Yoko Ogawa’s forthcoming linked story collection, REVENGE, will be released at the end of the month. Here she talks about empathy for characters, the meaning of food in her fiction, and the writers who influence her.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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… .
What do you do when you are not writing?
I walk our dog, and knit, and watch baseball on TV.
*This interview is an edited version of what appears on the Picador website. You can read in full here.