Wednesday, December 17, 2008

'When I Run I Am in a Peaceful Place'

Japanese author Haruki Murakami, 59, also runs marathons. His memoir about jogging has been translated into German, and he talked to SPIEGEL about the loneliness of the writer and the runner.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Murakami, which is tougher: writing a novel, or running a marathon?

Murakami: Writing is fun -- at least mostly. I write for four hours every day. After that I go running. As a rule, 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). That’s easy to manage. But running 42.195 kilometers (26 miles) all at once is tough; however it’s a toughness I seek out. It is an inevitable torment which I deliberately take upon myself. For me that is the most important aspect of running a marathon.

SPIEGEL: And 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: In your latest book, the German translation of which is to be released next Monday, you describe your career as a runner and discuss the importance of running for your work as a writer. Why did you write this autobiographical work?

Murakami: Ever since I went running for the first time, 25 years ago in the autumn of 1982, I have been asking myself for why I decided on this particular sport. Why don’t I play football? Why did my real existence as a serious writer begin on the day that I first went jogging? I tend to understand things only if I record my thoughts. I found that when I write about running I write about myself.

SPIEGEL: Why did you start running?

Murakami: I wanted to lose weight. During my first years as an author I smoked a lot, about 60 cigarettes a day, in order to be able to concentrate better. I had yellow teeth, yellow fingernails. When I decided to stop smoking, at the age of 33, I sprouted rolls of fat on my hips. So I ran; running seemed to me to be most practicable.


Murakami: Team sports aren’t my thing. I find it easier to pick something up if I can do it at my own speed. And you don’t need a partner to go running, you don’t need a particular place, like in tennis, just a pair of trainers. Judo doesn’t suit me either; I’m not a fighter. Long-distance running is not a matter of winning against others. Your only opponent is yourself, no one else is involved, but you are engaged in an inner conflict: Am I better than I was last time? Exerting yourself to the limit over and over again, that is the essence of running. Running is painful, but the pain doesn’t leave me, I can take care of it. That agrees with my mentality.

SPIEGEL: What kind of shape were you in at the time?

Murakami: After 20 minutes I was out of breath, my heart was hammering, my legs were trembling. At first I was uncomfortable when other people saw me jogging. But I integrated running into my day like brushing my teeth. So I made rapid progress. After just under a year I ran my first, though unofficial, marathon.

SPIEGEL: You ran from Athens to Marathon on your own. What appealed to you about that?

Murakami: Well, it’s the original marathon, it’s the historic route -- though in the opposite direction, because I didn’t want to arrive in Athens during the rush hour. I had never run more than 35 kilometers; my legs and my upper body were not particularly strong yet; I didn’t know what to expect. It was like running in terra incognita.

SPIEGEL: How did you get along?

Murakami: It was July; it was hot. So hot, even in the early morning. I had never been to Greece before; I was surprised. After half an hour I took off my shirt. Later I dreamt of an ice-cold beer and counted the dead dogs and cats lying along the roadside. I was furious with the sun; it burnt down on me so angrily, small blisters formed on my skin. It took me 3:51 hours, a passable time. When I arrived at the finish I hosed myself down at a petrol station and drank the beer I had dreamt of. When the petrol pump attendant heard what I had done, he presented me with a bunch of flowers.

SPIEGEL: What is your best time for a marathon?

Murakami: 3:27 hours by my watch, in New York, in 1991. That’s five minutes per kilometer. I am very proud of that because the last stretch of the course, which leads through Central Park, is really hard. I have tried a few times to improve on that time, but I’m getting older. In the meantime I’m no longer interested in my best personal time. For me it’s a matter of being satisfied with myself.

SPIEGEL: Is there some mantra that you recite while running?

Murakami: No. I just tell myself once in a while: Haruki, you’ll make it. But in fact I don’t think of anything while I’m running.

SPIEGEL: Is that possible, to think of nothing?

Murakami: When I am running my mind empties itself. Everything I think while running is subordinate to the process. The thoughts that impose themselves on me while running are like light gusts of wind -- they appear all of a sudden, disappear again and change nothing.

SPIEGEL: Do you listen to music while running?

Murakami: Only when I’m training. And then rock music. At the moment my favorite is the Manic Street Preachers. When I go jogging in the morning, which is the exception, I load Creedence Clearwater Revival into the minidisk player. Their songs have a simple, natural rhythm.

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: 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: Before you became a writer and a runner, you owned a jazz club in Tokyo. A change in life could hardly be more radical.

Murakami: When I had the club I stood behind the bar, and it was my job to engage in conversation. I did that for seven years, but I’m not a talkative person. I swore to myself: Once I’ve finished here I will only ever talk to those people I really want to talk to.

SPIEGEL: When did you notice it was time for a fresh start?

Murakami: In April 1978, I was watching a baseball game in the Jingu Stadium in Tokyo, the sun was shining, I was drinking a beer. And when Dave Hilton of the Yakult Swallows made a perfect hit, at that instant I knew I was going to write a novel. It was a warm sensation. I can still feel it in my heart. Now I am compensating for the old, open life through my new, closed life. I have never appeared on television, I have never been heard on the radio, I hardly ever give readings, I am extremely reluctant to have my photograph taken, I rarely give interviews. I’m a loner.

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: Can you distinguish a beginner from a veteran runner?

Murakami: A beginner runs too fast, his breathing is too shallow. The veteran is at rest. One veteran recognizes another just the way that a writer recognizes the style and language of another writer.

SPIEGEL: Your books are written in the style of magical realism, reality blends with magic. Does running have a surrealist or metaphysical dimension -- quite apart from the pure physical achievement?

Murakami: Every activity acquires something contemplative if you perform it long enough. In 1995 I took part in a 100-kilometer race; it took me 11:42 hours and in the end it was a religious experience.


Murakami: After 55 kilometers I broke down; my legs would no longer obey me. I felt as though two horses were pulling my body apart. After about 75 kilometers I was suddenly able to run properly again; the pain had vanished. I had reached the other side. Happiness surged through me. I reached the finishing line filled with euphoria. I could have gone on running. Nevertheless, I will never run another ultramarathon.

SPIEGEL: Why not?

Murakami: After this extreme experience I went into a state that I have called “Runner’s Blue.”

SPIEGEL: What is that?

Murakami: A sort of listlessness. I was tired of running. Running 100 kilometers is terribly boring, you are on your own for more than eleven hours, and this boredom gnawed at me. It sucked the motivation out of my soul. The positive attitude was gone. I hated running. For weeks.

SPIEGEL: How did you restore your pleasure in it?

Murakami: I tried to force myself to run, but that didn’t work. The fun had gone out of it. So I decided to try a different sport. I wanted to try a new stimulus, and so I started on the triathlon. It helped. After a while, my desire to run returned.

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."

SPIEGEL: Mr. Murakami, thank you for this interview.

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