For those of you who missed my book launch at Porter Square Books on October 2, 2018, I present below the text of my presentation. In general, I am not a good ad-libber, so what you have here is close to what my audience heard.
"Gina in the Floating World" is about one young woman’s journey and evolving self. Tonight, I’m going to take you on a trip back in time—back through my various careers and tell you a little about my novel’s journey and evolution.
Set in the booming economy of Japan of 1981, "Gina in the Floating World" the story of 23-year-old Midwesterner Dorothy Falwell, who is pursuing an unpaid banking internship in Tokyo so she can get into a prestigious international MBA program. To earn money, she moonlights as a hostess named Gina in a ramshackle bar in the suburbs. Then, her internship crumbles and one of her customers, the very sophisticated, wealthy, but mysterious Mr. Tambuki takes her under his wing. Gradually immersed into his world of high art, unorthodox Zen instruction, and exotic physical pleasures, she makes some questionable choices until she finds herself in over her head.
INSPIRATION. So, people always ask me how I came to write Gina in the Floating World? Before I knew all but a few of you, when I was in my 20s, I made a circuit of the globe, over about a year-long period, spending seven of those months in Asia. I’d just left my first career, an ill-suited three-year stint as an elementary school teacher. I was already an inveterate traveler by then, but this trip went beyond anything I’d done before. I was alone a lot of the time. I got stomach bugs, two cases of the flu, developed strange and creeping rashes, had a motorcycle accident, and sprained my ankle. Plus. I’d endured several scary encounters with men. It wasn’t always fun, but it was always interesting.
My original intention had been to work in Australia, but when a typhoon blew out the airport in Darwin, my first port of call, I cashed in my ticket, decided to take advantage of a travel deal I’d found for people aged 26 and under, and went north instead. After a couple of months, I ended up in Japan, pretty much out of money. And if it hadn’t rained one fateful day, I might never have written this book. Because instead of going to the festival I’d hope to attend, I contacted a woman whose name I’d been given in Indonesia. For my career counselor friends --that was my career after this trip—note the power of networking!
Before I knew it, I was interviewing for a job as bar hostess in a little suburb of Tokyo. Now, this wasn’t my first hostessing gig. No, I had failed spectacularly at a similar job in Kyoto a couple of weeks before and was fired after one night, so I didn’t hold my breath on this one.
(In the first passage I’m going to read (pp, Dorothy, the young American, who has reclaimed her childhood name of DeeDee, has arrived at a restaurant for an interview with the owner of the bar, as set up by her networking contact, Suki, a Japanese-American woman living in Tokyo. My own experience getting my bar hostess job went something like this as well. The full story is on the first two entries of my blog on my website. Read from pp 20-22)
MY job as a bar hostess worked out, and I stayed just over two months before my visa was due to expire. It was one of the most challenging and eye-opening things I’ve ever done, an inside glimpse at a piece of the Japanese culture most tourists don’t see, especially female tourists and an ironic choice for my feminist self. Like a bartender, a hostess serves drinks to customers, almost all of whom are male, who come there after work. BUT her job is also to make conversation with them, maybe flirt a little, dance, puts up with crude remarks and innuendo, but with no expectation on the men’s part that any of this will go anywhere. It’s basically a fantasy world.
And it was begging to be written about.
But this happened to me in the 1970s, so why, you might be thinking, did it take so long? Other than the journals I kept during my travels, I didn’t write during my 20s. In my 30s, I toyed with the idea of doing some travel writing, but never got too far with that. It wasn’t until my 40s, when I was working on my dissertation and had just left my second career, the one as a career counselor-- that I got a serious urge to write fiction, maybe as an antidote to all that academic writing. A true late bloomer, right?
But Gina wasn’t my first fiction-writing project. I’d been dabbling in screenwriting with a friend, and in 2002 I took a course on the character-centered screenplay at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education—(where for those of you who don’t know was where I met my husband, John, almost 40 years ago, just a few years after my big trip, in a photography course he taught about darkroom techniques.) In this screenwriting course, I decided to resurrect my long-buried experiences in Japan as a bar hostess for my writing project, and I got really into it, so much so, that after I finished the screenplay, I decided to turn it into a novel. By now, I’m over 50, and I’m on my third career with my own business as an evaluator of educational programs.
I enjoyed the diversion of spending my evenings and weekends in this alternative world I’d recreated from my young adult years, and some of my favorite characters in the novel were closely inspired by people I met. But I should say that I deliberately made my protagonist—Dorthy-DeeDee-Gina---quite different from me in her background and aspirations. That allowed me to let my imagination run wild, which those of you who’ve have had a chance to read the book, know that I do.
(In this next passage, which occurs right after the one I first read, DeeDee, as Gina, which by the way was the name I was given by my boss at the bar, meets one of the other hostesses, an American ex-Pat named Berta, whom I based on one of the hostesses I worked with. Read from pp. 22-24)
EVOLUTION: In 2006, I took my now completed first draft out of a drawer and went to a four-day workshop in Tuscon on writing the marketable novel. When I pitched my already developed idea, the workshop leader went, “Kaching!” which sent my heart racing, of course. But he wanted me to ramp it up from its more innocuous incarnation—and add a lot more drama and a lot more sex.
With that kind of encouragement, that’s what I did. As I reveal in the first line of the book, my protagonist eventually slides into prostitution and finds herself enmeshed in a more peculiar, if not nefarious, side of the culture. That challenge took me into another realm of writing. No longer able to stick to what I knew, I had to call on my love of research.
I read anthropological treatises on the work of bar hostesses in Japan and other aspects of the rather unusual nightlife. I read other novels about Japan, especially with young foreign women as the protagonists. I read about Zen, about the yakuza--the equivalent of the Japanese mafia--and the kinds of tattoos they sported, about Japanese customs, culture, and rules. I went to the MFA and studied Japanese woodblock prints and other art, featured throughout the novel. I looked at maps of Tokyo. I went on the internet to be sure that some shopping mall I’d mentioned existed in 1981, the year I decided to set the novel. I wanted to get the details right. And yes, I read erotica.
During the same period, I became a serious student of writing, taking a lot of classes and workshops, mostly at Grub Street, going to writers’ conferences, being in a writers’ group.
But the biggest game changer for me was my year in Grub Street’s intensive Novel Incubator program. There, I worked on a different novel. A couple of years later, when I went back to Gina. which prior to the program I’d thought was in pretty good shape, I realized it needed a chunk of work. So. I applied everything I learned there. I was finally beginning to think of myself as a writer. My fourth career perhaps?
But, as many of you know, I also began making art seriously, and I’ve been working on a series of collages inspired by scenes in my novel. Although I didn’t design my book cover, the cover artist used a collage I’d made as an inspiration, using the iconic wave from the Japanese artist, Hokusai.
We’re getting near the end of my presentation, and I’m guessing that by now some of you might like me to read one of the juicier scenes, but given that we are in a public space, next to the children’s section and there are young people present, I have to keep it clean. If you’re curious, you’re going to need to read the book. And if you want to organize a private event or have me speak at your book club, we can talk about those other parts I’m not sharing tonight.
(But I did want to read one last passage that features Mr. Tambuki, Dorothy/Gina’s wealthy mentor, who is paying her to spend time with him. In return, he is teaching her about his culture so that she can show some evidence of having acquired what Wharton, the business school she is applying to, calls “cultural adaptability.” He is also slowly seducing her. In this piece of a scene, he has taken her to Nikko, a very religious site. Read from pp. 144-145)
I’m not going to read more of this scene because it has a spoiler in it, but you get the gist.
Interestingly, the issue of women and consent around sexual matters hinted at in this last passage was always there for me in this story. In fact, at one point I called the screenplay “Informed Consent,” but it sounded too much like a crime story. I explored the topic more deeply with subsequent revisions, and of course, in the last year the “Me, too” movement exploded and put this issue squarely in the zeitgeist. One interviewer asked me whether I saw my novel as a cautionary tale, I think referring to the situation Dorothy finds herself in, partially of her own choice. I’d rather see it as a conversation starter.
IN THE END, the novel that evolved was both the same as and different from the one I began so many years ago. For one thing, around draft three, I realized that the story that was taking shape had a kind of Wizard of Oz thing going on-- the journey to an unfamiliar place with lots of challenges, a twisty road, and characters with common characteristics to the ones the original Dorothy meets in Oz. So, then I changed my protagonist’s name to Dorothy to reflect that parallel. And I gave her some very powerful silver shoes.
We all read for different reasons—to escape, to learn, to think, to feel emotions of all kinds, to be kept on the edge of our seats, to laugh, to be titillated, to be engaged in a world that mirrors or own or differs vastly from it. Or maybe you were curious about what kind of book your friend, Belle Brett, wrote. I hope there will be surprises even for those of you who know me well.
As a first-time author, my main hope is that you will enjoy "Gina in the Floating World" in any or all of those ways I’ve mentioned. If nothing else, maybe it will inspire you to have your own adventures, to travel, or to do something new, no matter what stage of life you’re at. Thank you!