Turnstile, The Making of …

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The evolution of a short story can be a bizarre path. This month a flash story I wrote, Turnstile, is included in Eastlit Magazine. I’m really pleased to finally get this story accepted because it’s been with me a long time, and not always in a good way.

When I first came to Japan in 2005 I immersed myself in Japanese literature and history, trying to get some kind of understanding of my new home. One of the writers I discovered (thanks to my good friend Thom, who leant me both Silence and Stained Glass Elegies) was Endo Shusaku. Endo was a Japanese Christian and his writing often reflected this preoccupation, but it was his style that grabbed me. There was something about it, a concise, spare style that layered perceptions creating a character almost by silhouette. Japanese literature tends to be very ‘self-focused’. One of the most popular novelistic forms in Japan is the ‘I-novel’, not a novel created by Apple but 私小説, a first person autobiographical novel. Endo himself uses this form in Scandal but more often, particularly in his short fiction, he is very impressionistic. To be honest, I prefer it. ‘I-novels’, unless the writer is very careful, can get solipsistic and narcissistic. Oe Kenzaburo (A Personal Matter) is brilliant at it because of the brutal honesty he brings to the form. Soseki Natsume makes it work through humour. Mishima Yukio relies on beautiful prose to get the reader beyond an instant dislike of the narrator / author.

One thing students of creative writing are taught is to copy out passages by their favourite writers. The act of copying word for word a paragraph or poem gives you deeper insight into how the sentences were formed and layered, where the shifts come, the shape of the thing in your mind and on the page. It’s a common enough practice in other art forms – in Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World (I think, it’s been years since I read it so I may be conflating it with another book), there’s a passage that shows painters training by trying to reproduce their teacher’s best works. I thought I’d give it a go with Endo.

I began to see how he was doing it, the layering of perceptions, and thought I’d try myself. The story that eventually became Turnstile was what I started then. Originally it was called Kataomoi (Unrequited Love) and was a sickly story about, well, unrequited love. What survives today is the opening of the story reworked and remoulded. Yukihiro is standing in Nagoya station waiting for Stefanie, the world around him built up by short sharp impressions that in turn reflect his impatience and negativity. The thing Endo did that I found most fascinating is to sever the connection between the character and the environment. Yukihiro doesn’t think ‘The sky is dramatic, a typhoon approaching. Umbrellas are shaken and puddles form. Trains rumble off, cars shoosh through green lights. Everyone is moving.’ It’s simply stated as fact. Layer upon layer. One of the reasons the story never worked is that this style doesn’t stand up to much dialogue and interaction. Yukihiro cannot remain a silhouette once Stefanie begins talking to him. It took me a long time to realise that but once I did I cut off all the dead wood and made it a flash piece. I hope you enjoy it.

As I postscript, I noticed over the weekend that Martin Scorsese has directed an adaptation of Endo’s Silence – the story of two persecuted Jesuit priests in Japan in the 17th Century – and it will be released next year. Thom and I are incredibly exited about this.

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