Friday, October 28, 2011

A Novel Travelogue

The other night I spoke to a group at our local library about Japan, my novel, and self-publishing. Because the characters I created in the novel travel on an imaginary tour to some of my favorite real places in Japan, and because I have pictures of the places, the presentation follows the tour. For those who've read the novel (or who plan to read it), the pictures add a layer of verisimilitude. For those who've been to Japan, the presentation is a trip down memory lane.

At the end of the talk, I invited questions. What roused my interest in Japan? How did I create the characters in the book? What happens to the tablets in my author picture?

When I was a GI stationed in Korea, I went to Japan on vacation several times. I was fascinated by the language, the culture, the people, so much so that I re-enlisted to be stationed there. I have been interested ever since.

I'm afraid I don't have a good answer to how I create characters. I think I begin with a vague form in a situation or with a history and then try to fill in the outline with as much detail as possible: what the character looks like, sounds like, acts like, thinks like. For main characters I often draw up a detailed biography: where they were born, when, family details, education, formative events, basic drives, and more.

The plaques are votive wooden tablets offered in prayer or in thanks for a prayer answered at a Shinto shrine. One buys it at the shrine, writes on the back, and hangs it at the shrine. At the end of the year, I'm told, the priests make a bonfire of the tablets so that the prayers continue on up to heaven.

At the end, of course, I sold and inscribed books. I can only hope that the people who came had half as much fun as I did.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Ise Stories

I've just read a new translation of Ise Monogatari, which may be translated as "The Ise Stories" or "The Tales of Ise." The new (2010) translation by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler joins a 1972 translation by H. Jay Harris on my bookshelf. There are at least two earlier translations, one by Helen Craig McCullough in 1968 and one by Frits Vos in 1957, neither of which I know. But this activity raises the question: What makes the Ise stories worth four translations into English?

The book is a 10th century collection of 125 prose-and-poetry episodes that purport to trace the life of nameless hero who embodies the social ideals of his era. According to Mostow and Tyler, "The Ise has been essential reading for every educated Japanese, male or female, for most of Japan's history." While anonymous authors created the book's contents over perhaps a century, Ariwara no Narihira (825-880) wrote about a third of the poems, and it is pleasant to think that the entire book traces Narihira's life, from his first affair to his death.

It was a life—if the book is to be believed—of elegance, taste, and sensitivity. Narihira, extraordinarily handsome and cultured, meets a woman, makes love to her, and sends her a poem. He isn't always able to make love to her, and sometimes he has to send a poem first, but if he doesn't make love to her, he expresses his regret in perfect poetic form, his sleeves wet with tears.

I was interested in comparing the two translations I own. Mostow and Tyler say in their introduction that they wanted to have "a fresh, appealing, and somewhat spoken character." Here is their version of episode 72:

"Back then this man never managed to get back together with a woman in the province of Ise, and before leaving for the neighboring province he let her know just how much he held that against her. She replied:

The Oyodo pine,
waiting ever patiently,
no, is not unkind;
rather, the wave washes in,
looks, then, grumbling, withdraws."

Here is the Jay Harris version:

"Long ago a young man was unable to meet for a second time a woman in Ise Province. Because he was very bitter toward her saying he was going to a neighboring province, the woman recited:

Though it is not true
that the Oyodo pines
bear them any grudge,
laden with white hot hatred
the waves back off and recede!"

My Japanese is much too poor to even begin evaluating the translations. I did feel that Mostrow and Tyler were occasionally too breezy and chatty, but if you want only one version, that's the one I'd recommend—not only for the translation, but for the introduction, notes, and woodblock prints. Ise monogatari provides a picture of a life and a world that is alien yet familiar.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I'm the other Wally Wood

As anyone who has tried to find me by typing "Wally Wood" into a search engine, I am not that easy to find. The first three pages of Google results are all about the famous and brilliant cartoonist, Wallace Allan Wood who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1981. According to the Wikipedia article on him, he disliked the name "Wally Wood" by which most people know him and his drawings, although he sometimes signed his work "Woody," a name I outgrew when I left the U.S. Army.

That Wally Wood made his name drawing a variety of comics: science fiction, horror, adventure, and more. When he was drawing for Mad Magazine and I was an aspiring humor/satire writer, I was tempted to visit the Mad offices, introduce myself, and see what they would think of having two Wally Woods on the staff. In the event, I didn't make the visit so I'll never know.

There is yet another Wally Wood who turns up in a Google search earlier than I do. That Wally Wood "was the founding president of the Finger Lakes Trail Conference. He was a long distance hiker living in Rochester when he organized existing hiking clubs in 1962 at Keuka College forming the Finger Lakes Trail organization. The Annual Wally Wood Hike honors his memory."

I'm not that Wally Wood either.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Publishers Weekly likes my novel

Until a year or so ago, Publishers Weekly had a policy not to review self-published books. With the publishing industry shifting under their feet, however, management apparently decided (a) there was money to be made from self-publishing writers, and (b) there might be worthwhile books in the flood of self-published titles. The magazine therefore established a quarterly "PW Select DIY Announcements" supplement.

For $149, an author can buy a listing (a brief book description plus a brief bio) in the supplement. In addition, and for the price, you can send two copies of your book to PW's reviewer along with your book's unique selling proposition. The reviewer selects 25 books from the pile to review. There's no guarantee your book will be selected, nor if selected that the review will be positive. You're not buying a review; all you're guaranteed is a listing. Nevertheless I thought my book was worth the investment and two copies.

The supplement appears Monday, and while I have not seen it, the review of Getting Oriented: A Novel About Japan, is already online. You can check it out at

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Review of Getting Oriented

I have been sending query letters to potential book reviewers, offering them review copies of my novel. The majority do not answer either because the book does not appeal to them (although I do my best to send queries only to those reviewers who seem likely to be interested) or because they are inundated by books. A few say they are inundated, but would take a guest post from me. And a few have said, "Send me the book."

The first review of someone to whom I sent a book and of which I am aware has been posted on "Literary R&R." I do not know Charlene, the reviewer, but she is clearly a woman of exquisite taste. She writes: "A very enjoyable book, written with great skill and knowledge of its subject. If you have any interest in the subject of Japan, this is a great place to start." I commend the full review to your attention.

I was particularly encouraged by a comment Charlene's review provoked: "Even though it's a novel, this book sounds exactly like the kind of travelogue I enjoy reading. I love to travel but I have limited means (who doesn't, right?), so armchair traveling is the next best thing." This person is absolutely correct.

You can find the guest posts at Bookingly Yours and WebbWeaver. You can also read a Q&A interview with me at A Writing Primate. Enjoy!