On an afternoon in April 1978, Haruki Murakami was sitting in the stands of Jingu Stadium in Tokyo watching a baseball game when he suffered a life-changing epiphany. It happened just as a player from his home team hit a ball into left field, much to the delight of the home crowd. “At that moment,” he writes, “and without any basis, it suddenly hit me: I think I can write a novel.”
Within six months, Murakami had written his first book, a short novel titled Listen to the wind sing. He sent the only handwritten copy to Gunzo, a Japanese literary journal, and soon forgot about it. Upon learning that he had been shortlisted for Gunzo‘s prestigious New Writers Award, he went for a walk with his wife and experienced another unlikely epiphany. It happened right after he rescued an injured pigeon he found in an alley and cradled the frightened bird in his arms. “That’s when it hit me,” he recalls in novelist as a vocation, a collection of essays on writing, inspiration and creativity, “I Was Going to Win the Prize. And I was going to be a somewhat successful novelist.
The book, which is a very personal guide to writing fiction peppered with biographies and opinions, contains a handful of weird and oddly revealing moments like these, where his experiences read more like passages from his novels than like facts. What’s more, they’re told in a factual manner that echoes the deceptively simple conversational style of his fiction, which often shifts from almost mundane to mysterious without any appreciable shift in tone. He describes it at one point as a “no frills natural style”, but which he arrived at in a typically unorthodox way: after failing miserably in his first attempt to write what would become Listen to the wind sing, he started from scratch, writing not in his native Japanese, but in English. “My vocabulary was severely limited, as was my mastery of English syntax,” he writes, and yet when he translated his words into Japanese, the short, simple sentences created by these self-imposed limitations possessed “a rhythm distinctive”.
For the past 35 years, Murakami’s no-frills style has underpinned often wildly inventive stories. The dynamic transformed him from a cult novelist to a literary phenomenon in Japan, where he is a reluctant superstar, and internationally. For a relatively late starter – he was 30 when his first book was published – he’s been incredibly productive, with 15 novels and several non-fiction collections under his belt so far. Often, as in novels like A wild sheep hunt (1989) and The chronicle of birds to go up (1997), he draws on elements of fantasy, science fiction, and traditional Japanese mythology, while creating characters that seem as ordinary and unassuming as he is, aside from their eccentricities and neuroses and strange parallel worlds they suddenly find themselves inhabiting.
The results offended purists in his native Japan and abroad, and Murakami was called, often negatively, a writer of magic realism. Here he evokes the lukewarm critical reception his writing has received, but characteristically ignores it. “Some people really like them, and some people don’t. It takes all kinds. That laid-back, ordinary attitude characterizes a lot of the writing here.
For all his examples of inspired creative idiosyncrasy, novelist as a vocation is in many ways a very down-to-earth delineation of the novelist’s vocation. In it, Murakami lays bare his disciplined approach and personal rituals. He writes four or five hours a day on a computer in one sitting, stopping when he’s finished between 10 and 11 pages, even though he’s on a creative streak. He always travels somewhere outside of Japan to write his novels to avoid the myriad distractions of his homeland, and what he enjoys most is the endless “tinkering” that follows the completion of novels. a final project. We also learn that he’s basically an outsider – “I’ve never been comfortable in groups or any sort of collective action with others” – albeit happy and level-headed. If it hadn’t been for his “innate ability” to write fiction, he insists, he would have “lived an undefinable ordinary life in a quite ordinary way”. That he didn’t do this continues to be a source of astonishment to him.
In the end, as with his previous non-fiction book, What am I talking about when I talk about running (participating in marathons and listening attentively to jazz, classical and rock are his other passions), novelist as a vocation is a series of intriguing glimpses inside Murakami’s singular mind. He approaches running and writing instinctively and intuitively, slowly honing his skills with a mixture of discipline and tenacity. “As I run,” he wrote, “I feel like that’s not all. There are something more important deeper into the race. But it’s not at all clear to me what it is…” Writing novels in which the characters “emerge naturally from the flow of the story” is also a way of engaging and trusting that something. something more important that lies deeper in the unconscious. For Murakami, it paid off.