Inspiring author Jonelle Patrick weaves webs of literary magic in her five novels set in Japan. She has been writing about Japanese culture and travel since she first moved to Tokyo in 2003. In addition to The Last Tea Bowl Thief and the Only In Tokyo mystery series, she produces the monthly newsletter Japanagram, and blogs at Only In Japan and on her travel site, The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had. She’s a graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Language Institute and divides her time between Tokyo and San Francisco.
You don’t become a writer. I think you are one
I’m not sure I had a choice to become a writer, I bet you didn’t either! Do you write all the time? In every spare moment? Do you spend time you don’t have editing down a totally fleeting thought into something that will fit in a tweet? When you go somewhere new, are you already thinking about how you’re going to describe it to friends? Ha, I thought so. If you’re a writer, you write. Whether you get paid for it or not. Getting paid for it is a matter of luck plus ridiculous amounts of work doing things that take time away from writing, but doing those things is something you choose. Being a writer isn’t. I don’t think you don’t become one. I think you are one.
With every book, I try to get closer to writing something as achingly true as the relationship between the husband and wife in Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose…
where Susan and Oliver love each other to the bone and hurt each other to the quick, and both of them are so right and so wrong. And I may never be able to dish up the kind of perfectly mixed sensations and quirky but fabulously on-point details that bring the near-future world of William Gibson’s Neuromancer to life, but I’ll die trying.
The Japanese believe that the highest forms of art—beyond painting, beyond sculpture—are things of surpassing beauty that can also be used every day.
Okay, this is a little embarrassing. The Last Tea Bowl Thief is about a rare and insanely valuable missing tea bowl because the first time I moved to Japan, I arrived with five boxes of belongings. And I left with seventy-four.
Those seventy-four boxes were all filled with Japanese pottery that I’d innocently begun collecting as mementos of every new place I went, but because each variety was more beautiful than the last, I, uh, didn’t realize how out of hand it had gotten until it was time to ship everything back home.
The sheer beauty of Japanese ceramics is what made me throw money at potters wherever I went, but it’s the Japanese way of thinking about them that ended up in The Last Tea Bowl Thief.
A bowl that’s beautifully designed and requires a mastery of technique to make, but also makes the tea that’s in it look extraordinarily tasty and vibrant, isn’t dismissed as a “craft,” but occupies the very pinnacle of Art-with-a-capital-A in Japan.
The Japanese believe that the Shinto gods can work through a potter’s hands as he churns out identical plates, elevating his work to something beyond his intentions, to something divine. I was powerless to resist writing about mindbenders like that!
I’m inspired by Japan (big surprise), but it’s the parts of Japan that are hidden beneath the dazzling surface that keep me writing about it
For example…I’m inspired by thousand-year-old cherry trees that are STILL BLOOMING. Think about it: I stood before this tree, which was alive before the Crusaders sailed. It had already bloomed three hundred times before the Renaissance started. It was already ancient when the printing press was invented. Japanese culture predates Western Civilization by aeons.
And that culture is constantly growing and changing
For example, the neon streets of Tokyo’s red light district are home to host and hostess clubs that are the modern incarnations of geisha.
And the kitchenware district also sells hyper-realistic food models catering to the latest and greatest restaurant fads.
Everywhere I go has a weird and unexpected specialty
When I went to the tiny town of Shigaraki, I expected to find gorgeous examples of the tea ceremony ware they’ve been famous for since the year 1278. But they’re also famous for these:
The tanuki is a trickster figure from Japanese folklore, but the feature it’s most famous for isn’t its cute little raccoon-dog face. It’s famous for its legendary…BALLS!
Yeah. Its balls!
Honour the roadblocks
Sometimes charging ahead and making a heroic effort to conquer obstacles doesn’t work nearly as well as stopping to consider whether there might be better ways to get there. Or better destinations altogether. Japan makes a point of teaching me this lesson just about every single day. My best-laid plans are constantly upended, but if I get past my disappointment and look around, I always find something better instead.
It’s always easier to edit than to write, so get those virgin words on the page. They don’t have to be good. In fact, they won’t be. Mine certainly aren’t.
But once you have something to rewrite, it’s easier
And if you get stuck, there’s usually a reason. I just wrote a longer guest blog piece about what to do when you get stuck. If you’re not finding a way forward that works, maybe you need to go back and figure out what you did to your characters to change them so they’re not cooperating. Or set aside a cherished plot point to brainstorm something that works better. Getting stuck is actually a sign of a good writer, not a bad one.
Not all writing gets published, but no writing is ever wasted
And I know this will sound slightly daunting, but every successful professional writer I know has at least two unpublished manuscripts gathering dust under the bed. I call mine “the poor man’s MFA.” The Last Tea Bowl Thief grew from the ashes of one such manuscript, ten years after I consigned it to the dumpster. It doesn’t resemble that book at all (which is a good thing, believe me!) but there was a kernel of an interesting idea there, and good ideas keep forever.
The Last Tea Bowl Thief was by far my most enjoyable book to write
Mainly because so much of it is about characters being seen—hilariously, and erroneously, and finally with much deeper understanding—through other characters’ eyes. When Nori first meets the American character, she makes some laughably wrong assumptions about Robin. And when Robin digs deep into the samurai era poet Saburo, she’s scandalized to discover how little he resembles the revered artist she lionized in her Masters’ thesis.
I hope that people who read for pleasure, and love being whisked away to another time and place will really enjoy The Last Tea Bowl Thief.
Unless we pause to take in what’s around us, and what’s happening inside of us, we won’t have anything to write about
I think that what we all tend to forget is that putting X number of words on a page is only half of being a writer. The other half is…living. Observing. Feeling.
We’re all going through an extraordinary time in history right now
We’re feeling things none of us have ever felt before. In order to write compelling stories and realistic characters, having hard experiences is just as important as having joyous ones. Stopping to appreciate and sift through everything that’s happening to us right now will enrich all of our writing for years to come. Right now is a great time to read books and learn from them.
Reading isn’t just a fantastic break from our too-intense reality, if we stop to think about why we’re transported by some particularly excellent paragraph, we can take away tips that will make our own writing better. I’ve written about the craft of writing and taught at writing workshops.
I encourage you to check out my latest book ‘The Last Tea Bowl Thief’
My Last Tea Bowl Thief book website contains all kinds of links, giveaways and information on how to host a book Zoom.
Japanagram: My free my free monthly newsletter has loads of travel destinations, Japanese home cooking recipes and cultural mysteries.
Subscribe to my Only in Japan blog
Visit my website and discover ‘The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had‘
Connect with me on Twitter and Instagram: @jonellepatrick