Bank dealer trades finances for fiction

by Suzanne Kamata

NIIHAMA, Ehime Pref. — For most writers, the road to publication is paved with rejection slips. Not so for British expatriate Marisa Ishikawa, 35, who lives in Niihama-shi, Ehime Prefecture, with her Japanese carpenter husband and their two small children. Ishikawa dashed off her first novel in between English classes and during her toddler’s naptime and then sent the first three chapters, unrevised, to a literary agent.

“A week later, I got a letter of rejection,” Ishikawa says, “but the letter was so nice — it wasn’t just a print-out — that I immediately sent off the book again. I posted it on a Friday and the following Wednesday I got a fax telling me to send the rest of the book as soon as possible.”

About a year later, Ishikawa’s novel, “Short Change,” was sold to the well-known international publisher Simon and Schuster. The book was published in May, 2000 under the pseudonym Julia Notaro.

“Short Change” tells the story of Lisa Soames, a twentysomething British woman who happens into a job as a corporate dealer at a Japanese bank in the City. Although she’s just graduated with a liberal arts degree and reads a leftist newspaper, she soon finds herself with another set of values. In her efforts to achieve promotion, she must impress her cool but admiring supervisor Aki-san, fend off the advances of her manager Mr. Kimura, and try to maintain the secrecy of her office romance with Frank, a Japanese banker who favors loud ties and wears sunglasses to work.

Although “Short Change” touches upon serious issues, such as sexual harassment in the workplace, it is a comedy. “I like writing novels that will make people laugh,” Ishikawa says.

She began writing during her childhood in Rainham, Essex. “I remember writing a spoof of an Enid Blyton Famous Five novel when I was about 10 and being very annoyed when my teacher didn’t realize it was supposed to be tongue in cheek.”

Her first published piece was a letter in The Sun newspaper, England’s most popular tabloid, when she was about 11.

Like her protagonist Lisa, Ishikawa was employed as a corporate dealer at a Japanese bank in London after graduating from university.

“I was only 22 when I bought my own flat and a few months after that the bank sent me on my first business trip abroad. I suppose I had too much responsibility too soon and I longed to turn my back on what I thought was such a conventional life,” Ishikawa recalls. “I dealt in millions of dollars every day. On a busy day I got quite a thrill from making a big profit but there were also many slow days when nothing happened in the markets and I’d sit at my desk feeling like a prisoner. I drank champagne nearly every day and ate in the best restaurants in London, but after awhile I found that I wasn’t actually tasting anything. Instead I just got old and fat.”

Ishikawa decided to leave the corporate rat race and begin studies in contemporary Japan. The British government sponsored her M.A. and paid for her university fees and a flight to Japan. She later got a job teaching Japanese businessmen and met a guy in a karaoke bar.

“He was the complete opposite of all the suits I’d known, so a year later I married him at the Fuji Wedding Palace — dressed in several layers of white kimono, thick white face makeup and a large heavy black wig,” Ishikawa told a British journalist.

During a recent publicity tour in London, interviewers often expressed surprise that she would give up a glamorous life in high finance to marry a Japanese carpenter who doesn’t speak English. However, the writer says that living in Japan gave her the isolation she needs to sit down for long enough to finish a book.

She wrote the first four chapters of “Short Change” in 1996, then set it aside. A year later, she attended a convention of the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese in Kyushu. (Ishikawa is the AFWJ Shikoku district leader.) Another foreign wife approached her to tell her how much she’d enjoyed the articles Ishikawa had written for the organization’s journal.

“She actually remembered the titles of all the articles and I was so amazed that someone could like my work well enough to remember them that I went home and wrote the rest of the book,” she says.

With “Short Change” now on bookstore shelves, Ishikawa is at work on a second novel, another comedy, set at a hotel in Greece.

“Being a writer is a sickness that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” she says. “I always have a nagging guilty feeling that I ought to be writing even when I’m not. If I’ve had a bad day, or a bad week when I’ve only managed a few pages I get quite down. But on the days I write something really funny, I feel wonderful.”