Saturday, February 27, 2010

Eric Paul Shaffer on Plot and Star-Gazing

Is there a plot in your novel?

The metaphor for the use of plot in traditional fiction is a train ride: start at this station, move along the tracks, sidings, and stations, and end at the destination station. The metaphor for the use of plot in Burn & Learn is star-gazing: there are multiple lights of differing magnitudes that appear in various places in the visible sky, and they make patterns based on the images you can see there or draw there or create there by joining those points together. You can create new constellations or you can apply the ones that seem most obvious. You can compare all of the brightest to each other or you can read them from west to east, north to south, or in a spiral that starts from whichever star you think is the pole star. The meaning is what you make of it; the making readers do is as important as the text, probably more important. Burn & Learn, therefore, is not only a title; it’s the first rule in reading the novel.

As you know, I like to challenge my readers with truth they may prefer to ignore, depicting characters with incurable illness, prejudice, anger, selfishness, and so forth. I believe you kick it up a level and challenge them to change they way they read. I want to tell readers that while your answers sound scholarly, Burn & Learn is a whole lot of fun. It has a playful spirit, with a mix of observation and insight that just makes me laugh. Is that okay?

That is more than okay; I will be delighted when you do that. I especially like the idea that Burn & Learn challenges the way they read. I believe that reading is a much more active activity than we commonly believe, and I hope my novel invigorates its readers.

This photo shows one of my favorite yanejishi because of his demented expression of fear and ferocity with a trace of a smile.

I like his playful spirit, too. Thanks so much for the interview, Eric.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Eric Paul Shaffer Pushes Reality to Its Outer Limits

Let's talk more specifically about Burn & Learn. Are you serious when you claim on the title page of Burn & Learn that your novel is a “sequel” to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine?

Yes, I am. There are a number of internal character clues or cues that correspond with Wells’ tale, of course, and I have essentially transported one aspect of one of Wells’ main characters into one of mine. In my humble estimation, Burn & Learn is a “logical” end to Wells’ novel. My text also answers a number of questions left open by Wells.

Oddly, for a book called The Time Machine, the adventures of the Time Traveler are narrow, even claustrophobic, from a temporal point of view. He hardly goes anywhere or sees anything; in fact, he seems to go only as far as the backyard fence and back. I broadened my canvas and context, even including a chronology of all the significant events of all the time in the world. I also traveled through multiple modes of fiction whereas Wells limited himself to a single mode: science fiction.

Strangely, to my way of thinking, Wells settled for a symbolic or even allegorical tale whose significance seems a little shallow, considering the endless possibilities of time. I decided to maintain a hyper-realistic stance within the mode in which I was working (whether it was native American tales, fables, koans, “realistic renderings of events,” or speaking bookmovie chapters). I focused on surfaces and appearances, and I did so primarily because I visualized every event as a “movie.” Movies are great, but they do NOT show depths; they show surfaces only, and only surfaces that reflect light. All that is revealed in movies is all that you can see or hear, and the same is true of Burn & Learn, although I made it my mission to push that reality to its outer limits.

Next up: Shaffer on Star Gazing

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Burn & Learn with American Fuji

Eric, why would readers of American Fuji appreciate your novel Burn & Learn?

You and I share a belief that readers are the most important people in the novel. What I mean is that we both do our best to be clear about the story we are telling, and we try to make our novels clear and accessible.

And accurate.

Each of us uses our strengths. You are a plotter, and your plots are surprising and logical and satisfying to me. Plotting is not my strength, so I made a strength of focusing on the event, which others might call scene, but to me, scene implies a narrative arc whereas an event begins and ends where the brilliance is, and that is all I am interested in. I provide a number of events in Burn & Learn, and I leave them for readers to assemble. You make your novels fun, and I try to do the same. No matter what the subject matter, we work to make the telling intriguing. We both employ all aspects of Eastern thought, belief, and action and work where the conflicts and impacts of Eastern and Western worlds are. Both of us are knowledgeable enough about the two spheres that we can use the connections and contradictions to the advantage of the story.

You also wrote a terrific book of poetry, Portable Planet, which features material about Japan. I've used your poems in many of my college classes.

Thank you for the kind words.

Thanks for the photo of you time-travelling from the 1970s into the 1990s. I remember that day--twice!

Next up: Eric as Fred Flintsone

Monday, February 22, 2010

Eric Paul Shaffer on Climbing Fuji

My blog followers know you and your wife Veronica climbed Mt. Fuji with me. How does that compare to other mountains you've climbed?

Mt. Fuji, for which I maintain a great affection, is a fairly simple “walk-up.” The way to the peak is fundamentally an inclined path. Some of the climbers on the trail with us were sprightly folks of over sixty or seventy, and they were doing fine. My experience on Mt. Fuji was mainly one of irony. We left in the dark to climb through the night in order to arrive on the peak for the sunrise. We arrived on the peak at the proper time, but the peak was completely socked in. I literally could not see my hand at the end of my outstretched arm when I first made the top. The clouds cleared enough for me to see about thirty feet from where I stood, but I was never given a glimpse of the view in any direction, and we headed back down before there was any clearing. By the time we reached the bottom again, though, we could see the peak free of clouds. It seems ironic indeed that the highest point in Japan allowed me no view at all. Most of what I saw in Japan was at sea level, which carries its own irony.

Yeah, I wish we had not been so keen on following Japanese tradition and had simply hiked during the day. I remember seeing a few shooting stars on the way up, but it was sleet at the top--on a scorching hot day in July. Have you ever hiked another mountain between 11:00 pm to 5:00 am?

Not once.

And do you remember why we brought Grateful Dead tee shirts along with us?

Maybe, "what a long, strange trip it's been"?

Next up: Burn & Learn with American Fuji

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Eric Paul Shaffer Reverses the Question

So, Eric, you lived in Okinawa the same years I lived in Shizuoka City, the setting for American Fuji. What did you find in American Fuji that corresponded with your life on the island?

The difficulties that Gaby and Alex, as gaijin, have in acquiring solid information were familiar to me. Many times I wondered why I was unable to get answers to what seemed to be basic and simple questions, such as how I should acquire a parking space at my apartment complex. I am very glad I didn’t have to research the sorts of questions Gaby and Alex were faced with. My faculty meetings, like Gaby's, lasted countless hours, and it was difficult to get an answer to what I was voting for even though I was told which way to vote. I also found the same juxtapositions jarring that Alex does. For example, I found a nation that values individual reputation as highly as Japan does somewhat in contradiction with the high incidence of drinking and driving I actually witnessed there.

A few readers get upset when I point out aspects of Japan such as the 10,000 yen fine for vomiting in a taxi or my description of drunk businessmen puking on the sidewalk. I witnessed these signs of rampant alcoholism and it is real, but I have been accused of being mean-spirited to include it (and other details people regard as "negative") in my novel. Do you experience the same backlash? The notion that it's our duty, as fiction writers, to make sure readers have a good impression of the culture?

When I am faced with a question based on a notion like this, I find it exceedingly instructive to reverse the question. How likely is it that Japanese will promote this attitude: "we, as Japanese, should only write about positive features of America and make sure readers have a good impression of the culture." My experience indicates that this is not the case. Many are the justified and accurate and incisive critiques of America that I have heard from Japanese people who were resident aliens of the USA. As a result, I portray the Japan and Okinawa I "knew" in my writing, always from the "inside-outsider" perspective, which acknowledges its inherent limitations, and employ what I saw to tell stories about what appeared to be happening. What other choice do we have?

Could you explain the baffling juxtapositions of this photo?

The name of the business is “Misuta Sain” (Mister Sign) and he is advertising his Christmas sale. It struck me as odd that it was okay with our security forces and military bases that a perimeter fence be adorned with advertising. It also struck me as odd that the American and Japanese flags are flying side by side on Okinawan soil WITHOUT AN OKINAWAN FLAG.

Next up: Shaffer on climbing Mt. Fuji

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Eric Paul Shaffer's Favorite Japanese Novelists

Which Japanese novelists would you recommend to our readers?

Dazai (especially The Setting Sun and No Longer Human, both of which acknowledge a side of Japanese culture I glimpsed but that is often unacknowledged and for his stark lyricality) Öe (for the same reasons), Sōseki (for his crazy inventiveness, humor, and honest portrayal of Japanese culture), and Akutagawa (for Kappa, a charming novel). Oddly, I find the work of H. Murakami, the popular contemporary Japanese author, interesting but a bit plodding compared to the more intricate yet lighter, though deeper, work of these others.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Eric Paul Shaffer on Living in Okinawa

I noticed that living in Japan changed the way I related to my native English language. I spoke, wrote, read, and even thought differently. Did living in Japan change the way you wrote poetry and fiction?

Absolutely. Not only did living in Japan supply entirely new subject matter for my writing, but Japan provided me a completely different perspective as a writer. Because of my new location, I began reading more and more about the history of Japan and America, two nations whose histories are so inter-twined that they will never be free of each other again. Because I am a student of literature, I read novels, non-fiction, and poetry by Okinawan and Japanese authors. In another way, living in Japan broadened me as a writer in ways that I might never have experienced in the USA. If we are each the sum of our experiences, then I was most definitely changed, and I hope it was for the better, by living on Okinawa and in Japan.

Care to explain the visual pun in your photo?

It’s a Japanese crane and cherry blossoms: symbols of longevity and transience side by side.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Interview with Eric Paul Shaffer

My next few posts will feature an interview with poet and novelist Eric Paul Shaffer. He's a good friend of mine who taught English at a national Japanese university on the tropical island of Okinawa the same years I taught in Shizuoka on mainland Japan.

Eric Paul Shaffer is the author of five books of poetry, including Lāhaina Noon; Living at the Monastery, Working in the Kitchen; and (my favorite) Portable Planet. His poetry appears in Ploughshares, Slate, North American Review, Threepenny Review, and reviews in Australia, Canada, England, Iran, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, and Scotland. Shaffer received the 2002 Elliot Cades Award for Literature, a 2006 Ka Palapala Po'okela Book Award for Lāhaina Noon, and the 2009 James M. Vaughan Award for Poetry. Burn & Learn, his first novel, was published in November 2009. After living on Okinawa and Maui, he now lives on O'ahu and teaches at Honolulu Community College.

Please feel free to post your own questions for Eric as we go along!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Obligation Chocolate

In American Fuji, I mentioned the ongoing "invisible obligation game" that Americans find baffling. To oversimplify, you owe every person who does you a favor or gives you a present. But paying back your social debt can be nerve-wrecking as it's nearly impossible to match an action or gift with the one you received. To be safe, you usually overdo it, which then puts the burden on the recipient to come back with another favor or gift, and the obligation ledger goes back and forth, adding and subtracting perceived value for a lifetime. Valentine's Day is an obligation day in Japan which requires women to give chocolate (giri-choco) to their male co-workers and acquaintances. They may also choose to give honmei-choco to their sweethearts. Most Japanese women I knew resented the holiday because buying small boxes of chocolate for 30-40 men put a dent in their budgets. Perhaps these days there is less pressure to conform to this tradition. Mieji, a popular Japanese chocolatier, makes many ingenious chocolates, such as this Tetris puzzle chocolate bar.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Year of the Tiger 2010

Here's a lovely tiger I photographed at Sengen Jinja Shrine in Shizuoka City. In Japan, the year of the Tiger began Feb. 4, but in China it starts Feb. 14 this year. The astrology is far more complex than assigning 12 animals to 12 personality types. Concurrent 5-year cycles of elements (earth, fire, water, wood, and metal) create 60 basic types, modified by the month, day, and hour of one's birth and all of their corresponding animals and elements. Your "lucky" element is the one you most lack--reinforcing Eastern ideas of the rightness of balance. If you're curious, click here to see what your luck will be for 2010.