Sunday, 10 October 2010

Turning Japanese: Interview with Jonathan Lee

Conducted and written for Venue July 2010

Turning Japanese 

Robyn Simmons catches up with the newest writer on the block to find out what happens when you plonk a Western hermit in the heaving East.

A first class honours degree, a lucrative career and stints working abroad. At the tender age of 29, Jonathan Lee is well on his way to completing most people’s to-do list of life, but the Bristol graduate is just whetting his appetite. This month sees the release of his first novel, ‘Who is Mr Satoshi?’ [William Heinemann, £12.99], marking a dramatic shift from law – his chosen vocation of seven years – to literature.

The novel’s protagonist Rob, a ‘slightly agoraphobic’ photographer, takes on the role of reluctant detective when his mother suddenly dies, leaving a mysterious package undelivered to the enigmatic Mr Satoshi. In his quest to answer the riddle of the book’s title, he finds himself plunged into the chrome and concrete of Tokyo where he unearths much more than the truth he originally sought.

The author’s “half-arsed ambition… to want to write something” is a dream that plagues most of us at some point. But after years of writing self-confessed “terrible, sort of autobiographical bits about being a hungover student… without any dedication or without any plot in mind,” he found his determination rekindled. 

“One of the things that gave me an extra push actually was that I’d always been told it was kind of impossible, to write and publish. And then a friend just out of the blue announced that they had been working on a book for a year or so, and they managed to get a publisher and do relatively well. 

“It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed doing law,” he clarifies, as if giving a girl the elbow. “There’s loads of bits to it that are great, but there was some creative impulse that wasn’t really being satisfied… I ended up taking a six-month sabbatical from my employer in London to work on this book that I’d been doing bits and pieces of on the weekend and evenings”. 

His vocation in law can in fact be deemed responsible for the conception of ‘Who is Mr Satoshi?’ when his manager sent him packing… to Japan

“I got the chance to go to Tokyo for six months,” the solicitor-cum-writer says. “I had a great time, but it sort of raised those feelings of being an outsider within me… I [had been] scratching my head thinking ‘Mmm, I really want to be a writer, but I don’t have anything to write about’ and that was the first time that a plot seemed to come to mind.

“As a Westerner without much Japanese language skill [you are] a complete outsider. I think the Japanese are a very protectivist culture and there’s only so far you can tap into it as an outsider. You can tune out of everything in a way, it becomes remarkably easy. You’re in a coffee shop and if you don’t hear any English voices, you don’t understand Japanese, you’re sort of alone with your thoughts, which is maybe why I ended up with a character who spends a lot of time alone. I think we’ve all had a friend or a family member who that has happened to”

“That led to other themes in the book,” Jonathan explains. “[Like] the public versus the private sphere, how much we have obligations to ourself as opposed to the other people around us.” 

Inspired by people’s holiday-habits, he goes on to note a symptomatic “obsession with going on holidays, and sometimes rather than experiencing the holiday, just making sure we come back with an adequate number of digital, high resolution photos.” 

This distance between the private and the public, emphasised by the novel’s super-urban setting gave Jonathan the chance to explore “the idea of reclusiveness and what that means to have somebody who’s twisted away from society a little bit. I made a photographer my main character... I had this idea that he was used to looking at the world through a lens and he was kind of disconnected.”


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