Murakami: At least he never walked

January 10, 2009 at 7:26 pm Leave a comment

For Christmas, a good friend of mine sent me Haruki Murakami’s most recent book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It is an enjoyable, subtle,  funny, and  thoughtful collection of Murakami’s ruminations about long-distance running and the lifestyle of a writer.

Recently, another friend sent me this link to Spiegel’s interview with Murakami. An excerpt:

SPIEGEL: Which is nicer: completing a book or crossing the finishing line of a marathon?

Murakami: Putting the final full stop at the end of a story is like giving birth to a child, an incomparable moment. A fortunate author can write maybe twelve novels in his lifetime. I don’t know how many good books I still have in me; I hope there are another four or five. When I am running I don’t feel that kind of limit. I publish a thick novel every four years, but I run a 10-kilometer race, a half-marathon and a marathon every year. I have run 27 marathon races so far, the last was in January, and numbers 28, 29 and 30 will follow quite naturally.

SPIEGEL: How do you manage to motivate yourself again every day?

Murakami: Sometimes I find it too hot to run, and sometimes too cold. Or too cloudy. But I still go running. I know that if I didn’t go running, I wouldn’t go the next day either. It’s not in human nature to take unnecessary burdens upon oneself, so one’s body soon becomes disaccustomed. It mustn’t do that. It’s the same with writing. I write every day so that my mind doesn’t become disaccustomed. So that I can gradually set the literary yardstick higher and higher, just as running regularly makes your muscles stronger and stronger.

SPIEGEL: Do you know the novel “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” by Alan Sillitoe?

Murakami: I wasn’t impressed by the book. It’s boring. You can tell that Sillitoe wasn’t a runner himself. But I find the idea itself fitting: running allows the hero to access his own identity. In running he discovers the only state in which he feels free. I can identify with that.

SPIEGEL: And what did running teach you?

Murakami: The certainty that I will make it to the finishing line. Running taught me to have faith in my skills as a writer. I learned how much I can demand of myself, when I need a break, and when the break starts to get too long. I known how hard I am allowed to push myself.

SPIEGEL: Are you a better writer because you run?

Murakami: Definitely. The stronger my muscles got, the clearer my mind became. I am convinced that artists who lead an unhealthy life burn out more quickly. Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin were the heroes of my youth — all of them died young, even though they didn’t deserve to. Only geniuses like Mozart or Pushkin deserve an early death. Jimi Hendrix was good, but not so smart because he took drugs. Working artistically is unhealthy; an artist should lead a healthy life to make up for it. Finding a story is a dangerous thing for an author; running helps me to avert that danger.

SPIEGEL: Could you explain that?

Murakami: When a writer develops a story, he is confronted with a poison that is inside him. If you don’t have that poison, your story will be boring and uninspired. It’s like fugu: The flesh of the pufferfish is extremely tasty, but the roe, the liver, the heart can be lethally toxic. My stories are located in a dark, dangerous part of my consciousness, I feel the poison in my mind, but I can fend off a high dose of it because I have a strong body. When you are young, you are strong; so you can usually conquer the poison even without being in training. But beyond the age of 40 your strength wanes, you can no longer cope with the poison if you lead an unhealthy life.

SPIEGEL: J.D. Salinger wrote his only novel, “Catcher in the Rye” when he was 32. Was he too weak for his poison?

Murakami: I translated the book into Japanese. It is quite good, but incomplete. The story becomes darker and darker, and the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, doesn’t find his way out of the dark world. I think Salinger himself didn’t find it either. Would sport have saved him too? I don’t know.

SPIEGEL: Does running give you the inspiration for stories?

Murakami: No, because I’m not the kind of writer who reaches the source of a story playfully. I have to dig for the source. I have to dig very deep to reach the dark places in my soul where the story lies hidden. For that, too, you have to be physically strong. Since I started running, I have been able to concentrate for longer, and I have to concentrate for hours on my way into the darkness. On the way there you find everything: the images, the characters, the metaphors. If you are physically too weak, you miss them; you lack the strength to hold on to them and bring them back up to the surface of your consciousness. When you are writing, the main thing isn’t digging down to the source, but the way back out of the darkness. It’s the same with running. There is a finishing line that you have to cross, whatever the cost may be.

SPIEGEL: Are you in a similarly dark place when you are running?

Murakami: There is something very familiar to me about running. When I run I am in a peaceful place.

SPIEGEL: You lived in the United States for several years. Are there differences between American and Japanese runners?

Murakami: No, but when I was in Cambridge (as a writer-in-residence at Harvard), it became clear to me that the members of an elite run differently from ordinary mortals.

SPIEGEL: How do you mean?

SPIEGEL: You grew up as an only child; writing is a lonely business, and you always run alone. Is there some connection between these things?

Murakami: Definitely. I am used to being alone. And I enjoy being alone. Unlike my wife, I don’t like company. I have been married for 37 years, and often it is a battle. In my previous job I often worked until dawn, now I’m in bed by nine or ten.

SPIEGEL: Do you know the novel “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” by Alan Sillitoe?

Murakami: I wasn’t impressed by the book. It’s boring. You can tell that Sillitoe wasn’t a runner himself. But I find the idea itself fitting: running allows the hero to access his own identity. In running he discovers the only state in which he feels free. I can identify with that.

SPIEGEL: And what did running teach you?

Murakami: The certainty that I will make it to the finishing line. Running taught me to have faith in my skills as a writer. I learned how much I can demand of myself, when I need a break, and when the break starts to get too long. I known how hard I am allowed to push myself.

SPIEGEL: Are you a better writer because you run?

Murakami: Definitely. The stronger my muscles got, the clearer my mind became. I am convinced that artists who lead an unhealthy life burn out more quickly. Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin were the heroes of my youth — all of them died young, even though they didn’t deserve to. Only geniuses like Mozart or Pushkin deserve an early death. Jimi Hendrix was good, but not so smart because he took drugs. Working artistically is unhealthy; an artist should lead a healthy life to make up for it. Finding a story is a dangerous thing for an author; running helps me to avert that danger.

SPIEGEL: Could you explain that?

Murakami: When a writer develops a story, he is confronted with a poison that is inside him. If you don’t have that poison, your story will be boring and uninspired. It’s like fugu: The flesh of the pufferfish is extremely tasty, but the roe, the liver, the heart can be lethally toxic. My stories are located in a dark, dangerous part of my consciousness, I feel the poison in my mind, but I can fend off a high dose of it because I have a strong body. When you are young, you are strong; so you can usually conquer the poison even without being in training. But beyond the age of 40 your strength wanes, you can no longer cope with the poison if you lead an unhealthy life.

SPIEGEL: J.D. Salinger wrote his only novel, “Catcher in the Rye” when he was 32. Was he too weak for his poison?

Murakami: I translated the book into Japanese. It is quite good, but incomplete. The story becomes darker and darker, and the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, doesn’t find his way out of the dark world. I think Salinger himself didn’t find it either. Would sport have saved him too? I don’t know.

SPIEGEL: Does running give you the inspiration for stories?

Murakami: No, because I’m not the kind of writer who reaches the source of a story playfully. I have to dig for the source. I have to dig very deep to reach the dark places in my soul where the story lies hidden. For that, too, you have to be physically strong. Since I started running, I have been able to concentrate for longer, and I have to concentrate for hours on my way into the darkness. On the way there you find everything: the images, the characters, the metaphors. If you are physically too weak, you miss them; you lack the strength to hold on to them and bring them back up to the surface of your consciousness. When you are writing, the main thing isn’t digging down to the source, but the way back out of the darkness. It’s the same with running. There is a finishing line that you have to cross, whatever the cost may be.

SPIEGEL: Are you in a similarly dark place when you are running?

Murakami: There is something very familiar to me about running. When I run I am in a peaceful place.

SPIEGEL: You lived in the United States for several years. Are there differences between American and Japanese runners?

Murakami: No, but when I was in Cambridge (as a writer-in-residence at Harvard), it became clear to me that the members of an elite run differently from ordinary mortals.

SPIEGEL: How do you mean?

Murakami: My running route took me along the Charles River, and I was constantly seeing these young female students, Harvard freshmen. They jogged with long strides, their iPods in their ears, their blonde ponytails swinging to and fro on their backs. Their entire body was radiant. They were aware that they were unusual. Their self-awareness impressed me deeply. I was a better runner, but there was something provokingly positive about them. They were so different from me. I was never the member of an elite.

SPIEGEL: You are 59 years old. How long do you intend to go on taking part in marathons?

Murakami: I will go on running for as long as I can walk. You know what I would like to be written on my tombstone?

SPIEGEL: Tell us.

Murakami: “At least he never walked.”

Read the entire Spiegel interview, “When I Run I am in a peaceful place,” by clicking here.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

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