Before Haruki Murakami became a novelist, the author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore ran a jazz club. That might sound like a transition from a potentially unhealthy lifestyle to a healthy one. But in fact, as the fanciful and philosophical Japanese writer explains in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running—which he describes as “a kind of memoir centered on the act of running”—the opposite was the case.
The idea to become a novelist first occurred to him while watching a baseball game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp in Tokyo in 1978. “You know what? I could write a novel.” he thought to himself out of the clear blue sky.
While he was still operating his club, he wrote two, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball in 1973, before deciding to dedicate himself to fiction full-time. “I had to give it everything I had,” he writes. “I knew that if I did things half-heartedly and they didn’t work out, I’d have regrets.” But an unexpected problem arose.
Without the physical exertion required to keep a business running, he got fat, despite smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. So in 1982, he started to run, and hasn’t stopped. He has completed more than two dozen marathons, several triathlons, and one 62.1-mile ultra-marathon.
The races, coupled with a training schedule that runs to as much as 186 miles a month, have given Murakami plenty of time to think about running, and writing, and how they intertwine.
In both endeavors, he considers himself “more a workhorse than a race horse.” Each is noncompetitive, except with the only person who counts. “What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you set for yourself. ... In this sense writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.”
For Murakami, “running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. ... In long distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”
As he aged, that gospel of self-improvement ran into difficulties for the 59-year-old Murakami, who titled this book after Raymond Carver’s influential 1981 short-story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Murakami, who calls Carver “a writer beloved to me,” translated the collection into Japanese.
After his late 40s, Murakami’s marathon times began to get worse. He hopes that that won’t be the case with his novels, and that the discipline and endurance required in long-distance running will aid him in sustaining a level of artistic excellence attained by his heroes, such as Dostoyevsky, who knocked out The Brothers Karamozov just before his death at 60, and Domenico Scarlatti, who wrote most of his 555 piano sonatas between the ages of 57 and 62.
The clean, easily accessible style with inclinations toward profundity that marks Murakami’s novels is evident here—as is the interest in American pop culture that has earned him a devoted audience of Western readers and a teaching job at Harvard, conveniently located near the banks of the runner-friendly Charles River and the 26.2-mile course of the Boston Marathon.
While running, he listens to 1960s pop by the Lovin’ Spoonful, Carla Thomas and Otis Redding. He competes in a Japanese triathlon with the title of Bryan Adams’ song “18 Till I Die” scrawled on his bike. “It’s a joke, of course,” he writes. “Being eighteen till you die means you die when you’re eighteen.”
Readers of Murakami novels such as Norwegian Wood (2000) and After Dark (2007) will find his mind working in similar ways. Just as pretty young girls in his fiction befriend lonely male protagonists in late-night cafes or on long bus rides, they catch the eye of the famous novelist as he goes about putting one foot in front of the other on the paths and tracks of Tokyo, Boston and Hawaii.
And just as Col. Sanders shows up as a quasi-deity from the spirit world in Kafka, a visit to Manhattan for the New York Marathon in November 2005 sets Murakami daydreaming on “the kind of wonderful day when you expect to see Mel Torme appear out of nowhere, leaning against a grand piano as he croons out a verse from ‘Autumn in New York.’”
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is by no means the equal of daringly ambitious novels like Kafka and Wind-Up Bird. What sets Murakami apart is his unfettered imagination, and this is a short, introspective work of nonfiction that can be read in less time than it takes to run from Marathon to Athens. (A course Murakami ran in 1983, sucking exhaust fumes in oppressive heat at rush hour.)
It’s no juicy tell-all memoir, but something much more intriguing: a tightly focused window into a defining avocation of one of the world’s great novelists. It goes a long way toward explaining what makes him tick, and keeps him running.