For our second interview, we feature a captivating discussion with Simon Rowe. Simon grew up in small town New Zealand and big city Australia and currently resides in Himeji, Japan. He teaches creative writing and storytelling at Kwansei Gakuin University in Nishinomiya. He has written for TIME (Asia), The New York Times, the South China Morning Post, and the Paris Review, and is author of two short story collections: Good Night Papa (2017) and Pearl City (2020). More information can be found on his website (www.mightytales.net). He was interviewed by Torrin Shimono, who has taught English in Japan for more than a decade and is an associate professor at Kindai University in the Faculty of Law. He received his PhD in applied linguistics from Temple University. His research interests include reading fluency, reaction times, phonology, self-efficacy, and testing. Now, for your reading pleasure . . .
Torrin Shimono: How did you get involved with creative writing/writing fiction?
Simon Rowe: I started by writing travel stories for newspapers and magazines in 1990. Travel and writing became a self-perpetuating existence for nearly two decades. In 2012, I undertook a master’s degree in writing, and this both inspired and equipped me to write short fiction. Many of my tales are set in exotic locations, but mostly in Japan, and are driven by a central theme of triumph over adversity.
Interesting. Why is writing about that theme particularly important to you?
News services deliver bad news daily. Personally, I would like to hear more stories of normal people doing amazing things—stories that uplift and inspire. They are out there, it’s just that they don’t get told enough. I feel that writers can achieve this effect in their writing. Wouldn’t you want to write about someone triumphing over bad luck, rather than succumbing to it?
Yeah, for sure. Could you describe your own writing process of writing fiction?
I take a 4B pencil and a spiral-bound A4 notebook, and I distill the story idea down to a single sentence on paper. For example, “a recovering alcoholic mail pilot crashes his plane in the Australian desert with a bottle of gin on board.” This refers to my short story called The Finke River Mail. Or “an aging hitman flies into Hong Kong for what will be his last assignment—and last supper.” And this one is about Oysters to Die For; another short story. I then draft a scenario, which becomes the plot. To this, I add a cast of one or two characters, and build in the themes for depth and meaning. Then I take these scribbles, and with research I have collected, for example Australian landscape, aircraft terminology, alcoholism, and so forth, draft the entire story by hand. After that, I create a Google Doc and once the story is laid out, I begin editing and polishing. I then send it out to friends for feedback. Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I agree.
When did you realize that you really enjoyed “bleeding at the typewriter” and were particularly good at it? I imagine many people often give up after their first try.
I lost a lot of “blood” in the early days. But like most skills, writing is something that improves with time. If you are passionate about telling a story, your words should come easier. If they don’t, it might mean you aren’t reading enough books. With that being said, I’ve written my fair share of terrible stories … and got paid for them! I can only guess that some writers give up because their heart isn’t in it, or they lack the confidence to air their words in public.
How do you create the right conditions to be creative? Do you ever get writer’s block?
Ideas come at all times and in all places. It happens to me when riding a bicycle, swimming at the gym, or doing something totally non-writing related. I find the best way to solve a plot or character problem is to take a walk. Walking frees up the mind. Writer’s block is just a speed bump; it gives you time to consider the possibilities.
You previously mentioned Hemingway. Are there other authors who have influenced your writing style?
Let me see—Raymond Chandler for hardboiled detective-speak; John Steinbeck for writing form; S. E. Hinton for coming-of-age themes; Tim Winton and David Malouf for Australianisms; Annie Proulx for character development; Joseph Conrad, Alice Walker, Jack London, H. G. Wells, and Bram Stoker for narrative structure; Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, and the American travel writer, Eric Hansen, for realism in setting.
That’s a great list. Are you influenced by any Japanese fiction writers?
No. However, I would say that the life and writings of the Irish-Greek writer, Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), are highly inspirational. He was a traveler, journalist, storyteller and teacher, whose travelogues show the true value of ethnography as a writer’s tool for research. I highly recommend his Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (2009), which he wrote in 1894.
Is living in Japan and traveling to new countries your “muse” so to speak? Does living in a different culture help bring out the stories you write?
Stimulation is a writer’s best friend. In my case, Japan is death-by-stimulation. Story ideas leap out at me from dark alleys, confront me in backstreet bars, float up my nostrils inside temples and shrines, and generally give me no peace of mind in the waking day. From an ethnography standpoint, living in Japan is a fantastically immersive experience, one that enables you to write with truthfulness and authenticity. Lafcadio Hearn would agree!
Several of your stories have a supernatural element in them. For instance, West Wind, The Gem Polishing Unit, and Spirited Away to name a few. Why does this element appeal to you?
For me, real life converges with the ethereal all the time in Japan. For instance, through engagement in Buddhist and Shinto beliefs, superstitions, folklore, myths, legends, and even the world of yokai: monsters, ghosts, and goblins. Magic realism can be used to turn the mundane into the mystical, and I have used this tool to bring extra dimensions to my characters and their actions. West Wind, in which a retired miner rescues a woman from a car wreck and in return, receives her help in ridding his farmstead of an abominable beast, is a good example.
Which short story are you the proudest of and why?
West Wind—because it’s set in the valley where my family and I go river swimming in summer. I enjoyed writing this story because the characters are quirky and many readers say the ending stays in their minds.
For you, what would you say is the purpose of writing fiction? To entertain, reveal a great truth, transmit knowledge, or something else?
The purposes are many, but I would say the biggest one is to escape the humdrum of daily life. Building imaginary worlds, characters, and scenarios is fun! Writing can also be a cathartic process, and a way to communicate social issues or injustices, or it can be just a way to make sense of the world. For me, the purpose is to tell a story which resonates. Gaining new insights and meaning from the text through reader feedback is also hugely rewarding. Without a reader, there is no story.
How did some of your stories end up becoming short films?
In 2013, I entered the Asian Short Screenplay Contest in the U.S. The contest was judged by actress Michelle Yeoh, and my story was chosen as one of three winners. The prize was development of the film. Good Night Papa, the story of a down-and-out taxi driver who picks up a mysterious passenger and receives an unexpected gift, was produced by JBF Entertainment in San Francisco. You can see it on YouTube. A second project I’ve been involved with, a feature-length film set in Japan, is currently seeking funding.
That’s great. I look forward to hearing more about it. Could you describe one of your creative writing courses that you currently teach?
Yeah. I teach a fifteen-class course in storytelling to university students. It’s designed to give them maximum freedom to use their imagination to write in fiction and nonfiction forms. Emphasis is placed on story development, and this is taught using “building blocks.” For example, setting, character, plot, themes, and so forth. By the end of the program, students can tell stories with confidence. The results often amaze me. I think students feel they can express themselves more easily and meaningfully in writing, than they might do in a speaking or listening class.
Could you tell us how teaching creative writing is different from academic writing?
Because creative writing marches to a different beat, many students who take my course find themselves floundering in the first week. This is a good thing because it highlights to them the difference between the critical and analytical processes of academic writing, and the creative processes required for writing fiction and nonfiction. Once students become aware of the freedom and possibilities which creative writing offers, they fly.
Nice. Could you provide an example of one of the stories your students wrote?
Here is a wonderful start to a dystopian tale which one of my students submitted for his final assignment: “The surface of the Earth, The Ground, is no longer a place to live. There are always immense black clouds and heavy rain which contain slight acid. No one cares about the atmospheric pollution. Humans had forecasted this situation, but they didn’t improve the environment. What they did was make a new world underground and migrate. There are countries, cities, fresh air, plants, rivers, an artificial sun, and lots of displays which show the sky. Ninety-eight percent of people are living in The Underground. Now, The Ground is a place for people in poverty and prisoners sent from The Underground. They’re called ‘F(leas) O(n) E(arth).’”
Wow. He did a great job of setting the mood.
Yeah! Storytelling has huge applications in today’s world. It can be telling a company’s history, designing museum displays and art exhibits, creating online content for tourism marketing campaigns, or it can be as simple as writing a self-introduction to new colleagues, in which case, you are telling your story. Storytelling is universal, so why not teach it?
I suppose just explaining and describing your weekend is a form of storytelling. Do you think students are afforded a sense of freedom in writing fiction because there is less risk of embarrassment to others? Or do you find that the opposite is true—maybe students don’t take enough of a risk in their storytelling, perhaps because their proficiency is not high enough or it takes more effort to be entertaining?
I would definitely agree that fiction creates a “safe” zone for students to express themselves without fear of embarrassment or shame. If students aren’t taking enough risks in their writing, it’s because they lack ideas, or the structure with which to tell their stories. The latter is dealt with as the course progresses; the former, by having students retell famous folktales, legends, films, and manga to familiarize themselves with popular story patterns. Risk taking comes with confidence, and I usually see my students’ best writing towards the end of the course. I don’t see English proficiency levels as a huge determinant in achieving a simple story well-told on paper.
How do you think your students’ L2 proficiency improves from a creative writing course?
Creative writing doesn’t have to be painful. Students learn to tell their own stories using simple language within a simple structure: of a beginning, a middle, and an end. Through regular practice and peer feedback, their confidence grows, language expression improves, and vocabulary expands. Many students are surprised at how far they have come by the end of the course. Some have gone abroad to pursue postgraduate studies and job opportunities in filmmaking and animation story development.
That’s great! Could you explain more about how you do peer feedback in your class?
Sharing stories serves several purposes: it builds camaraderie, offers alternative perspectives, and gives students the chance to discuss the strong and weak points of their narratives. Writing fiction is less about being “right and wrong” than it is about telling a strong or a weak story.
For teachers who don’t teach a creative writing course, do you have any advice or activities you would recommend doing in the classroom where they could incorporate some creative elements?
Students write best from personal experience. One of the simplest and most interesting creative writing tasks I do draws on the five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. I ask students to think in terms of these senses and to write down all words and phrases associated with two places—a beach and a temple. After sharing our ideas, I then have students describe in writing a place they know well. They then read their description aloud and have their partner guess the place. The point of this is to show the importance of creating a “sense of place” with which to transport the reader.
Those are some interesting and useful ideas. By the way, how have your students reacted to your stories?
Well, students find the vocabulary, nuanced meanings and wordplay in my stories challenging. That’s to be expected in all foreign literature. However, as their understanding of storytelling grows, they are able to unlock greater meaning and enjoy the stories more. I use Good Night Papa in my course and the tales set in Japan always prove to be the most popular. This is because students draw on their own knowledge and experience to make sense of the story—and there’s no place like home!
Hearn, L. (2009). Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan. Tuttle.
Rowe, S. (2017). Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and elsewhere. Atlas Jones & Co.
Rowe, S. (2020). Pearl City: Stories from Japan and elsewhere. Atlas Jones & Co.
Rowe, S. (2020, November 4). “West Wind” — A Short Fiction Story by Simon Rowe. Tokyo Weekender. https://www.tokyoweekender.com/2020/08/tw-creatives-west-wind-short-fict...