Photo credit: Whitney Lawson
Sometimes I feel low on ideas. I finish a book and then I have nothing. A year can pass. Two years. Three. I have to trick myself to start again. My new novel, The Red Car
, is a product of my latest trick: a writing exercise that paid off. I wrote my very own Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite writers. Sometimes, this seems strange, even to me. For one thing, he is Japanese, which means that everything I have read is in translation. He is also a man and I veer towards woman writers. And yet. Haruki Murakami. I love the matter-of-fact, unpretentious quality of his sentences. I love his narrators and the not-so-matter-of-fact, sometimes-insane things that happen to them. Murakami’s protagonists are mostly disaffected young men. They think of themselves as ordinary. They often have unfulfilling jobs, corporate writing or fluff pieces for magazines — “shoveling snow” is what a typical Murakami character calls it. Murakami protagonists have ex-wives and swim laps and take special care preparing their food. Of course, these ordinary men are anything but ordinary.
Extraordinary things happen to these so-called ordinary men. For one thing, beautiful women frequently want to have sex with them. In one case, an otherwise plain woman has ears so lovely that she turns out to be almost incandescent — when she chooses to reveal them.
There are also prostitutes in Murakami novels. Young and beautiful prostitutes who very much enjoy their work — “Cuckoo,” cooed Mei in Dance, Dance, Dance
— and they look exactly like the pretty popular girls in high school a Murakami narrator could otherwise never have been with. But these prostitutes, of course, will always fall for a typical Murakami narrator. It might seem like I have a problem with this as a feminist, as a female author who primarily reads books by women, but I don’t. I never do. But sometimes, I’ll admit, I wish there were more women in Murakami novels because I love the female characters in his books. Aomame, the assassin, in 1Q84
. And Mei, the 14-year-old girl who leaves the narrator stranded at the bottom of the well in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
. Yumiko, another precocious teenager, taken under the wing of the protagonist in Dance, Dance, Dance.
So, back to my writing exercise. My big idea: I would write a Haruki Murakami novel that would also be a Marcy Dermansky
novel. Instead of Japan, the book would be set in America. The protagonist, naturally, would be a woman. She would think herself ordinary, but of course, she would actually be extraordinary. Extraordinary things, therefore, would happen to her. Exciting.
I decided against rewriting two of my favorite Murakami novels — A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
— simply because they are long. But I also didn’t want to rewrite my version of Norwegian Wood
, a much shorter but also traditional novel. Instead I returned to A Wild Sheep Chase
. In the first scene, the so-called ordinary narrator opens the newspaper and learns of the death of an old friend, a prostitute he used to sleep with many years ago. The story then jumps ahead a bunch of years. And then, it jumps ahead again.
So that is what I did. My novel, The Red Car
, opens with a newspaper, a prostitute, the discovery of an old friend. And then, it jumps ahead in time. Without planning on it, I felt the need to put Murakami’s neglected prostitute into my book. She dies in the first scene and then disappears. It seemed like she deserved more. Only, in my novel, much to my own surprise, the neglected prostitute somehow became the main character. Leah is my ordinary, but actually extraordinary protagonist, who drops out of college not long after charging another student $100 to have sex with her.
For the first time in years, the writing flowed.
My biggest fear writing my own version of a Murakami novel was going out there
— the terrain of the surreal, the supernatural. Instead of a Sheep Man, I have a red car. It’s not quite as crazy as an elusive talking animal that speaks in run-on sentences. Truth is, I once had a friend who had a red car that she loved, and she died in that red car. Once I put my friend’s red car into my novel, strange things started happening. Even the surreal is based in human experience.
Not all readers will get the Murakami connection and I am fine with that. But the signs are all there: a beautiful girl named Yumiko, a narrator who makes spaghetti for dinner. My editor observed that everyone wants to have sex with Leah Kaplan, my so-called ordinary narrator. I was thrilled. Of course
everyone wants Leah. That’s how it is done.
While Murakami’s fiction is surreal, the thing that I love is the way he meticulously grounds his work in the mundane details of life. For the most part, these details don’t change. There is so much repetition in Murakami novels that readers have come up with their own Murakami Bingo
and even a drinking game
. Every single cat mention. I believe writers often populate their novels with their obsessions. This doesn’t change from book to book.
My books feature female protagonists who doubt their decisions. They make mistakes. Except for the eponymous character in Bad Marie
who kidnaps a baby, they learn and often profit from their mistakes. They drink whiskey and care an awful lot about their shampoo. They have standard poodles. They come from New Jersey. And if you feel compelled to point out that there are women passed out in the bathtub and sea lions in two out of three novels, please don’t think it’s an accident. I learned from the master.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the novels The Red Car
, Bad Marie
, and Twins
. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s
, the Indiana Review
, and elsewhere. She lives in New Jersey with her daughter.