A talk with Arthur Golden
March 23, 1999
(CNN) -- Though he's been termed an "overnight success," Arthur Golden's first novel, "Memoirs of a Geisha," came after 15 years of hard work. "Memoirs" has been on the New York Times Bestseller List for more than a year, with more than 500,000 copies sold.
Golden recently spoke with CNN anchor Miles O'Brien on CNN's Sunday Morning.
MILES O'BRIEN: First of all, why a geisha, and why first person?
ARTHUR GOLDEN: Geisha because when I was living in Japan, I met a fellow whose mother was a geisha, and I thought that was kind of fascinating and ended up reading about the subject just about the same time I was getting interested in writing fiction. And that led me to write a novel about a geisha.
But I did it in third person twice, and really only went to first person when I realized that I wasn't going to get the book written that I really wanted to write, unless I made this kind of imaginative leap into the mind of the character.
O'BRIEN: You wrote a rather lengthy draft before you had an opportunity to meet the person who was the primary source for information?
O'BRIEN: You had to throw it away?
GOLDEN: I did. In fact, I threw two drafts away. But I wrote a draft based on a lot of book-learning. And I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the world of a geisha was like, and wrote a draft. Then a chance came along to meet a geisha, which, of course, I couldn't turn down. And she was so helpful to me that I realized I'd gotten everything wrong, and I ended up throwing out that entire first draft and doing the whole thing over again.
O'BRIEN: And describe that moment, when you had to throw that in the circular file. That must have been tough.
GOLDEN: You know, actually, that one was easy, because now I suddenly knew the world of geisha in a way I hadn't before, and I was exhilarated by that.
"I did it in third person twice, and really only went to first person when I realized that I wasn't going to get the book written that I really wanted to write, unless I made this kind of imaginative leap into the mind of the character."
But the tough part came three years later when I finished another draft of the novel. This time all the historical details and things were right. But I'd written it again in third person, and people found it dry. I decided to throw that one away. This is a very secretive world ... part of being a geisha is not to be talking about it, I guess. Was she very forthcoming with you?
GOLDEN: She was very forthcoming with me. And, truthfully, what geisha don't talk about and what they don't want people to know about is their customers. You know, the men go to tea houses with the expectation that they will have a nice quiet evening and not read about it the next morning in the newspaper.
So, in that sense, geisha don't talk. What I really wanted to know, though, was what it was like to be a geisha? Where do you sleep? What do you eat? How do you have your hair done? And she was quite willing, really, to talk about that. It was enormously helpful.
O'BRIEN: Help us understand, for those of us who have not read the book. A geisha is not necessarily a prostitute, right?
GOLDEN: It is confusing, because in this culture we really don't have anything that corresponds to geisha. But in Japan, men and women don't go out together the way they do here. When men go out, the women stay at home. And historically what has always happened is the Japanese men hire women to sit and kind of entertain them. That's really the role that geisha play. They're entertainers more than anything else.
And, of course, sex does enter into it. Maybe you could say sex enters into most things, but it enters into this in a kind of borderline prostitution-like way, in the sense that a geisha can be available as a long-term kept mistress to a wealthy man for a significant sum of money. That's really mostly where it comes in.
O'BRIEN: To what extent is this a thinly-veiled biography of the geisha ... who became your source?
GOLDEN: That's the question that I've had sort of the most fun with over the last year, because I was working very hard to make it look like I didn't really write this book, it was just dictated by a geisha and I wrote it down. And many people write me letters and say, "Where -- how can I get in touch with Sairi?" and those sorts of things. The truth is, she doesn't exist. This character's entirely invented, and the woman that I interviewed wouldn't recognize herself, or really anything about herself, in this book, which she hasn't read, because she doesn't read English.
O'BRIEN: So the authenticity that you feel in reading this is merely because of the background you got, not specific events necessarily?
GOLDEN: I think that's a fair thing to say, yes. What I had to do was keep the story within certain limits of what was, of course, plausible. And I did a lot of research to learn what sorts of things went on, and kept within that. But the specifics were all -- are all made up.
O'BRIEN: What's it like, sitting there at the computer keyboard, trying -- as a white male, trying to put yourself into that skin?
GOLDEN: You know, I think that it's pretty much like writing anything else in fiction, in the sense that even if you sit down and try to imagine a story about somebody who lives on a street you've never seen, you really can't escape the hard work of just bridging this divide between you and an imagined other. And the difference for me was that I had to do a lot of research to put myself in a position where I could begin to know enough about that imagined other to make that leap. But the leap, I think, is the same, really, whatever kind of fiction you're writing.
O'BRIEN: Quite a few divides, needless to say, there.
O'BRIEN: Tell us, can you give us a sense of what you're working on now?
GOLDEN: Well, I'm working on something that has absolutely nothing to do with Japan. I finally got the book written on Japan that I wanted to write. So I'm off to another subject that's set here in the U.S., actually.
O'BRIEN: All right. And are you reading anything good?
GOLDEN: I just finished a very good book, actually, called "The Houdini Girl," by Martyn Bedford, an English writer, that I was very impressed with.
Book review: 'Memoirs of a Geisha'
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