3AM: So, talk us through before Sayonara Bar.
SB: My appreciation of books came slowly. I never read very much as a teenager, as I used to think that science was superior to the arts and wanted to be a nuclear physicist or something. However, when I went to university and began a science degree, with the all-day lab practicals and 9 a.m. lectures, I decided it was too much hard work and switched to philosophy!
I read a bit at university, but really got into reading in my early twenties when I moved to Japan. I inherited a library from the girl in the next town when she moved back to the states, and though on one really came to borrow any of the books, I read a lot of them myself. I became really immersed in the world of fiction, and realised that the journal I was keeping was just a poor substitute for what I really wanted to do, which was write stories of my own.
3AM: What do you think of the recent glut of books about the JET experience and what do you think teaching English in Japan brings to the writing?
SB: I haven't read any books about the JET experience -- I suppose they might be useful to people thinking about going out there and teaching English as a foreign language.
I think the experience of living in another country helped me become a writer for a number of reasons. The sense of cultural dislocation I felt helped. I stopped watching TV in Japan because it made no sense to me - a habit that has stayed with me today -- and I would go and sit in coffee shops and write, and be able tune out what people were saying around me because it was all in another language. I carried that sense of isolation around with me a lot in Japan -- I think the more you can block out the real world, the more vividly imagined the fictional worlds you create.
Conversely, experiencing a culture which is strange and new whets the imagination. Japan is very aesthetically striking place, and while I was out there I built up an archive of images in my head, which were useful when writing the novel.
3AM: Are there any Japanese authors you would consider to be an influence?
SB: I read Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood and The Wind Up Bird Chronicles while I was in Japan and fell in love with them both -- though sadly none of his other books have had the same effect on me. I also quite like Ryu Murakami for the inventive darkness of his novels.
3AM: Ditto Western ones?
SB: Before I even started writing I was quite inspired by David Mitchell's Number9Dream -- I loved the humour of the prose and how the novel played about with different genres, and was unafraid to be bold and ambitious. I like Kazuo Ishiguro as well, for the subtly and emotional efficacy of his books.
While I was writing Sayonara Bar I read a lot of American writers; David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Don De Lillo, Kurt Vonnegut, Phillip Roth -- usually quite funny and irreverent stuff, but also dealing with grander themes. Over the past couple of years though, my reading list has become increasingly gloomy and strewn with writers like Sartre, Dostoevsky, W. G. Sebald and Thomas Mann. I recently read Nadeem Aslam's Maps for Lost Lovers, and have been recommending it like crazy to everyone.
3AM: Where were you based in Japan?
SB: I taught English to school children in Nagaokakyo, an average sized town about twenty minutes by train from Kyoto. Nagaokakyo was surrounded by mountains and bamboo forests, and was very modern, though there were paddy fields everywhere (I remember there was even a paddy field opposite the town McDonald's). During the two years I was there I taught children from the ages of five to sixteen, at about ten different schools. There were only a handful of westerners in the town and we were treated like local celebrities. I used to cycle everywhere, and I would bump into my students where ever I went - even if I was just buying a newspaper from the shop at the end of the street. The kids were always very friendly and curious to know what I was up to.
3AM: How did these experiences morph into Sayonara Bar?
SB: Watanabe was partly inspired by the ultra-introverted manga-obsessed boys I taught at junior high school. And my observations of staff room hierarchy and Japanese office etiquette fed into the character of Mr Sato, a workaholic salaryman.
The drunken antics of salarymen I met when I was out drinking in bars inspired many of the whiskey-fuelled scenes at the hostess bar. And evenings spent walking about the entertainment districts of Kyoto and Osaka left me with many mental snapshots of neon-lit bars and various youth tribes, which I used in the novel -- though my imagination had a tendency to warp these images and create something darker and more surreal.
3AM: Do you have a writing routine?
SB: Yes, I always start writing at about 8:30 a.m. and try to write until 3:30. I like to start early because my mind is sharpest in the morning -- the writing goes downhill from 12 o' clock onwards!
I wrote the first half of Sayonara Bar while I was living in Manchester, and I used to write in the Manchester Uni library. The second half I wrote after I moved back to London, in a flat I rented.
At the moment I mostly work at home, in the dining room of the shared house I live in, but at the weekend I'll go to a library -- I belong to about five different libraries in London. The library of the London School of Oriental and African Studies has been fantastic for research.
3AM: How was Sayonara Bar received do you think?
SB: Most of the reviews were quite positive. It made me happy when friends read the book and said they liked it -- especially people I knew from Japan, who recognised all the place names and the names of Japanese acquaintances that I'd borrowed.
3AM: Are you working on another book at the moment?
SB: Yes, it's a novel set in Malaysia and England. It begins in Malaya in the 1950s', during the Communist insurrection, then moves to Kuala Lumpur in the late-sixties, and then to present-day London. I began writing this book over a year and a half ago and have just started writing the second half. I've had to do a lot of historical research, and I'm going on another research trip to Malaysia later this year. When I began this book I had no idea that it would take so long! Fortunately, my editor has let me push back the deadline back.
3AM: What's on the iPod?
SB: I don't have an iPod, but lately I have really begun to desire one. When I get round to buying one I will put a lot of folksy guitar music on it, and lots of electronic stuff. I don't listen to new music as much as I should these days -- I mostly listen to Radio 4 and Chinese language tapes.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Susan Barker has a Chinese-Malay mother and an English father, and grew up in East London. She spent two years working in Japan following graduation. She has completed an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester University.