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Nicholas Hogg could be a Saul Bellow creation. He knows writers, thinkers, charlatans, hustlers and losers. He wears a black leather jacket as we meet on a sunny day on London’s Southbank outside the British Film Institute. He is the vice-captain of The Authors Cricket Club, a team of cricket playing writers published by Bloomsbury, and lives near Tower Bridge on a boat on the Thames. He has spent time in Japan, America, Fiji, India and New Zealand. His first book, Show Me The Sky was nominated for the IMPAC literary award. His second, The Hummingbird and the Bear, was basically packaged for supermarkets and a mass readership, with Tokyo he’s found a home with a smaller more daring press press based in Scotland.
Tokyo tells the tale of social psychologist Ben Monroe who has returned to Japan after a failed marriage to find his lost love Kozue. His story is mirrored by Koji, a cult survivor who falls in love with Ben’s daughter Mazzy. Over the course of the novel, both men descend into the underworld in a contemporary retelling of Kaguya-hime, a haunting Japanese fable about a moon princess.
Our chat is friendly and broad-ranging. We move from banter to discussions on philosophy, culture and prose style. We in the West seem to be increasingly defining ourselves by an array of interests rather than our class. Hogg is interested in how group dynamics play out on the psychology of an individual, particularly under duress. He spent time researching his latest novel in dive bars with Yakuza operatives. His exploration of Japan offers a radically different social set up where authority is placed on the group rather than the individual. One motto is “all for all”.
W: How much are these characters based on real people? Did you investigate the underworld at all?
N: I didn’t have to investigate too much because I knew a fairly high up Yakuza. The Yakuza often recruit from poorer neighbourhoods in Japan, and many of the Korean generation of immigrants have never been fully accepted into Japanese culture. One particular guy I met when I was in Japan was covered in tattoos. He is Yakuza. There’s no doubt. He just is. You don’t have the sleeves and the tattoos, the koi carp and the traditional gangland artwork unless you’re in the mob. I got to know him, he told me various stories. When he was seventeen he was recruited to stab another man to death, to assassinate someone because the maximum jail sentence for an under eighteen is a year. After he came out of prison, he’s then elevated in the ranks of the organisation. When I met him he was trying to rehabilitate himself and leave the Yakuza, which is easier said than done. You don’t ever leave. But basically he was on a sabbatical for a couple of years which was when I met him. When I returned to Japan, I heard he was back, fully involved with the Yakuza. But he’s an interesting guy. Physically very big, and with his tattoos, very handsome. A lot of the Western women I knew who knew of him, thought we was one of the most attractive Japanese men they had ever come across. There’s an aspect of him in the novel, definitely. Sounds like an idealised, stylised character, but he is true.
W: But sometimes life is too stylised. I like the character of Lenny as well. He seems quite a stylised sort of figure. But you imagine one who is totally real. He’s out there somewhere?
N: Lenny is completely based on a guy. You’ll be interested in this, being a wrestler.
W: He sounds like a wrestler.
N: Well, he was a guy who ripped the ligaments off my foot in a fight in a karaoke bar. But that was too much alcohol. He was in the lower divisions of the mixed martial arts leagues in Japan. He fought regularly. But he didn’t own a bar. He had a couple of other businesses and he ran the bar security. Fighting soldiers and drunken Japanese guys at the weekends. He talked like that and he was a definite larger than life character who made Japan his home.
W: There are these captures of conversations that are almost innocuous that I really like. The pimp. Some of the things he says.
N: I like that scene.
W: His philosophising about sex, women, you’re no better than me and all that.
N: I’ll explain that as John Gray philosophy channelled into a couple of minutes of a pimp in Toyko. It’s definitely a fictional conversation. But you do get harried and hassled by the pimps because lots of Western men are going there to look for sex, it’s as simple as that. They just think you’re there for that too.
W: The character of Yuki was interesting. The prostitute Ben solicits help to find Kozue. Is it Lenny who tells him a lot of the prostitutes are underage? Seems a very slippery world?
N: There are lots of cases of sixteen or seventeen year old prostitutes, and then the police raiding the club where they work. Prostitution is sort of legal in Japan, and only intercourse is actually illegal. The sex trade is generally accepted. It’s just part of the culture.
W: Not too different from here?
N: No. Much more mainstream in Japan than here. The danger is when the Yakuza run a hostess bar, and a guy ends up with a seventeen-year-old girl, then that’s it. He’s going to be extorted. He’s going to be paying out for a long time on that. That scam still goes on. The Yakuza hire underage women, police busts, that scam is repeated over and over. The other scam is the guy who gets drugged. In the novel Lenny recounts this story about a guy, a banker getting drunk. One minute he’s chatting to some Japanese women in a bar, next minute he wakes up in a love hotel room, there’s blood all over the wall, his wallet and credit card are gone and he’s just got a number to call. Rings up that number, he’s got somebody telling him he’s done terrible things to these women. He can’t remember a thing about it. There are US embassy warnings about this. Nothing actually happens. It’s just the fear. All their ID gone. They go to an address to collect their ID, which is vital in Japan as you can’t do anything without it. A friend, who rather than tell his wife what he’d been up to, even though he hadn’t done anything but flirt with a woman in a bar, managed to negotiate the extortion down, but it was still a few thousand pounds.
W: That’s quite incredible really.
N: Well, you go out and suddenly someone starts chatting you up, and you wonder what’s going on, holding your finger on the top of the beer bottle while you’re talking.
W: Our scamsters don’t seem so clever about it?
N: Well, they’re all just mugging someone on the street. That doesn’t happen in Japan. I mean, low level street crime. Pickpockets. Muggings. That menace and danger doesn’t exist. Something I really miss about Japan is the serenity of public life.
W: Why is this? All crime is organised?
N: Japan has a huge middle class, and it seems there are very few people without money for basics. This is where it gets quite hard to explain the culture. For example, I lost my wallet once, but I didn’t bother cancelling my credit cards because I was so sure it would be returned. A few days later, there it was in a little envelope from somebody. With the cash and the cards. I had no doubt that it would come back. It could be to do with Japan historically being a very complex society with lots of social codes and rules. And although the whole feudal system, this caste system, doesn’t exist so strongly now, still I hear stories about big companies running a background check to see if you’ve got Chinese or Korean in the family. To see if you’re from a lower caste. This social order in society keeps petty street crime from existing. This lack of confrontation, this lack of open aggression. In two years in Japan, I probably saw two or three people shouting in the street in that entire time.
W: There’s a real appeal to the sound of all that?
N: Well, there is.
W: Quite old fashioned values?
W: The solidarity, at least.
N: This a positive aspect. Although a Polish guy I knew hated it. He hated the fact that everybody did what the group wanted. Everybody doing the same. “Everybody sheep,” he’d say. But there’s group harmony. How the group comes before the individual. There’s a word in Japan called meiwaku which doesn’t directly translate. It means you don’t do something that’s a burden on everybody else. That could be dropping litter. Playing music late at night and disturbing your neighbours. Eating on a train in a busy carriage, and the smell of your food effects everybody else on the carriage. In Japan the individual suffers for the sake of the group.
W: In some sense we do that the other way round. Where the group suffers for the pleasure of a few people. It does seem so different to an individualistic culture?
N: That’s probably one of the main differences. At the start of the novel, Ben returns to Japan to conduct tests on the existence of a group harmony, a group soul – that being more obvious in Japan – by measuring tasks of group co-operation.
W: There’s little references throughout to those sorts of things, like in the public baths. There’s a bonding.
N: Fuinki is the atmosphere of community through bathing together. Stripped of everything. It’s a return to being a monkey in a pool. That’s it. Nothing else around you. Nothing to contest for. Just seeing your neighbour sitting there naked, washing. It’s the reality that you are just two mammals, co-habiting in the same area, rather than living out these wildly diverging lives.
W: Will Self says all of his novels are all autobiographical in a non linear way. A sort of memoir of the subconscious. Is this the same for you?
N: There are many life episodes that I’ve embroidered into the novel. I fictionalised certain aspects that don’t fit, that are awkward. In Tokyo, the hitchhiking, most of that is completely how it happened, oddly enough. It was a remarkable experience. The whole thing. That really is the seed for the novel. Walking through the eight kilometre long road tunnel was one of the oddest experiences of my life. Your self is narrowed down to a point where you look one way and the tunnel lines converge to a dot. You can’t see the end of the tunnel. You turn around. Nothing. That’s it. You are that space. There’s a mountain at the other end. And darkness. I wanted to distill whatever I thought of that into a book.
W: Did any of that isolation end up in the fugue state scenes?
N: Yes, that’s part of it, I think. David Mitchell’s talked about this, that when you’re in Japan, because you’re the foreigner in this other country, monologues come along because you have a lot more space to yourself. You’re not picking up on every little conversation that’s happening. You don’t have the same amplified listening you do in your own country. So you have this uninterrupted narrative playing, and perhaps the isolation. A lot of foreigners leave after six months, a year, that’s why they leave, because they feel isolated. I think a reason a lot of foreign writers are attracted to Japan is that it suits the day to day psyche of planning stories, because you have that space.
W: There’s a sort of gothic, manga almost horror at the end fugue scene. Where did the folklore come from?
N: The idea was to take in as much Japan as I could. The past two winters I went back to Tokyo and did nothing but read Japanese fiction. Japanese haiku. Japanese art exhibitions. This was then worked into the novel and obviously affected my Western sensibility. I think Princess Kaguya is a beautiful folk tale. I first heard it in an English class and had it told to me in really broken grammar. Some of the most fantastic folk tales I’ve come across are Japanese folk stories.
W: It is a central metaphor for the rest of the book?
N: Kaguya comes from the moon and she’s lost. Ben’s daughter, Mazzy, doesn’t want to be there, so she arrives, seemingly from the moon as well. She’s glowing. Folk tale stories of this glowing girl. I certainly followed that and the obsession with Kaguya that each of the princes had in the original tale. That’s mirrored in Ben and Koji’s obsession, and the kind of missions they have to try and complete to win over the princess who ultimately returns to the moon and her people. Which is replicated at the end of the novel in this seemingly fantastical journey.
W: It’s a slightly different take on the femme fatale?
N: Yeah. Which is too obvious.
W: It’s more about the fantasy of our own desire. Is there a mistrust in language?
N: Mistrust, perhaps, when using language to define their own obsessions.
W: There seems a mysticism at the core of the novel, an anti-rationalism. I wondered how that fit in with your reading of John Gray?
N: I wanted this novel to feel like a modern fable, which is the strap-line. That it had some mysticism, yet at the same time everything here was physically possible, there’s no stretch, there’s no talk about ghosts. And if there is a ghost it’s because it’s a vision from grief. I wanted those borderlines between what we know and what we don’t know without making it mythical or impossible. In Show Me The Sky I wrote a whole kind of ghost story section, and when I finished it, I thought, I don’t think I’ll ever write that again. So everything in here is to do with what the brain is capable of under duress and grief, loneliness.
W: It depends how we look at the real. To an extent, it’s a group orthodoxy. It’s part of the doxa, how we’re raised.
N: You have to move away from group orthodoxy. I once lived for a year on a ship, which is a country in itself with values, culture and ways of doing things. I’ve spent time in Japan, America, Fiji, India, New Zealand. You understand that morals and values and beliefs are liquid, that they shift when you move. Yet people are often so set. They’ve got their moral arbiters of how they think, absolutely what they think is right, absolutely what they think is wrong. You’ve got to get out of where you’re from and your culture to loosen rigid ways of thinking, and see how other people’s ideas and morals and values are formed. Then you wouldn’t be so absolutely right. Whether you’re left wing, whether you’re a liberal, whether you’re right wing. To have that moral certainty about what you think is right or wrong is strange.
W: It’s dangerous. Almost always leads to absolutism. But you’ve got to believe in something?
N: If the world was full of writers, we’d be fucked.
W: Do you think the role of the writer is to record?
N: Ultimately, for most writers. And the writers I admire I’ve never heard talk about politics. Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo. They’re not political writers.
W: If Don DeLillo started telling his views about the Democratic Party, what would that add to is output? I don’t know.
N: I’d be disappointed.
W: It’s too worldly, almost.
N: The writer should be attempting to understand every point of view. We’ve superimposed culture onto our animal state. All of this is just a phantom way of seeing the world, it’s all invented, whatever point of view you have. If you’re a member of ISIL you can say: “This is the way the world is and I am right and that is it.” From that extreme to wherever you are, however you’re living. They all make sense from your position in the universe. This is the psychologist in me, I guess. Unless you understand where somebody is coming from, how can you remedy it? There’s a big, big difference to understanding and condoning something. So you understand how somebody grows up in a particular place, deprived of something, or indoctrinated with an idea, how they come to that viewpoint. You have to understand how that individual got there. If that’s what an author does by colouring that person’s world, by creating a vision, a narrative, then that’s what great writing can do. It gives the reader the ability to emphasise with a particular character’s predicament and how their mindset has been formed.