On the weekend, I went down to Kakamigahara, in Gifu Prefecture. I was doing research for my novel, The Last Wild Thing, but while I was there, I was able to catch up with one of my host families, from my time as a high-school exchange student. In the usual spirit of Japanese hospitality, they treated me to many things, among them participation in a pottery class, a hobby my host father has recently taken an interest in.
When the class began, I was asked what I wanted to make. During the class, it was suggested that I begin working the clay only once I had a clear idea of what I was aiming for. After the class, I was asked what I had made.
Thinking about all of this later, I realised something interesting – that without thinking about it, I had approached the clay exactly as I approach the writing of a novel. That I had set out without any idea of where it was I was heading. That when I had stopped and tried to be ‘sensible’ and do some advance planning I had been completely at a loss. That there was no way I could make a plan without actually beginning the process. That what I needed to do was begin, to get my hands moving and the wheel turning and see what happened.
Okay, that was a little mean. So here’s a rough English translation:
What set Yutaka Sawada, a doctor’s son, on the path to circus life was his excitement and fascination at seeing the Yokoda Troupe perform in Asakusa. Abandoning the path towards becoming a doctor, he left home in pursuit of the Yokoda Troupe and found himself on a boat, crossing the ocean to perform in Russia.
It was 1902 and he was sixteen years old.
While I forge ahead on the verse novel, I’ve also been doing research for the adult novel I’m in the early stages of developing. One of my tasks has been to nut out details of the background for my main Japanese character, a circus performer touring Australia during WWII. It’s fiction, so I have a lot of license, but it’s historical, so I want to get the details as ‘right’ as possible so the story rings true.
So I’ve got this circus performer – an acrobat – and I’ve been asking myself what kind of background such a person would come from in 1940s Japan? I had this idea that my character would be from an educated family, someone who’s expected to go on to higher education and a ‘respectable’ profession but is so drawn by the lure of the circus that he turns his back on all that. I’ve been reading and reading and talking to people and following tiny snippets of information down neverending rabbit holes and the clear consensus seemed to be that this was not realistic, that those who ended up in the performing life were either born into it, sold into it, or stumbled into it out of poverty and necessity, that a well-bred son in this era would not-could not do such a thing.
Well, it’s been almost three weeks since I arrived and I am feeling well and truly settled into a happy balance of writing, reading, tramping about and random other stuff. My neighbourhood of Motoyama has turned out to be very congenial indeed – urban and convenient but with regular pockets of green and stillness in the form of local shrines and other ‘time out’ spaces, something I find very necessary living in such close quarters with others. I find myself enjoying the more communal sense of space in Japan, the constant awareness that there is only a thin layer between your own space and that of many, many others, but as it is at such odds with what I’m generally used to I do need regular respite from it as well, and to actively seek out open space around me.
Writing-wise, I’m making good headway on my two projects. My adult novel, The Last Wild Thing, is still in the research and development stage at this point but I figure I have one last major burst of reading to do and can then start to make some real inroads into the writing. My YA project, a verse novel, is steaming ahead in a very satisfactory way and getting my teeth stuck into some poems in a wider narrative context is giving me a lot of pleasure.
I have been planning a post with this title for some time now. I want to talk about the reactions people have had to discovering that I’m going to Japan to write a novel for adults. Oh, wow.
But the truth is that I’m leaving today – in a few short hours in fact – and as expected, all my preparations have taken much longer than expected (yes, it’s a paradox, but a good one, I think), so those thoughts will have to wait. For now, I must eat, pack, and freak out just a little, then haul myself to the airport.
So I will leave you instead with this most wondrous of things:
A new journal, from my sweeties, to fill with Japan musings. What could be better – a trip elsewhere, a long stretch of writing time unrolling ahead of me, and a brand spanking new journal?
Hey, my blog speaks Japanese!
If you can read the title of this post, come and meet me in Japan, because that’s where I’ll be very soon.
Over the last few months I’ve used various euphemisms to allude to this news: “something else exciting, yet to be announced”; “a forthcoming writing-related trip”; “a bunch of other bits and pieces”; “other news on the horizon which is the current source of both excitement and blind panic”.
It is still all of those things, the last one most acutely. But now there has been a formal announcement, so I can at least spill the edamame:
I am thrilled to be the recipient of an Asialink Literature Residency and will be spending three months in Nagoya from April-July.