Author memoirs are ify territory for me. On the one hand, I'm fascinated by their lives and their writing habits; on the other hand, if I know too much about them it distracts me when I'm reading their work. Maya Angelou said good writing reads as effortless, and I want to enjoy it that way without being bogged down by the backstory. But, there are always exceptions, and Haruki Murakami is one.
Murakami's memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running came out two years ago. In it, Murakami details his life not only as a writer, but as a marathon runner, and by extension, about his musical taste. As anyone who as read any of his novels knows, Murakami references a lot of jazz and classical music, as well as a litany of North American pop-culture references. Those details tend to stand out in stories set in various parts of Japan, but fit perfectly into Murakami's personality (as far as he's described himself here, anyway).
The through-line of the memoir is the relationship between Murakami's writing and running. Before he became a novelist, he ran a jazz bar in Tokyo. After deciding he'd rather be a writer, he sold the bar to forge ahead as a novelist. But, after spending days sitting down, Murakami realized he was getting fat, so he started running. A year later, he ran the original marathon: covering the distance between Athens and Marathon.
Murakami has run marathons all over the world and completed several triathlons. For most people, training for those events would be quite enough to keep them busy. But no, Murakami has also written over a dozen widely-acclaimed books, worked as a visiting professor at several universities and maintained a marriage. How does he do it? Well, he does it the boring way: he comes up with a routine that works, and he sticks to it.
In a lot of ways, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is centred around Murakami's four months pr preparation for the Boston Marathon. It is, at its core, a memoir about a routine that balances his marathon training with his writing. But Murakami is a writer who knows how to make ordinary things - like looking for a lost cat - into endlessly interesting and bizarrely intricate endeavours. He writes about running in way that draws in runners and non-runners alike, and balances the details of his training schedule with stories about his past and details about his writing processes.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running isn't a long, drawn-out memoir; rather it's a snapshot of a man who refuses to only have one focus in his life. Murakami's life, as described here, explains a lot of the cultural references and themes of his novels without going into exhaustive detail. But Murakami doesn't give too much away; rather, like in his novels, he offers enough details to pique your interest, but leaves other aspects vague. Murakami draws you in, but doesn't let you get close enough to think you know it all. He's a great writer, and he knows exactly what turn of phrase will put you where he wants you, all the while keeping you engaged.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
by Haruki Murakami
First published in 2008 (cover image shown from Bond Street Books edition)