Haruki Murakami, boyish and energetic in jeans and a short-sleeved plaid shirt, is drinking coffee from a foam cup in a conference room overlooking Central Park. Here in the Random House headquarters in Manhattan, the room doubles as a shrine to John Grisham — we’re surrounded by bookcases loaded with multiple editions of The Racketeer and Sycamore Row, while Calico Joe-themed pennant flags line the walls. Grisham may be Random House’s prize moneymaker, but Murakami is its global literary superstar, the author whose rabidly passionate fans line up at midnight like Potterphiles to buy his books. His latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, sold an unheard-of one million copies in its first week in Japan. Americans may want to start queuing up now: The English translation hits shelves on Aug. 12.
While his masterpiece, 2011’s IQ84, was an epic dystopian fever dream that clocked in at 928 pages, Colorless Tsukuru is a brief, largely interior story that calls to mind Murakami’s career-defining 1987 novel, Norwegian Wood. The author says the idea for the book, about an architect trying to reconnect with old friends who cut him off suddenly and without explanation, struck him while he was riding on the train or running in the park — he can’t remember which. ”Story comes to me very automatically while I’m writing. I don’t know why,” he says with a laugh, his English heavily accented but impeccable. ”Maybe I have something special.” Murakami says a lot of things like that, things that could make other authors quake with jealous rage. Case in point: ”I have been writing for 35 years and I have never experienced writer’s block.”
The improvisational nature of his process shows in his work. Despite a rather everyday, relatable plot, Colorless Tsukuru takes on the mesmerizing, immersive, hallucinogenic feel of any Murakami novel: Characters come and go with no explanation; the line between logic and the absurd blurs; mysteries go unsolved. In the novel, a strange wanderer named Midorikawa carries a bag with him wherever he goes — for all the suspense built around it, you’d think the bag contained the meaning of life, but we never learn what’s in it. And don’t bother asking Murakami: He doesn’t know either. ”I just write down what I hear,” he says. He resists facile categorization of his work and instead jokingly puts his novels in the ”sushi noir” genre. ”People ask, ‘What is sushi noir?”’ he says. ”I say, ‘I don’t know what sushi noir is — it’s just sushi noir!”’
Like his characters, Murakami is prone to epiphanies. He often tells the now-famous story of the spontaneous birth of his writing career: In April 1978, at the age of 29, he was watching a baseball game at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium when an American player, Dave Hilton, hit a double. As his eyes traced Hilton rounding the bases, Murakami suddenly knew he would be a novelist. ”I was running a jazz club in Tokyo and I made sandwiches and cocktails for six or seven years,” he says. ”All of a sudden, I wanted to write something. I thought that maybe I didn’t have any talent or gift as a writer, but I didn’t care. I wrote something, and it was good. I was so happy.”
Since then, Murakami has kept a strict schedule, waking up before dawn every day and writing for four or five hours. And then he runs — a lot. In certain circles, Murakami is known for running as much as for writing. (His 2009 memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, has become a touchstone for literature-loving marathoners.) ”You have to be physically tough to follow the stories,” he says. ”You have to be tough to survive in your own world.” Today the 65-year-old laments that he’s getting slower and slower as a runner. ”When I was 41 or 42, my times were the best,” he says. ”Now I just want to run a race when I’m 80 years old.”
Beneath his disciplined exterior, Murakami cares deeply about the sensory experience of the audience. ”When I’m writing about beer, the readers should be thirsty,” he says. ”When I write about making love, the readers should want to make love.” He talks with pride about a letter from a fan who was so aroused after reading Norwegian Wood that she sneaked out of her dorm room, threw rocks at her boyfriend’s window, and climbed into his bed to have sex with him. ”That’s a great story!” he says. ”That’s a physical reaction.”
For all the fans who revere him, Murakami has plenty of critics. Fellow Japanese authors, including Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe, have criticized his pervasive references to American pop culture — he loves everything from Lost to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers — and the lack of politics in his work. ”All writers feel the atmosphere surrounding him,” says Murakami. ”Those kinds of stories soak into him. It doesn’t have to be direct.” Other critics have singled out his treatment of women. Though he has written a few dynamic female characters — most notably Aomame, IQ84‘s ass-kicking femme-fatale avenger — the women in his novels often drive the men to action and then fade away. ”I think that some kinds of women are just like a medium,” explains Murakami. ”They activate.”
When asked if he’d ever write a novel in which a woman was the hero, Murakami seems to experience a Murakamian epiphany, and it’s a fascinating thing to witness. ”Hmmm,” he says, taking an awkwardly long pause. ”That’s a good question.” He rolls his empty foam cup, which now has a hole in it, on the table from hand to hand. After a full 20 seconds of silence, he claps his hands together. ”That is fine,” he says, squeezing his eyes shut and pressing a fist against his forehead, as if trying to trap a thought in his brain. ”Yeah. Okay. I will write some novels in the future from a woman’s point of view. Okay. It’s a challenge.”