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Dianne Highbridge

Dianne Highbridge

With two novels under her belt, a weekly column at the Daily Yomiuri, an up-and-coming creative writing course at Temple University's Tokyo campus and a new novel in the pipeline, Australian-born novelist Dianne Highbrigde is a mentor for aspiring authors. James M. Vardaman talks to her about the writing life in Tokyo.


Curiosity may kill cats, but for writers like Dianne Highbridge, it's a literary lifeline. After finishing university in Sydney and a postgraduate stint in Oriental and African studies at the University of London, Highbridge headed to the University of Tokyo to study the women's movement. What she found was a city of contrasting elements waiting to be experienced, but also waiting to be written about.

"What I like about Tokyo is the contrasts. You can have yakitori in a small place under the JR tracks at Yurakucho, then go over to have a cocktail at the old Imperial Hotel bar. Earthiness to elegance; one extreme to the other. Tokyo may not be a casual city, but it's a very comfortable city," said Highbridge who now, married to a Japanese industrial designer, calls Tokyo home.

A naturally curious person, Highbridge explored Tokyo, as well as the rest of the country, early on. Her tour of Japan provided a plethora of subjects for short stories and magazine articles, but soon she realized that a more lengthy project would require a different lifestyle.

"I wanted to experience everything, but I realized that writing a novel would require sitting down in one place for a long time," said the novelist.

Settling her inquisitive mind paid off. Her debut novel, "A Much Younger Man," although controversial, received critical acclaim and was translated into German, Italian, Swedish and Dutch. The story revolves around a divorced schoolteacher in her mid-thirties who falls in love with the 16-year-old son of a longtime friend. It's no coincidence that "A Much Younger Man" is set outside Japan.

"I had so many stories in my mind, that it was just a matter of where to begin, and I decided to start with one that was not set in Japan. I wanted to make the point in the beginning that I am a writer who happens to live in Japan, not a person who writes about Japan," said Highbridge, who currently is at work on a third novel, this time to be set in London.

In the Empire of DreamsTackling Tokyo
It wasn't until her second novel, "In the Empire of Dreams," that Highbridge was able to capitalize on the curiosity that drove her to explore Japan. Published last year, the novel contains a cast of skillfully drawn "outsiders" who inhabit primarily Tokyo and its environs.

"I'd been keeping my eyes open, even before I began to write. When you have experiences, you are too busy living them to take note of them, but when you start to write, they sort of bubble up. I believe that the important things really worth remembering reappear when you write, even though you hadn't purposely remembered them," explained the author.

Mostly English teachers by day, students of Japanese culture by night, Highbridge's characters in "In the Empire of Dreams" remind us of ourselves or others we have known, and most of them are acutely aware of being outsiders. Highbridge wanted to create characters her readers could relate to, but also to avoid stereotypes.

"I didn't want to write about someone who 'stands for' something," said the author.

One of the other reasons Highbridge's novel has received acclaim from other well-known authors familiar with Japan, such as Arthur Golden, of the bestselling "Memoirs of a Geisha," is that she managed to avoid the pitfalls of a solely Occidental perspective.

"Western writing has tended to be judgmental, taking a stance based on what is considered 'normal' in the West. That is the wrong approach. If everything is seen as a 'deviation' from the Western norm, then you end up being either condescending toward Japan and the Japanese, or you are excessively appreciative," observed Highbridge.

Words of wisdom
Helping aspiring writers is Highbridge's specialty. She frequently offers bits of wisdom in her weekly column in the Daily Yomiuri, "Off the Shelf," and this fall she will guide aspiring novelists in her creative writing course in Temple University Japan's Continuing Education program. Highbridge is happy to dole out advice to anyone who asks.

"Don't jump the gun and try to write the great novel immediately. Look around, watch people, think about what you're going to say. One can go through creative writing programs and be very good at expressing oneself, but still not have anything to write about. That takes experience and time," she cautioned.

According to Highbridge, hitting the books helps. Although she feels she may have started later than necessary, in the meantime, she was experiencing things and reading voraciously.

"I believe in reading everything, even trash, because nothing is wasted. Anything can trigger thoughts," said Highbridge, who recommends the writings of V.S. Naipul, George Eliot, Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway for their craftsmanship.

Being succinct and somewhat of a perfectionist are other qualities Highbridge feels a writer needs.

"When you have something to say, it is not just a matter of pouring out your feelings, but rewriting repeatedly until you get it into a form where every word counts. In short: Don't leave the rewriting to the editor."

Dianne Highbridge welcomes comments on her Daily Yomiuri column (by email: books@yominet.ne.jp ); "A Much Younger Man" (1998) and "In the Empire of Dreams" (1999), are available from Soho Press, 853 Broadway, New York, NY 10003, www.sohopress.com

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