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Joy and Surprise: An Interview with Haruki Murakami


A bestseller internationally, Haruki Murakami is frequently mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature on the basis of several spectacular novels, including Kafka on the Shore, A Wild Sheep Chase, and my personal favorite The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. As has been widely noted, Murakami’s fiction often has a luminous and somewhat surreal or fantastical quality as a natural part of the novelist’s worldview. His fiction also almost always features cats, sometimes in mysterious roles.

At 925 pages, Murakami’s latest novel 1Q84 features all of these trademarks, including the cats, but on a much more massive scale. There has been some resistance to that scale from some reviewers, perhaps because the length tends to further emphasize and highlight the open-ended nature of Murakami’s approach to fiction. However, careful and immersive readers will love this mind-bending story. What is 1Q84 “about”? I’m afraid it’s one of those novels where any pat description fails to convey the true essence and its capacity for brilliant digressions feeding back into the main story. But perhaps the publisher’s description—which calls it a love story, a fantasy, a dystopia, and a novel of self-discovery—is as good a starting point as any:

The year is 1984 and the city is Tokyo. A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 —“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.

As Aomame’s and Tengo’s narratives converge over the course of this single year, we learn of the profound and tangled connections that bind them ever closer: a beautiful, dyslexic teenage girl with a unique vision; a mysterious religious cult that instigated a shoot-out with the metropolitan police; a reclusive, wealthy dowager who runs a shelter for abused women; a hideously ugly private investigator; a mild-mannered yet ruthlessly efficient bodyguard; and a peculiarly insistent television-fee collector.

1Q84 cover

1Q84 was originally published in Japanese in a shorter version, with a third part added later. For English publication, the novel was translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, both of whom have done an excellent job with Murakami’s fiction in the past. The book’s design by Chip Kidd is nothing short of brilliant, with a lovely onion-skin dust jacket complementing the images printed on the boards, an arresting visual approach to the front matter, and a readable, mischievous approach to the format of the interior pages. An Amazon Book of the Year, 1Q84 is in all ways a wonderful experience for book lovers, and a great gift for the holidays.

Recently, I conducted a short interview with Murakami via email—about his worldview, 1Q84, and, of course, cats. The answers have been translated from the original Japanese by Gregor Hartmann, who notes that the author answered the questions in “a casual conversational way,” using the more casual 僕 rather than the formal 私.” Hartmann has tried to reproduce that tone in his translation….

Jeff VanderMeer for In your novels, the strange or surreal is usually not given any special emphasis: it simply exists, along with everything else. Is this your perception of the real world? That, to some extent, it is far stranger than we usually notice?

Haruki Murakami: It’s not that I’m trying to introduce into the story surrealistic things and situations that I became aware of. I’m just trying to portray things that are real to me, myself, a little more realistically. However, the harder I try to realistically portray real things, the more the things that appear in my work have a tendency to become unreal. To put it another way, by viewing it through an unreal lens, the world looks more real. That sort of thing happens quite frequently when I write a novel.

There was a time when the phrase “Magic Realism” was often used, but I imagine that even Garcia Marquez himself would have said that the stories he wrote perhaps were just simple “realism.” Perhaps they seemed “magical” to the average reader or critic. In my case, too, it’s probably the same. Some reviewers are calling 1Q84 a dystopian novel, no doubt because of the title. Is this the correct entry point for the reader, in your opinion? You don’t strike me as an overtly political writer.

Murakami: I don’t think of this novel as a “utopia” or a “dystopia.” Since you brought that up, this world itself in which we live is a “dystopia.” Right now I’m writing this in the lounge of an airport in Hawaii, and the airport’s security check is definitely an Orwellian world, an extreme dystopia. If you don’t take off your belt, remove your shoes, put your chewing gum through the scanner, raise both arms and turn around, you can’t board the plane. In response to this, none of the airport personnel give you a word of thanks. And we have to pay such high air fares... When the real world operates this way, why would you have to write a “dystopian novel” that goes even farther?

Whatever I write is nothing more than a personal retelling of my personal history. The world that comes from having rewritten history in this way is a world that isn’t particularly happy or unhappy. You could say it’s real, you could say it’s me. That’s how I interpret it. Even for you, 1Q84 is wonderfully labyrinthine and complex. While you were writing the novel, did you outline at all, keep it straight all in your head, or…?

Murakami: I don’t think about an outline when I’m writing a novel. Not one thought whatsoever. That’s because if you start thinking about an outline, you lose most of the joy of writing a novel. “What’s going to happen next?” “What in the world does this mean?” This pure curiosity is what drives me forward, day after day. The days without that sort of curiosity are wretched, tedious days. I spent close to three years writing this novel. The quality of my life varied greatly according to whether I spent the days of those three years in joy or if I spent them in tedium. By which I mean I always start with a blank sheet of paper in my head.

Like a reader who keeps turning the pages while excitedly thinking “What’s going to happen next?” I want to keep writing my own novel while excitedly thinking “What’s going to happen next?” That’s the ideal. Some questions raised in 1Q84 go unanswered by the end of the novel. In general, what do you feel is important to provide in terms of closure and what is less important?

Murakami: In this novel there is a “pre-story” and a “post-story.” These already were present in my head, to some extent. They’re vague, but they have mass. I might write these stories some time, or I might not write them. I think probably I won’t. Still, in any event, these pre- and post-stories slumber inside me. Also, you yourself have the right to create your own version of the “pre-story” and the “post-story.” That’s how I think.

A story is exactly the same as your or my life. There is a “pre-story” and a “post-story.” And even after you and I die, a number of deep mysteries remain. How has your own perception of 1Q84 changed since you finished the final, longer version, and do you re-read your own novels after publication?

Murakami: I never reread my own works after they’ve been published. Finishing writing a long novel is the same as ending a marriage. Once it’s over, you can’t return to the beginning again (generally speaking). All you can do is go on to the next. However, when it comes to my own personal situation, I’ve been married to the same woman for 40 years. Time Magazine recently provided a list of your novels ranked by the number of cat appearances in them. When you were a beginning writer, is this one of the future realities you anticipated, and do you find it funny or odd that someone was tasked with counting Murakami cats?

Murakami: Until writing my first novel, at the age of 29, I hadn’t given any thought to the possibility that I might become a novelist. Until then, to earn a living, I was mixing cocktails and making sandwiches every day. By chance I wrote a novel, and it was published, and without anything changing (at least, I didn’t realize the change) I became a novelist. Even now, when I introduce myself as a novelist, I feel a little awkward. Uncomfortable, even.

Still, what delights and astonishes me more than anything else are chance meetings, all around the world, with avid readers of my novels. That makes me prouder than any fine prize or award.

Why it is that this sort of thing occurs, I don’t know. However, the most important thing to me is to write novels that have joy and surprises. If I can do that—if I can do it well—perhaps the reader too will be given the chance to read a novel that has joy and surprises.

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It feels amazing to live with such a person on the same planet and at the same time; it is amazing to be his friend on Facebook and to be able to “like” his books. It is real and surreal at the same time. Reading “1Q84” overwhelmed me with its “impossible to outline in advance” grandeur. Finishing the novel, I was left with a question – what do I read next?

Great interview. I'm an avid fan and I got particular pleasure from reading that Murakami writes without an outline. Whenever I read a Murakami book I get exactly this feeling; that I'm there with the narrator, and neither of us knows what's going to happen next.

I really enjoyed this interview; the idea that Murakami writes without planning too much ahead, that he is just as excited to found out what happens next, is a lovely thing. And, though it probably shouldn't continue to surprise me when it happens, it always seems to surprise me when I read that an immensely talented (and successful) writer (and translator!) such as Murakami still feels a bit awkward when he introduces himself as a "novelist" even though he is one of the very, very highest order. It's a fairly common story, I think, and I wonder why that is. Anyway. Thanks for this interview, Omni (and Jeff)!

A wonderful holiday present for me today, finding this interview with our world's greatest living novelist. Thank you, Jeff VanderMeer, Amazon and most of all, Senor Murakami, for this insightful and luminous interview. I loved reading every word. You've given us so much for the holdiays, 1Q84, and now this, insights into your world and yourself and the generosity and joy that motivates you to give so much to your readers. Senor Murakami, you are so young and vital, surely there will be time for you to win that Nobel Prize yet. We who love you and your literary gifts to us, we cheer for you year after year and, I believe it won't be long before you do win it. The whole round world knows you deserve the Nobel Prizw. I ask myself, if this is what he has given us now, what will we get five or ten or fifteen years from now? I am astonished and I know, even writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he must surely be astonished by you too. Thank you for this and happy, wonderful holidays to you all! I loved reading this interview more than I can possibly say.

I think life once lived sounds uninteresting, but when written down, can make wonderful even unrealistic stories. That's what I love about Haruki Murakami's books: there's a hidden sense and wonderful story in everything, we just have to notice it.
I'm waiting for more, even more compelling novels.

I have been a Murakami fanatical fan since reading his first novel translated into English, A Wild Sheep Chase. I just finished 1Q84 and found myself underlining many parts. His use of metaphor and simile is like no other.

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