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
"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.
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
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
"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
"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
"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: email@example.com ); "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