Yasutaka Tsutsui's U.S. publishing debut, Salmonella Men on Planet PornoIn this ever-shrinking world it’s somewhat delightful, if not unbelievably bizarre, that a writer of Yasutaka Tsutsui’s stature — he’s won just about every major literary prize in Japan and the French Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres — would have to wait until he’s 74 to see his books published in the U.S.
In fact, it’s odd enough to be the subject of one of his stories in his first American collection Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Pantheon), released this past November. And from the title, it should be easy to decipher that this engrossing collection of tales defies categorization. The stories are in turn, comical, absurd, satirical, yet poignant fantasies.
In “Rumors About Me” an ordinary clerk is hounded by the media, his every move documented like he’s a superstar. In “The Last Smoker” the last cigarette addict on Earth is hunted down like a terrorist, his desperate attempt to survive is carried live on TV.
Like genre-bending authors such as Huraki Murakami, Michael Chabon, and Junot Diaz — the last two no strangers to this site — has been laboring to break down the invisible wall between literature and pop culture, specifically, sci-fi, comic books and manga. (Coincidentally, his mid-60s novel, A Girl Who Runs Through Time, has been adapted into an animated film in his native Japan, as well as a manga series; the first four volumes were recently published in the U.S.) It’s a barrier that’s certain, once and for all, to fall someday, thanks to Tsutsui. Here is an exclusive interview with this notoriously press-shy author.
Newsarama: How do you feel about having your work finally translated into English?
Tsutsui: I feel like I’ve made the big time at last!
NRAMA: What took so long?
Tsutsui: I guess you had enough writers of your own until now?
NRAMA: Do you see a difference between comic books, manga, and science fiction and literature? Or is that a barrier that has been completely broken down?
Tsutsui: Well, yes. There is still a barrier. Believe me, I should know — I’ve been trying to break it down all these years.
NRAMA: What is the state of literature in Japan?
Tsutsui: We have four monthly fiction magazines devoted to literature and about ten that are more geared to “entertainment”. We have about 120 recognized writers of literature, including Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Ōe. They’re all doing well. The number of authors in the entertainment category is uncountable.
NRAMA: Do you read a lot of American and English authors? And if you do, who?
Tsutsui: Classics: Dickens, Hemingway. Contemporary authors include Kurt Vonnegut, J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, and William Gibson. I’ve read most of the great Latin American authors like Marquez, Llosa, and Donoso.
NRAMA: What young writers, if any, do you admire today?
Tsutsui: I’m awfully impressed by Haruki Murakami. From where I’m sitting at age 74, he’s a young writer.
NRAMA: The Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk predicted that many books written today will not be remembered in 100 years. Do you agree?
Tsutsui: Will we even have a planet in 100 years?
NRAMA: Do you think people will still be reading fiction in 20 or 50 years?
Tsutsui: Literature will exist in one form or another until the human race is extinct.
NRAMA: You once went on a writing strike. Why?
Tsutsui: It was partly a protest against the mass media and their attempts to put shackles on language (particularly their censorship of words and phrases deemed discriminatory).
NRAMA: Do you think a writer or novelist has a special role to play in society? If so, what is it? If not, why not?
Tsutsui: To criticize civilization. And to convey contemporary language to posterity, whatever language that might be.
NRAMA: You seem to feel passionate about smoking. Are you a smoker or someone who believes in smoker's rights?
Tsutsui: I’ve been smoking since I was sixteen. And I’m in good health! I have absolutely no intention of quitting. If I were to quit now, I might live to be 100, and that would be terrible. I think the anti-smoking movement might have something to do with inconsiderate behavior by smokers.
(Yasutaka Tsutsui’s replies translated by Andrew Driver)