An Eastlit Interview by Iain Maloney
J. David Simons was born in Glasgow in 1953. He studied law at Glasgow University and became a partner at an Edinburgh law firm before giving up his practice in 1978 to live on a kibbutz in Israel. Since then he has lived in Australia, Japan and England. He returned to Glasgow in 2006. His books are: The Credit Draper (Two Ravens Press, 2008, reprinted by Five Leaves Publishing, 2011), The Liberation of Celia Kahn (Five Leaves Publishing, 2011) andAn Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful (Saraband, 2013). Simons’ latest novel The Land Agent is due to be published by Saraband on 22nd October 2014. The Land Agent is the long-awaited final part of his Glasgow to Galilee trilogy that began with The Credit Draper and continued with The Liberation of Celia Kahn.
Hi David, please tell us a little about yourself and your writing, and your connections with Japan.
Apart from a lifelong interest in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I first really started to become acquainted with Japan in the early 1980s. I was living in London at the time and I had an English girlfriend who had lived in Japan and loved all things Japanese. I was also administering a charity organisation for the homeless where I was working closely with the writer Kazuo Ishiguro (he wasn’t famous then, we’ve been good friends ever since) and through him I felt I got some insight into the Japanese psyche. Also my step-sister worked in the music industry in London. She had a large expense account and she used to take me out to Japanese restaurants. There were only a handful in London at the time, all of which were hideously expensive. Those influences together with the financial imperative of needing work in the region led me to Japan in 1989.
I first started to write seriously when I was living in Japan. I had a lot of free time on my hands as my position at Keio University was not particularly demanding and I decided to use that time to devote to my writing. I was fortunate (or unfortunate, depends on how one looks at it) to have my first story published in an American-Japanese literary magazine called Printer Matter. I thought that a writing career would be an easy one after that – how wrong I was.
Where did the inspiration for An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful come from?
When I first arrived in Japan, I was working at the Japanese campus of Heidelberg University and a Canadian professor said to me, ‘There are three things you need to know about Japan. One, if you break into an ichi man en (10,0000 yen) note you can kiss it goodbye. Two, if you start bowing when you are talking on the telephone, it’s time to leave. And three, when it comes to architecture, the Japanese have an exquisite sense of what is beautiful and no sense of what is ugly.’ It was that third piece of advice or insight that struck a chord for me (as well as giving me a title). I think it goes without saying that the Japanese have an exquisite sense of what is beautiful – we can see that in their art and design and pottery and so on. But this ‘no sense of what is ugly’ – what did that mean? Ultimately, I felt that it was the way the Japanese absorbed Western culture without any of the usual aesthetic filters the Western person possesses. This would be, for example, in the same way as a Western person might have a tattoo written in Japanese ‘kanji’ thinking that it looks beautiful but in fact means something ridiculous like the ‘Osaka Abattoir Corporation.’ I then looked to extend that theme into the one of denial that it is at the heart of this novel: The ugly truths that we hide from ourselves.
Another inspiration for the book came from the Fujiya Hotel in Miyanoshita in Hakone, although the hotel is never mentioned by name in the book. As with the writer Edward in the novel I was stunned by its traditional beauty and had a strong feeling of déjà vu when I first saw it. It was built in the 1880s as the first hotel in Japan to cater for foreigners and I went to stay there a few times. It was there that I wrote a short story entitled ‘The Waterwheel’ which eventually evolved into the first chapter of An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful.
Many books tread the old ‘foreigner in Japan, girls in Kimono, using chopsticks, oh, isn’t it difficult and alien’ cliché. You manage to steer clear of that. Was that a conscious effort? How much did you think about the ‘Westerner in Japan’ trope?
I really did set out to use the novel as a way of introducing the Western reader to different aspects of Japan beyond the usual stereotypes. The setting of the Fujiya Hotel in the mountains was a good starting point and I also wrote about other rarely written about locations such as Hakone, Kamakura, the Mita campus of Keio University in Tokyo, the British embassy in Tokyo. I also wanted to write about the horrific Tokyo firebombings which tend to get forgotten about in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was also fun to write about the Japanese car industry in the 1950s which no-one ever thought of as a threat, or the stipends given to Living National Treasures in order to ward off the influence of Western culture by supporting traditional Japanese crafts such as bamboo weaving and sword making.
Writers writing about writers can often lead to thinly disguised autobiography but An Exquisite Sense never falls into that trap. Why did you choose to make your main character a writer?
I suppose I made him a writer because I needed him to be some sort of campaigner for the rehabilitation of the Japanese in the eyes of the West after the Second World War and what better way of having him do this than through a novel. It is not at all autobiographical but I cannot help but use some of my experience as a writer in informing Edward’s (and Aldous’) own opinions.
You call Edward a ‘campaigner’. Would it be fair to call the book a campaigning novel? Do you view it as a political novel, trying in some sense to educate people?
Is it a political novel? I suppose it is in a very subtle way. I have tried to turn the political into the personal as evidenced by Edward’s relationship with America (Macy) and Japan (Sumiko) as well as showing that a human being is just as capable of denial as a country can be. However, I don’t feel I have set out to educate but merely to bring the issues to the surface and let the reader decide for his/herself.
You openly engage with some controversial aspects of Japanese history. How has that been received? Have you had any criticism over some of the things your characters say about Japanese history?
To be honest, I have been disappointed by my readers’ unwillingness to engage with a lot of the political issues raised in the book. One of the few criticisms has been that I seem to be highly critical of the United States but less so with the Japanese and their denial of some of their own atrocities committed during the Second World War. I felt that I have tried to be fair to both sides in the book but I also believe that it should be up to the Japanese writers rather than a Western author to examine their own themes of denial.
You say you have a ‘lifelong interest’ in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why is that and how (apart from putting it in the novel) does it manifest?
The sense of moral indignation that Edward has as a young boy in the novel about Hiroshima and Nagasaki pretty much describes my own sense of injustice about the bombings. I don’t really know where it comes from. Certainly as I was growing up on this side of the world, people tended to view the mushroom cloud as some kind of wonderful scientific achievement and glorious aesthetic while I was always thinking ‘what about those poor people underneath?’ For me, it represents the aspect of denial that we all have to deal with in our lives – as it says at the end of the novel, our ultimate demise is the biggest denial of all – however, if we didn’t deny our mortality in our everyday lives, it would probably become too difficult to go on living.
How does my interest manifest itself? I suppose Hiroshima and Nagasaki taught me to always try and look at both sides of a conflict, to try and overcome our blind-spots in favour of compassion and humanity. I think this is most evident in what is going on now in Israel / Palestine. The Israelis have a blind spot when dealing with the Palestinians – they are in total denial about the immense human suffering they are causing, they are throwing up every single excuse they can muster in order to justify their actions. Deep down they know what they are doing is wrong, yet they cannot admit it. It is the same with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those bombings were atrocious acts but the American establishment has never had the courage to admit it. Which is a shame, because the world would be a better place if they did.
An Exquisite Sense … was published in 2013, two years after the tsunami in Tohoku. Without giving too much away about the plot, how did those events influence the book?
The tsunami in Tohoku had no influence on the book whatsoever. The scene described at the end of the novel is something I witnessed way back in 1993. I had returned to my home in Kamakura quite late in the evening with a message on the answer-phone to go down to the beach which was close by. There had been an earthquake way out in the Pacific earlier that day causing the sea in Kamakura bay to retreat far back to expose the ocean bed – it was a very eerie scene in the moonlight and one that I hoped one day I would use in a novel.
It’s quite hard to read that scene and not see images from Tohoku. Did / does that worry you or do you think it’s a useful coincidence? For me it added an extra layer; my emotions about Tohoku feeding in to the novel’s climax heighten it.
It was always the ending I had planned for several years so I never thought about changing it even with the coincidence of real-life events. Because the novel hasn’t yet been able to secure a publisher in Japan, you are the first person to actually confront me about the emotional impact of the ending on a resident of Japan – I wonder if I would have thought differently about the ending if I had been living there myself at the time.
You were two thirds of the way through a trilogy when you wrote this book. Why divert then and there?
Good question. I had been looking to get An Exquisite Sense published for quite a number of years. A window of opportunity came up two-thirds of the way through my trilogy – I wasn’t sure whether it was better to finish the trilogy first and then bring out An Exquisite Sense or vice versa. In the end, I decided to go with publishing An Exquisite Sense when I could. The final part of the trilogy – The Land Agent – comes out in October. Whether from a publishing point of view I made the right decision remains to be seen.
What are you working on now?
I am half-way through the first draft of a novel provisionally entitled Integrity. It is about a fading actress, Laura Scott, who decides to produce a one-woman play about the late actress / pilot / photographer called Georgie Hepburn whom Laura had always admired for her integrity. However, as her research takes her deeper into this woman’s life, she comes to realise that maybe Georgie didn’t possess all the integrity Laura thought she did.
Are you planning to set more work in Asia?
Not at the moment, but I feel that there are still a few Japan-related short stories in me yet. I feel that I have written out most of my Japanese novel-related content in An Exquisite Sense and I have been much more engaged with the Middle East as my next novel to be published – The Land Agent – is set in Palestine in the 1920s.
Are there any Asian poets, writers or artists among your major influences?
Being friends with Ishiguro has meant I have always been close to his work and admired the sparse, clean nature of his prose. Living in Kamakura, I was also attracted to the work of Kawabata (he lived and died close by in Zushi) and as is apparent from An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful, I loved Kawabata’s novel Snow Country. Living in Japan in the early 1990s, I also got to read very early on the English translations of Haruki Murakami with Pinball, A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard Boiled Wonderland. Similarly I got into some of the early work of Banana Yoshimoto such as N.P. and Lizard.
How did you find Eastlit and what are your impressions of it?
I only came across Eastlit recently when I saw your interview in it. It is certainly an ambitious publication in terms of its scope – covering a large section of Asia – and it will be interesting to see whether this breadth of coverage works to its advantage or disadvantage. I have certainly been impressed with the design, the quality of contribution and the willingness to embrace new technologies.