Thersa Matsuura uncanned – interview with a mythical realist writer

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Thersa Matsuura is an American expat who has lived over half her life in a small fishing town in Japan. Her fluency in Japanese allows her to do research into parts of the culture – legends, folktales, and superstitions – that are little known to western audiences. A lot of what she digs up informs her short stories, while the rest finds its way into her blog or becomes fodder for her podcast: Uncanny Japan. Patrick Sherriff chatted with her by email from January to April, 2018.

Patrick Sherriff: How did you come to start doing creative writing? Was it something you’d aways dreamed of doing or was it just something in the water in Japan?

Thersa Matsuura: I was an only child and my parents moved around a lot. Dad was in the Air Force so it was inevitable. After the first couple of times — when I’d cry and throw a fit that we were moving yet again and I was losing all my friends — they started not telling me until the last minute. Cue: childhood trauma. Life was fine, friends and school were great and then yoink! I was throwing my stuffed animals in boxes and we were off to some other part of the country. I read a lot to deal with the loneliness and preserve my sanity, I guess, and then I began filling journals of all my thoughts and observations. I attempted goofy kid stories, but it wasn’t until I read Stephen King’s The Shining at age 11 that I truly got the power of writing. A friend nonchalantly told me I, too, could be a writer if I wanted to and that set the wheels in motion.

I didn’t take it super seriously until after moving to Japan and getting married. That’s when I realized it had happened again, I’d totally ostracised myself from everyone I knew. I was in a very small town, no Japanese friends (my language still wasn’t great back then), no foreign friends because they just didn’t live here yet, no internet or even English language TV. Heck, we didn’t even have a 7-Eleven on every corner like there is now. I’m so old. So writing reared its sweet head again and I began using it to once more find my moorings. Japan gave me something to write about, a culture that I was always trying to figure out. I noticed that a lot of what I saw (as the internet came about) just didn’t quite ‘get it’. There was (and still is to a big degree) a superficial knowledge of Japan, or maybe a one-sided view of Japan. It was and still is my desire to show people something else, a different Japan, a side that isn’t so accessible. Since I love telling stories, using what I’ve learned and studied to inform my fiction just felt like the perfect combination.

Okay. May I ask the same question back atcha? Also, if I may, what brought you to Japan? How long have you lived here? Have you always lived in Abiko? What’s special about Abiko?

I suppose I’d always harboured vague dreams of being a novelist or some such, I just didn’t take it seriously until maybe a bit like you I found myself on the other side of the world, a little isolated because of lack of Japanese language skills and realising there was a whole lot of interesting stuff going on under my nose. I had the willpower, the curiosity and the grudging realisation that nobody else was going to make me into a writer. I think it helped that I’d been a newspaper journalist — you quickly learn not to be too precious about your words and that it’s OK to suck at storytelling, as long as you suck a little less the next time. And repeat. This is what the cool kids of self-publishing call “iteration.” You just need a thickish skin. It gets thicker with use, I find.

The short answer of how I ended up in Japan is I followed a woman out here. And why Abiko is we were in the UK thinking about moving back to Japan to open our own English school and looked at a map at all the places around Tokyo that we could afford to live. That’s the official, rational version. The more fantastical (and true) version is we asked a fortune teller which of the five or so possible locales we’d picked were best and Abiko got many more circles from her magic pen. She said we would have great success in Abiko, and so far she’s been right. How much of that is just luck, or the power of suggestion, who can say, but here we are.

Your published stories all involve elements of the supernatural, what’s the attraction to Japanese folklore? Would you describe yourself as rational? Do you believe in ghosts?

I am an enormous cynic. To the extent that it’s sad. My “go to” emotion a lot of the time is doubt. I want to know what’s behind a situation, or offer, or story, or anything. That said, I’ve had the weirdest stuff happen to me in my life. Like crazy stuff that I’m hesitant to even tell anyone because if it were me hearing the story, I’d be like, no way, man. Some stuff, indeed, I’ve never told anyone because it’s personal and doesn’t need the validation of anyone else. I’ve experienced it and try to make of it what I can. Some of it does end up in my fiction. Quite a bit, actually.

I think I’m okay with not knowing the answers to everything and also not needing to know the answers to everything. Something very strange can happen to me and I can just take it in, look at it from different angles and leave it at that. I am very hesitant to say, this is a ghost, this is a something or other. It feels like once you start naming things and putting labels on experiences, they change underneath you. I think that being okay with not understanding something weird that happens also is what inspires my fiction. My stories are me trying to make sense of my life.

My attraction to folklore (Japanese in particular, because I’ve lived here for so long and feel I’m getting to understand the culture) also goes hand in hand with my wanting to know what’s behind a story. People invented these stories in response to living in the world they were living in at the time, as a way of understanding their world. I think by reading them and thinking about them maybe it will give me a glimpse into how life was back then, and also, maybe help me to understand my life now.

Tell me about your art. When I first met you online I thought of you as an editor/publisher/writer. It was when you were putting together the anthology for the 2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake anthology.

However, as I’ve gotten to know you I find you’re also a musician, an artist, a teacher (what am I missing?). Some people go their whole lives identifying with one thing, I’m a photographer. But you have so many outlets for your creativity and are open to more. Do they serve different purposes for you? Do you prefer one to another? Which art do you defines you the best, which do you enjoy most, which do you feel you want to improve on? Is there some creative endeavor you don’t do now that you want to pursue in the future? What is that?

None of us is just one thing. We are all fathers and sons or mothers and daughters, or whatever. It’s easier to label someone as “a writer”, “a comedian” or “a physicist”, but all you are really doing Is identifying what they sell their labour for. Kurt Vonnegut was a great cartoonist, Steve Martin a wonderful banjo picker and Albert Einstein could play a mean fiddle. I guess it would be silly to introduce Einstein as a violinist (actually I’m making that up, I have no idea if he played, but he should have). As good as our side pursuits are, it’s what we do the most of that defines us, perhaps because what we practise the most is what we become best at.

So, by that definition, I’m a teacher (how I make the bulk of my living), journalist (how I used to make my living, now just as a hobby), novelist (I’ve written two books, working on the third) watercolour artist (I’ve only been doing this for the last four years, but I try to do at least one painting or sketch a week) and when I’ve had enough shochu, a guitarist and blues harp blower (but I haven’t improved since the age of 21 or so).

As I get older, I’d love for more income to come from my artistic pursuits, but each activity informs the others. In 2014, I decided to start writing my own textbooks for my school. I wouldn’t have had the ability if I hadn’t been teaching for a few years, wouldn’t have known how to layout a page if I hadn’t done my time as a page monkey for various newspapers in my 30s, wouldn’t have had the interest in illustrating it myself if I hadn’t been messing around with watercolours. And now I’ve created a series of textbooks for a neighbouring English language school thanks to what started out as a sideline. What can I say? One thing leads to another.

But if you had to introduce me at a party, pick one from teacher/writer/artist. Probably best not to mention guitarist.

So, to throw a label at you, you are a short story writer. Are you planning to become known as a novelist? And, do tell, what was it like hanging with all the celebs at the Bram Stoker awards?

Yes, short story writer but I yearn to write (rewrite) this novel. I wrote short stories, got the agent and the contract for my first collection. That happened. Then my agent and I were talking on the phone and he says, What’s next? You should think about writing a novel. That’s how you can build a solid fanbase. And I set off. I had no idea how to write a novel. I started with writing middle-grade books, then YA (none of these published) and slowly worked my way up to a decent word count. Here it is almost ten years later and I’m determined to get the novel done this year. It’s all in my head, outlined, a couple chapters written. I just need to sit down and pound out words every day. Short stories are so nice because they’re so short. You can keep and entire one in your head. A novel is more tricky.

The Bram Stoker Awards was a blast. Didn’t win the award, but being a finalist is just fine. I’m quite the hermit so I had to make myself leave my fancy hotel room and meet people. Everyone was so kind and generous and a lot of amazing talent. Every single reading I went to I came away wanting to buy all that author’s books. Same for just meeting people and hearing what they write. I also met a lot of people I’ve known online for years, like approaching 15 or so. That was really nice too.

Tell me more about your school. I find that anyone with a dream to start a business in Japan and then to succeed in it is my hero. Recently, I’m also toying with the idea. Did you literally start by just hanging a shingle out, asking neighborhood kids to come learn English? I also really like that you make all your own textbooks. Man, I really have a ton of questions. I imagine it must feel incredibly rewarding to see the little one learn and grow and then now just recently you took them to the UK. You said it was educational. What fun (and educational) things did you do?

Yes, we did literally just hang a shingle in our front yard. From day one we had one neighbourhood primary school kid sign up for a weekly lesson in our living room and we did a daily playgroup for neighbourhood mums and their toddlers. Fast forward 10 years and we have 130 kids and a dozen or so adults enrolled in weekly lessons, have our own self-published textbooks for every year and have just returned from a study tour where we took 11 kids to England for a week at Easter. We rented a couple of cars and a cottage and took the kids all over, from Stonehenge to the National Space Museum. Our school has been a story of continual evolution, we’re still experimenting, adapting and trying to figure out ways to make it more fun and more profitable. We still do the playgroup though, every Friday morning. I will write a book about how to start up an English school after a few other publishing projects, I have to finish writing a textbook for final year junior high schoolers, need to publish some more Hana Walker mysteries for my students, not to mention a novel for native speakers… it never ends.

We first met (online) right after the Tohoku earthquake. I knew you as Our Man in Abiko and just thought of you as this mysterious man who was freaking awesome at getting this anthology of stories off the ground. How did that happen? I felt the earthquake all the way down here. I can’t imagine how strong it was up there. What made you think, this is what I’m going to do!? How did the whole process happen?

Ah, Quakebook. Yeah, probably that will go down as my crowning publishing achievement (although I did it all anonymously at the time), getting 100 people, including celebs like Yoko Ono, oh and yourself of course, to contribute pieces about the Tohoku earthquake for free to raise money for the Red Cross (sorry for the clunky exposition here, dear reader). To this day, I don’t know how we pulled it off other than to say it was the right thing to do at the right time. A lot of people helped because of this. And that’s the lesson I take from the experience: do the right thing at the right time and you’ll be amazed at what you can do. Although the converse is probably more common. It’s only after the event that you realise what a fortuitous opportunity it was. Grasp the nettle, Terrie! OK, a final two questions if I may. How’s the experience of doing a podcast? And what’s next for you? 

The podcast has been a huge learning curve. I have learned and am learning so much from it. The one thing I find most interesting is that the feedback is so much more immediate than with the writing. And people seem to be more willing to write reviews and email me with their thoughts and encouragements. I’ve got those two collections out and soooo much more work (hours) has gone into those stories as compared to the podcast, but yet I get so much more listener interaction with the latter.

Next is The Novel. But before that, I have a couple anthologies I want to submit to, so I need to write those stories. But I really need to write a full length book.

To find out more about Thersa Matsuura, her writing and her podcast, go to www.thersamatsuura.com.  

Patrick Sherriff survived 13 years working for newspapers in the US, UK and Japan. Between writing and illustrating textbooks for non-native speakers of English he releases Hana Walker mystery novels, short stories, essays and a monthly newsletter highlighting good fiction published in English about Japan. He lives in Abiko with his wife and two daughters.

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A selfie from the Tokyo Writers’ Conference, October 2017.
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