Stephen King vs. Haruki Murakami: The Paris Review Interview

Travis Burnham

The Paris Review is chockablock with interviews. What would happen if you pitted two interviews against each other—iron cage match style?  Take Stephen King vs. Haruki Murakami as an example.

King’s and Murakami’s interviews are reflective of their personality. Murakami tends to write about lonely, alienated men on the outskirts of society, whereas King usually writes about the everyman and everyday existence that is disrupted by supernatural events. King himself seemed to be more of an everyman, and I got the feeling that I’d like to hoist a drink with him—though not a beer, he’s a recovering alcoholic. Murakami comes across as more aloof in his interview. He states: “I’m not intelligent. I’m not arrogant. I’m just like the people who read my books.”  My feeling is that if you’re just like everybody else and you aren’t arrogant, you don’t have to go out of your way to say it. He also said: “I could have been a cult writer if I’d kept writing surrealistic novels. But I wanted to break into the mainstream, so I had to prove that I could write a realistic book. That’s why I wrote that book. It was a best-seller in Japan and I expected that result.” This statement smacks of arrogance. The interviewer does preface the interview by saying that Murakami readily laughed throughout the interview, so it really may be the language barrier.

Murakami seems to reject his culture, whereas King embraces it. Murakami stated: “I didn’t read many Japanese writers when I was a child or even in my teens. I wanted to escape from this culture; I felt it was boring. Too sticky.”  There are many aspects of Japanese culture that are stifling, and challenging, such as long work hours and stratified social roles, whereas King, when asked about his use of brand names (the distillation of a culture) in his writing, said: “…nobody was ever going to convince me that I was wrong to do it. Because every time I did it, what I felt inside was this little bang! like I nailed it dead square—like Michael Jordan on a fade-away jump shot. Sometimes the brand name is the perfect word…”

Though King received some recognition when the National Book Foundation awarded him a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, I still feel he’s considered more of a populist, whereas Murakami was nominated for the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature.

If you read these two interviews back-to-back, it brings to mind the nature of literature. It often seems there’s a division between the high ideal of “LITERATURE” ‘pon its lofty pedestal, the canonical works; and then there’s the bourgeoisie writers toiling in the trenches and shoveling junk food to the masses. It’s very polarizing. Matt Haig, in his blog post, “30 Things to Tell a Book Snob,” summarized at least a portion of my thoughts very well: “There is something innately snobby about the world of books. There is the snobbery of literary over genre, of adult books over children’s, of seriousness over comedy, of reality over fantasy, of Martin Amis over Stephen King. And it is unhealthy. If books ever die, snobbery would be standing over the corpse.”

We’re living in a media drenched time where competition with books is ever increasing. There will always be room for storytellers, but why provide fuel for the book competitors by means of division? I’m not arguing for bad writing, I’m arguing that all good writing is good writing, whether it’s for escapism or loftier ideals or deeper meanings. Even John Gardner, in his On Being a Writer,agrees: “Just as it is easy for the student of literature to believe he, his teacher, and his classmates are better people than those unfamiliar with Ezra Pound, it is easy for him to be persuaded by his coursework that “entertainment” is a low if not despicable value in literature.” I feel that there’s room at the table for both literature and genre, so why be judgmental?

With regards to John Gardner’s fictive dream, King was, at a very young age, already thinking about it on a gut level. When he went through a phase of reading Thomas Hardy, it ended when he read Jude the Obscure: “…so I read a whole bunch of Hardy. But when I read Jude the Obscure, that was the end of my Hardy phase. I thought, This is fucking ridiculous. Nobody’s life is this bad. Give me a break, you know?” Hardy, in the case of this one reader, didn’t maintain a believable world—was so cruel to his characters that King couldn’t suspend disbelief. Murakami, who is much more surrealistic in his writing, addresses this differently in that the characters are often pointing out how weird the things are that are happening around them. Something of the opposite of how surrealistic writing deals with this issue. In The Metamorphosis for example, Gregor Samsa never questions the veracity of the things happening to him; they simply are.

Both of these interviews were great, though I probably enjoyed King’s interview more because of King’s easy going manner and humor, but this isn’t 100% fair, as both interviews were conducted in English, and Murakami had to grapple with a second language. Read the interviews and see if they spark an internal debate for you.


Me-&-My-MonkeyAs with most writers, Travis Burnham has had heaps of jobs, such as: nuclear power plant custodian, project manager, laborer, dishwasher, carpenter, painter, convenience store cashier, office rat, photocopy jockey, etc. He has a BS in Biology from the University of Maine, Orono, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College in SpartanburgSC. He likes to travel, and has lived in JapanColombia and the CNMI, and traveled to many other countries. He lives and teaches in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife, Chika.