A Conversation with James Sullivan, author of HARBORING
James Sullivan and I attended the same MFA program and later shared an office as adjuncts at that same school, Minnesota State University, Mankato. Over those years, we shared work with each other and shared conversations at Wine Cafe, our beloved local dive, about writing, reading, teaching, whiskey nuances, and life.
When the publication of his novelette Harboring was announced by ELJ Editions, I was excited, not only because of my friend’s success but because this meant I would get to read another story by a writer whose work I had come to love and respect. The story of an alien who inhabits a human form and adopts Kobe, Japan as his home, Harboring interrogates the Japanese kaiju and tokusatsu film genres while exploring questions of belonging, morality, duty, and sacrifice. Much like its protagonist, Takeshi Furuya, this book is a complicated mix of seemingly disparate elements:
Sometimes, when he’d have to repel some alien threat from Japan and he’d grow as tall as his office building, Takeshi’s eyes would fill—just for an instant—with the light of his home, and the tones of some other language would sound through his brain. And then they were gone, leaving only an emotion, some intangible goodness. And…he’d pause to picture the people of his adopted home. A boy lifting his sister up to see a line of Eisa drummers at a festival. An office worker running after an old woman to return a glove she dropped on the train… In those strange, bright instants, he thought he could feel all their tiny lives glowing together as one.
Justin: The main character in Harboring shares a surname with an actor from a popular kaiju franchise. Is this a coincidence?
James: Not a coincidence at all. That’s a little easter egg for any people who might be fans of the original Ultraman series. And of course this is a hero who in some ways resembles that character among other characters in the history of tokusatsu, these Japanese special effects series. So it’s a very overt nod to the history of the giant hero archetype. And I guess since the novelette is taking a different spin on that, looking at the internal world of the character more than the external conflict in a lot of ways, I thought it was a fun nod to then think about this guy whose face you never see in the series—because it’s a different actor who plays the human version of this guy. But that’s Bin Furuya in the suit that is Ultraman.
Justin: I remember you telling me once, during one of our Bourbon-infused conversations in Mankato, about how Japanese monster films are unfairly dismissed in the US. Can you elaborate on that?
James: Well, anything I said during a bourbon-fueled session is liable to be a little off-kilter. But that one I think I stick by. That’s mostly just what I perceived as kind of a glib dismissal in the way people talk about these films in the West. For a long time, you’d hear dismissive comments along the lines of there being cardboard buildings, visible zippers, and all that kind of stuff. Of course, I think if people watch them now, it doesn’t look up to modern CGI special effects. But still the level of detail and the technical ability on display there is rather phenomenal, and there are certainly examples in the West where there were some laughable special effects. I’m forgetting the name of the film, but right around the same time Rodan came out in Japan—and you can look up clips online and see just how intricate the cities created for that were—at the same time, American filmmakers were doing shots of literal grasshoppers crawling over pictures of buildings to achieve effects.
Justin: What drew you to take on the kaiju genre the way you did with Harboring?
James: Well, I’ve always wanted to do something to bridge my literary and genre interests. I was hoping to create something that would feel satisfactory to someone who enjoys literary novels and short fiction as well as people who are interested in the more refined examples of kaiju or tokusatsu works. So I think what narrowed my approach was thinking about what can I bring to the table for this type of character that hasn’t been done already. That’s the big challenge because so many Japanese filmmakers and TV directors have done some cool things with Ultraman and Mirrorman and other characters. What could I bring to that?
The second Ultraman character, Ultraseven, I always thought was very interesting because unlike a lot of the Ultraman characters, that incarnation is not an alien force possessing and fusing with an Earth person. Ultraseven creates a false Japanese identity and lives as that person on Earth. Having lived in Japan as a foreigner, I thought I could write this angle, and really focus on this character not only as an alien defender but also almost like an immigrant story: what it means to specifically integrate into this culture, not just this planet.
Justin: Early in the story, Takeshi is described as being “nostalgic for a past that hadn’t been his.” He has so fully embraced and fallen in love with his adopted culture that no one recognizes him as different. Even though he’s from another planet he’s started a family on Earth in Kobe, Japan; has a career; and passes for human to everyone but himself. The anxiety that people will see him as a fraud follows him and extends to his daughter Mariko, who shares his alien blood. Is there something about the kaiju genre in particular that lends itself to this kind of story that explores the frontier between otherness and sameness?
James: That’s interesting. I’m thinking of something Guillermo del Toro said. How familiar are you with his work?
Justin: A little bit.
James: Did you ever see Pacific Rim?
James: You should! It’s really fun. That’s an example of a Western director who really gets and was able to inhabit a kaiju genre. I don’t remember the quote offhand, but he said something about how growing up he always really enjoyed monster films because there’s something tragic about them. They’re too big to fit into this world. They can’t, in many cases, help but be destructive. They’re immediately on-sight different from the natural world we’re used to. That’s one of the things that differentiates kaiju from just general monsters or a giant animal like in those Meg movies with the tremendously huge sharks. They’re somewhat outside of nature. Maybe I’m drawn to that in the same way I’m drawn to characters who, tragic or not, are unable to fully integrate into their world. Maybe that’s part of what led me to want to tell Takeshi’s story. Although on the surface he blends in, there’s always going to be this nagging corner of his mind that makes it impossible for him to fully embrace that.
Justin: Takeshi’s love for Kobe becomes a feeling of duty to protect it from the various predators that visit it from other worlds. This duty to protect drives him throughout the story and leads him into some murky waters. How did these questions of duty and morality come to be while you were writing the story, or did you start with those questions?
James: I think that was the starting question: to what extent is someone willing to commit? To me, the novelette’s a lot about commitment. Because the giant hero-type does perform this function of butchering either monsters who don’t fit into the human world or outsiders from other worlds. There are often questions about how much violence is necessary, if it’s always good if it’s handled in the best way. So that was a central and starting question: how far is he willing to go, and what does it mean to be this outsider keeping other outsiders out?
And another central concern of the novelette is how that same love and commitment, which can be so positive, can also have a dark underside. It’s both beautiful and ugly. At least that’s how I look at it.
Justin: How is the story informed by your time living in Japan?
James: Almost all of the textural details that make up Takeshi’s experience of the place come from my experience. He’s certainly not a self-insert character, because I made a decision, ultimately, to leave Japan. I was at a crossroads where I had to really commit to being there and learning the language more effectively, or I had to really commit to the English language and pursue writing. I didn’t feel I could do both of those at the same time effectively, and I made my choice.
The okonomiyaki shop he frequents is not in Kobe actually. I have to give the shout-out to Himeji, which is about a forty-minute train ride from Kobe, and that’s where I lived. Some of the specific spots are actually from that place. You mentioned earlier that nostalgia for a past that wasn’t yours? That’s a very peculiar feeling I’ve experienced sometimes with things about Japan. Like, Godzilla and kaiju are having a kind of resurgence, but for a long time that was considered almost exclusively the domain of men in their fifties and sixties who could remember back to the Showa Era. For me there’s this strange feeling, having been fixated on and really interested in these things for a long time, of being in a Japanese yakitori shop with a friend hammering down beers and whiskey highballs and hearing these songs from Japan in the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties, and it evokes for me the same kind of feeling almost as hearing the Counting Crows or hearing the Beatles. It feels like it’s part of me in a way that it objectively isn’t. I did not grow up in those eras, and yet I share some pangs of nostalgia for those things. That’s one thing that made it easier for me at my job [as an English teacher in Japan] to identify with my students. We’d talk about these older Showa things or Heisei Era stuff. Maybe I optimistically thought they saw some recognition: oh, we have something in common.
Justin: You mentioned okonomiyaki. Some of the most memorable scenes take place in restaurants, and there’s close attention to the food. Takeshi has a taste for these savory pancakes called okonomiyaki, which seems part and parcel of his love for Kobe, Japan. Why this attention to the food, and why okonomiyaki in particular?
James: I think food is one of those extremely intimate parts of living in a place. It’s like, if you move somewhere and you can enjoy the local cuisine, you’re a big part of the way to getting the people, for them trusting you, and you understanding where they’re coming from.
One of the other places where you probably noticed a lot of detail in the novelette is the descriptions of what the streets are like: they seem to contain so many different things that escape the eye at first glance. Okonomiyaki is this dish that contains so many things within it, almost hidden inside, which has something to do with the protagonist in the novelette, but the streets are like that, too. The whole country is, in a way, kind of like the food, like the architecture, in that it grows in these surprising, multi-layered ways that hide so many details within. I think that’s why okonomiyaki is central. It’s, of course, also just a signature dish, the way that particular Kansai style of okonomiyaki is the heart of the Kansai region and Kobe specifically.
Justin: What is nominication?
James: Yeah, nominication! That’s famous—although this is somewhat on the decline for a variety of reasons—you know, Japanese workplaces are pretty buttoned up. And if you’ve ever encountered Japanese people or heard the idea that they are reserved, there’s certainly something to that during the day. The culture is often described as conservative. There’s something to that, too. But I’ve always seen it as: they are more effective at compartmentalizing things. In the sense that all kinds of artistic expression, all things, basically, are okay in their proper place. So then coworkers would go out drinking after work. You’d go out and drink with a new acquaintance, and the things you don’t talk about during the daytime are able to come out then. People learn how to trust each other and bare those feelings and the true thoughts that are so often glossed over with this highly polished surface during the day.
The stereotypical image would be the salaryman who now has not only taken his tie off but it’s tied around his head as he stumbles down the street, his true feeling about the day exposed.
Justin: That’s interesting, the idea of compartmentalizing.
James: At least that’s my outsider perspective on things: not that Japanese are no different from Americans, but it’s more that those parts we are so comfortable revealing right away are given different outlets there.
Justin: So is nominication what we were doing Tuesday nights at Wine Cafe after workshop?
James: So, it’s a little like that. Workshop necessarily is a pretty structured social situation with a purpose, and I suppose—although it can get off the rails in some cases—the better ones see people minding how they frame their feedback pretty carefully. Maybe nominication provides an important outlet for what can’t be expressed directly in a more buttoned-up environment. In most cases, I think what’s gained there deepened relationships among individuals and actually made the formal situations more comfortable going forward.
Justin: In Takeshi’s case, this process of what he calls “drinking to bare one’s heart” leads him to suspect something about his new work acquaintance, Ichimura, which eventually leads down a pretty dark path.
James: I think Takeshi is hoping their drinks will serve as the combination to the safeguarding whatever’s under Ichimura’s shiny surface. But he doesn’t quite get to the heart of it. Maybe Ichimura knows how to open up just enough without revealing his hand.
Justin: Yeah, that scans.
James: Did I mention that at the company I worked at in Japan most recently, almost all of the people working there were firm believers in aliens and UFOs and stuff? The person I worked with most closely disclosed (totally sober) that she believes not only that aliens have visited here but that they’re living among us now.
Justin: Wow. No, I don’t think you ever did mention that.
James: I have wondered at times if it was part of their hiring process.
Justin: You’ve published a lot of stories in a lot of journals over the years. Was this book a departure for you?
James: Good question. I think it’s a departure in a number of ways. The first and most obvious is that it’s a story that’s got one foot in the world of genre, one in the literary character-focused world. It’s also a departure in that I think a lot of my short fiction leans heavily into voice, and I tend to reflexively go for the first person or a heavily stylized third person, whereas this one–I mean, stylistic flourishes are present but take somewhat of a backseat to the character development, structure, and content concerns, if that makes sense.
Justin: It makes sense. What have you been reading lately?
James: The thing on my nightstand right now is Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. It has some themes in common with Harboring.
Mieko Kawakame, her novel Heaven, which was a finalist for the Booker International Prize last year. I like that one a lot. It’s anachronistic in that it’s really a philosophical novel. It’s quite brutal in its depiction of bullying. It’s a strange, unsettling, moving short little novel that I thought was really impressive.
Justin: Thanks for talking. This was good.
James: Cool, thanks so much, man.