Michael PronkoName: Michael Pronko

Book Title: Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life

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What is your book about?

Living in Tokyo, I try to find the small pieces of life here that have greater meaning. That is, I write about the small things in everyday experience that have greater significance in trying to understand this massive, densely populated and very complex place called Tokyo. It is not about where to go or what to do. Instead, it is about how Tokyo creates a rich set of meanings. I describe how it feels and what it makes me think to experience life here. I put all those into short essays, flash nonfiction, to capture some of the energy and taste of life here.

What inspired you to write your book?

Tokyo. I mean, Tokyo’s overwhelming, so you respond even when you pretend not to notice. I wanted to articulate my feelings, ideas, confusions, and insights about living here. It’s something special, overall, usually, and the energy of being here offers up a lot that deserves to be considered more fully. Writing is a way of understanding Tokyo, which is important to me. Tokyo overwhelms me, so rather than ignore that and get on about my business, I transcribe it into a small, focused form that helps me fathom a portion of it all.

Beauty And ChaosCan you describe your writing process?

For these essays I try to fix on a single unique experience from the flow of Tokyo life. I pull on that like a thread until it loosens up and comes free. I jot down notes (I like to use Japanese paper notebooks) anytime I notice something. Sometimes I know right away why it’s important, but usually I scribble it down and think about it later. It’s usually something that I’ve seen a thousand times, but never considered. Then, I take that image, experience, habit, or whatever it is and start connecting it by following chains of thoughts. There’s a lot of leaping around and playing with possibilities in my mind before they settle into place. That’s the fun part. Then, I quickly write a draft, inevitably about double the length it finally should be. Then, I cut, add, cut, add, despair, distract myself, exercise, drink, play the guitar, set it aside, and somehow at the end of all this neurotic thrashing around, shape and sense emerge. The words, ideas, images, and feelings start connecting. Then, I rewrite about a hundred times, on screen and on paper with a pen, and on screen again and with pen and paper again. Rewriting while standing up on a crowded train works well, for whatever reason. When I get down to changing single words, it’s about done. “Process” sounds too reasonable and repeatable.  

How did you come to do what you’re doing today?

The writing and academic career options in America were fine, but I wanted to see the world. So, I kept moving and traveling and studying. Tokyo’s a lot more interesting than a lot of places I might have ended up, so I’m grateful. I found a job teaching American literature and culture. I got asked to write about jazz for an online magazine and then a newspaper (since no one else knew about jazz). That led to being asked to write about Tokyo for Newsweek Japan, and then a publisher wanted to publish my articles in book form. That editor wanted two more books, all done in Japanese, though written in English, and I finally got them published back in English. At one point, I was teaching at university full-time and had seven article deadlines a month. I had to cut back as my energy was all directed into the next deadline. It’s not any straight path, but rather selective meandering, physical and mental, always with writing going on in and around everything else.

Can you describe a typical day in your life?

I get up and write first thing. As Tom Waits said, “Get behind the mule/in the morning and plow.” I tuck in some breakfast and exercise, but write for as long as I can. I teach three or four days a week, always scheduling my classes in the afternoon to keep my mornings free to write. Around noon, I hop on the train (missing rush hour) and grab a bowl of ramen noodles on the way to school. My university is an hour away, so there is time to decompress, read, prepare class and listen to music. Afternoons, my students always have a lot of energy, which I find inspiring, and fun. In the evenings I go out for dinner and drinks, or jazz, or just train back home and read.

What do you most enjoy about what you do?

I find new things when writing, new connections, new phrases, new insights that I never imagined before. That newness is a continual source of inspiration. Or maybe re-inspiration. I love the idea of connecting to people through the written word. It’s an amazing thing, I mean, what a technology—words! But, I also enjoy being away from the computer, being by myself on the train reading or listening to music, or just walking around the city since Tokyo is like an entire country in itself. I like teaching and working with students, too, which I feel is also part of the process of writing. Teaching literature, culture (film, music, art) and writing are essential to my writing, and contribute more than their share to the work, and to the pleasure.

Are there any people and/or books that have inspired you along your journey?

Everyone’s reading history is complex. My home had a lot of books of all kinds, and I was free to read anything my parents had—art, psychiatry, fiction, music, bestsellers, whatever. My grade school had a service to order books and the library stayed open all summer. I loved biking there and looking through all the books before choosing one. I realize now that library was just a single classroom with shelves, but it’s etched in my mind. I had a great English teacher in high school who kept shuffling me things to read during my senior year. At college, my friends read a lot, though we always acted cool about it. There, reading seemed normal. I would buy the books for other classes I didn’t take and loved wandering the library shelves. I can still smell them. It’s important to read a lot of great writing before you develop the ability to think too much. You have to just soak them up unconsciously first, I think. You’re lucky or unlucky when you’re young, as far as books go, but later on, you make your own choices. I like books that say: Don’t just read—take action. From Thoreau and Whitman to Hemingway and Kerouac, those authors all said, “Live!” It’s important advice. I studied philosophy at college, and the existentialists said something similar. They argued that our choices one by one define our ethics and create a life that is, hopefully, authentic. The existentialists said life is fuller and truer when you take responsibility for it, and one way to do that is to read and write. And teach, or work. I like reading a lot of other things, too, books about writing, psychology, literary theory, and whatever else, but if it doesn’t have that central concept of how to live better, live more fully, if it doesn’t help me dance on the beach with Zorba the Greek, it doesn’t inspire me. 

Can you share something that people may be surprised to learn about you?

Though the above answers in this interview might make it seem like it’s all been a flow of good fortune, I could also write a very different narrative trajectory, one of failure, rejection, missteps, wrong-headed approaches, egoistic self-indulgence, crippling anxiety, and folders and folders bursting with abandoned projects, rejection letters, scribbled scraps of ideas, and other frustrations on paper. Which is the more, or less, surprising? The two lines of experience run parallel.

What’s next for you?

More writing. I have another collection of short essays completed. I will put out a collection of essays on traditional Japanese cultural forms, like paper, indigo dye, rock gardens, and all the casually gorgeous things in Japan. I have been writing short fiction, or as some call it, “flash fiction.” I have two novels finished, mystery/thrillers set in Tokyo, and am waiting for a publisher to snap them up.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

A lot more, but I’ll stick to just one: I think nonfiction is a powerful mode of communication that has transformed my way of interacting with the world. Discovering the best way of organizing ideas, of finding the clearest, most concise form to communicate, without overwriting, is a real challenge. But when you do find that best way, it’s a joy and jolt of insight.