Essays on the Art of Writing by Robert Louis Stevenson
Chapter 5: My First Book: Treasure Island
The Collection of Interviews with Murakami Haruki
translated by the writer.
The Art of Writing is a helpful resource for writers despite the outdated elements in the essay. One could take many angles about this essay, and I decided to stick to my favorite topic, the Japanese author, Murakami Haruki. They were born about one hundred years apart, but I didn’t have to go and look for the connection too long. It was waiting for me in this paragraph Stevenson wrote:
I had attempted the thing (novel writing) with vigor not less than ten or twelve times, I had not yet written a novel. All - all my pretty ones- had gone for a little then stopped inexorably like a schoolboy’s watch.
This brilliant simile immediately made me think of Murakami because it was the kind of simile Murakami would often think up.
On Long Novels and Short Stories
Many of us grew up with hundreds and thousands of hours of pleasure of being absorbed into novels and stories. Some of us are lucky enough to continue to spend much of life in pleasure. Reading takes time, but how do writers manage to write a few hundred pages that would take an even much longer time and patience?
Stevenson says something very interesting:
Anybody can write a short story — a bad one, I mean - who has industry and paper and time enough; but not every one may hope to write even a bad novel. It is the length that kills.
Murakami’s remarks are similar:
There are good short stories and bad ones, but it’s different for novels. Novels can be badly written but they are good as long as they somehow grab or touch the readers’ heart. (p. 399)
Stevenson says, “there must be something for hope to feed upon (to complete a novel).”
Human nature has certain rights; instinct of self-preservation - forbids that any man (cheered and supported by the consciousness of no previous victory) should endure the miseries of unsuccessful literary toil beyond a period to be measured in weeks.
Murakami elaborates more on writing a long novel. Paraphrasing: Just like marathon runners need a special training to run a full marathon, writers need special breathing, footwork and intuition to pass through a long, dark tunnel to write through to complete a novel.
Murakami is known to train himself physically by running or swimming. He also writes every day to keep the writing muscle and if it is not a novel, it could be short stories, essays, or translations.
Stevenson also says:
Treasure Island was far indeed from my first book, for I am not a novelist alone.
Stevenson on being fascinated by the tale:
I liked the tale myself, for much the same reason as my father liked the beginning: it was my kind of picturesque. I was not a little proud of John Silver, also; and to this day rather admire that smooth and formidable adventure, what was infinitely more exhilarating, I had passed a landmark; I had finished a tale, and written “The End” upon my manuscript . . .
Murakami doesn’t have the map. Murakami doesn’t find it necessary to stay on the island or stick to the storyline. His writing is improvisation. He might have written his early works as if he was in a dream. He could write without worrying about other things such as money or reputation. He had a day job and nobody knew that he was writing after work, except for his wife.
However, as he turned into a professional writer, he began devising a system of how he disciplined himself. He finds it’s important for him to be able to think alone as if sitting by himself at the bottom of the dry well. Writing for him is a series of experiments: he is more interested in how he writes than what he writes. After all, Murakami is a post-modern writer and he is not a storyteller. He states that the goal of writing is to go inside himself as deep as possible and at the depth he believes will connect with the readers.
On the Trigger to become a novelist - where the conviction to complete a novel comes from.
He wrote Treasure Island in 1881 - 82, published in 1983. However, the seed is rooted in a map he drew when he was much younger. The map of Treasure Island. So, Stevenson’s trigger was a map that “contained harbors that please me like sonnets.” The map triggered the first novel and sustained him while writing it:
I had written it up to the map. The map was the chief part of my plot. For instance, I had called an islet “Skeleton Island,” not knowing what I meant, seeking only for the immediate picturesque, and it was to justify this name that I broke into the gallery of Mr. Poe and stole Flint’s pointer. And in the same way, it was because I had made two harbors that the HISPANIOLA was sent on her wanderings with Israel Hands.
Note: More on HiSPANIOLA:
“It was to be a story for boys; no need of psychology or fine writing; and I had a boy at hand to be a touchstone. Women were excluded. I was unable to handle a brig (which the HISPNIOLA should have been), but thought I could make shift to sail her as a schooner without public shame.)” (LOL)
A bitter-sweet anecdote Stevenson added:
The time came when it was decided to republish, and I sent in my manuscript, and the map along with it, to Messers. Cassell. The proofs came, they were corrected, but i heard nothing of the map. I wrote and asked; was told it had never been received, and sat aghast.
After this, he drew another map by examining the book and made an inventory of all the allusions contained in it. It was an accurate map but he says, “Somehow, it was never Treasure Island to me.”
Murakami’s trigger to become a novelist came during a baseball game at Jingu when he was almost thirty-years-old. While drinking beer and his team losing, the thought came upon him: I can write a novel. In Japanese, 僕には小説が書ける, and the nuance is slightly different from “I can write a novel.” "I knew I possessed the capacity to write a novel" is closer, but it sounds clunky. It’s like a well-known line of a modernist poet Nakahara Chuya: 私はその日、人生に椅子をなくした. I’d translate it as “That day, I lost the chair of my life,” but I am not completely happy with the translation. The chair represents more things with "に"、rather than "の" that could have been used. I would very much like both lines to sound somehow prophetic, definitive and solitary. It is an example of the intricate use of jyoshi(助詞）- post positional participles - in Japanese. It is like the schoolboy’s watch: you understand the image or the idea of the metaphor clearly, but it is not easy to explain it. Anyway, after the ball game, Murakami began writing at his kitchen table late at night. The rest is history.
Stevenson’s Hispaniola was sent away, but Murakami’s female characters either disappear or appear regardless of his male narrator’s will. Murakami positions women or having sex with women as a conduit for the protagonist (a man) to go somewhere else. Well, in that sense, women are his Hispaniola.
Miho Kinnas teaches Translation and Fiction: a case study of the Translations of Murakami
at the Tender Leaves Translation Online Academy.
Miho is a poet and translator between English and Japanese. She co-translated a book of poems by Ikuko Tanaka with Shelly Bryant. Her poetry, translations, and book reviews were published in various journals, and The Belletrist Magazine nominated her poem "End" for The Pushcart prize in 2018. She has led poetry workshops based on haiku and renku at Pat Conroy Literary Festival, Harvard Art Museum, Shanghai Literary Festival, Life-Long Learning of Hilton Head, Bluffton Book Fair, USCB, Beaufort County Schools, and Montessori May River. Her creative works, as well as workshop material, often include her translations from various literature.