a big laugh from the audience.

HM on WUFC origin: “I just heard the bird (an actual one)… in the backyard of my house… just like winding up like a big clock… It’s the first time (hearing it)… I have not heard the call since then.” HM felt this was “predicting something”. He named the bird “Wind up bird”.

HM: “Answer is not so important to me… I have a sense of the unfinished… That is what I want.”

HM doesn’t reread his novels and often forgets things about his novels. “It’s fun to read the translation. I don’t know what will happen next.” Gets a laugh.

HM: “I don’t have any idea when I start writing.”

HM wrote WUBC with only 2 things in his mind – hearing the call of the bird in his backyard and once when he was cooking spaghetti, the telephone rang. That was all.

HM on writing: “I say to myself. What’s going to happen today.”

HM: “My imagination is like a kind of animal.”

Before we went to Q&A with the audience, Murakami interrupted John and said to the audience, “I live in Hawaii, 2 years, my English is not like yours.” He then said “Hang loose” and did the shaka sign, which now i know after checking it out, “is a gesture often associated with Hawaii and surf culture.” Big laughs.

When asked if he will reused some of the characters in his novels, he said no. HM: “I want to be blank in my mind”. He is not fond of going back.

When asked if he has any spiritual beliefs, “I’m not ready yet to die.” Big big laughs (This was what i wrote down and i don’t know if he said “i’m not yet ready to die”)

When asked about advice for writers, he said “No commuting, no meeting, no boss.” Again a lot of laughs.

HM says he writes about his obsessions – elephants, cats, etc.

When asked to comment on how sad his characters are, HM: “Really? I didn’t notice.” John said that Toru was sad about his marriage. HM: “Everybody’s sad (about their marriage). Funny.

HM commented on Gabriel Garcia Marquez and magic realism. He doesn’t think it’s magic realism. “I don’t think that way. These things happen naturally.”

HM: “It’s just simple realism. He wrote them down as they were.”

HM: “I don’t care if it’s natural or supernatural.”

HM: “I need music to write to” referring to harmony, rhythm and improvisation. Rhythm is especially important (“It’s so important to keep readers reading.”)

HM on what certain music pieces are used: “There must have been some reason… but I don’t remember.”

HM closes by describing how he recently got a letter from a Japanese fan who had been reading him for twenty years. The fan did not like his latest novel (Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage) but said he will still buy his next novel. HM describes this fan as an “ideal reader of mine”.

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