A Young Haruki Murakami

As a new writer, I find nothing as motivating as learning about famous writers when they were just starting out. What were their habits like? What setbacks did they face?

With millions of books sold across the world and numerous international literary prizes, Haruki Murakami is one of those rare writers who achieve popularity both with critics and with audiences. His characters’ apathy and the bizarre adventures have found resonance all across the globe.

The story of how he came to write his first extended prose piece at age 29 sounds like something straight out of his books: while watching a baseball game and drinking a beer, a player hit a double. At that exact moment, Murakami realized he could write a novel. He went back home and began it that day.

Back then, he and his wife ran a jazz bar together, so his writing had to wait until late at night. But everyday for four months he kept at it, and the result was the novella Hear the Wing Sing. Hi submitted the piece to the Gunzo literary contest and won first prize, kickstarting his career. (A bit of trivia: the same contest also helped establish Ryu Murakami, who won for Almost Transparent Blue.)

He followed up with a slew of acclaimed novels, each one earning him more readers and awards, until he became Japan’s most famous writer.

It makes for a great story—who wouldn’t want to hit it out of the park with their first novel? But, as anyone familiar with Murakami’s disciplined habits might expect, there’s more to the story than that.

Readers of Murakami know he’s well-versed in western (particularly American) literature. Since his teenage years, he had a voracious appetite for the works of Updike, Capote, Fitzgerald, and Raymond Carver, among many others. By the time he started his first novella, he probably knew more about contemporary American literature than many American writers.

And, as he states in his introduction to Soseki’s Sanshiro, in his 20s he immersed himself in Japanese classics, making his way through The Tale of Genji and the complete works of Natsume Soseki and Junichiro Tanizaki.

Hardcore Murakami fans might be aware of all this, but an important part of his origin story is rarely if ever mentioned. While Hear the Wind Sing was his first attempt at a novel, it wasn’t his first attempt at writing. At Waseda University, he studied drama with a focus on screenwriting and produced a number of scenarios there. In fact, it’s been suggested that his original ambition was to be a screenwriter. So although he hadn’t done much with prose previously, he’d studied narratives and writing extensively long before he went to that fateful baseball game.

Murakami thus goes from being a natural prodigy who struck gold with his first piece to a well-read writer who put in his time before seeing his first publication. So any would-be writers feeling down today, just remember that even the best often spend hours grinding away in anonymity.

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