Mo Hayder Interview

Questions for Mo Hayder on the novel Tokyo by Liu Mei Cheng, David Gaston, Yudai Iwasaki, Kumiko Kondo, Yuko Miyawaka, Mizuki Moriyama, Kanae Nio, Junya Nomura, Miharu Suzuki, Keita Takekura, Katsuhito Tomita, Satoki Umezawa

Tokyo University 03/07/05

Is a Japanese translation of Tokyo planned?  If so, would you prefer the UK title Tokyo, the US title The Devil of Nanking, or something completely different?  When you were writing the novel, did the possibility of Japanese readers influence the writing?

If I had any doubts that the facts about Nanking have been repressed, those left me when my Japanese publisher, who has published my previous two books, refused to publish Tokyo. So the answer, sadly, is no.

I always preferred the title The Devil of Nanking. You might be disillusioned to know that often the title of the book is influenced by the art director: after two books publishers begin to ‘brand’ a writer – to give him/her a ‘look’ making the books readily recognisable in the market place. Part of my ‘look’ in Europe (not the US) depends upon short titles. Hence ‘Tokyo’. Sorry to expose to you the seamy workings of the industry (it’s something writers in general have a tacit pact never to mention). But the truth is that so many issues the readers believe are aesthetic choices are very often decisions-by-committee: influenced by marketing and publicity dynamics.

I tried to be aware of what Japanese readers might feel when reading the book – I tried as much as possible not to be too dogmatic about laying the blame at the feet of anyone. There is a scene in which a soldier refuses to shoot any more Chinese prisoners. His superiors attack him physically for this – and then, in a tiny moment, we see one of the senior officers is revolted at his own actions. My intention was to illuminate that the chain of blame was never ending – that everyone was being pressured from above. And sitting nominally at the top of that chain was a mild, small statured, possibly quite naive man, by the name of Hirohito. 

(See below for more on my approach to guilt and atonement)

The use of Japanese words is very effective in the English version, especially to represent Grey’s urge to belong, and yet at the same time her displacement.  This effect will be lost in a translation – is there any way it could be kept? 

Yes – it’s a very good point. Foreign language words add texture to any piece of text and can be very effective in creating rhythm. One of the problems for a writer is knowing how not to overuse foreign language – I had lots of Japanese words I really wanted to use, simply for their feel and resonance and musical quality, but I had to discard them because I knew they’d drag down the narrative pace.

They say that reading a work in translation is like kissing a woman through a veil. I’ve never kissed a woman through a veil, but I think I understand the metaphor. One of my greatest sadnesses is that I don’t speak another language fluently enough to be able to compare texts in translation and the original. A translator’s job is a much underestimated one – they don’t simply convert words into a different language – they are dealing with many other things: nuance, levels of irony, use of poetry, alliteration, etc etc

But as I have pointed out in the previous question, Tokyo will not be published in Japan. So no translator will ever have to struggle with how to keep that contrapuntal effect the Japanese words lend the text.

Shi Chongming’s journal is always introduced by the kanji character that means ‘history’ (and also, possibly, Shi Chongming’s name).  In the Author’s Note, you describe your extensive research into Nanking.  Does this emphasis on history suggest you were committed to facing criticism about your portrait of the massacre?

To date, with the exception of my publishers, I’ve had no adverse comments on my portrayal of the massacre (actually this includes several Japanese readers in Australia who have contacted me about the book). I tried very hard to raise questions about guilt and denial and explore those themes, without necessarily providing answers. This is partly a function of my writing style – I don’t like to dictate the reader’s moral response to the events I portray. Maybe I’ve got too much faith in the reader’s ability to make the right judgments, because sometimes my work is interpreted as immoral, or at least amoral. 

The massacre was a very difficult area to research – I don’t speak Chinese and my Japanese is pretty poor (especially after 16 years out of the country) so I needed help from a translator for the Chinese sections. The other problem was that most of the Japanese army records had been destroyed or confiscated during the American occupation.

The thriller genre often exaggerates for effect, and sensationalises the present.  In Tokyo, for example, there is a generic distortion of the geography of the city and also a lack of sympathetic Japanese characters.  Those described in detail – Fuyuki, The Nurse, Strawberry – are all physical grotesques.  Is there any danger that your exotic account of contemporary Tokyo casts doubt on your treatment of history in the chapters on Nanking? 

I think that’s a question only the individual reader can answer – since all interpretation of fiction is subjective. I’d argue that there are no sympathetic Japanese characters in Tokyo: Strawberry in particular is a sympathetic character, so is the Japanese soldier who refuses to shoot the Chinese prisoners. And there are equal numbers of unsympathetic characters from other parts of the world. In fact – you could say there are only 3 sympathetic characters in the entire book: Grey, Strawberry and Shi Chongming.

You are right however that Strawberry is a physical grotesque – and I think this stems from the very strong visual impression I have of young Japanese people. Going to Yoyogi park on a Sunday left an indelible impression on me of the chameleon possibilities of Japanese youth.  I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world where people use themselves as canvasses to this extent. I’m told the only Japanese industry that hasn’t suffered in the recession is the hair dye industry! Is that true?

In a previous interview, you mention that none of your Japanese friends had heard of the ‘Rape of Nanking.’  With China demanding an apology for war-time atrocities, this is now very topical.  ‘Ignorance is not the same as evil’ would seem to offer some comfort to contemporary Japan, but just knowing is not enough to resolve historical problems.  Should young Japanese also feel guilty?  What do you think we should do to improve the relationship with China, especially concerning historical issues? 

I have just come back from a working tour of Germany. Among the cities I visited were Dresden and Köln, both of which were heavily bombed by the British. In Dresden on one night alone 35 – 135,000 people died in the firestorms that swept the city. The bombing was largely unnecessary and sometimes supposed to be ‘revenge’ for the bombing of the British city of Coventry. Being in Dresden kept bringing me back to the question I had in my mind when I wrote Tokyo – namely, what is an individual’s responsibility for the actions of his/her nation. What do I as a British citizen owe the inhabitants of Dresden, for example? What does a student at Todai in 2005 owe the citizens of Nanking 1937? What do I owe the Iraqis for an invasion I neither authorised nor approved of? The problem is there are so many ways of answering this question that you can only accept there are no answers. At the end it’s about who writes history – and on that subject I come back time and again to one small comment, from General LeMay who ordered the fire bombing raids on Tokyo. If the US had lost the war, he said, many of the American Generals and politicians would have been in the dock at war tribunals, tried for atrocities. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say.

You have addressed many taboos in Tokyo and your earlier novels.  In view of the critical and commercial success of films such as ‘Life is Beautiful’ and ‘The Downfall’, would you be willing to write a similar novel about Nazi concentration camps and links to modern Germany?  As a western writer, is it easier to tackle inhumanity from a safe cultural distance?

It’s a writer’s job to stick his/her nose into the taboos of any society. That is exactly where you learn the most – so I’ll probably always be hunting the weird and hidden. But with regard to using the Jewish holocaust as a subject: this was a question I was asked by several German journalists last week. I take your point about it being easier to tackle inhumanity from a distance – and it’s a good one because I think a lot of writers, including myself, find it much easier to tackle a lot of things at a distance (I found it easier to write about Tokyo when I’d left it for example). But this is not the reason I wouldn’t write about concentration camps. I feel that ways of treating the Jewish holocaust have been so thoroughly explored I have nothing to add to the voices. It is a very crowded forum. Part of the impetus for writing about the Pacific war was that it was such an unmined area and I specifically wanted people to know that there wasn’t just one holocaust in the 20th century, but several. It’s time we saw films/fictionalised accounts of the Armenian massacres, the Rwandan massacres, Stalin’s reign of terror, King Leopold etc.

The Nurse is the most frightening character in Tokyo, and not Fuyuki.  Is this a problem for the novel?  Also, the Nurse continues to roam Japanese society – does this suggest the possibility of a sequel?

Yes. I’ve been told that she is very frightening, which makes me suspect myself of pure evil genius, because I wrote her very quickly, right off the back of a moment’s inspiration (rare for me). I wanted Fuyuki to be believable, because he is at the core of the novel, and I thought that casting a comic book style shadow of violence across him would have been wrong. It was quite simple: he needed a henchman, and the Nurse was there.

I very much doubt there will be a sequel to Tokyo. I certainly have no plans at present. But never say never.

In some ways, the scene where Shujin is murdered didn’t seem brutal enough.  She could have protected her stomach or suffered some embarrassment at being stripped half naked by unknown men.  Does her undramatised capitulation undermine the realism of the scene, if realism was what you were aiming at here?

Generally speaking realism is exactly what I’m aiming for – the sort of realism you’d get in a cinema verité film, or something made by the Dogma film collective.  In the section dealing with Shujin’s death I was narrating through two filters 1) It is narrated through first Shi Chongming’s voice and then Grey’s. 2) Most of the scene is depicted as film footage. Both of these are filters that impose a different slant on the scene and must, necessarily, have an effect on the realism of the scene. But, if you feel that the realism was undermined, then maybe it’s simply a flaw in the writing.

Parents’ love for their children is a key idea in the novel, and one that challenges the book’s darkness.   You’ve spoken elsewhere about your difficult relationship with your parents, and the fact that you were pregnant when you visited Nanking.  Then, from Nanking, came the scene of a baby being bayoneted from her pregnant mother.  Is the writing a psychological escape valve?

You’ve put your finger on a very important point. Writing is a very important psychological escape valve. I used to suffer badly from clinical depression, but this largely disappeared when I began to write – so I have Japan to thank for this – she taught me how to accept that all humans have a dark side to contrast with their light side. It’s a concept we have problems with in the Christian west. Being published has validated the thoughts and ideas I used to believe made me dysfunctional on some level.

I have written before about parents and children and always from a very disadvantaged stand point – i.e. I wasn’t a parent myself. Now that I am a mother the world, both literary and concrete, has opened itself to me in an extraordinarily rich way.

Do you think you have any conspicuous or secret flaws as a writer?  Is there a specific area you’d like to improve in your next novel?  Do you see yourself writing anything besides thrillers?

The only point that I am consistently told is a flaw, and which I consistently refuse to change, is my descriptions of violence. On this point I am absolutely firm. Anyone who wants to read a book in which the driving force is an extremely violent act, must be prepared to accept descriptions of that violence. Anything else is dishonest.

However I am absolutely sure I’ve got other flaws too. The problem with these is I don’t know what they are so I can’t weed them out. Paradoxically the more you establish yourself in any career the more difficult it becomes to get honest and constructive criticism. I know several established writers who publish books they should be ashamed of. They get away with it because they are so established that no one will tell them their quality is suffering. My antidote to this is to read consumer reviews – on Amazon, or in Newsgroups for example. Or questions like yours. This is the most honest appraisal of one’s work you can hope to get. So the next time you share thoughts on a writer’s work on the internet, beware he or she might be looking over your shoulder.

With regards to the last part of your question, I write under a pseudonym because I would love to write children’s books one day – Secretly I want to be the next Roald Dahl.

We enjoyed reading about Grey’s shopping in Chapter 20.  The ‘weirdo’ Grey tries to be sexy for her work as a hostess.  What is your definition of ‘sexy’ and what do you think makes women sexy?

Wow!  I’m a heterosexual female, so I don’t think I’m in a position to comment on what makes other women sexy, but I will say I’m always amazed at the immense variety of things people find erotic in a woman. If you doubt this read a book called Encyclopaedia of Unusual Sexual Practices by Brenda Love (but only if you’re feeling strong).  So what is sexy? My guess is that the only common denominator in sexiness is confidence. A woman has to love sex and love her own body in order to be truly sexy.

Your description of Hongo is so life-like you must have visited Tokyo University.  How do you feel about the book being studied in the University that features in the novel?  And if you were to give a class here at Todai, what would you like to teach?

I went to Todai in 2003 and wandered the campus to get a feel for it. If I’d known about it when I lived in Japan in 1989 I’d have spent more time there, it’s the most welcome oasis imaginable in Tokyo. Of course I played God with the geography a bit, so I feel mildly nervous that the book is being studied there.

On the last part of the question, the truth is I would hate to teach a class at Todai. I have perpetual stage fright and work much better with the written word. So I’m going to wave a magic wand and say: I would be the student, not the teacher. I would sit for hours learning kanji and how the characters evolved. (Let me know if you can arrange it for me!)