03rd Sep2012

Interview with Andrez Bergen

by Lloyd Paige



Andrez Bergen is a well known Tokyo based Australian writer and journalist. His first book was the noir/sci-fi Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat. His second book is the unique One Hundred Years of Vicissitude and will be released on the 26th of October 2012. I had a little chat with him about his new book and the other things that have influenced him.

1. You’re one of the many thousands of Australians living in Japan, what drew you there initially?

Sushi and sashimi (my favourite food), music (techno and enka), performance (kabuki and taiko drumming), anime, manga, Japanese cinema, and the simple attraction of travel – Japan is far closer to Asia and Europe than I was back in Melbourne. Plus I just love things Japan.

2. Has Japanese culture always interested you or was it an attraction that suddenly mushroomed later in your life?

I’ve been a Japanophile for years. In primary school I was wrapped up in anime like Gigantor and Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion, along with the live-action series The Samurai, which was hugely popular in Australia in the ’60s and ’70s—half the reason kids were lobbing about cardboard shuriken in the playground. The James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) was the clincher. Later on I got into the anime feature films of people like Mamoru Oshii, Katsuhiro Otomo, Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon, and discovered filmmakers Akira Kurosawa, Kinji Fukasaku and Seijun Suzuki. At the same time I was working with techno and electronic music and became a fan of Yellow Magic Orchestra, Co-Fusion, Fumiya Tanaka and DJ Krush.

3. You’ve done a lot of things such as music, photography, and journalism. How did you get to the point of writing your first book, Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat?

I first wrote TSMG as a 4-page short story when I was in my early 20s, and writing was my single passion. Then I kind of got diverted and spread-out with the asides you just mentioned. In 1992 and again in 2001 I fleshed out the story to manuscript form, and then shelved it on both occasions to collect dust. Somehow I dragged it back out in 2007, wiped it down, and began writing Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat, the novel, with great help from my editor Kristopher Young at Another Sky Press—who decided to publish it.

4. Your second book is entitled One Hundred Years of Vicissitude, what sort of reader are you hoping to appeal to?

Any reader! Actually, I think a sense of humour is essential – for starters, people shouldn’t take the title too seriously. I’m surprised some people have. While a century of change is indeed portrayed in the course of the story, the fact I’m alluding to Gabriel García Márquez and using an incomprehensible word like vicissitude should point to the fact I’m taking the piss – just a bit.
I think anyone also interested in historical fiction with a surreal edge, and people into noir and speculative fiction, might be into it.

5. The protagonist Wolram E. Deaps’ dialogue and general interaction with his surroundings, appears to fit together seamlessly, is there a little bit of you in him, and what are the weakest and strongest points of his character?

Yeah, there is a trace of me in Wolram, particularly with regard to his childhood memories, but the guy’s a tyrant and a snob who hates books. I think we mostly meet in our humour and love of comics. This is a man that’s difficult to like, so the big challenge was redeeming him in the reader’s eyes, as well as my own, and by the end hopefully people appreciate him for who he is. Initially his strong point is his stubborn self-belief, but by the end this has changed significantly.

6. How would you describe the relationship between the Geisha Kohana and Wolram?

I actually loved developing their relationship. It was a freestyle process, and initially they were quite distant to one another, but as I wrote and rewrote and edited the relationship warmed up and became far more playful. There’s affection there and a shared jocularity. But there’s a lot of pain underlying the surface. I think they counterbalance one another but also compliment.

7. The reference to film occasionally appears in your work. Do you ever become concerned that a reader may not be familiar with a particular film, programme, or actor that you’ve referenced, hence lessening the impact of a particular sentence?

That occasionally does cross my mind, and originally I did hold back accordingly. But I think if you cite the reference clearly enough the reader will get the gist, even if they have no clue regarding the movie. And if you pace it, they’ll – hopefully – go with the flow. I cheated a bit with Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat by placing a glossary at the back of the book, but that was homage to cinema. There are far less references in One Hundred Years. And I do think people these days are far more “literate” when it comes to film. We consume so many DVDs that it will be rare to find someone who hasn’t seen, for example, Casablanca. And if they haven’t, hopefully they get inspired to go give it a viewing.

8. At times you seem to write your scenes in a cinematic way, are there any Japanese or Western directors that have influenced you?

I’m a movie journalist and I’ve adored cinema since I was a kid – my parents are responsible. Definitely it’s an influence on how I create music and write stories. My favourite Japanese directors would be Mamoru Oshii, Satoshi Kon, Akira Kurosawa, Kinji Fukasaku, Ishiro Honda, Shunya Ito, Mamoru Hosoda, Koji Morimoto and Seijun Suzuki.

I was a big fan of Peter Jackson’s and Ridley Scott’s earlier work, I do dig my Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan and Terry Gilliam, plus older directors like John Ford, Orson Welles, John Huston, Carol Reed, Howard Hawks and Michael Curtiz. I think Australian director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) is currently doing very interesting things, and I loved some of the noir/thriller outings of fellow Aussies Bill Bennett (Kiss or Kill) and Gregor Jordan (Two Hands).

9. Do you like taking risks when you write, either within the boundaries you set or the context of your subject matter?

I actually rarely think about this, though I know writers should. But when I write I have a picture in my head and I want to air it out. While I’d like to make it different and – I hope – in some way innovative, it’s not the key to the story. Occasionally I do push the envelope a bit if I get a bee in my bonnet and go through pretentious scribe syndrome, but usually I just want to get my tale out on paper. Then make it a bit surreal.

10. Throughout the years which books have really left an impression on you?

Easy.

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Nicholas Christopher’s Veronica, Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, Ry? Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, and Robert M. Eversz’s Shooting Elvis. Growing up I loved Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Hergé’s Tintin, and 1960s Marvel comics.

11. How do you plan a typical writing day?

The plan? There is no plan. It happens when it happens. I like to allocate days to it, but I have a six-year-old daughter and I work five and a half days a week, so that’s pretty much impossible. Just whenever I find time. Recently the early mornings, from 4:00 or 5:00 am have been great.

12. How many drafts and edits do you do before you’re happy with a story?

I’m always editing on the fly. Generally the story takes place as it unfolds in my head, so I write vignettes on pieces of paper, and then try to tie them together. I print that out and edit or change or add passages. Then I print it out again. And so on. I work fast – deadline journalism really helped this skill – but I do dozens of edits and tweaking. Like George Lucas I’m still not 100% happy when I go to press, but unlike him I won’t change it anymore.

13. The art of writing creatively requires a great deal of concentration, are you able to focus for long periods of time or are you easily distracted?

I can actually sit down for twelve hours pottering, if I have free time – and in fact I just did that today with novel #3. I’m responding to this interview on the back of that! But I get easily distracted too. While I tend to forget hunger, I often just want to stick on a DVD and chill out. Or grab a beer.

14. Finally, for anyone wanting to be a writer of fiction, what would you say is the single most important thing that they need to remember?

Focus! You need to sit down and just plain write – plus try to believe in what you’re doing. Other than that, enjoy life – it offers the greatest stimuli to do said writing.

Synopsis

“First up, a disclaimer. I suspect I am a dead man. I have meagre proof, no framed up certification, nothing to toss in a court of law as evidence of a rapid departure from the mortal coil. I recall a gun was involved, pressed up against my skull, and a loud explosion followed.” Thus begins our narrator in a purgatorial tour through twentieth-century Japanese history, with a ghostly geisha who has seen it all as a guide and a corrupt millionaire as her reluctant companion. Thrown into the milieu are saké, B-29s, Lewis Carroll, Sir Thomas Malory, Melbourne, The Wizard of Oz, and a dirigible – along with the allusion that Red Riding Hood might just be involved.

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