What books are on your night stand?
Michael Connelly’s “The Brass Verdict.” It’s a hard-bound copy I bought for a dollar in a used bookstore in Honolulu. It’s hard to put down once I start reading. Price isn’t everything, of course, but is there any other form of entertainment that provides so much enjoyment for a dollar?
What’s the last great book you read?
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon.” My translation of it into Japanese was published earlier this year. Translation is the ultimate close reading. As I read this novel, line by line, I was impressed all over again by how amazing the writing is. The dignity never wavers, and it says everything that needs to be said. Fitzgerald grew and evolved as a writer all the way up to his death. I know it’s pointless to say this, but I only wish he could have finished the novel.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Dostoyevsky’s “A Raw Youth.” I carry a paperback in my bag and have been making my way through it. There are several other Dostoyevsky works I’ve yet to read. The same goes for Balzac.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I suppose it was back when I lived in Greece and was reading John Fowles’s “The Magus” on a sunny terrace, all the while petting a neighborhood cat. Since the island I lived on happened to be the setting of the novel. The cat was optional, however.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Kazuo Ishiguro. He’s a novelist I’m very fond of, his new books are always worth waiting for, and he’s very personable.
You’ve said that as a young writer you found your voice by translating Chandler and maybe Hemingway and other writers from the Western canon. What did you get out of their work, and do you still read them today?
I’ve translated all of Chandler’s novels but haven’t tried my hand at any of Hemingway’s. I’ve also translated all of Raymond Carver’s work — the short stories, poems and essays. I’ve learned a lot through this process, of course, but the greatest thing I’ve understood is that outstanding writing has to have a definite sense of drive. A power to propel the reader onward.
While I’m writing a novel, I often translate fiction. It’s a nice change of pace, an excellent way to make a mental switch. Translating uses a different part of the brain from composing a novel, so it keeps one side of my brain from wearing out.
What books would you recommend to somebody who wants to understand present-day Japan?
The same trend is found almost everywhere, I think, but in Japan, too, women writers — especially those of the younger generation — are quite active in publishing novels and are gaining a large, receptive readership. Personally, I like Mieko Kawakami’s novel “Natsu Monogatari” (“Summer Tales”). She has such sensitivity as a writer and is a deeply committed storyteller. This novel was translated and published in English in 2020 under the title “Breasts and Eggs.”
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
It’s an interesting question, but I’ve never really thought about it. Writing a lengthy novel is a job that takes time and patience over the long haul, and it’d be kind of disruptive if I had to give up reading the books I want to read while I’m writing. I can’t really think of any genre or variety of book I feel I should avoid reading. I read all sorts of genres while I’m writing a novel, the same as always, and though they might occasionally provide some small hint for my own writing, I’m not directly influenced by them. (At least I don’t think so.)
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
What I look for is the flow of the story. (The same is true when I’m writing.) So sometimes I find it hard to read novels — intellectual novels, you might call most of them — where that narrative flow is missing. But if the novel flows along too smoothly, too easily, that makes me uneasy as well. In that sense perhaps Gabriel García Márquez and Raymond Chandler — or a mix of the two — would be my idea of the ideal novelist.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
Since I enjoy music I like reading biographies of musicians, or their autobiographies. One I read recently that I particularly enjoyed was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”
How do you organize your books?
My record collection is carefully, painstakingly, organized, but with books things are more haphazard. They often elude me, and I can’t locate what I’m looking for. I’m not so interested in collecting books, so once I’ve read one, I generally don’t keep it around.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Tom Lord’s 34-volume “The Jazz Discography.” It takes up a lot of space and I imagine most people would find it unnecessary to own, but for jazz collectors it’s a real treasure, the painstaking result of years of work. Nowadays you can search things online, but in the past the only choice was to get hold of this entire set. I don’t just look things up in it, but often enjoy randomly flipping through the pages.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I was a voracious reader of any book I could lay my hands on. I loved reading more than anything (to the point where schoolwork didn’t interest me anymore). Thankfully, our home was full of books, and I worked my way through them all. The one I remember best is Ueda Akinari’s “Ugetsu Monogatari” (“Tales of Moonlight and Rain”), a version adapted for children. It’s a collection of ghost stories published in 1776, and I remember how much it terrified me. I think that dark world impacted me quite a bit.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
With newly published books I tend now to prefer reading nonfiction more than fiction.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
My apologies, but I’m not big on dinner parties.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
The books I try not to pick up, and don’t want to read, are ones I wrote myself and published in the past. When I reread them, there’s always something that leaves me feeling disappointed, and dissatisfied. Though it does make me want to do better with my next work. One problem with not rereading my own work, though, is I steadily forget what I’ve written. Interviewers ask me specific questions about specific parts in my books that leave me puzzled. “Did I really write that?” I wonder.
Books other than my own I give up on? There are a lot (though I don’t want to give any actual titles). When I was younger, I’d forge on to the end, but as I’ve gotten older I give up on them, since I don’t want to waste my time.
What do you plan to read next?
Once I finish the book I’m reading now, I’m going to take my time and think about the next one. I’d like to hold on to that anticipation, the pleasure of choosing what comes next.
Translated by Philip Gabriel