Last year, I spent three months in Japan. I’ve lived there before but I’d never travelled the northeast coastline. I leapt at the chance to catch train after train all the way up from Tokyo through Sendai, Matsushima, Hachinohe, Hakodate, deep into Hokkaido, and along the way, a clutch of fishing towns whose names are now all over the news.
In Japanese, that means “It’s been a long time”, and it has. I spent some of the last month travelling in Japan, some of it travelling home, and the rest of it trying to get used to being in Australia again and catching up on the many jobs which seemed to pile upon me the moment I touched down.
I should do a post-Japan wrap-up, but I’m not quite in that space yet. And I have a formal Asialink report to write which needs to take priority.
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.
We were walking, the duck and I, on our way up the hill to work on campus. The duck was riding, as he always does, in the mesh outer pocket of my backpack, the source of occasional stares, giggles, and some interesting conversations. If you want to break the ice in a strange place, I heartily recommend the “duck in pocket” strategy.
We were walking up the hill when we stopped in our (my) tracks. There were beady eyes upon us. Two pairs.
It looks like the penguins are coming.
My fondness for ducks is no secret. Neither is my tendency to find spurious reasons to write books about them. I’ve talked here before about how Duck the First is out in the world, Duck the Second is on is way, and Duck the Third is pecking at the thin walls of my writerly sanity, begging to be next.
Now I can officially announce that Duck the Second really is on its way. That it has a contract and an illustrator and pencil sketches and a projected publication date and all of the things that mean it is really, truly, going to be a book.
Last week I took off on the trail of a verse novel. I caught six trains for fifteen hours, going north to Tokyo, then north to Hachinohe, then north to Hakodate, then north to Sapporo. Hokkaido. 北海道. The north sea road.
There are few things I like more than settling onto a train (or six) and letting them carry me away and away and away, especially when every degree of away means further and further from cities and noise and rush hour subways.
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.
It’s official! Duck for a Day launched yesterday, 1 May. Since I’m in Japan, which makes it difficult to serve hors d’oeuvres and sign books in Australia, it launched not so much with a quack as with a whimper, but nonetheless it should be waddling its way to libraries and bookstores near you very shortly.