The following is an online Q&A that JBS did with Bill Eichenberger of the Columbus Dispatch, in Columbus OH.
Q: When I interviewed Patrick O'Brian several years ago he told me, "I write about a body of men whose town wall is the planks of their vessel. They are, by necessity, intimately well acquainted with one another after something of a voyage," he said."Within that essentially concentrated community, everything is known about a man's temper, abilities, competence and the like. It seems to me under those circumstances tensions rise, affections rise, indeed all emotion is raised. "That seems to me fit grazing ground for a novelist."
It seems to me that the world you write about in The Commoner is similarly a closed, "concentrated community." Can you talk about the world you describe in the book and tell me why you found it fit grazing ground for a novelist?
JBS: In one sense, the world of the imperial family is absolutely a "concentrated community," closed to the outside world; one need only see the moat and high stone walls surrounding the palace in the center of Tokyo to understand this. Yet, in another sense, I think it would be true to say that this strange cloister of imperial family members and bureaucrats is the antithesis of the world Patrick O'brien wrote about so brilliantly in his Aubrey/Maturin novels. For what is brutally lacking in the world of The Commoner is any real sense of community in the human sense; it's as though the bonds of emotional connectivity between people and their natural landscape have been severed by the cold hands of history. Yet still, trapped within this remote world are human beings.
For both Haruko, the narrator and eventual empress, and Keiko, her daughter-in-law, the lives they have are the lives they brought with themnamely, their memories of their childhoods back in the "normal" world outside. The rest is survival and the determination not to give in entirely to an institution that would deny them their individuality at every turn. As a novelist, I couldn't resist entering their world and trying to see what it looked like through their eyes.
Q: What are the difficulties/challenges and/or benefits of basing a story on real life figures such as the empress and crown prince of Japan?
JBS: For me, in the case of The Commoner, the greatest difficulty in taking real lifeand very recognizablefigures as my inspiration was my initial hesitation to break free of the constraints imposed by their actual histories. The first step was to change all the names. This is a relatively simple thing, and I recommend it heartily. Quite quickly, I found that these characters were mine, and no longer belonged to the official record. Of course, I was helped in this act of appropriation by the fact that, for all the research I did, there came a pointthe edge of the moat surrounding the palace, let's saybeyond which practically no one knew anything about the real truth of the matter, certainly no one who would speak on the record. A good reason, as I see it, to write a novel.
No genuinely personal material about the members of the Japanese imperial familynothing that might tell us what they are like as human beingswill ever come to light. This is hard to believe about anyone in the age of YouTube, but spend a while in Japan and you will understand the truth of it. No passages from private letters or diaries, no snippets from taped phone calls, no remarks overheard by servants, not so much as an unofficial photograph will ever make its way into the public spherenot now, and not ever. So it would be safe to say that these individuals, however public they may be, are almost purely symbolic to the country at large, so any representation of their inner states of mind must be wholly imagined.
Q: I agree with the reviewer who wrote, "Instead of overwhelming a reader with the amount of research he must have done, Schwartz instead selects evocative details to paint finely wrought miniatures of the past." What I want to know is, how did you do it? How did you avoid overwhelming the reader with your book learning, as it were? Do you put in 10 things you've learned and then edit nine of them out? Does the precise detail suggest itself at the expense of potential others?
JBS: Due to temperament and sensibility, I suppose, I don't seem to be one of those maximalist, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink novelists. On average, I have thrown out about 500 pages for each of the four novels I have published. (I wish it weren't so, but there it is.) I also am not a natural fan of the classic "historical novel," in which the author's research often seems to have more life and presence than the characters. For me, no matter what sort of story I'm telling, it always begins with the characters. Once they exist on the page as three-dimensional beingsand it can take an awfully long time simply to reach that pointI feel obligated to try as hard as I can to see and present the world, in every respect, as they would see and experience it. To do otherwiseto insinuate my own vision into theirs just because I canwould feel like a betrayal to me, not only of the particular story but of some higher idea that I have about what a story can be.
Q: Some wag once said, and a million have repeated, "Write what you know." I assume, since you've inhabited the mind of a female Japanese commoner, you don't necessarily agree with that axiom? Discuss.
JBS: For some reason, I'm not sure I want to analyze too closely, I've reached a point in my life, at 42, where I feel most free to do justice to my craft and to explore my art when I am telling stories that, on the surface, would seem to have little or nothing to do with my own life story. (That freedomas freedom so often permits, in any given situationmakes possible a kind of power that one does not then want to relinquish.)
Q: Similarly, and perhaps you've answered this above, can you describe the roll of the imagination in your writing? Why do readers often assume all fiction is thinly veiled autobiography? It's not, is it? (Though in this case it might be thinly veiled biography!)
JBS: From my (no doubt too wordy) answers above, I think my answer to this question is probably already evident.
Q: Flaubert once said, A work of art is never finished, only abandoned. Can you talk about how you know a novel is finished? And how it feels to have a novel out there that remains unfinished? Does it gnaw at you? Do you go back to it? Have you let it go?
JBS: Endings are just damned hard, and there's no getting around them. (How like life! I would add.) In each of my four published novels, I have re-written the endings many times before I felt that I could let the book go. With Reservation Road, for example, I literally wrote and re-wrote the final ten pages more than twenty times before I was satisfied. And by "satisfied" I mean not that I felt it was perfectno such thingbut that what was finally on the page conformed in some organic sense to the laws of the world and characters and situations of that particular story. I guess I don't see what more a writer can do after that except let go, and turn toward some new world, as yet unimagined.
Q: You write in The Commoner: "He dipped his head at people as he slowly passed, each dip a bow in miniature. In return, they bowed deeply to him, the weight of history on their backs." The Commoner seems laden with the weight of history. Can you describe what that phrasethe weight of historymeans to you in the larger context of your novel?
JBS: "The weight of history" is what is left to you once you have been stripped down and rebuilt as a symbol; it is the very shirt on your back. Only people who are actually symbols in some cultural and historical sense can probably ever know this (and novelists, of course!). Your own individual history has been denied to the point of annihilation, or so the authorities intendthat is their raison d'être. In fact, as long as you are breathing, that personal history (call it memory; call it heart) is alive somewhere within you, waiting to find an atmosphere in which it might express itself and even grow. And so, one day, in secret, an empress begins to tell her granddaughter the story of her life.
Q: Haruko is trapped by history, suffocated by tradition. And yet you're not arguing entirely against fidelity to history, to tradition, are you? You're not suggesting that the Japanese place too heavy an emphasis on the past? Or that they don't treat their women well? Or are you?
JBS: The writer José Donoso once said, "I think a novelist is a man who does not want to teach, to say something, but wants to know something." I agree with that. My hope in my novels is that the reader will take away an entire experience, more than the thread of one argument or another. In that experience will be perspectives other than the reader's own, and they will be like a series of small fires that prove hard, if not impossible, to put out.
Q: I'm thinking in the above question of Jonathan Spence's tremendous books about China, especially The Death of Woman Wang, in which he is dispassionate/non-judgmental and yet on her side, if that makes sense.
Is there a parallel between Spence's classic book, which is a work of nonfiction (though the author's imagination has been active), and your novel, which is based on fact but also fueled by imagination?
JBS: I would hope that the parallel between Jonathan Spence's The Death of Woman Wang (which, I entirely agree with you, is a remarkable book) and The Commoner is the same parallel that exists between all fully imagined works of literature: that the author, whatever the genre, has truly and fearlessly inhabited every last one of his or her characters. The thing that so many writers forget, I think, is that such a literary inhabitation requires leaving out a great deal of what you think you think you knowthe "facts," real or notto make space for what you are in the process of discovering.
Q: Another reviewer wrote that your novel "entwines the two strands of Schwartz's expertise. Fascinated and appalled by the resonating stories of Michiko and Masako, he has written a novel that attempts to give these silenced women their voices back." Is that what you were attempting to do? Explain.
JBS: You mean I have only two strands of expertise? How depressing! Perhaps the reviewer wasn't aware that I make a very fine salad dressing. Anyway... I would answer this question by saying that, since my characters are fictional and don't otherwise exist outside the pages of my book, I don't feel it's possible to give them their voices "back." I'm not being flippant hereI think it's an important point. Which is to say that, if I have done my job as a novelist, the world I have created in The Commoner, however evocative of the world of certain members of the Japanese imperial family, must stand on its own, free of any particular dutysuch as speaking on anyone's behalf. The novelist's greatest, and perhaps most difficult, job is to make people care, to make them pay particular and compassionate attention, in an age when paying that sort of attention is fast going out of styleif it's not already gone. I would never want to limit the reader's visionor my ownwith didactic prescriptions.
Q: What is your favorite book about post-World War II Japan and why? (Mine is Alan Booth's The Roads to Sata!)
JBS: Like all questions that force us to make lists, that's a hard one. But I suppose I would have to answer The Sound of the Mountain, one of the last novels by Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), who won the Nobel Prize in 1968. The story inhabits the consciousness of an old man who is living out what he feels, with a terrible sense of foreboding, to be his last days with his family in a Tokyo suburb. The poetic prose is infused with anxiety, but with desire too, and by the end of the novel the reader comes almost to hearand certainly to feelthe tremor in the hills of the title, a sound that brings with it all that we fear, and want, and cannot know.
January 26, 2008