Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman


To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other, creating a complete landscape that I treasure. The green foliage of the trees casts a pleasant shade over the earth, and the wind rustles the leaves, which are sometimes dyed a brilliant gold. Meanwhile, in the garden, buds appear on flowers, and colorful petals attract bees and butterflies, reminding us of the subtle transition from one season to the next.

Since my debut as a fiction writer in 1979 I’ve fairly consistently alternated between writing novels and short stories. My pattern’s been this: once I finish a novel, I find I want to write some short stories; once a group of stories is done, then I feel like focusing on a novel. I never write any short stories while I’m writing a novel, and never write a novel while I’m working on short stories. The two types of writing may very well engage different parts of the brain, and it takes some time to get off one track and switch to the other.

It was only after I began my career with two short novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, that I started, from 1980 to 1981, to write short stories. The first three I ever wrote were “A Slow Boat to China,” “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story,” and “New York Mining Disaster.” I knew little about short story writing then so it was rough going, but I did find the experience very memorable. I felt the possibilities of my fictional world expand by several degrees. And readers seemed to appreciate this other side of me as a writer. “A Slow Boat to China” was collected in my first English short story collection, The Elephant Vanishes, while the other two can be found in the present collection. This was my starting point as a short story writer, and also when I developed my system of alternating between novels and short stories.

“The Mirror,” “A Perfect Day for Kangaroos,” “Dabchick,” “The Year of Spaghetti,” and “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes” were all in a collection of “short shorts” I wrote from 1981 to 1982. “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes,” as readers can easily see, reveals my impressions of the literary world at the time of my debut, in the form of a fable. At the time, I couldn’t fit in well with the Japanese literary establishment, a situation that continues to the present day.

One of the joys of writing short stories is that they don’t take so long to finish. Generally it takes me about a week to get a short story into some kind of decent shape (though revisions can be endless). It’s not like the total physical and mental commitment you have to make for the year or two it takes to compose a novel. You merely enter a room, finish your work, and exit. That’s it. For me, at least, writing a novel can seem to drag on forever, and I sometimes wonder if I’m going to survive. So I find writing short stories a necessary change of pace.

One more nice thing about short stories is that you can create a story out of the smallest details—an idea that springs up in your mind, a word, an image, whatever. In most cases it’s like jazz improvisation, with the story taking me where it wants to. And another good point is that with short stories you don’t have to worry about failing. If the idea doesn’t work out the way you hoped it would, you just shrug your shoulders and tell yourself that they can’t all be winners. Even with masters of the genre like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver—even Anton Chekhov—not every short story is a masterpiece. I find this a great comfort. You can learn from your mistakes (in other words, those you can’t call a complete success) and use that in the next story you write. In my case, when I write novels I try very hard to learn from the successes and failures I experience in writing short stories. In that sense, the short story is a kind of experimental laboratory for me as a novelist. It’s hard to experiment the way I like inside the framework of a novel, so without short stories I know