A Q&A with Yoko Ogawa
1. When and how do you write? What time of day? Pencil, pen, or word processor? Do you have any rituals you conduct before or after a writing session?
I start around 9:00am and finish around 5:00pm. During those hours, I sit at my desk and write and think and daydream, and then write some more. I write on a computer. I usually walk the dog before I sit down to work; after I’m done writing, I mark the number of pages I’ve produced on the calendar.
2. Your work has been well received by American critics and readers, it seems to transcend culture in many ways. Why do you think your books, which at times are quite surreal, nonetheless translate smoothly into other languages and cultures?
My work begins at the level of images that form in my mind; from those images, settings and characters take shape. But it’s not particularly important to me what country the story is set in or what language the characters are speaking. My goal, in fact, is to create people and places that exist solely in and for the world of my novel. If the result of this process is that my work can be read and appreciated by people in other countries, then nothing could please me more.
3. In The Diving Pool, you show normal people committing acts of casual cruelty; in Hotel Iris, your characters engage in sexual practices that to many people would seem perverse. Yet you extend tremendous empathy toward these characters, and never portray them as deviant or evil. Talk about what it means to create empathic characters, and why you have written about people who traditionally are difficult for readers to empathize with.
It can happen at times that you are drawn into something for no particular reason—or for no reason at all—and afterward can find no way back. It can happen that you suddenly do something foolish, something you had no intention of doing. I feel that a novel has the ability to describe the nature of these random acts—that lack of motivation. For me, one of the fundamental values of fiction is its power to express the inexplicable and the absurd.
4. Your stories have approached the subjects of math, baseball, chess, translation and sado-masochism. It is interesting how your characters almost obsessively pursue their interests in these subjects. What do you think causes obsessive behavior, and why is it so interesting to read and write about it?
I feel that fiction is basically an investigation into the human heart. But if it simply struggles endlessly with the ambiguities and anxieties that are the normal condition of that heart, then it reveals little. To depict the human situation more clearly, the novel has to probe the external worlds to which human hearts give rise. In the case of my own work, mathematics and chess became guideposts in my attempts to discover the outside world. A mathematical formula or a chessboard can be seen as a mirror that reflects all aspects of our inner life. At times, I feel that Euler’s formula or the move of a bishop on the board can express human emotion much more effectively than words such as “loneliness” or “sadness” or “anger.” I write and read fiction as part of a search for something that goes far beyond words.
5. Your books show incredible range. While Housekeeper and the Professor is sweet and poignant, The Diving Pool and Hotel Iris take us to almost unspeakably dark places. Why do you write in these two realms, and what inspires you to move from one to the other?
When I was still relatively young, I think I had a tendency to want to explore—unearth perhaps—the dark side of human nature. But since I turned forty, my attention has gradually been drawn to celebrating people who are striving to do right—though without abandoning what I learned from the darkness. But the change is not just a matter of age; I think the themes in my recent work have dictated this shift to a large extent. For example, the nobility and eternity of numbers themselves have the ability to drive out the darkness. I only hope that the themes I take up in the future will lead me still further in this exploration.
6. Talk about how you came to write Hotel Iris, what was its impetus?
This is a novel that began with a place. I was staying at a seaside hotel in a small town in France, and there was a tiny island off shore that was only visible at low tide. As I watched that island come and go, the various scenes in the novel took shape in my head.
7. In Hotel Iris, the character Mari at first seems rather simple, but turns out to be surprisingly complex – her role in the relationship with the translator is submissive, but she is also willful and full of desire. Would you talk a little about Mari and what moved you to write about her? Were your intensions a little subversive? And how much power does she have over her circumstances?
My purpose in writing Hotel Iris was not to describe Mari but to use her to depict the elderly translator. She is not so much the protagonist of the novel as a character who is given a role as the translator’s sole companion for his final days. She is a witness tasked with preserving the memory that a person such as the translator existed in this world. Her submissiveness is, I think, an act she puts on in order to grant the translator his final wish. At some point in the novel, she even begins to seem motherly in relation to the old man. You could say that her encounter with the translator makes her suddenly become an adult (though I do not mean this in the sexual sense).
8. In many of your books, the characters are unnamed. What does it mean to create characters without a name and why do you choose to do it?
At the level of image, where my fiction begins, I have no idea where the characters come from or even whether they are living or dead. So it is beyond my abilities to give them names.
9. Your stories, which are very elegantly constructed, rarely offer easy answers. Sometimes they end ambiguously, or with a sense that reality is not something of which we can always be certain. Would you talk about why this ambiguity is a part of how you tell a story?
Since I have almost no plan or outline before I begin writing a story, I have no way of predicting how it will end up. As result, I suppose the endings can seem “ambiguous.” My happiest moment, however, comes when I get to enjoy the surprise of seeing how my story has turned out.
10. Food can be both expressive and quite dangerous in your books, especially in The Diving Pool, but also in Hotel Iris. Why does food have such menace?
When I was young, I ate very little, and my mother nearly went crazy trying to feed me. I suppose the memories of that period still revive an association between food and some sort of psychic danger.
11. The Housekeeper and the Professor is all about forming a family where one did not exist. The family in Hotel Iris is also fractured, as are many of the families in The Diving Pool. What is your point of view on families? What does it mean to create a family in fiction?
One of the constant themes in my work is the problem of “deficient excess.” Something that should, by all rights, exist is lacking, while the extraneous thing that is left achieves a kind of warped excess. When I look back at my work thus far, I’ve described this sort of family over and over. I can’t say it was by design—it has just happened that way.
12. Although only three of your books have so far been translated, you have written nearly twenty. Talk about your prolific output, and how you write with such consistency and discipline?
It is a simple matter of diligence. This tenacity has kept me writing for the past twenty years.
13. Is any of your work autobiographical?
No, none, and I doubt I will write anything autobiographical in the future. If only because there are so many people in the world who are far more interesting than I am.
14. What are your favorite books and authors? Who are your influences?
Yasunari Kawabata, Abe Kobo, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Paul Auster. I love everything they’ve written.
15. What are your favorite films?
Some that come to mind, in no particular order: The Tin Drum, Sophie’s Choice, La Strada, Death in Venice. . . .
16. What do you do when you are not writing?
I walk our dog, and knit, and watch baseball on TV.
17. Have you ever had another job? What would you do if you were not a writer?
I was a secretary at a hospital before I started writing. If I weren’t a writer, I’m sure I would be doing something else, but even if no one read them, I suspect I would still be writing stories.