When 24-year-old Nick Bradley first arrived at Narita Airport in 2006, he had envisioned a gap year with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme as a way to travel and have adventures before returning to the United Kingdom. He had wanted to be a writer since childhood, and living abroad seemed, to him, the perfect fodder for fiction.
But as he slurped udon in Shinjuku that first evening in an unfamiliar city, he couldn’t have predicted that he’d spend his 20s studying Japanese, or that his eventual fiction debut, “The Cat and the City,” would be a vibrant love letter to Tokyo.
Published in June 2020, the 15 short stories in “The Cat and the City” come together to form a novel that explores the lives of a motley cast of characters, whose seemingly unrelated fates are inextricably intertwined. (The book could draw comparisons to similarly polyphonic novels, such as Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Overstory” with its complex, interlacing storylines.) Ranging from a homeless rakugo (comedic storyteller) performer to a literary translator caught in the dreary salaryman grind, the richly drawn characters are observed by a green-eyed calico cat wending her way through their lives. At the heart of the novel, present on every page, is the city itself.
Debut novels are rarely overnight successes the way critics and reviews would have you believe. Bradley’s own path to publication was unexpectedly circuitous, with detours via a handful of professions, including travel writing, teaching, photography and translation with companies like JTB, Nintendo and Honda.
His peripatetic childhood — owing to his father’s job that took his family to different parts of the U.K. and Germany — meant he was no stranger to moving. A year of teaching English in rural Hiroshima Prefecture turned into four, followed by another two in Tokyo, punctuated between by short stints in the U.K. and Germany. “I planned to only stay for a year,” he wrote in an email to The Japan Times from his current home in Norwich. “But plans changed.”
Throughout his 20s and into his early 30s, he wrote “terrible short stories and several abandoned novels,” sharing his work only with close friends. Though not unhappy, his 30th birthday proved to be a tipping point. Staring down into a cup of green tea while holidaying in Gunma Prefecture, Bradley says he was “gripped with this strong and overwhelming thought: ‘I have achieved nothing with my life.’”
The desire to write eventually led him to attend the University of East Anglia, where he received a master’s in creative writing and completed a doctorate on the figure of the cat in Japanese literature.
It was at a writing workshop during the program that he wrote “Omatsuri,” a short story that would become the seed for “The Cat and the City.” He hadn’t intended to write about Japan at all — he already had another completely different 100,000-word manuscript (that is now languishing in a drawer) drafted — but saw potential in this new direction and spent several years writing in fits and starts before finally landing a book deal in 2019.
Depicting a culture not of one’s own is a tricky task, but Bradley’s delightful and (largely) convincing debut is clearly the result of his years spent immersed in Japan.
Visceral details of life in Tokyo abound. In the story “Street Fighter II (Turbo),” Bradley’s quietly hilarious description of a post-work karaoke session and witnessing a manager destroy “London Calling” and “Hey Jude” for the nth time will hit a little too close to home for many an office worker. Tokyoites will also empathize with the taxi driver in “Sakura” who silently judges a passenger from out-of-town while thinking, “No Tokyoite would talk this much about themselves on a first meeting.” And many of us will relate to Kyoko and Makoto “(cutting) a path straight through the drunkards reeling around in search of their last trains.”
Bradley likens his writing process to walking to a church spire in a distance. While heading for the spire, he might stray from the path, stop for tea and go wherever the day takes him. He might not make it there most days. But all the while, he says, it’s about “having a fixed goal in your mind.”
Indeed, Bradley’s life trajectory so far suggests that the long detour via Japan has paid off. Much like the intertwined fates of the characters in his novel, past experiences only became clearer for him in retrospect. His years spent translating helped hone his writing and vice versa. “There’s no such thing as wasted living,” he says. “Every experience in life, good or bad, is something to learn from and put towards your fiction writing.
“Good translators are already gifted writers who have an incredibly strong command of their own language to write and manipulate the prose to create the same effect achieved in the original.”
“The Cat and the City” might be his first novel set in Japan, but it’s unlikely to be his last. With many stories that didn’t make it into his debut and ideas for future books percolating in his mind, Bradley plans on writing for the rest of his life. For now, he’s looking forward to his next trip to the archipelago.
“There are still things I want to do in Japan… I like this idea of continuing the adventure.”