Q&A with Nicholas Hogg

An American high school student meets a Japanese cult survivor aboard a flight bound for Narita International Airport. Mazzy is headed to Japan to spend the school year with her father Ben, a professor at Tokyo University. Koji makes up his mind to follow and protect (read: stalk) Mazzy after the plane lands. Thus begins Tokyo, the third novel by Carve contributor Nicholas Hogg. Toyko might be characterized as being half travel writing, half neo-noir love story, and half dissection of what it means to be part of a group, whether that group is a nation, a cult, or a family. (Editor’s note: most of us at Carve wouldn’t have stumbled into the humanities if we were any good at arithmetic.) We recently chatted with Hogg about Tokyo and the inspirations he took from his background in psychology and his time as a resident of Japan.

Your story "How the Tiger Got Its Stripes" appeared in Carve's Summer 2009 issue. Although the intersections of narrative and fable are subtler and less recurrent in Tokyo, the tale of Kaguya Hime serves as a powerful launchpad for the novel, and anticipates much of what is to follow. As a student of psychology, how might you account for the enduring power of myth to shape our understanding of the world and of our own stories?

Consciousness requires us to validate who we are, what we are doing, and why. The array of belief systems throughout the world shows how vital this is to our core. Myth, believing in something that we have little or no evidence for, is something that defines us as human. Folk stories and fairy tales are fascinating documents of this need to attach meaning to existence, and Japanese myths such as Princess Kaguya are compelling material for a novelist to weave into a modern fable.

At its heart, Tokyo is a book about family and the joys and pains of belonging (or not belonging) to one. Though cult survivor Koji's narrative is largely tangential to the main story, what note did you conceive him contributing to the thematic harmony of the novel?

Not just about belonging to family, but to a group, any collective that helps give meaning to the existence of the self—which is made up of those around us. Koji, like Ben, suddenly finds he is isolated from any meaningful interaction once he is ejected from the cult. Both of the men project their loneliness onto obsessions with women, which ultimately mirror each other throughout the novel, despite their divergent conclusions.

Though we see little of cult leader Chiho, she is one of the novel's most fascinating characters. Where did she come from?

The Pana-Wave Laboratory cult were briefly infamous when I was living in Japan at the start of the millennium. News broke about them trying to steal a seal which had strayed into the Tama River, and 'Chiho', the cult leader in Tokyo, certainly takes some inspiration from the charismatic Yuko Chino who founded the group in the 1970s. For numerous people to follow a faith with wild claims of doomsday and UFOs saving only their members, the leader must possess nefarious charms. For character I exaggerated a couple of powerful older Japanese women I'd known—one a fearless head teacher—who commanded instant respect, and then warped the use of their 'people skills' somewhat to create the cult leader aura.

Professor Yamada is a very conspicuously Japanese figure; none of the other native-born characters are so vocally concerned about the significance of their nationality and history. Yamada's stance is rather nuanced, but I get the sense he's a spigot for a certain current of academic thought in Japan. Do you think you could give us some background as to where he's coming from?

Although Japan and the UK are opposite sides of the world, both are island nations with a history of aggressive colonisation. The UK sits on the edge of Europe with its nose in the air at its neighbours, and I'd argue that Japan too shares this uncomfortable yet innate superiority towards its immediate geopolitical community. Where British and Japanese might differ is in expression of personal national identity. Intellectuals in the UK are likely to wary of a waving around a Union Jack flag, but a sense of proud Japaneseness is more openly celebrated, even by liberal academics—from my experience.

You're living in London these days. Did you write Tokyo as a sort of sayonara to life in Japan?

Yes, you're probably right. A sayonara, and a reminiscence of all the remarkable experiences I had in Japan. Now I'm based in London - although I did return to Japan for extended periods to research the book. And I do have days where I long to wake up in Tokyo, walk through the surprisingly quiet streets of the suburbs and eat a delicious meal in a local restaurant. The simplicity of life (for a foreigner) in Japan is a gift for writing. Being the outsider you are freer to wander and observe, as well as insulate yourself from the day to day waffle of passing conversation—although my conversational Japanese is not bad, I have to focus to listen, so therefore find it easier to zone out into that authorial space required to construct a novel.

Was this also why you chose to conclude the novel outside of Japan? Do you think Ben will be headed back?

Home, and the possibility of reconciliation with his life in California, was the ending I always veered towards. Whether Ben, Mazzy and Lydia become a family again is another matter, but it was important that the novel ended with the chance of connection again, and the importance of family. With that in mind it seems unlikely that he would be heading back to Japan anytime soon.

What do you think is the most glaring Western misconception of Japan? What might even the avid followers of Japanese popular culture be getting wrong?

The media does seem to have widened its angle on Japan, and although many who watch mainstream news might think the country is made up of cosplay, gamers, robots and neon, many of the positive stereotypes—great food, immaculate transport, a non-confrontational culture—hold up to inspection. What the average Nippon viewer might not get is the fact that much of rural Japan, the fading towns with shrinking populations, retains a rustic feel far from the glittering metropolis of the capital. 

Ben's hitchhiking trip across the Japanese countryside is largely based on your own. Are there any other adventures you had on the road that didn't make into the novel? Would you like to tell us about one?

It's true that the hitching episodes in the novel recount actual experience, but most of the Japanese drivers who picked me up where charming Samaritans—even a young yakuza member and his girlfriend who pulled over in a souped-up car outside Osaka. I've hitched all over the UK and even in a few places in the US where I was briefly arrested by a highway patrol officer in New Jersey who, I should add, was kind enough to give me a lift to a bus station. Wherever you stand by the road and roll the dice on whose car you're going to get into, an escapade of some sort is going to occur—exactly what I wanted in my twenties, when I was in search of adventure.