I'm living in Tokyo again this year, and it's been another great adventure. For me, Tokyo was metropolitan love at first sight when I arrived in 1993, and while the city has changed tremendously in various particulars, its essence — the impossible energy, the stunning contrasts, the neon and gloom and the shadow — hasn't changed at all. Living in Tokyo was what inspired me to write my first book, Rain Fall
(by happy coincidence, the movie version of the book
will be released here by Sony Pictures Japan this April), and looking back, I realize at the center of that inspiration was the desire to capture in words the incredible essence of the city.
Which makes sense. After all, capturing the essence of things is the writer's job. Stephen King said the writer's job is to tell the truth, and maybe that's a related point, or maybe it's another way of making the same point. Either way, when I travel to the places I use in my books — Istanbul and the San Francisco Bay Area for Fault Line; too many places to list for the other Rain books — I always try to capture the essence of the places I visit. What's the essence — of a person, a place, an experience? It varies and it's elusive, but what you're looking for is that quality without which something wouldn't be fundamentally itself anymore. The quality which, if you removed it, would render the thing the thing no longer.
When I search for that quality through my writing, I do so through my character's eyes, not mine. After all, a story's not about the storyteller, and besides, what a character perceives as essential reveals not just the essence in question, but some essential quality of the character, too. It's not just the external environment I'm after; it's the interior landscapes, as well.
Here's an example from Fault Line, where Ben Treven, a black ops U.S. soldier, reluctantly returns to San Francisco to save his estranged brother, Alex, from a conspiracy involving a technology that Alex's law firm is handling. A hundred people might see the San Francisco locations Ben describes a hundred different ways, but only Ben would see them like this:
He walked down to the water, the Golden Gate Bridge looming a quarter mile off to his right, steep sea cliffs topped with houses sporting multimillion-dollar views on his left. For a moment, he looked out over the Pacific and gave himself over to the timeless rhythm of waves crashing against the rocks and packed wet sand, the roar of impact, the hush as the water receded and gathered, the roar again. He wondered what it must have been like here, this very spot, a thousand years earlier. Take away the houses and the bridge and it was all probably the same as it was now. The sky and the water; the sound of the wind and the waves; an ocean with another name, long since forgotten. He smiled, thinking that in another thousand years it would be like that again.
He'd come here a fair amount in high school. It was a good place to smoke a joint, and a better one for sex. At the foot of the sea cliffs there was a rock formation you could climb. At low tide you could drop down into its center and do whatever you wanted, hidden from the world. Ben climbed the formation now, surprised at the immediate familiarity of the hand and footholds, and more so by the heavy sadness their presence stirred in his memory. The tide was too far in and he couldn't climb down to the formation's center, but that wasn't his purpose. He stood at the top, reached into his bag, and took out the Glock he'd used at the Four Seasons that morning. He looked at the gun for a moment, then disassembled it and pitched the components far out into the water. A moment later he slung the license plates in, too. Doubtful any of it would ever be found. Even if it was, the gun was untraceable, and the salt water would long since have scoured away any DNA evidence.
He headed out to the road and caught a cab back to North Beach. The broad outlines of the neighborhood were the same, but he'd known the area before only by night and there was something off about it in daylight. It was like seeing the working girl who'd gotten you so hot the night before without her makeup the next morning. Clubs with names like Roaring Twenties and The Garden of Eden and The Condor Topless Bar and The Hungry I clustered together like drunks sleeping off a collective hangover, their neon signs inert, bleached in the sunlight, the innumerable gray wads of gum ground into the sidewalks before them the only evidence of the restless crowds they attracted at night. A homeless man in a raincoat the color of lichens stopped in front of a trashcan and began picking through it, oblivious to Ben's presence. Ben peeled a twenty out of his wallet and, when the man looked up, handed it to him. The man looked at it, then smiled at Ben, revealing dark and ulcerating gums. Ben watched him shuffle off and thought, What difference does it make, anyway?
I hope you enjoyed Ben's unusual walking tour of San Francisco, and that you'll enjoy the rest of the book, too. If you want to see photos of all the places that appear in my books and find contact information for the various bars, restaurants, etc., too, check out the Photo Gallery page of my website. And if you have a chance, drop by my FaceBook page or MySpace page or my website discussion board and say hello.