My First Novel

I grew up writing and telling stories.

When I was twelve, they were mostly Harry Potter style adventures. Not about wizards, but about average boys with normal fears and abnormal skills who face enemies and dangers best left for Superman to confront.

In my early teens they were mostly poetry. Depressing stuff. It was the late ‘70s. Post Watergate, post Vietnam and pre-Star Wars, in the thick of the Cold War and in the shadow of impending Armageddon. The world was clearly coming to an end.

Then I started writing my first novel, which I began when I was seventeen and finished when I was twenty eight. It was really lousy. But I finished it. It was a draining experience. Needless to say it was never published. I sent it to a distant relative, a busy professional script writer. I expected her only to read it and give me some feedback. Instead she just sent it to a publisher without taking a look at the contents. The publisher she chose was one of Japan’s most influential literary magazines, but also known as one of the most politically conservative. Bad news was that because it was a depressingly dark story with a tragic ending written by someone with a youthful disdain for all things in the establishment, it rubbed some people in a very wrong way. It was the sort of reaction you might expect if a script written for Bill Maher accidently landed on the desk of Bill O’Reilly. I got a hand written letter from the assistant chief editor dripping with rage. At least it touched somebody in a visceral way. The script writer dropped me like rotten meat of a dead rat. Never heard from her since.

The novel, in spite of having multiple flashbacks and too many subplots, took a very simple emotional trajectory. The reader would keep saying “No, don’t do that. No, don’t do that. No, don’t do that” until the story culminated in a complete drop-off-the-cliff disaster and despair. The only thing unpredictable about the ending is that it ends in exactly the disaster it is headed for. (You didn’t see that coming, did you?) When I started the story around 1980, I did not know where the story was headed. By the time the story was finished in 1991, the world was awash with the video camera obsession, and the alternate memory it generated for us. It sounds quaint now in the age of the internet, but video tape was the new, new thing back in the day. Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape came out in 1989. So it was inevitable that a video tape would be the final McGuffin, the key to unlock the mystery of lost memory. It sounded original at the time. The central theme was the consequences of self deception. It even had a teenage gay boy struggling to get out of the closet (in a Japanese novel in 1991!) who eventually commits a fiery suicide when he fails (yeah, it’s a 1990s Japanese novel). Some of the imagery was pretty cool. The suicidal kid sets fire to a shed where he grew rhinoceros beetles and thousands of huge burning beetles fill the night sky shooting green and orange sparks like fireworks. And the scene where the main character has sex with a girl with green lipstick while she plays numerous splatter movies on multiple screens on the wall of the video store and the bloody light from the screens in the darkened room makes her lips shine black as they mingled on the counter in an act which was, typically for teenagers, an act that was more mutual injury than joy. Overall though, it was, to put it charitably, a youthful effort.

After that, I went back to writing light hearted adventures, but never got published. When I first met my wife, I hooked her with the story of a man stranded in modern Egypt, tasked to deliver secret computer disks hidden in oversized shoes while trying to locate his kidnapped girlfriend. When I had children, I would ad lib bedtime stories, some of which I remembered to write down. Then, as my professional life got busier, I stopped writing.

From my late thirties, I started contributing essays and stories in English to my friend’s website. They were well received for a private website in the late ‘90s. Eventually, I got the idea that I might be able to write something in English. I kept dreaming about the idea but never put pen to paper. Meanwhile, I participated in the translation of technical books relating to my work English to Japanese and vice versa. I published some academic papers and contributed some book chapters. I co-authored a couple of non-fiction books relating to my profession.

Now I want to tell stories again. I have mellowed a lot over the years. I doubt I will ever again write the sort of manifesto novel of an angry teen on a self-destructive spiral that got me into trouble the last time. I also have learned, after so many failures, to look at my writing a little more objectively. There once was a time I would have scoffed at the idea of using a formula or plotting out an outline to a pre-specified story structure. I think I have grown out of such arrogance. And now, at 52, I am going back into writing. Love to you all and wish me luck.

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