I am delighted to welcome Katherine Brabon to Behind the Pen today, here to chat about her newly released novel, The Shut Ins.
How would you describe this novel if you could only use 5 words?
Loneliness and desire in Japan.
What prompted you to write The Shut Ins?
For me, a book or story often begins with a sort of tone or feeling, and then a character. Back in 2016 when I started the first rough draft, I knew the book had a quiet, lonely feeling about it. And I know this came from the character who was forming, Mai Takeda, who tells the first part of the story. Mai grew up in the city of Nagoya, and the novel is focused around her relationships: with her family, her husband, and an old high school friend Hikaru, who is a hikikomori, sometimes called a recluse or a ‘shut in’ and hasn’t left his house in three years. I had been reading a lot about hikikomori and watching documentaries and interviews, and was interested in exploring a range of different lives and relationships in Japan.
I initially thought I would write the whole novel from Mai’s perspective, but two years in I was really stuck. I had the characters of Hikaru, Sadako and Hiromi, but it wasn’t until one day, feeling a little lost with the book, that I tried to write from Hiromi’s perspective. This seemed right, and the novel is now written from all four perspectives. It’s funny how you think a novel will be a certain way, and then it surprises you.
Can you tell us about your own travels throughout Japan and how this contributed to your research and writing of The Shut Ins.
I first travelled to Japan in 2014. I was with my sister, and we went to visit my friend Nori, who I had met when we were students in England. It was January, the height of winter, and Nori’s family took us into Gifu Prefecture, in the mountains, to stay at an ryokan (an inn) in a town called Takayama. We also stayed in Nagoya, where Nori grew up. We went to the public baths, we enjoyed beautiful home cooked meals.
I was deep into the writing of my first novel (The Memory Artist, set in Russia) and so writing a novel about Japan didn’t occur to me at the time. But I love the way experiences big or small return to me, when the writing process starts. In 2016 I first started sketching out the idea of a character named Mai: she lived in Nagoya but was born in Gifu Prefecture. I now see how these places, and Japan’s seasons, crept into the novel.
I returned to Japan in 2017, in the summer. I was fortunate to get funding from the Australia Council and VicArts to help with the travel costs. Summer in Japan is incredibly humid, particularly down in Nagasaki. I took the bullet trains from Tokyo to Shizuoka (where I stayed with my friend Mio’s parents), then to Hiroshima, Saga (where I stayed in the temple in the photo here), and then to Nagasaki. Again, the seasons of this trip became infused into the novel: summer and winter are very prominent in the tone and mood of the book. I also wrote a journal while I was there, and many parts of that influenced the ‘notes’ sections in the book. These are told from the perspective of a narrator who is me but not quite me.
Are there any particular things you routinely do for yourself to maintain your own headspace and replenish your creativity well?
Reading and swimming. If I’m doing these a lot, I feel calm and focused. Lately I often struggle to find time to write, as I work in a few other jobs, so I think carving out time for creativity is important (and something I’m still learning to do).
What book is currently on your bedside table?
I should preface this by saying: I have a tiny bedside table. But I seem to get great comfort from having stacks of books on it! At the moment: No Document by Anwen Crawford, Drop Bear by Evelyn Araluen and Real Estate by Deborah Levy are in my just read or to be read pile.
The Shut Ins
Mai and Hikaru went to school together in the city of Nagoya, until Hikaru disappeared when they were eighteen.
It is not until ten years later, when Mai runs into Hikaru’s mother, Hiromi Sato, that she learns Hikaru has become a hikikomori, a recluse unable to leave his bedroom for years. In secret, Hiromi Sato hires Mai as a ‘rental sister’, to write letters to Hikaru and encourage him to leave his room.
Mai has recently married J, a devoted salaryman with conservative ideas about the kind of wife Mai will be. The renewed contact with her old school friend Hikaru stirs Mai’s feelings of invisibility within her marriage. She is frustrated with her life and knows she will never fulfill J’s obsession with the perfect wife and mother.
What else is there for Mai to do but to disappear herself?
Published by Allen & Unwin
Released July 2021