While I look back with great fondness on my years in Tokyo, at the time I had no affection for the city. I arrived there by accident and stayed as long as I did for love (That Guy had entered the picture, and a friend of the rare sort you don’t let go of easily).
Before that, I was living on a gorgeous island in the Izu peninsula, south of Tokyo, and teaching English at the little island high school. It was one of the happiest years of my life, but that’s another story. The active volcano erupted a year into my contract and, along with the entire population of the island, I was evacuated to Tokyo. While I had spent my first year in Japan with a view of Mikura island across the bright blue water, ambling along black sand beaches and hiking up the volcano, now I was in a bleak suburb with a long commute to work. Later I moved to a slightly less bleak neighborhood with a long commute to another job. I spent much of my time in Tokyo plotting my escape, how I would take That Guy with me and not lose my dear friend. I’d been there for nearly three years when a few different ideas came together, along with my general sense of dislocation, disorientation and wonder, to form the premise of Another Dance for Amaterasu.
I wrote it in fits and starts between work and studies and travel. I meant to write a book in which Tokyo, the city, was sort of the villain of the piece. In fact, I’d barely gotten past the outlining stage when I left Tokyo, dragging That Guy to lovely, fascinating Kyoto (hometown of the friend I wanted to hang onto). I wrote most of the book there, in this beautiful, temple-filled town where I could ride my bike along the river to work, so maybe I’d lost the mood a bit. Then That Guy dragged me to Beijing, where I finished it (and honestly, pre-Olympics Beijing would have made a far better book-villain than Tokyo, but whatever).
The novel featured a young Canadian man called Leo, who suffered from a real sleep disorder I’d read about in a magazine. He was unable to enter the deep sleep stage and remained, when asleep, mainly in REM sleep. As a result, he dreamed vividly and nearly constantly when asleep, and when awake, he was exhausted to the point of being barely functional in his real life. At first the book was supposed to be about this guy navigating his half-real half-dream world as an expat in a city that often felt like a bad dream, his dreams drawing him deeper and deeper into a hellish place made up of fragments of his own past, leading him to confront his guilt about his long-dead twin brother. But as I wrote, the novel became just as much about Leo’s girlfriend, Reina, picking up the pieces, holding him together, and trying to figure out her own place in the world, and about Reina’s father confronting the emptiness of his life following a friend’s suicide and his ex-wife’s remarriage, and about Leo’s doctor, a foreign sleep specialist and a widow, a brilliant perfectionist barely managing to balance her daytime career with increasingly self-destructive nocturnal adventures through Tokyo’s underworld (which I, of course, knew nothing about). Then it was also about the ghost of a Japanese artist reliving his failed marriage and memories of his mistress and the collapse of the world he knew after the war. Add to that a nonsensical blending of Greek (Orpheus and Eurydice) and Japanese (Amaterasu and Ame-no-Uzume) myth. Obviously, there was way too much going on, and my novelistic foray into magic realism ended up in seriously surrealist territory.
Somehow, out of that mess, I managed a pretty good fake-out of a query letter, and the first few chapters were not bad. When I sent queries and samples to editors and agents (under the delusion that this was a good book I had written) I got a surprisingly high request rate. However, nobody who requested the full manuscript wanted to take it on once they had read the whole thing. Everybody said some version of the same thing (“Lady, this makes no freaking sense at all”) but nobody said it as eloquently or with as many specifics as Geoffrey Ursell from Coteau Books. He sent a wonderful three-page letter that somehow managed to be kind and encouraging while completely decimating my book. At first, his letter inspired me to rewrite the novel. Later, rereading his letter, I decided to shelve it. But it sold me on Coteau Books as a good place for a book of mine, and Geoffrey Ursell invited me to send other work. Fortunately, they liked Shade and Sorceress better.
Looking at the synopsis I wrote and my outline makes me laugh now, but when I look at the manuscript itself, I don’t cringe or roll my eyes. The main problem with it is not that it’s over-written or immature or nonsensical (though it is, in places, all of those things). The problem is that it’s not really a novel. At its best, it is five character studies masquerading as a novel. While I’ve shelved it, I haven’t discarded it. I’d like to revamp the sleep disorder premise and keep a couple of the characters and attempt a YA magic realist novel with an actual plot. Or something. It’s possible I just have trouble letting go.
Eric Sipple tweeted recently: “Thought: a first novel typically an extended parade of the author’s fetishes” and I was struck by it in part because I think that really does sum up my own first attempt. While I tell people how laughably bad my first book was, in my secret heart I still love it and want to rescue it from its own confusion and excesses. There is so much more of me in that book than in anything I’ve written since.
The things I learned: I need to focus on plot and hew close to it, because if I don’t, I will wander into some very strange places and lose my focus. Once the scaffolding is firmly in place, I can start to let things bubble up – peculiar, ugly things, little demons I adore but must cut out of the story with abandon wherever they threaten to take over with their chattering nonsense. The balance of control and inspiration is one I am far from perfecting. I love Another Dance for Amaterasu because it is pure inspiration… but it isn’t a book. Not really. Not yet.
Next week, if the prospect of doing so doesn’t make me wither with shame, I’ll post an excerpt. Until then, blog, I am
Yours, still-tinkering-with-how-best-to-do-this-writing-thing-and-what-exactly-I-most- want-to-write-about,