Interview with Robert Maas

What got you reading?
Where I grew up in the English countryside, there were no bookshops or even libraries of any size – just a couple of newsagents in the nearest town, and Woolworth's which sometimes had bargain bins of American paperbacks. For some reason, this Woolworth's had a bin full of remaindered, yellow-painted, notched American paperbacks of James Tiptree Jr.'s short story collection “Ten Thousand Light Years From Home.” It seems to me now suspiciously like a government science experiment. Feed an isolated community with Tiptree, see what results. I'd hate to think the whole town was as damaged by this book as me! Apart from that, I got my earliest books from village jumble sales. These were charity sales where villagers would donate unwanted items to the church, which would then lay them all out on tables in the school hall and sell them back to other villagers. The first book I found, maybe when I was eight or nine, was an old first issue paperback of the Michael Moorcock-edited anthology “The Traps Of Time,” with the reaching hands on the cover. I hadn't even started on juvenile fiction and there I was wrestling with this thing! It's still the most mind-blowing anthology I've ever read. That was when the lightbulb switched on for me.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes, but I was persistently told that it was impossible, so I never seriously considered it. I can understand why. The only outlet for a writer in a rural community would be as a journalist for the local newspaper, covering vegetable shows and fox hunting meets and whatever the Rotarians were doing that fortnight. I was determined to get out of the countryside as soon as it was viable, but writing was too chancy a means. Having ruled it out, I had no idea what I wanted to be. I thought of becoming a commercial artist, and indeed I’ve spent a good part of my working life as a graphic designer. I thought I might be an architect. In England at the time, you had to choose three subjects at age 16 to study for your A level exams at age 18. I chose the three most incompatible subjects I could think of: English, Art and Physics. I didn’t want to close any possible door. When I left school I wanted to be a scientist, so I trained to be a priest – go figure. I wrote obsessively from the very start. As soon as I got a typewriter when I was 12, I became a prolific writer of whatever juvenile nonsense I was into blurting out at the time. Until my late teens, that tended to be grim explorations of the fragile human heart – write about what you know, I suppose. In my case, love, hate and hormones. I think I honed most of my writing skills in composing love letters to girls at school. Well, this approach failed – let's try this. And hence to advertising, commercial writing, and the thought-leadership work I now do.
Did your childhood affect the things you write?
It’s hard to be sure. I grew up in what many would consider an ideal environment, far away from any cities, surrounded by fields and woods and rivers, and with the run of the whole place. Of course, some of that prissy Englishness is in my books. “Receiver,” for example, about a young boy confronting eternity, is set purposefully in a similar English rural landscape. But I remember it being cold and boring much of the time, and I longed to live in a big city surrounded by futuristic buildings and technology – which of course I now do, having chosen to base my adult life in Tokyo. I grew up ill-equipped for street smarts and urban sophistication, but I guess the fumbling “Cider With Rosie” episodes in secluded barns more than made up for it, compared to how it might have been in a city. Talking of cider, my abiding memory of that period is of visiting and staying with my grandparents in their ramshackle manor house in the heart of the village. I grew up in that house, and later when my parents moved out to a council estate nearby, I would always call in on my walk to school and back. Because their house lacked clean running water, my grandmother would treat me each morning and evening to a large mug of local cider with a tablespoon of sugar stirred in. With hindsight, I think I was persistently drunk for the first 11 years of my life. Of course, since Tokyo is awash in the world's finest liquor, I'm drunk all the time here, too. Must be a pattern.
Moving from rural England to the urban sprawl of Tokyo is a big step. What’s the culture shock like?
I never really had culture shock. Some get it immediately, and some say it creeps up on you after several months, an accumulation of tiny differences. But for me, it didn’t happen at all. I slotted right in. Perhaps this is because I’ve always been determined to do everything for myself, on my own terms, bootstrapping my own way through life. That started with a childhood spent cycling on my own for miles around the countryside, something you probably can’t do anymore. I’d take a sketching book and just see where the lanes would take me. In some ways I was a born exile. As soon as I was old enough, the first place I moved was the industrial north of England. I traveled through Europe, and then the Middle East and India. I had long spells living in London and Boston, and reveling in frequent visits to New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, and many other places. Travel is probably the most important thing there is for a writer. It helps, too, that my roots were never important to me. Naturally, every foreigner who comes to live in Japan goes through the same process of acclimatization and disillusion: from “wow, how exotic everything is!” to “how do these people live with such a primitive banking system?” Everyone goes through the stage of trying to “save” Japan. I still complain about how much of this country is broken, but I’m no longer the typical ranting gaijin. As for the size, well, you know that Tokyo as a whole is too big to handle, but in terms of the immediate neighborhood, it’s always small and intimate, and I love that. It's not a "corporate" city at all. It's a city of people. Of walkers and cyclists. In fundamental ways, Tokyo is the biggest village on Earth. It’s human-sized, too, in that it is built around providing creature comforts for its inhabitants. Future in the service of humanity. There’s a good reason why the high-tech toilet is the unofficial symbol of Japan. At least, it is in my house.
Has living in Japan had any impact on your writing?
If you mean, am I inspired by manga and anime, by Akira and Asimo, then the answer is no. Japan is no longer ahead of the curve when it comes to technology, and people here don't live in the future anymore. Living in Japan has certainly colored my thinking, simply because my life is now that of an outsider in a country with a largely homogenous society. Unlike the US or England, where a constant interaction between cultures produces energy and creativity, Japan is overwhelmingly one race, one outlook on the world, one way of doing things. Indeed, it encourages this kind of uniformity. There is no way, no matter how proficient my Japanese becomes, or how hard I try to settle into Japanese norms of behavior, or how integrated I feel, that I will ever be considered part of this country by the vast majority of people around me. That gives you a certain sense of alienness toward yourself. Bruce Sterling calls living abroad “being pulled out of your cultural matrix.” It puts you in a mental space conducive to writing a certain kind of fiction, I think. But after saying that, I could be anywhere. It's not Japan itself that provokes this feeling, it's myself. In other ways, you can't avoid the influence. For example, this country has a controversial history, as all long-lasting countries do. It went through the bullish colonial stage, just as Britain and America did. But here, there's an uncomfortable legacy that I needed to confront before fully giving myself up to my wife and family and home here. I get the feeling that for most Japanese, the door hasn't been shut on what happened: the door simply doesn't exist. I've confronted that invisible door obliquely in my novel "Biome", and more directly in my novella "A Thousand Years Of Nanking."
You wrote them purposefully to explore these feelings?
No, both were started a long time ago. "A Thousand Years Of Nanking" evolved out of part of my novel "The Music Of The Rending Of The Night", which I wrote in the early 1990s, before I'd first come to this country to visit. I planned out "Biome" in screenplay form in 1998. When it came to write the novel, it grew to epic length -- 240,000 words -- because that suited the story. I wrote it during my first few months living here, in 2008, when I was kicking around in my wife's apartment in Tokyo, immersed in my alienness, waiting to get my job transferred to the local office, and I needed to do something to occupy the time. So a lot of the things I was exploring came out in the writing, and they also suited the story. Indeed, they're a sort of hidden driver for much of what happens, and the conclusions my characters draw about their own species. After all, the novel itself purports to be an exploration of an alien habitat, but it's actually an exploration of our own. That's the "me" in "Biome."
Do you believe in heroes?
I don't think I've ever written a story with a standard hero. My characters are people like you and me – flawed, uncertain, multi-layered human beings, struggling to face immensity and deal with the personal baggage they haul around with them. People who feel and hurt and who, if they’re hit, might stay down once in a while. People with weaknesses that define them. People who try, even if they fail. They're certainly not broad-shouldered heroes with invincible chests and charmed lives. In “Residuum,” for example, all my characters are dying of radiation poisoning. In “Tessellation Row,” my lead character is so burdened with emotional problems from a failed love affair that he hardly cares about having precipitated the end of the world. I don’t write about standard villains, either. My books put ordinary people into scary and daunting situations, fling them against impossible odds, push all the buttons they hide deepest in their psyches. Some of these people are far more intelligent than they think, and some are the opposite. Some are hateful, but they’re not villains. Misguided though they might be, they also think they’re doing their best.
Where do you get your ideas?
I tend to read a lot of popular science books. They always astound me. Popular science writers are some of our most undervalued and important people, in my opinion. I greatly admire effective educators. Reading a single book by Carl Sagan might give me fifty eye-popping ideas for plots and scenarios. A good documentary, one that doesn’t dumb down the science, is also something to treasure. But actually ideas can come from anywhere – from unlikely places. Illustrators often give me ideas and textures: for my alien landscape and creatures in “Biome,“ for example, I drew on paintings by Zdzislaw Beksinski. Hubble photos of nebulae and galaxies are endlessly inspiring. Like many people, I often get ideas and plot associations late at night, when I'm most receptive to letting my mind wander. It's nothing to do with sleep. It's simply one of the few chances I get to think without distractions. I orbit around the idea like Salvador Dali's bee around a pomegranate until the plot develops. Incidentally, I never let myself compose text in my head when I'm away from my keyboard, since I know I will forget it before I get there, and there's nothing worse than the feeling that you had great text but it slipped through your fingers. I've experimented with carrying a notebook or an audio recorder but the very fact of having them tends to inhibit the flow of ideas. Of course, ideas are easy – all compulsive writers will tell you this. What you actually need, and what are much harder to find, are denouements. I have never embarked on a novel or story if I didn't have an ending to aim towards. Though occasionally, I must add, the ending has changed in the course of the actual writing, for example if the characters argued with me persuasively enough.
Is your work an attempt to balance order and chaos?
That’s a good way of putting it. I tend to err on the side of order simply because I know from experience that the kind of things I feel proudest of are stories that keep plot, characterization and landscape on a tight rein. Everything exists for the purpose of manipulating the reader, in getting them swiftly and surely to the end point. You need control to do this effectively. The detective novel, for example, is generally all about the reveal. The moment the reader figures out the puzzle, the book is dead. In both “Constant” and “The Billows,” I found myself loathe to write the denouement I’d planned. I never wanted to get there. Had I not kept that tight rein on my writing, I might never have finished. I like my stories to have a rational spine. Perhaps I’m clinging to control, to a safe world full of things I can understand. “The Music Of The Rending Of The Night” is an example of a novel in which I gave myself very minimal self-control, and just let my imagination roar off wherever it wanted to go. I was working from broad themes – a pallet of colors, tastes and textures for each of its four sections – but not restraining my characters from taking control of what happened inside the framework. This suited the kind of novel I had in mind, which was all about loss of control. Usually my novels are about logic and problem solving, not dreams and surrealism. When it suits the project to let my imagination run wild again, I’ll do it. Equally, for me language is not something I consciously foreground, except in works like “Music” where the narrator’s voice is part of the tapestry of the experience, or “Residuum” which takes delight in a whole host of repellant-sounding but largely unexplained neologisms, words like “vulm,” “puun” and “cliss.” Otherwise, language is best thought of as a transparent window through which you view the story. For me, writing works least well when it's self-conscious. Take this quote from T.J. Bass: “The plum and grape sunset darkened to a star-speckled licorice.” Even a fantasy writer might find that too florid. The trouble with basing your career on a style is that it soon defines who you are. William Gibson and William Burroughs are good examples of this. The voice becomes your straightjacket. The best brands are those that can take the assets of their image in any direction they choose. Every writer discovers narrative forms for themselves – stream of consciousness, multiple viewpoints, non-chronological narratives, unreliable narrators, and so on. Today, in a very mature marketplace, there’s nothing avant garde or differentiating about these styles. If magic realism and stream of consciousness is your thing, you’re just another Virginia Woolf. Once you’ve gotten past all that, you’re back to storytelling, and storytelling is the best.
People are strange, according to Jim Morrison. How strange are you?
In the land of the strange, the lunatic is king. Writers are benign psychopaths, and sadly we don’t wear the crown. I’m like everybody else, I think: obsessive, temperamental, capricious, enthusiastic, moody, contradictory, contrary, confused, frightened, determined, despotic, whimsical, volatile, dependable, erratic, resilient, expansive, inflexible, defensive, generous, headstrong, indecisive, optimistic, fatalist, hopeful, idealistic, confident, doubtful, cheerful, disheartening, loving, hating, giving, taking, wanting, rejecting, bold, slow, wild, loud, small, promising, normal.
Published 2014-09-30.
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