LOS ANGELES – Crime novelist Fuminori Nakamura might be a self-described pessimist with a dark personality, but one thing he’s never had to worry about is writer’s block.
“I’m bursting with story ideas. It’s not a talent, it’s more like a disease,” he told a small gathering through an interpreter at the University of Southern California on his first visit to the U.S. in late April.
With a second novel out in English this June, his work is starting to gain international recognition.
“As a writer who grew up on translated works, getting my work translated and in front of a larger audience is a hope of mine,” he said after the event.
Even for a prolific writer, being a Japanese novelist is “a tough job,” he told the crowd. To keep his publishers happy, the 35-year old Aichi Prefecture native has churned out 10 novels in as many years.
Starting with his first novel, “Gun,” which earned him the Shincho Prize for New Writers in 2002, Nakamura has continued to garner accolades in Japan. He took the 2005 Akutagawa Prize for “The Child in the Ground” and won the Oe Prize for “The Thief” in 2010.
When it came out in English in 2012, “The Thief,” a Kafkaesque tale of a Tokyo pickpocket caught in the clutches of a sadistic crime boss, was named among the best fiction of the year by The Wall Street Journal. In March, the book was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
To hear Nakamura tell it, it was his disinterest in job hunting after college that led him to become an author. He had always been an avid reader and kept a journal. “Why not try to write a novel?” he thought. Once he did, he knew it was the life for him.
He had also been interested in sociology, which he studied at Fukushima University. Though he has what he calls a dark personality, the kind people he met in Fukushima helped him lighten up, he said.
But it is Nakamura’s dark imagination that gives rise to his literary world. His books are populated with abused children, nihilistic cults and soulless corporate gangsters.
His work is heavy on philosophy and the influences of Kafka and Dostoyevsky are not hard to spot.
“I feel that people inevitably have evil inside, but at the same time they’re striving to be better. I’m writing about people caught between the two,” Nakamura told the USC audience.
His main character in “The Thief” is a pickpocket who only steals from the rich. “That’s not to say that it’s right, but he does have a set of rules,” Nakamura said.
“Evil and the Mask,” Nakamura’s second novel published in English, delves even further into the dark. In a thriller that draws from Kobo Abe’s “The Face of Another,” protagonist Fumihiro Kuki fights a personal doom set in motion by his ancestors.
Along the way, he grapples with murder, war and a deep distrust of society that manifests itself in disturbing ways.
The kind of mistrust of the system so forcefully unleashed in Japan after the Fukushima nuclear disaster is an inherent part of society, Nakamura said.
“I think it’s always there, but it wells up when it’s ignited somehow. Writers need to be sensitive to the frustration that is building up and write about it,” he said in the interview
Nakamura wants to deliver more than just a reflection on the deep recesses of humanity, however. “I want them to feel a fast-paced narrative, to feel a thrill,” he said.
Nakamura also wants readers outside of Japan to understand that what he shows is just “a slice” of life in Tokyo.
Though Nakamura writes intimately about being a thief, the only experience he had was practice on friends, he told the college audience.
Students at USC were curious: Did Nakamura do any firsthand research on the yakuza? No, they’re too “scary,” he replied.
The increase in regulations meant to thwart their criminal activities has driven them underground, making them “more mysterious,” he said.
USC student Lucy Zhang found Nakamura’s willingness to expose the dark side of Japan refreshing. “I think that’s a very brave thing. Japanese culture tends to be more reserved and many things are left unsaid,” she said.
Instructor Anri Yasuda used “The Thief” in her course on otherworldly realms in Japanese fiction alongside works by Haruki Murakami.
Though Nakamura’s hard-boiled world seems devoid of the metaphysical, “the mindset of a criminal and the night world of Tokyo are like alternate dimensions,” Yasuda said.
Nakamura said that he is seeing a “diversification” in Japanese literature, with different kinds of authors writing. “I think that’s a positive trend,” he said.
While Nakamura is never at a loss for story ideas, he offered a word of advice for struggling writers.
“Stay one night in a hotel somewhere. Sit with a notebook spread out in front of you and, knowing you will never show it to another living soul, write about yourself as honestly as possible. There has to be something in there you can use,” he said.