Novelist as a Vocation
Haruki Murakami is considered by many to be one of the most compelling novelists of the past 40 years. His stories are anchored in reality, but then take off into the surreal, and somehow he pulls off the impossible time and again in spectacular fashion. True fans wait for his novels and short stories the way baby boomers once waited for new songs by The Beatles.
It’s not surprising then that Murakami—a baby boomer himself—credits The Beatles as one of his inspirations (along with The Beach Boys). Murakami recalls the day he first heard the songs “Please Please Me” and “Surfin’ USA.”
“It is as if their music has thrown open a new window in my soul, and air of a kind I have never breathed before is pouring in,” he writes. “I feel a sense of profound well-being, a natural high. Liberated from the constraints of reality, it is as if my feet have left the ground. This to me is how ‘originality’ should feel: pure and simple.”
“If possible,” he continues, “I would like my readers to savor that same emotion when they read my books. I want to open a window in their souls and let the fresh air in. This is what I think of, and hope for, as I write—purely and simply.”
His fans would agree that, more often than not, Murakami succeeds. The magic quality The Beatles achieved in their finest songs—some call it alchemy—is similar to what Murakami creates in his novels. It’s almost as though he and the four members of The Beatles (and Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys) exist in some type of an alternative universe.
But the thing is, that’s not true. All these creative geniuses are here among us, and Murakami assures us over and over that he is “a very ordinary person.” He says there was nothing in his upbringing that was out of the ordinary. “I had spent a mundane and nondescript youth,” he writes.
As a young man, he married, and then opened and ran a jazz café that was popular in Japan. He was running it happily into his late 20s when, out of thin air one day when he was sitting in the stands at a baseball game, he thought, “I think I can write a novel.”
And so he began, not really knowing what to write about, only that he felt in his bones that he could. He had no training, never took a writing course but he was a voracious reader, which is a requirement of anyone brave enough to try their hand at fiction.
When he began, Murakami says he laid down two principles to guide him. “The first was to omit all explanations,” he writes. “Instead, I would toss a variety of fragments—episodes, images, scenes, phrases—into that container called the novel and then try to joint them together in a three-dimensional way. Second, I would try to make those connections in a space set entirely apart from conventional logic and literary cliches. This was my basic scheme.”
If you’ve read any Murakami, you recognize this so-called “scheme,” but it’s clearly not as easy as all that. (By the way, in writing about Murakami generally, one must put his best-known novel Norwegian Wood into a separate category. It’s his most realistic, straight ahead novel, and if you’ve only read that, you don’t really know Murakami.)
He recognizes how rare his gift is, stating plainly that fictional stories must contain “magic.” What is that magic and how is it achieved? Murakami compares it to the scene in E.T. when our friendly alien goes into a closet and pulls out an umbrella, pots and pans, a record player and a floor lamp, and somehow manages to create a device that allows him to send messages to his home planet thousands of light years away. That’s what the writer must do with his story.
If that sounds somewhat impossible, well, Murakami lays down a lot of practical advice elsewhere in this book. Pay attention to the world he says and not in a superficial way. Pay attention to details, both in the world and especially in people.
He lays out exactly his writing process—how many hours a day he writes, how many words he demands of himself, how many rewrites, who he asks to be his first reader, and on and on.
Murakami is not shy about patting himself on the back because he’s very aware that he’s succeeded far beyond what most writers can achieve. He believes everyone can write a book and perhaps two but to succeed over decades, that is something to be proud of, and he rightfully is.
Murakami is as generous as he can be with imparting his own process to readers but, like all writing guides, it’s not as simple as all that. Creating a novel that a large audience will want to read with characters that are arresting, requires a certain something: magic!