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!
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.
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 . . .
All that talk of Mount Fuji the other day made me want to post this picture, even though it’s a wintry, snow-capped Fuji and my Bath Novel Award shortlisted novel You’re Beautiful takes place in the summer. I’d also been thinking of saving this particular image for one of the final posts in this series on the background to the novel because it’s the last Fuji photograph I ever took. I didn’t know that when I took it. I didn’t know that within two months I would have left Japan forever after living there for fifteen years.
I first saw Mount Fuji on the crudely tinted colour postcards my father sent from Japan, where he was stationed with the Royal Navy at the end of the 1960s. I couldn’t wait to see the real thing when I finally got to Japan as an adult, but the mountain is famously elusive, usually cloaked in cloud, especially in hot and hazy summer. Even though it’s only fifty miles from Tokyo, there are few places left in the high-rise city that offer a view of Fuji. Perhaps from the top of a west-facing skyscraper at sunset or on a clear winter’s day, if you’re lucky. I was luckier than most; the weekend seaside cottage I rented just down the coast was across the bay from Mount Fuji. Every morning the first thing I’d do was look out of the window to see if it was visible. I never got tired of looking at it; the fact that you could only see it sometimes made the sightings all the more magical.
A lot of the action in You’re Beautiful takes place on a fictional beach that is based on a real beach just down the road from my seaside cottage. Like the real beach, the fictional beach is across the bay from Mount Fuji, and the spectacularly beautiful mountain has a strong presence in a story that has beauty as one of its themes, particularly the pursuit of beauty in our everyday lives and the importance we give to it, from the barman intent on carving the perfect ice ball to the stalker obsessed with his beautiful victim.
Anyway, back to the above photo of Mount Fuji. I took it on 5th March 2011. Six days earlier I’d been informed, along with the rest of my colleagues, that our company was closing down and we were all being made redundant. Six days later, a few hundred miles up the coast, that same beautiful calm blue sea would rise up into the tsunami that killed thousands of people. Redundancy, earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown, all in the space of a couple of weeks. I decided to leave Japan. I always feel sad when I look at this photograph. It’s hard to believe that such serenity would soon be followed by such chaos.
Looking for more photographs showing the Japan background to my Bath Novel Award shortlisted novel You’re Beautiful, this one felt like a piece of ancient history with its pre-iPhone mobile, and my fags sitting on the table. Yes, I used to smoke. And even though it’s seven years since I gave up and I don’t actively miss smoking any more, I know I used to love it. Smoking and drinking. Smoking and writing. Two of life’s top smoking combos. And Japan was a fabulous country in which to be a smoker. Everyone smoked, everywhere. It was cheap. There were cigarette machines on every corner. Smoking was cute and sexy (proof below). Japanese cigarettes had great names, like Hope, and Peace, and Keith.
I was a regular smoker for twenty years and then it took me ten years of stopping and starting again before finally giving up for good. During that decade, there was a period when I didn’t smoke for three and a half years. Oh no, people say, sympathetically, when I start telling this story. What on earth made you start again? Were you depressed? Stressed out? No. It was because I was having an absolutely marvellous day on this very beach. It was late afternoon at the height of summer, I was with a group of friends, we were sitting on the sand having a beer with the beach bar in full swing behind us, and in front of us a couple of fire dancers started an impromptu performance. And then out of the heat haze Mount Fuji appeared on the other side of the bay, a rare sight in the summer. Everyone on the beach cheered. A cigarette was all that was needed to make the moment perfect.
A version of this scene made it into the book. Nothing to do with smoking, you’ll be glad to know; it marks a significant turning point in the emotional journey of Lisa, the main female character:
“Look.” His hand is still clamped over hers, but he is staring across the bay. She looks where he is looking and there is Mount Fuji, outlined in gold as the sun sets behind it, the spectacularly perfect cone shape rising up to dwarf the surrounding mountain ranges. In the bar and along the beach, people have stopped to point and stare; some are even cheering. In front of the bar a couple of fire dancers begin to gyrate, spinning their flaming batons to the accompaniment of a djembe. He has removed his hand, but her flesh retains its warm imprint.
So this is the actual beach bar, near Tokyo, on which the beach bar in my Bath Novel Award shortlisted novel You’re Beautiful is based. It was surprising, hunting back through all my old photos (this one dates from 2009) to see that during the several years of drafting and redrafting the novel, the fictional beach bar I described on the page kept its fundamental resemblance to the real beach bar that inspired it. The white plastic chairs and tables. The bamboo awning. Wooded hills silhouetted against the sky. When I reread the novel and the action moves to the beach, the scenario above is exactly what I see in my mind’s eye.
If there was an audio file with this photo you would probably hear reggae music playing in the background. For some reason the Japanese only seem to listen to reggae in the summer, never the winter, and it is only in summer that you will see the dreadlocked, hemp-clothed Japanese Rastafarian, especially if you’re at the beach. I have no idea where they go in the winter. Google tells me that “a small but devoted Rasta community developed in Japan in the late 1970s and early 1980s,” so I am sure there are genuine Japanese Rastafarians out there, but there are definitely those for whom the look is nothing more than a summer fashion fad. I had a bit of fun adding a handful of Japanese beach hippies to the crowd that hangs out at my ill-fated (yes—this is a teaser) fictional beach bar.
So to follow on from the previous post about the Japan background to my novel You’re Beautiful, and in the interests of being completist, this is the beach that my weekend cottage overlooked, as viewed from the garden. But this is not the beach on which the beach in the novel was based. That one, much livelier and trendier, was a little further up the coast, and will feature in an upcoming post. This one, as you can see, is quiet and peaceful, although it gets very busy in the height of summer.
I’m guessing this photo was taken in about June, judging by the flourishing lilies, and the construction, up near the top left corner of the photo, of the umi no ie, literally “sea house,” a cafe that opens for the duration of official Japanese beach-going season which is from 1st July to 31st August. I remember on my first visits to Japan in the late eighties and early nineties being astonished at the rigidity with which the Japanese adhered to beach-going season. A beach that was packed on 31st August would be completely deserted on 1st September, despite the still searing heat. On my very first visit to Japan back in 1988, in a hot and steamy September, my friend and I, knowing nothing about Japanese traditions, went to the beach where we laid on our towels in our swimsuits and swam in the sea, relishing the fact that we had the beach to ourselves. But we soon fled when a crowd of people gathered on the promenade to point and laugh at the crazy foreigners.
These days, the Japanese are less rigid about these dates when it comes to hanging out on the beach, but summer beach bars still tend to close on the last day of August. A lot of the action in You’re Beautiful takes place in a Japanese beach bar. Lisa, the novel’s female protagonist, ends up getting a job there as a kind of refuge when her relationship with her boyfriend breaks down, but the fact that her job and the bar will literally vanish on the first day of September add dramatic tension to her story as she struggles to make the right decision about her future.