cherry blossom

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“I want you to write me two sides of A4 on the subject of cherry blossom. No cliches.” That was the challenge set me by my former agent, the late William Miller. It was fourteen years ago, and I’d contacted him to see if he could find a publisher for some Japanese literary translations I’d done. He couldn’t, but he must have seen something in me when he set me this task, which turned into my first short story and set me off down this novel-writing path.

It’s cherry blossom season in Japan right now. Television weather forecasts will be giving daily updates on the “pink line,” showing the state of the blossom across the country, and confirming mankai no hi, “full-bloom day”—when the blossoms will be at their peak in your area. And for about two weeks around full-bloom day the whole country will be out under the cherry trees every night, drinking, eating, and singing. Mainly drinking. The most popular blossom-viewing spots will be carpeted with blue tarpaulin as revellers stake out their patch. How can you make sure you get the prime spot for your company cherry blossom party? Easy—just order the youngest lads in the office to lay out the tarp at the crack of dawn and guard it all day. I’m not sure whether I’d love this job or hate it, but the above image, taken when I was out for an early-morning run, is one of my favourites. So is the one below, taken at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine.

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You’re Beautiful: the story of a novel, part ten

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Japan is a country of natural disasters. Earthquakes, volcanos, typhoons, tsunamis. Earthquakes particularly, and particularly in Tokyo, which is built “atop the junction of three tectonic plates” (thanks, National Geographic), and is constantly shifting around. During the fifteen years I lived in Tokyo I became reasonably blasé about the regular tremors, although there would always be that split second where you’d think, oh shit, this is the big one. But it never was. Until it was. A cold, grey March afternoon, my seventh floor flat rolling and pitching like a ship on a stormy sea. I thought I was going to die. Then the equally terrifying aftermath: tsunami, nuclear meltdown, food and water shortages, constant aftershocks, and the names of the dead, thousands of them, scrolling along the bottom of the TV screen in the days that followed.

There are no earthquakes in my Bath Novel Award shortlisted novel You’re Beautiful, which is set in Japan. But the climactic final scene takes place in a typhoon—such a regular phenomenon of late summer and early autumn that there is nothing in my typhoon description that would make the reader connect the event to a particular year. In fact the story, which I started writing in 2008 and finished a few years later, didn’t mention any dates. It was just vaguely contemporary. When the first draft of the book was written and I was making sure the ages of the characters were consistent, I decided on 2008 as the year when the story took place, but I didn’t feel the need to make the date explicit to the reader. Little did I know that I would have to wait for nine years for the book to be taken on by an agent. And my super-sharp agent quite rightly thought it was odd that the story should take place in 2008 for no reason other than that was when I first put finger to keyboard. After some discussion we settled on the summer of 2011, a date that has some relevance to the life of lonely misfit John Lennon Tanaka, the protagonist of You’re Beautiful. And following my agent’s advice I inserted some references to key events of that year: the royal wedding, the death of Amy Winehouse, and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which was exactly six years today.

He flicks through the channels on the tiny television, pausing for a moment on footage of a wintry town gradually disappearing beneath a roiling surge of icy grey water. The after-effects of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that had struck northeastern Japan five months ago still dominate the news. On the day he’d arrived here at the end of April, the first thing he’d seen when he switched on the TV was a huge wave breaching a sea wall. He’d spent several jetlagged hours channel surfing between images of tsunami devastation, of nuclear reactors billowing white smoke, and the surreal pantomime of the wedding of William and Kate, which had just taken place. He was no royalist, but on that day he found something inspiring in the wedding ritual, with its vows of love and unity. It seemed to him like a beacon of hope amidst the barrage of apocalyptic scenes, and a message that his own hopes and dreams had every chance of coming true.

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Sitting tight

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More than a month has elapsed since my last post, but I have a really good excuse—I’ve been working on revisions to my Bath Novel Award shortlisted novel, You’re Beautifulfor my agent. And last week the revisions were finally completed and the novel was sent out to publishers. All I have to do now, says my agent, is “sit tight.”

So, while sitting tight, more numb than nervous to have finally got to this stage in my writing career, here is a nice Japan image—although not related to You’re Beautiful. I chose it for its topicality: the new sumo grand champion is the first native Japanese champ for almost twenty years. Also, we’re still in January and this is actually a New Year scene: sumo wrestlers always get involved in New Year celebrations. I took this photo one New Year many years ago, at Takashimaya department store in Shinjuku where they’d set up a sumo ring and these guys were inviting little kids, shopping with their parents, to step into the ring and wrestle with them.

In recent years, sumo has plunged in popularity in Japan due to various scandals and perhaps also to the aforementioned domination by foreign wrestlers. But when I first moved to Tokyo in 1996, sumo was big, and dominated by the Japanese brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana, and I loved watching it. So exotic. So Japanese! I actually lived for a few years just down the road from Taka and Waka’s stable. In the morning on the way to work, I’d cycle past sand-covered wrestlers standing in the street in their fundoshi loincloths after morning practice. One hot summer night, coming home late, I popped into the 7Eleven round the corner from the stable. It was full of sumo guys in vest t-shirts and baggy pants cruising the aisles with baskets loaded with crisps, biscuits, and enormous bottles of pop. Forget tea ceremony, kabuki, geisha glimpses, snow-capped Fuji sightings—this still ranks as one of my most profoundly satisfying oh-my-God-I’m-in-Japan moments.

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You’re Beautiful: the story of a novel, part nine

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If you’ve read blog posts one to eight in this series giving the background to my Bath Novel Award shortlisted novel You’re Beautiful, you’ll know that I’m big into location research. Some of the locales in the story didn’t need as much research as others. The beach where most of the action takes place was easy to convey in accurate detail, as I was there nearly every weekend during the writing of the first draft. The shitty flat that protagonist Lisa’s shitty boyfriend Dan lives in is closely based on a real shitty flat I once lived in with a shitty boyfriend of my own. But for some scenes, with locations that were less immediately familiar to me, I felt that I needed to go myself to the places described, in order to be as authentic as possible. I love doing this kind of research. I am the only person I know who has done the Trans Siberian railway twice—the first time as a regular tourist, the second time as a literary researcher, fact-checking the novel I wrote as a result of the first trip. (That was the first novel I ever wrote, it’s still my favourite, and I hope one day some kind publisher will love it as much as I do.)

But anyway, back to You’re Beautiful. So my previous blog post was all about my location research visit to Tokyo’s Mori Tower, for a scene where Lisa stands on the rooftop and feels lonely as she looks out over the vast concrete city. One of the pivotal scenes towards the end of the book takes place in the New York Bar of the Shinjuku Park Hyatt, made famous by Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation. I had been several times to this gorgeous bar with its fabulous fifty-second floor view of Tokyo, and “location research” seemed like an excellent reason to go there again. I particularly wanted to check the view from the window. But this particular research trip was fairly futile as the view on that day was obscured by cloud. My research photo is below. The one above, stolen from the Internet, along with my memories of real and cinematic visits to the bar, would have to do.

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You’re Beautiful: the story of a novel, part eight

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Most of the action in my Bath Novel Award shortlisted novel You’re Beautiful takes place on a beach about an hour south of Tokyo, but some scenes actually take place in the city itself.  At the beginning of the book, Lisa, who has come to Tokyo in pursuit of a man she is in love with, spends many days wandering around the city by herself. The view pictured above makes her feel particularly lonely:

Today her excursion was to the rooftop observation deck of the Mori Tower, fifty-four floors high, from where the city was reduced to a carpet of concrete stretching to hazy infinity in every direction. She stood alone on the windy roof, while a strange, estranging jazzy soundtrack piped from a speaker strove and failed to drown out the roar of the rooftop machinery. Whether it was the artificiality of the music or the unaccustomed perspective, she had felt suddenly lonely. She was a character in a film about loneliness. A French film . . . no, Polish. Black and white. Ridiculous, she told herself in the descending lift. She had Dan now. There was no reason to feel lonely any more.

I took this photo on my own visit to the Mori Tower, when I was researching this scene. Pedantic readers may notice a few discrepancies between the description of the view from the novel and what can actually be seen in the photo. First, this is the one direction in which Tokyo’s unending sprawl doesn’t stretch to infinity—because it faces the sea. But I like this composition, with the red Tokyo Tower. There’s another photo below to give you an idea of the vast unendingness of the city. But neither photo is particularly hazy, as mentioned in the extract. That’s because the novel takes place in summer and these pictures were taken in winter when the weather is deliciously dry and clear. Hard on the skin—gallons of moisturiser needed—but great for the hair. A smooth sheet of shiny gold. That’s what my hair was like during those Tokyo winters. Not the uncontrollable frizzy tropical mess I’ve been living with for the last five years.

Anyway, got something to tell you. Not sure who this “you” is these days; I’m pretty sure I no longer have any regular readers due to the supremely sporadic nature of the blog over the last few years, but since the blog was set up in order to map my road to publication I feel obliged to announce that I’VE GOT AN AGENT! And the reason the blog’s been a bit quiet this last month is because I’ve been working on revisions to the novel. For my agent. I’ve got an agent. I still can’t believe it. And if any of you out there are searching for agent representation for that fabulous novel you’ve written, I strongly advise you to enter the Bath Novel Award like I did, because they provide an amazing agent introduction service for shortlisted entrants. They’ve just opened for 2017 entries. Go and do it!

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You’re Beautiful: the story of a novel, part seven

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It’s autumn in England and it’s officially “winter” here in Bangkok with temperatures barely reaching thirty degrees. But in my Bath Novel Award shortlisted novel You’re Beautiful it’s summer. Japanese summer, that is. And that means beach bars, fireworks, screaming cicadas, oppressive heat, and typhoons—all of which I’ve managed to slip into the story. But there’s one key element of Japanese summer that never made it into the book and that’s the summer festival, when everyone gets dressed up in the summer kimono known as yukata and dances to ancient recordings of mournful folk songs played through crackly speakers. There’ll be someone keeping the beat on a drum, usually on a raised platform like the one in the photo above, and everyone will dance slowly around it in a circle, performing the same moves in unison, often moves that suggest traditional occupations like digging for coal or hauling in fishing nets. The whole scene can induce a spine-tingling nostalgia for a past that isn’t even yours.

Above is “my” beach, down the coast from Tokyo, where a group of little girls in yukata wait for the festival to start. Below is the rather ugly light-industrial Tokyo neighbourhood where I used to live, made beautiful with festival lanterns.

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You’re Beautiful: the story of a novel, part six

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Endless surprises as I search through my old stash of Japan photos for images that relate to the background to my Bath Novel Award shortlisted novel You’re Beautiful. Did I really write sections of it longhand while lounging in the garden of my beach house? I have no memory of doing so, but the camera doesn’t lie, you know. (Although why on earth I took these photos in the first place is one of the many questions that went through my head when I found them.)

I really don’t like writing longhand. Apart from anything else, I’m so used to typing that I can barely hold a pen any more, let alone form legible letters. And imagine not being able to copy, paste, cut, delete, undelete, delete again! I’m so glad I wasn’t a writer in the olden days. (They did have fantastic pens in Japan though, like the Pilot V Corn that I have sadly never been able to find since leaving the stationery capital of the world.)

I was curious to know how much the final version of the photographed snippet below had changed from its handwritten first-draft version. This is from one of the early chapters of the book, when protagonist John realises that the girl he’s been secretly watching on the train every week actually lives in his neighbourhood. John in turn is having to fend off the amorous advances of his colleague Tammy, who has just accosted him in the 7-Eleven. The handwritten version felt so familiar to me that I was sure it must have survived verbatim, and I was planning to make some wise comment here about how the process of writing longhand without the possiblities of easy deletion leads to a deeper, more considered writing experience or some such piffle. But the final version was . . . whatever the opposite of verbatim is. Compare and contrast:

That’s when he sees her. The girl with the auburn hair. Pushing in through the door as he’s pushing his way out and he wants to stop and turn and stare but he knows that somewhere behind him is Tammy so he keeps going, out of the door, along the pavement, round the corner, in a walk that’s almost a run and there are footsteps behind him faster and closer and he thinks about running but what if it’s not Tammy, what if it’s her, the auburn-haired girl, what if she’s been watching him the way he’s been watching her, so he stops . . .

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