interview with Randy Taguchi
Since her debut in 2000, Randy Taguchi has continued to write prolifically, garnering international attention as well. Two works which she wrote last year, both focused on the theme of cancer, have created something of a sensation. “Cure” is a novel about a young surgeon who has been given just one year to live. “Papillon,” based on the author’s own experiences caring for her father, crosses into nonfiction. Taguchi tackles the subject of death, drawing on the lifetime work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in “On Death and Dying.” On the occasion of these two publications, I asked Taguchi about her life and work these days.
Q: What is your everyday work routine like?
I get up early and leave for work at 8:30. My apartment building has a hot tub, so I always use that before going to work. After taking care of the plants, I start up the computer and twitter in English, and then work from about 10:00 until evening. I’m a morning person, so I never work at night. I make it home in time to have dinner around six.
Q: Tweeting is part of your daily routine?
Yes, it is. I find it’s a good way to break up the work.
Q: Next year will be exactly ten years since you wrote your debut novel, “Outlet.” Do you feel any sort of change in attitude, or a sense that you’ve reached a turning point?
I’m used to being a writer now, and I’ve become more relaxed about it. In the past, I worried about a lot about things that had nothing to do with writing, like negotiations with publishers and meetings with editors. Those concerns have decreased over time, so I’m able to focus all my energy on writing.
Q:Have there been any other changes in addition to writing novels?
Since slowing down, I find I’m able to pursue one theme more thoroughly. I usually have about five general themes in my head. When I come across a piece of information, or when I read something that catches my eye, I think about which theme it might apply to, and how it might fit in…iming is key… I used to feel rushed about turning ideas into writing. I’d think I had to finish something up quickly, or that I had to do something for a particular publisher. I don’t worry about those things so much anymore.
Q: This next question is about the afterward in “Outlet.” You wrote, “Death is probably the biggest mystery of human life.” I think death is really a core theme running through your writing, yet in your most recent works, “Cure” and “Papillon,” it seems like a new approach has emerged. In these two works, the message that “death is not defeat” comes through quite clearly. Could you describe the process of writing these two books, and any particular thoughts you had about each of them?
Well, I wrote “Cure” because of my association with Kazuko Yanagihara, the author of the nonfiction work, “A Study of Cancer Patients: Learning from Patients with Long-Term Survival.”
Ms. Yanagihara herself had reoccurring terminal cancer. She’s passed on now, but we were in touch throughout her illness. During the same exact period, my father was also diagnosed with cancer, and I used his battle with the disease as material for “Papillon.” These two books are like twins, both arising from the theme of cancer.
Ms. Yanagihara battled cancer for ten years, and she beat it once. Because of this first-hand experience, it was extremely painful for her to be trapped in the dual roles of writer and patient, but that was also what made her writing so sincere. She could only take a sympathetic approach when she herself was looking at the problem from the inside. The painful truth was that once she was cured, she could no longer write about it. She embodied the paradox of only truly being able to write about cancer while she herself was a patient. While she had cancer, she wrote about it profusely, but once she was cured, she lost the ability to understand this perspective. A writer is a person who always takes on the persona of others, and uses encounters with people as an object of study, but for Ms. Yanagihara, that wasn’t good enough.
I’ve tried to understand things from her perspective – that it’s impossible for a person who hasn’t actually had cancer to write about it. But I wonder if there might be times when having a sense of distance actually allows one to write about it… For example, when a family member becomes a cancer patient, it’s extremely difficult to get any distance, no matter how much one may wish to take an objective approach. Besides, I wonder if it wasn’t precisely those feelings which got me thinking about the issue in more detail, and led to this book.
Q: Did you intent to write both fiction and nonfiction from the start?
Yes, I did. And from this point on, I’d like set equal weight to both fiction and nonfiction as a fundamental framework for my writing. I’m working with Kadokawa Shoten now, writing both a novel and a nonfiction work on the same themes, which will be published at the same time. I’m fond of both works. The writing is enjoyable too. Of course, writing each one is satisfying in its own way.
Q: Do you hope to achieve a kind of balance with these two contrastive writings?
In something like a novel, there are a lot of cases where the source material really has to be significantly narrowed down. When you want to give specific information, then nonfiction is much more practical because it’s actually real. But when you do that, it becomes more difficult to convey the spirit of the story, so that’s the good thing about writing a novel. Readers seem to be divided into those who like fiction and those who like nonfiction. It’s surprisingly rare to find people who read both.
Q: I’m changing the subject here, but in “Mosaic,” there’s a character who collects a lot of Japanese swords. When I read the part where he tells the main female character, “cut me,” and she responds, “I can’t cut blood,” I sensed the theme of family was running throughout.
Well, when my father died, I felt that all blood ties to my family had finally come to an end. And I was really comfortable with that. But I probably couldn’t write about family in that way anymore now. This one long novel takes it halfway, but an ultimate, comprehensive work on family is not something I want to do right now. I’d like to sleep on it for a while.
Q: In your most recent serialization, you write about the different themes of “death” and “family.” You incorporate material from a person who has witnessed a UFO, among other things.
Right now, I’m working on the problem of “altered consciousness,” something which I’ve been interested in for a long time. I’m focusing on the question of what is meant by “unrealistic reality,” meaning hallucinations or other encounters which are not part of people’s everyday conscious state.
Q: The same theme that appears in “Outlet”…?
Yes, I’ve always been very interested in “trans-personal” as a theme, and this time, I’d like to take that as a starting point. In part, it pulls in areas like the former beatnik and psychedelic cultures. At that time, these phenomenon were simply attributed to brain hallucinogens, but with recent developments in brain science, we have come to understand the mechanisms of hallucinations even better. We definitely can’t overlook the issue of supernatural phenomenon and the connection to religion either. I’d like to write about the theme of religion in the future.
Q: I’d like to ask one final question. When you first started to twitter, I think you were the only Japanese writer twittering to foreign audiences. Was this something you did intentionally?
Well, when my work was first published in Italy, I had an opportunity to go there and meet journalists and writers, which was very satisfying. We exchanged opinions and talked about books. I realized that the mentalities of Japanese and Europeans are not all that different. On the other hand, I think that values and ways of thinking differ greatly from place to place. I don’t actually have many friends in Japan who are writers. But since I don’t have a lot of ties to foreigners, we can enjoy simple talking about general topics like “literature” and “the world.” I go to Italy just about every year. Going abroad is liberating, and it revitalizes me.