Douglas & McIntyre
I Am a Japanese Writer

Book details:

September 2010
ISBN 978-1-55365-583-1
Paperback - Trade
5" x 8"
160 pages
$22.95 CAD

Douglas & McIntyre

I Am a Japanese Writer

A Novel

Excerpt / Additional Content

The Fastest in America

My publisher called while I was out buying fresh salmon. He wanted to know what was going on with that damned book. I’d rather talk salmon. Once, I couldn’t stand the stuff. I ate it and ten minutes later I was puking. The last time was at a friend’s place. I missed the bowl in her bathroom. I cleaned up the floor, washed my face and went back to the living room. I swore it was the last time I’d eat it. Okay, it’s not the first promise I haven’t kept. I am under no obligation to keep promises I make to myself—except the one to write this book. My publisher’s voice was acid despite all the sweetness he was trying to put into it. I can understand him. He didn’t exactly twist my arm to get me to do this book. I’d started nodding my head as hard as I could when he told me I absolutely had to write a new book. The word “new” has always frightened me a little. Why a new book? After all this time, we should know there’s nothing new under the sun. But we keep on trying. The customer always wants something new and different. I wasn’t about to get into that discussion; he knows it by heart, anyway. We talk about it every time we meet. The setting: his tiny office (one day someone will have to drag him out of there, from under the multicolored manuscripts and red books) or one of the neighborhood cafés. He’s a tall young man with eyes like globes and a disarming smile. He has a habit of running his hands through his hair, as if to brush away the clouds that have gathered there.

We hadn’t even got to the café and I’d already found the title. I’m good at titles. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. apparently told his wife, who told me (I’m talking like a journalist now), that I was the fastest “titler” in America. The fastest titler in America, sure, why not, but I wouldn’t have minded knowing in what context he said that. Vonnegut was always out of context. That was his specialty. Do we really need a context to be the breakfast of champions? Billy the Kid: the fastest gun in the West. No need for a context there. The description is complete and autonomous. Even the tone is there. Had he said it ironically? His wife didn’t elaborate. It’s like saying that’s all I’m good at— with me, don’t bother going past the title. I guess that’s better than a bad title that keeps you from reading further. You can’t imagine the number of good books that are read clandestinely because of their bad titles. In bookstores, of the rare comments I hear about a book, 90 percent are about the title. Readers often ask me how I find my titles. I really don’t know. I just sit there for a while, and suddenly the title comes to me. This time I didn’t even need ten seconds; the title was there, waiting for me at the next corner. Are you looking for a title? How did you guess? It leaped at me and stretched out on the white sheet of paper. I need to contemplate a title, to turn it every which way. Each word—no—each syllable, each letter has to be in the right spot. Whatever the book is, these words will represent it. These are the words people will see most often. For the others, they’ll have to open the cover, while these words will always be there, before our eyes. They’ll contain all the other words in the book. You don’t have to reread García Márquez’s book; all you have to do is say One Hundred Years of Solitude or Remembrance of Things Past if we’re talking about Proust (do we even have to mention his name? Doesn’t everyone recognize the title?), and all the images in the book pass before our delighted eyes like a curtain of light separating us from unpleasant reality. The time we spent reading it (the days at the café, the nights by lamplight), hidden in the folds of our memory, rise to the surface with their rich parade of unnameable sensations. A good title is a fabulous password!

When you put forward a title you like, you have to be careful. In general, publishers want to hear about the content. What is it all about? They ask stupid questions like that. But not my publisher: he leaned back from the table, a smile on his lips. I used the moment to scan some of the titles on the shelves. Nothing worthwhile there. So I casually sent mine over the heaps of manuscripts. What was it? I Am a Japanese Writer. A brief silence. Then a wide smile. Sold! We signed the contract: ten thousand euros for five little words. In my euphoria, I told the Vonnegut anecdote to my publisher. He could already picture the promo copy: “The fastest titler in America.” But we dropped the idea—too immodest. That’s the problem with Westerners: we’re too afraid of ridicule. Being ridiculous won’t kill us, but the fear of it will. The other reason we dropped the slogan was the ambiguity of the word “titler.” Most readers would have read it as “tattler” or “titter.” So really, we lacked courage. But let’s get back to the title itself. He took it in his hands as if it were a lighter in a no-smoking area. He weighed and measured it. My title passed every test. He began writing it on the nearest piece of paper. It was pretty banal, actually—except for the word “Japanese.” And that was no joke: I really do consider myself a Japanese writer.