I was in Tokyo and feeling lonely. I had a lot to say and no one to talk to. So I wrote a story, a very small story, to send to friends and family. It started like this:
Postcard from TOKYO
From my hotel window on Tokyo Bay I watch a lighted Ferris wheel spin slowly in the dark. I wish its little buckets could raise the dead souls of Edo buried under the rubble of World War II, the ash of earthquakes, fires, the garbage of eras. But they can't.
Strange mission, looking for a woman painter whose name meant "Hey, you!", who almost never signed her work, was briefly famous, and then disappeared - one hundred and fifty years ago. Another country, another language, another century. Am I mad?
Do I think I will see her, walking on the street? In her indigo-striped cotton kimono with the red trim wearing her wooden clogs, her head cocked at that extreme angle that said, "You may think I'm nobody, but don't be so sure"?
Who was she? Flourishing woman, she wrote. Or drunken woman; the characters could mean either. It depends how you read them.
But how funny. On my Japan Rail pass, embossed and in foil, is the Great Wave. Her father's image: straight out of old Japan. And she was there, under the snarling lip of it…
Writing a novel is long and lonely. This one was especially, because it's set in 19th century Edo. I've been either off somewhere doing research or at home peering into art gallery catalogues for five years. So I fell out of touch with many people. If I saw anyone they'd ask what was going on with the novel. A hard question to answer, that.
I'm a pretty immediate person. I like to write what's on my mind, today. What I was discovering felt like big news. I needed an outlet and I needed cheering on. The postcards became a release. I wrote one every few months. I looked forward to it; 500 words is way more manageable than 150,000! My list of friends extended to friends of friends, book club members, fellow writers, tai chi practitioners, pals in the off-leash dog park, people who signed up through my website, and random others, like the landscaping contractor in Canmore who turns out to be a reader.
Each had a dateline - London or Toronto or Koyasan, Japan or Paris - and was a progress report. A couple were funny (I hope); others were about the thrill of the chase. The list kept growing. I got a mailing program and a helper to keep track of addresses. We started new members in waves, so some readers were on Postcard #2 (from Washington) while others were on Postcard #6 (from London). This led to confusion about where I actually was. My lawyer never finished making my will because she thought, for months, that I was in Japan, when I was just around the corner. Or the opposite: I'm in London.
"Great update! Since you're around do you want to play tennis on Sunday?"
Not wanting to irritate people, I put an Unsubscribe message on the bottom. Only two people did, and - could this be a coincidence? - it was after they got the postcard from Toronto containing the word "vulva".
Six hundred words is a fun length. There's no room for fat, but definitely scope for a story. I drafted with care and polished like an industrious shoe-shine boy. My novel paled in comparison: it wasn't nearly as bright and shiny as these little ditties were. I had a lot of fun. But the best part was the letters I got back. I've got a whole file of them.
"Thanks for the intriguing missive…"
"You may not get this until you return, but I wanted to let you know how much I love your description of holding a 'real' book."
"The world of book publishing sounds tricky."
New vocabulary was a bonus. From a friend living in Japan: "It's great to hear about your progress, even if it's a kolekutibu iimeeru." (collective e-mail)
Some people retaliated with their own updates. From Kate Brown the artist: "From Katherine's progress[ion]to Kate's regression," she wrote, and sent a picture of herself sitting on Santa's knee. Some recipients wrote to say they were grateful: What a treat it was to take time out to read something literary in the daily e-mail barrage. But I am grateful to them. One woman prints the postcards and reads them to her blind aunt aged 90. I got offers to publish and many, many admonitions to hurry, finish the book.
God, it's been great.
Speaking of finishing, a few months ago I got a letter from postcard reader Craig Smith, who by his e-mail address appears to be in the Health and Safety business in BC. I had been wondering about how to end the book.
"I got very excited when I read your last update from London. Of course it opens up a whole new line of research - maybe the political heat is too much in Edo and [O-Ei]escapes in the nick of time or perhaps she gets exiled like Augustus did to Ovid and instead of heading off so some forsaken shore of Okinawa she hops a schooner and emigrates to Canada, to the Japanese fishing community in Steveston maybe, where she lives out the rest of her life..."
Thanks Craig, it's a pretty good idea. I'm not telling how close you got to my own solution. The novel is in the bookstores now. I've sent one last postcard. Now I'm going to need some ideas about what to do with myself.
Katherine Govier's new novel, The Ghost Brush, is based on the life of O-Ei, the daughter of the great Japanese printmaker Hokusai.