I’m always intrigued by those films that are “inspired by” or “based on” true events. As a writer who likes to use my own life as a jumping off point for my stories, I recognize that these re-workings of real life are not without their pitfalls and challenges. For one, viewers/readers may accept the fictionalized version as reality. (“Did you really do that?”). But if we wanted to tell what actually happened, we would create a documentary or write a memoir.
I would dare to say that most authors draw from their own lives when they write fiction—some novels are thinly-disguised autobiographies, with just the names and few other details changed. More often, authors pull from their experience rather than replicate it. Fictionalized accounts allow for much greater latitude. Actual events, while interesting, do not always follow a satisfying plot arc. We shift timelines and add scenes that contribute to context or suspense. Characters that are part of the real story may seem superfluous in a tighter narrative and may need to go or be combined with other characters. Protagonist’s personalities might require tweaking or even overhauls to add credible motivation for what is to follow. We add antagonists or make them more threatening.
My experiences as a bar hostess in Japan were a key inspiration for Gina in the Floating World. But while those few months were some of the most eye-opening and challenging ones in my life, by themselves they do not constitute a story worth telling beyond the dinner table. What I had was this kernal of a story inspired by my experiences—a compelling setting, some unique characters, a relationship, a few memorable incidents, and an emotional response, but I didn’t have a real plot.
To set the record straight, I will share a few examples of what I kept, discarded, or changed in the service of a coherent story that would entertain my readers.
First, I never conceived of my protagonist, Dorothy/Dee Dee (aka Gina) as me. Her background (I am neither Catholic nor from the Midwest) and motivations for going to Japan were always different from mine, even in earlier versions. She is younger and less worldly than I was when I undertook my Asian odyssey but seemingly more focused in her ambition for a business career. I was into not-for-profits. Giving her these characteristics—particularly her sheltered upbringing coupled with her ambition, made her story credible. It also gave me a distance from her that allowed me to make her do things I never would have done. But like me, she was a good student, tries to be organized, wants to please, loves the arts, and is curious, so there is a part of me in her.
In the numerous drafts of my novel, Dee Dee’s experiences continued to diverge from mine. I originally had her on a longer journey that more closely paralleled my own. Her first days in Japan were spent in Kyoto, where she relives my witnessing of violence against a young Australian bride, who had just married a man she barely knew from another country. Dee Dee, of course, dismisses the idea that this could ever happen to her and feels that the young woman was culturally naïve. Both the lack of awareness of one’s own vulnerability and the notion of cultural naiveté are strong themes that I did retain in the novel, but without this extraneous story line.
There are several characters in the novel whom I based on people I met. Two who are quite similar to their real-life counterparts are: Berta, the brassy and profane older hostess, who looks after Dee Dee at the Snack (the informal bar where she works) and her 15-year-old daughter, Penny, who has an affair with a married army officer, as she did in real life. I kept their essential personalities the same as well as their roles in relation to me. In the novel, Penny is an important character, with the confidence that Dee Dee/Gina lacks, while still making the unwise choices of an adolescent.
Dee Dee has a young Japanese boyfriend named Hiro, who is into martial arts. I, too, had a Japanese boyfriend there, and the novel is peppered with real incidents that reflected our time together, including trips to Kamakura and Nikko. Chief and Mamasan, who run the Snack, were also based on real people. I love these characters—they add humor and humanity to the story.
Many of the other major characters in the novel are more loosely inspired by my memories of people I met all those years ago. I spent time in Kyoto with a man like Gabe, a Jewish man from Brooklyn who taught English. There was clearly an attraction between us, but I never saw him again. In the novel, he helps to ground Dee Dee.
The character of Victoria evolved from the aforementioned, young Australian bride whose wedding I attended in Kyoto. Since Australians dominated the hostess scene at the time the novel is set, there had to be an Australian on her “walkabout.” Victoria provides Dee Dee with an introduction to the possibility of a world where the “rules don’t apply.”
Suki was based on the Japanese-American woman who supported her writing through her hostess work and who arranged for me to meet “Chief.” The events surrounding Dee Dee’s introduction to Chief and the bar are at least somewhat a reflection of real events. But my relationship with her was limited to that one evening. However, she intrigued me, and so, I gave her a story that folded in some of what I’d witnessed with the young Australian. Suki’s life takes on a kind of normality for Dee Dee and is part of what allows her to justify her own slide into prositution.
But one character who is completely made up is Mr. Tambuki, the older mysterious man who mentors Dee Dee and whose motives we never fully understand. But he is at the heart of her story and her tranformation, and without him, there was no real story.
The Snack in the suburbs was its own character in the novel, and I based it, both in appearance and feel, on my experiences as a hostess. “Lady Marmalade” was a popular song on the jukebox. The original bar from which Gina is transferred early on was also inspired by a real bar, disgusting kitchen and all. Like Dee Dee, I lived above it, and when “Chief” transferred me to the Snack, I had to commute quite a distance to get to my work. “Chief” would drive me home late at night.
The characters that came to the Snack were similar to many of my actual customers—usually young and often drunk and crude. On the other hand, some were lovely. “Baby Elvis” was one of my favorite customers. We indeed spoke French to each other, and I was somewhat attracted to him, but he never did Elvis impersonations. When I left the Snack, he gave me a French-Japanese dictionary as a gift.
In some cases, I took something that happened to me and represented it in a different way. Penny’s initial mistreatment at a hospital paralleled mine when, following the scary bursting of an abdominal abscess that had been painfully brewing for some days, I took a taxi to the hospital at 1 a.m. At first, I was told to come back in the morning. Perhaps my skimpy dress and my gaijin status made me suspect. After being very insistent and emotional, I got a doctor to see me and prescribe antibiotics. I remember we communicated in French.
Yet, through all these many changes, my goal was to maintain some emotional truth, the spur for my original desire to write my novel. I wanted to tell a story about a young woman who gains self-knowledge through her exposure to and need to deal with this very different culture she encounters, particularly the sub-culture of the bar.
There is much I have forgotten about the details of my life as a bar hostess, and no doubt my fictional world surrounding the Snack may, as I age, become my source of memories. Perhaps one day I will believe that I was a whore in Tokyo and that an older Japanese man “mentored” me. No one I know can confirm or deny it. And it’s certainly the more compelling story.