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The NEW Yorker InterviEW

The
Underground
Worlds of
Haruki
Murakami
The writer on his style, his process,
and the strange, dark places he
encounters on the page.

By Deborah Treisman February 10, 2019

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Photograph by Nathan Bajar / NYT / Redux

hat is he like? Is he a
“W kind man?” I was asked
by an anxious administrator who
had been assigned to guide me
through Tokyo’s Aoyama
neighborhood to Haruki
Murakami’s office, which was in a
discreet, unmarked building on a
side street. She visibly deflated
when Murakami’s assistant
answered the door, accepted
delivery of me, and sent her off to
wait out our lunch meeting at a
nearby train station. It was 2010,
and in Japan at that point
Murakami was a celebrity of a
magnitude unrivalled in the
literary world. His behemoth
three-volume novel “ 1Q84,”
published in 2009 and 2010, sold
more than six million copies in the
country. When he participated in
the 2008 New Yorker Festival,
tickets sold out in minutes, and
fans claimed to have flown to New
York from Japan, Korea, and
Australia to see him in person.
They had travelled so far because
Murakami is also, famously,
1Q84
reclusive and rarely participates in
public events.

He talks about being “surprised


and confused” by the
overwhelmingly enthusiastic
response to his first attempts at
fiction. That confusion may have
fuelled something in him. His
narratives are almost always
inquisitive, exploratory. His heroes,
hapless or directed, set off on
missions of discovery. Where they
end up is sometimes familiar,
sometimes profoundly,
fundamentally strange. A subtle
stylist and a self-willed Everyman,
Murakami is a master of both
suspense and sociology, his
language a deceptively simple
screen with a mystery hidden
behind it. In his fiction, he has
written about phantom sheep,
about spirits meeting up in a
netherworld, about little people
who emerge from a painting, but,
beneath the evocative, often
dreamlike imagery, his work is
most often a study of missed
connections, of both the comedy
and the tragedy triggered by our
failures to understand one another.

This interview has been adapted,


with Haruki Murakami, from staged
conversations we had at the New
Yorker Festival in 2008 and 2018.

haruki murakami: The last time


we did an interview was ten years
ago, and many important things
have happened in those ten years.
For instance, I got ten years older.
That’s a very important thing—at
least to me. I’m getting older day
by day, and as I get older I think of
myself in a different way from in
my younger days. These days, I’m
trying to be a gentleman. As you
may know, it’s not easy to be a
gentleman and a novelist. It’s like
a politician trying to be Obama
and Trump. But I have a definition
of a gentleman novelist: first, he
doesn’t talk about the income tax
he has paid; second, he doesn’t
write about his ex-girlfriends or
ex-wives; and, third, he doesn’t
think about the Nobel Prize for
Literature. So, Deborah, please
don’t ask me about those three
things. I would be in trouble.

DEBORAH TREISMAN: You just

depleted my store of questions!


Actually, I wanted to start with
your most recent book, your new
novel, “ Killing Commendatore.”
The book is about a man whose
wife leaves him. He ends up
living in the home of an old
artist, a painter. Once he gets to
that house, many strange things
start to happen, and some of
them seem to emerge from a hole
in the ground—a kind of empty
well. I’m wondering how you
came up with this premise for the
Killing Commendatore
novel.

VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER

For the Love of Bread

It’s a big book, you know, and it


took a year and half or so for me
to write, but it started with just
one or two paragraphs. I wrote
those paragraphs down and put
them in the drawer of my desk
and forgot about them. Then,
maybe three months or six months
later, I got the idea that I could
turn those one or two paragraphs
into a novel, and I started to write.
I had no plans, I had no schedule,
I had no story line: I just started
from that paragraph or two and
kept on writing. The story led me
to the end. If you have a plan—if
you know the end when you start
—it’s no fun to write that novel.
You know, a painter may draw
sketches before he starts painting,
but I don’t. There is a white
canvas, I have this paintbrush, and
I just paint the picture.

There’s a character—or an idea—


in the novel that takes the shape
of the Commendatore from the
Mozart opera “Don Giovanni.”
Why is this idea—this character
—at the center of the book?

Usually I start my books with a


title. In this case, I had the title
“Killing Commendatore,” and I
had the first paragraphs of the
book, and I was wondering what
kind of story I could write with
them. There is no such thing as a
“Commendatore” in Japan, but I
felt the strangeness of the title and
I appreciated that strangeness very
much.

Is the opera “Don Giovanni”


important to you?

The character is very important to


me. I don’t use models, generally.
In my career, I’ve used a model for
a character only once—he was a
bad guy, somebody I didn’t like
much, and I wanted to write about
him, but just that once. All the
other characters in my books I
have made up from scratch, from
zero. Once I make up a character,
he or she moves automatically, and
all I have to do is watch him or
her moving around and talking
and doing things. I’m a writer, and
I’m writing, but at the same time I
feel as though I were reading some
exciting, interesting book. So I
enjoy the writing.

The main character in the book


listens to opera as well as various
other musical pieces that you
mention in the book. Often your
characters listen to specific bands
or genres of music. Does that
help you work out who they are?

I listen to music while I’m writing.


So music very naturally comes in
to my writing. I don’t think much
about what kind of music it is, but
the music is a kind of food to me.
It gives me energy to write. So I
write about music often, and
mostly I write about the music I
love. It’s good for my health.

The music keeps you healthy?

Yes, very much. Music and cats.


They have helped me a lot.

How many cats do you have?

None at all. I go jogging around


my house every morning and I
regularly see three or four cats—
they are friends of mine. I stop
and say hello to them and they
come to me; we know each other
very well.

When The New Yorker published


an excerpt from “Killing
Commendatore,” I asked you
about the unreal elements in your
work. You said, “When I’m
writing novels, reality and
unreality just naturally get mixed
together. It’s not as if that was my
plan and I’m following it as I
write, but the more I try to write
about reality in a realistic way, the
more the unreal world invariably
an excerpt from
emerges. For me, a novel is like a
I asked you
party. Anybody who wants to join
in can join in, and those who wish
to leave can do so whenever they
want.” So, how do you invite
people and things to this party?
Or how do you get to a place
when you’re writing where they
can come uninvited?

Readers often tell me that there’s


an unreal world in my work—that
the protagonist goes to that world
and then comes back to the real
world. But I can’t always see the
borderline between the unreal
world and the realistic world. So,
in many cases, they’re mixed up. In
Japan, I think that other world is
very close to our real life, and if we
decide to go to the other side it’s
not so difficult. I get the
impression that in the Western
world it isn’t so easy to go to the
other side; you have to go through
some trials to get to the other
world. But, in Japan, if you want to
go there, you go there. So, in my
stories, if you go down to the
bottom of a well, there’s another
world. And you can’t necessarily
tell the difference between this
side and the other side.

The other side is usually a dark


place?

Murakami in The NEW Yorker

Read fiction and essays by the author.

Not necessarily. I think it has more


to do with curiosity. If there is a
door and you can open it and
enter that other place, you do it.
It’s just curiosity. What’s inside?
What’s over there? So that’s what
I do every day. When I’m writing
a novel, I wake up around four in
the morning and go to my desk
and start working. That happens
in a realistic world. I drink real
coffee. But, once I start writing, I
go somewhere else. I open the
door, enter that place, and see
what’s happening there. I don’t
know—or I don’t care—if it’s a
realistic world or an unrealistic
one. I go deeper and deeper, as I
concentrate on writing, into a kind
of underground. While I’m there, I
encounter strange things. But
while I’m seeing them, to my eyes,
they look natural. And if there is a
darkness in there, that darkness
comes to me, and maybe it has
some message, you know? I’m
trying to grasp the message. So I
look around that world and I
describe what I see, and then I
come back. Coming back is
important. If you cannot come
back, it’s scary. But I’m a
professional, so I can come back.

And you bring things back with


you?

No, that would be scary. I leave


everything where it is. When I’m
not writing, I’m a very ordinary
person. I respect the daily routine.
I get up early in the morning. I go
to bed around nine o’clock, unless
the baseball game is still going.
And I run or I swim. I’m an
ordinary guy. So when I walk
down the street and somebody
says, “Excuse me, Mr. Murakami,
very nice to meet you,” I feel
strange, you know. I’m nothing
special. Why is he happy to meet
me? But I think that when I’m
writing I am kind of special—or
strange, at least.

You’ve told the story many times


about how, forty years ago, at a
baseball game, you suddenly
thought, I can write a novel,
though you hadn’t even tried to
write before that. And you said in
What
your memoir, “WhatWhat III Talk
Talk
Talk
About
About When
When III Talk
About When Talk About
Talk About
About
Running
Running,” “It felt as if something
Running
had come fluttering down from
the sky and I had caught it
cleanly in my hands.” That thing
was this ability to write—or
maybe just the idea that you
could try. Where do you think it
came from, and why did it come
to you, if you’re so ordinary?
What I Talk
About
A kind When I Talk About what it
of epiphany—that’s
Running
was. I love baseball, and I go to the
ballpark often. In 1978, when I
was twenty-nine, I went to the
baseball park in Tokyo to see my
favorite team, the Yakult Swallows.
It was opening day, a very sunny
day. I was watching the game and
the first batter hit a double, and at
that moment I got a feeling I
could write. Maybe I’d drunk too
much beer—I don’t know—but at
that time it was as if I’d had some
kind of epiphany. Before that I
hadn’t written anything at all. I
was the owner of a jazz club, and I
was so busy making cocktails and
sandwiches. I make very good
sandwiches! But after that game I
went to the stationery store and
bought some supplies, and then I
started writing and I became a
writer.

That was forty years ago. How


has writing changed for you in
that time?

I have changed a lot. When I


started writing, I didn’t know how
to write—I wrote in a very strange
way, but people actually liked it.
Now I don’t much care for my first
Hear
book, “Hear the
Hear the Wind
the Wind Sing
Sing”; it
Wind Sing
was too soon for me to publish.
Many years ago, I was sitting on
the train in Tokyo, reading a book,
and a very beautiful girl came over
to me and said, “Are you Mr.
Murakami?” “Yes, I’m Mr.
Murakami.” “I’m a great fan of
your books.” “Thank you so
much.” “And I have read all of
your books, and I love them.”
Hear the Wind Sing
“Thank you, I appreciate it.” Then
she said, “I loved your first book
the most—that’s the best one, I
think.” “Oh, you think so?” And
she said, “You have been getting
worse.” So I got used to criticism.
But I don’t agree. I think I’m
getting better. For forty years I
have been trying to get better, and
I think I have.

That girl on the train makes me


think of a jazz musician whose
name was Gene Quill. He was a
sax player who was famous in the
nineteen-fifties and sixties. And,
like any other sax player in those
days, he was very influenced by
Charlie Parker. One night, he was
playing at a jazz club in New York
and, as he was leaving the
bandstand, a young man came up
to him and said, “Hey, all you’re
doing is playing just like Charlie
Parker.” Gene said, “What?” “All
you’re doing is playing like Charlie
Parker.” Gene held out his alto sax,
his instrument, to the guy, and
said, “Here. You play just like
Charlie Parker!” I think there are
three points to this anecdote: one,
criticizing someone is easy; two,
creating something original is very
hard; three, but somebody’s got to
do it. I’ve been doing it for forty
years; it’s my job. I think I’m just a
guy who’s doing what somebody’s
got to do, like cleaning gutters or
collecting taxes. So, if someone is
hard on me, I will hold out my
instrument and say, “Here, you
play it!”

You’ve said that writing your first


two books was very easy, and then
it became a little harder after
that. What do you struggle with?

When I wrote those first two


books—“Hear the Wind Sing”
Pinball,
and “Pinball, 1973
1973”—I found it
Pinball, 1973
easy to write, but I wasn’t satisfied
with the books. I’m still not
satisfied with them. After I wrote
those two books, I became more
ambitious. I wrote “A A Wild
A Wild Sheep
Wild Sheep
Sheep
Chase
Chase”—my first full-length
Chase
novel. (The other two were more
like novellas.) That took time—
three or four years, I guess—and I
really had to dig a hole to get to
Pinball, 1973
the spring. So I think “A Wild
Sheep Chase” was the starting
point of my real career. The first
three years, I was writing while I
was working as the owner of a jazz
A Wild Sheep
club. I’d finish my work at two in
Chase
the morning and then sit down to
write at the kitchen table. That
was too much for me. After the
first two books, I decided that I
would sell the club and become a
full-time writer. But the jazz club
was doing well, and everybody
advised me not to sell it.

Don’t quit your day job!

Then I wrote “A Wild Sheep


Chase.” I wanted to write a big
book.

And was it easy to write the


bigger books, or was it more of a
challenge?

When I wrote “A Wild Sheep


Chase,” I was very excited, because
I didn’t know what was going to
happen next. I couldn’t wait for
the next day to come so that I
could find out what would happen
next. I wanted to turn the pages
but there were no pages. I had to
write them.

Do you ever have a day where you


have no idea what’s going to
happen next? You sit down and
you can’t write that day?

I haven’t experienced any writer’s


block. Once I sit at my desk, I