Last night I was in the same room as Haruki Murakami

“I dream. Sometimes I think that’s the only right thing to do. To dream, to live in the world of dreams. But it doesn’t last forever. Wakefulness always comes to take me back.” – Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart Reading is an intensely personal experience. You take a book to a quiet corner and lose yourself between the pages of a story. Thousands, if not millions, of people might read the same words, but at that moment, they are yours and yours only.

Authors tend to have a mystical presence. As you read, you fall in love with characters and places, only vaguely aware of the person who wrote the words. It’s not until you finish the story that you see the puppet strings.

Occasionally, an author becomes a celebrated character in his or her own right. They transition from being mystical to being master, master of words and stories. You tentatively hang on to their every word, intrigued and in awe, but also ever-so-slightly mistrusting, as if with one admission they could crumble your interpretation of their works.

After all, the relationships you build with ‘their’ characters is intimate and personal. They provide the words, your imagination does the rest.

So what happens when you place a revered writer with a cult-like following in a room full of 2,000 avid readers?

Last night I was in the same room as Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s most celebrated authors. The atmosphere was electric.

When Murakami walked on stage the crowd erupted in applause and wolf whistles. A few people raised from their seats in standing ovation. I had goosebumps and a goofy smile across my face. In that moment, I could feel what Murakami’s stories are to people: joy.

That was the feeling in the room. Joy. Along with admiration, respect, anticipation and all the rest. But joy was the feeling I felt most intensely throughout the 90 minutes Murakami spoke.

This experience solidified what I have always believed but struggled to put into words: stories bring so much happiness to people’s lives.

The applause lasted minutes, perhaps a few seconds longer than socially appropriate, and Murakami looked humbled, overwhelmed and also slightly amused. He sat down in a leather armchair, smiled patiently, and turned to his interviewer, John Freeman.

Freeman, a US author, editor & critic, did a masterful job of guiding the conversation. He was warm, funny and respectful, posing thoughtful questions to Murakami and giving him plenty of time and space to answer as he pleased.

I didn’t know what to expect – who can ever predict what turns a conversation is going to take? Murakami was sincere and generous in his answers, yet also incredibly funny and not the least bit shy of speaking his truth.

I could try to recap the entire conversation, but I know I wouldn’t do it justice. You really had to be there.

I walked away with more feelings than cold-hard-facts. I guess that’s what 90 minutes listening to a masterful storyteller leaves you with – a vague sense of direction and a few memorable one liners.

Here are three things I gleaned from A Conversation with Haruki Murakami:

Not everything requires an explanation

Although he was refreshingly candid and honest, Murakami did manage to maintain an air of mystery.

His books are notoriously left wide open to interpretation, leaving readers to speculate over the meaning of his every word. He gave nothing away, other to say that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen any more than the readers do (to which the crowd erupted in laughter).

He said he discovers his characters through writing. He is not one to map out every scene in detail and then put it into words. Instead, he goes on a journey with them, every day bringing forward a fresh revelation.

While it was clear many people in the audience were seeking some explanation (he is the King of cliffhangers), Murakami seemed content to leave his characters muddling their way through chaos. “That’s life,” he said.

I admired his refusal to give in to people’s pleas for clarification. I used to be one of them: when I finished Sputnik Sweetheart I wrote that I felt “disoriented and disappointed”. Next time, I am just going to enjoy the ride. Murakami’s fiction is not the place to search for concrete answers.

Stop Googling writing tips and just put pen to paper

As an aspiring writer, I thought I would feel intimidated by Murakami’s presence, but the opposite was true. If anything, I felt reassured.

Here is Murakami, a best-selling novelist with a God-like status in some literary circles, telling the audience that he’s just doing what he knows how to do. He climbed down from the pedestal people put him on and said, I can’t tell you how I do what I do. I just do.

Of course that question came: “What tips can you share with aspiring writers are trying to thrive in this hostile publishing environment? A mouthful to which he appeared to draw a blank.

I felt a little bit sorry for the girl in the audience who asked the question – she was obviously hoping for a more detailed response. But I admired the way he simplified the process. Just write. Just do what you know how to do, and see what happens.

There are no tips and tricks, no shortcuts to success, just you and your blank page.

Stories are stories: biography has little place in imagination

It is natural to speculate whether a writer’s stories are somewhat autobiographical. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. Murakami was rather cautious when it came to answering questions about his own background.

It was almost as if he was saying, “what does it matter?” Of course his experiences will shape his stories, but his imagination is what inspires him to write.

“I can be anybody,” he said. He can be a young conservative man or a lonely 20-year-old lesbian. He said he simply tried to see the world through other people’s eyes.

To try to glean biographical insight from his every word is to discredit the Murakami’s perception and imagination. Sometimes a story is just a story, and we should leave it at that.

Haruki Murakami came to New Zealand as part of the Auckland Writers Festival. You can read more about him here.