Haruki Murakami on how to be a novelist

It can’t be easy to emulate Haruki Murakami, but his essays help us better appreciate his fiction

Updated - November 20, 2022 04:42 pm IST

Published - November 18, 2022 09:02 am IST

When working on a novel, Haruki Murakami writes roughly 10 Japanese manuscript pages a day. 

When working on a novel, Haruki Murakami writes roughly 10 Japanese manuscript pages a day.  | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It was a bright afternoon in April in 1978, recalls Haruki Murakami, and he was at a baseball game in Tokyo. Blue skies, cold beer, a green field. Life had to be good. But he was pushing 30, and as often happens to folks at the approach of that milestone, thoughts such as “Time just slips away” had been sloshing around in his mind. And, as you’d expect in a Murakami novel, though this was real life, at a particularly perfect sports moment in the game, “In that instant, and based on no grounds whatsoever, it suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.”

The rest, you could say, is history. Murakami heeded the thought and wrote Hear the Wind Sing. It won applause. He went on to write more and ever bigger novels, exploring the depths of the human psyche, expressing himself in a new and characteristically individual idiom, to the point that bookies are probably tiring of surveying the odds every year on him wining the Nobel Prize in Literature.

More than three decades

In a collection of short essays, Novelist as a Vocation (Vintage), he explores the journey. Translated into English by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen, this collection was first published in the original Japanese in 2015, and a short introduction lengthens the arc to June 2022. In it, Murakami says it continues to amaze him that for more than 35 years, he has continued to write novels (“it really does”), and his aim in the book is “to hold onto the purity of that feeling of amazement”. As he did with his running memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he shares that amazement with his readers by walking us through the nuts-and-bolts of the process. It may not drive most of us to flip open our laptops and start typing out a novel, but it definitely gives us readers another register to appraise a novelist’s work.

Novelists, he points out, are among the few “tribes” who do not guard their turf. They do not seek credentials for anyone to join their ranks. It’s not just the specialists — even by his limited experience, Murakami notes how he was “raked over the coals by professionals” when he first forayed into literary translations, or when he wrote a work of non-fiction, Underground, on a gas attack in Tokyo. But for most novelists, it’s the next step that’s more difficult — having produced one or two novels, “to keep producing, to live off one’s writing, to survive”. It is, avers Murakami, “a Herculean task”.

Mental toughness

That is the “vocation” Murakami seeks to give an account of, “to keep on writing novels year after year”. It takes, as he has written elsewhere too, physical fitness, “to make your body your ally”. It’s not just that fitness helps one sit through a long day at the desk. To tell a story, a novelist descends “to the darkest realms of the mind”. It takes mental toughness to explore the dark realms, to keep digging, and then to emerge from that depth and darkness — day after day. Being as physically fit as one can be helps. It’s part of the vocation, he implies.

Speaking from experience, Murakami also writes on making time his ally. It needs another sort of discipline. So, when working on a novel, he says he writes roughly 10 Japanese manuscript pages a day (that is, about 1,600 English words). No more, no less. On good days, he will stop himself at that limit; on bad days he will pull himself along to meet the target. Thereupon, once the first draft is out, he has a cascade of revisions, each one with a specific purpose, with designated rests in between to clear his head. At each step, when someone flags a passage for a relook, whether he agrees with the comments or not, he will rewrite it — perhaps not as the pre-publication reviewer intended it, but it will be rewritten nonetheless.

Truly a Herculean task, but at the book’s end, you cannot help but share Murakami’s amazement.


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