Dancing Over Kyoto, one man’s tale of living and traveling in Japan, India and China, lets the reader into Richard Russell’s mind and memories. Set over 30 years, the tone of the book has been described as “a casual conversation with the reader.” Weld sits down for a casual conversation of our own.
Weld: Tell us about the book.
Richard Russell: It is ostensibly a memoir. But it has a novelistic arc to it. It’s a memoir and a travelogue, one Amazon review calls it, but it has a lot more. It’s an intensely personal piece, but it also discusses things that aren’t personal: for instance, where to get great sushi in Kyoto. And how to be very careful about pronouncing a word in another language, how if you don’t do it just right you can get yourself into all manner of embarrassment. And in that sense, it’s not about Japan. That could be about any language, any culture.
Weld: What is it that makes it personal?
RR: Relationships. Both romantic ones and interpersonal ones that aren’t romantic. Intensely personal that way.
Weld: Which relationship specifically?
RR: Well there are four romantic relationships that are discussed. That’s the arc. When somebody reads about a personal relationship, I want them to think, “Ah and here comes the romantic part.” And then when what happens happens with that, you’re like, “Geez, [I wasn’t expecting that.]” Then you get to the next part of the book.
The book is separated into five parts: student, teacher, spouse, businessperson and sojourner.
Weld: How did you decide on the structure of the memoir?
RR: Through a lot of trial and error. Because I did not outline and say, “It’s going to be like this.” It was an organic process in that at the end of the day, it fit like this. And it is chronological, though there are some flashbacky things — it’s novelistic — but it is chronological. It’s a 30-year arc, almost 50.
Weld: You just turned 50?
RR: It’s very liberating actually, amazingly liberating. Because when you’re in your 40s it’s like, “Oh my gosh, I’m gonna turn 50.” And finally you do. I ran a 5k the same week I turned 50 and was in the top third.
Weld: The book is set in China, India and Japan?
RR: It’s mostly set in Japan from ages 21, when I got off the plane as a student in Osaka, to late 40s. It takes the reader to India and China too.
I’ve been four times to China, four times to India. The countries are so incredibly different. And saying that doesn’t do justice to the gulf of cultural, ethnic, historical, political differences between the countries. That’s what dissertations and rooms full of books are for.
Weld: What was it like to live in Japan?
RR (after first explaining that it’s impossible to answer): To answer your question, it’s beautiful, it’s wonderful, it’s frustrating. It’s amazingly interesting, sometimes it’s mundane. It’s like at the beginning of Pulp Fiction, where John Travolta is saying, “It’s the little differences.” Now in Japan it’s big differences too, but also little differences, like going to a McDonald’s and seeing everything in Japanese. Everything’s the same and yet it’s like this whole different thing.
And here’s something that’s not in the book to tell you about little differences. By the way, I have a Facebook page I started posting on three weeks ago, Dancing Over Kyoto. That Facebook page does what I’m about to do, which is supplement the book. I might even write a second edition, taken from that [Facebook page]. Because I take anecdotes and scenes, and I expand them. From a book standpoint, it’s a gift to the reader to be economical in your prose. Get to the point, let it flow. As much as possible, entertain. Keep the reader engaged. Okay, that’s the book.
The Facebook page, on the other hand, that allows me to go off on tangents with posts and photos so that readers, if they liked it, can have more information. If somebody hasn’t read it, they’ll think the page is kind of a teaser.
So little differences: Japan is very modest. The way people behave in public. For example, women in long sleeves, sweaters. Very modest, very Japanese. Not a lot of sleeveless things. However, late at night on regular broadcast TV — not cable, regular broadcast TV — there’s nudity. To which the North American goes, “This society is full of contradictions. They’re all very modest, men and women. And yet on broadcast TV there’s nudity?!” To which the Japanese would say, “The United States, a contradictory country. Very immodest clothes and yet they don’t even have nudity on late night TV.”
Two more things: I was over there in 2009, met up with a fellow, an American from Colorado. He had lived there for 30 years at the time. His wife is Japanese, his children are Japanese-American. He owns his house. That’s his home. We were chatting, getting to know each other over a cup of coffee at his house, and I said, “John, I gotta ask you something. Now you’ve lived here 25 plus years.” (He came as a student like I had, but I left and came back, left and came back; he just stayed.) Before I could articulate the question, he interrupted and said, “There’s a surprise every day.”
Something else, and it backs up what John said. I’ve enjoyed Facebook the past three years or so, especially seeing the posts of people who live [in Japan], my friends there or friends of friends. They’re expats — for a year, five years, 10 years — Americans, Canadians, Aussies. They’re posting things on Facebook like, “Wow, I went to Kiyomizu[-dera] Temple today” — which is a very famous temple in Kyoto — and they’re just gushing over it.
Or, “It is so cool riding the Shinkansen,” the bullet train.
And I’m like, “That’s kind of what newbs say.” I’ve been on the bullet train more times than I can count and I’ve been to Kiyomizu more times than I can count. Now, I’m not saying that in a jaded way. It’s still cool and fun. I thought it was just me [who got so excited all the time]. I actually am on a bullet train. Or, here I am in Kiyomizu Temple again. It’s so freaking cool. And so seeing people, who’ve lived there for so long still acting like kids about it — that’s so cool.
Weld: Do you think it’s possible, no matter where you live, to be surprised every day?
RR: That’s helped me be more wide-eyed and loving of where I live right here, right now. It’s helped being here in the moment because where we are sitting right now, to 99.99 percent of the world, is an exotic place. And I had that epiphany down in South Alabama in a little town my family moved to when I was a teenager. I was sitting at a gas station with this beautiful view of the gas pumps on Route 52 near Dothan. It’s one of those gas stations that has that hot plate on the counter, and I was eating chicken with Louisiana Hot Sauce and a Coke-Cola — and a tater log! — and it’s like the best fricking thing in the world. And it hit me: this is exotic food.
It didn’t make it taste any better, but it made the moment richer. I guess I’m a little ashamed to say that had it not been for the living overseas experience, I wouldn’t feel that in my bones like I do over here to the extent that I do. So that’s a fringe benefit of having lived and traveled overseas: being able to more deeply savor here.
Weld: Have you always been a writer?
RR: Yes. When I was in high school I won first place in the Lurleen B. Wallace Short Story Competition. I got a big trophy.
Weld: What kept you from becoming a permanent expat?
RR: The inertia of where I’m at now. If I live in Japan again, which I’m seriously contemplating, I won’t practice law, I won’t teach youngsters. If I go to Japan, I don’t want to practice law. I want a different life. I have to find a niche whereby I could pay the rent.
Weld: How long were your stays in Japan?
RR: First time, in ’84, about a half year. The second time, ’90-’91, a year. From 1999 to two years ago, I’ve been back and forth from 10 days to three weeks. I count it as three separate times: Half a year as a student, one year as a teacher, then 10 or 12 years back and forth.
Weld: What was it about your childhood that made you want to travel?
RR: The prologue covers that. I’ll give you more than it. What’s in the prologue is a discussion of an uncle of mine who recently passed away, who’s from, like my dad, a rural South Alabama farm community and who wound up living in Japan in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. When I was a wee little kid I remember my uncle talking about adventures in Japan — some of my very first memories, in fact. Which at the time, didn’t make me say, “I want to go to Japan.” But I can’t help but think that when I started taking Japanese as a freshman at the University of Alabama, that was part of my interior makeup, which said, “Oh, that’s cool.”
This is not in the prologue. My dad, who’s from the same small town — he passed away five years ago — he was in the Merchant Marines during World War II, and he told me, sadly, not nearly as many adventures as I wish he had before he died. But my dad, at age 20 and 21, was on a liberty ship doing convoys back and forth between New York and the United Kingdom, dodging Hitler’s wolf packs, submarines. And flying in planes across the Mediterranean hoping the messerschmitt didn’t shoot him down. And one time I was down home, in the 2000s, and we were watching the news, and there was something on Iraq — Basra, which is the port city — and my father said, “Yeah, I remember being there.” And I was telling him about Mumbai, and he was like, “Yeah, I remember Mumbai.” A lot of these things I didn’t know when I decided to go overseas.
My mom, also. She was from a coal mining town in West Virginia and during the war she left — had never been out of her town — to go to Washington D.C. to join the FBI’s typing pool.
So my parents, my family.
Weld: In what niches do you see yourself in Japan? If you could have any life in Japan…?
RR: I’d live either in or on the outskirts of Kyoto. There’s a town nearby called Kurama, and I’d live there or in Kyoto, and I’d advise Japanese entrepreneurs and small businesses on working with Westerners, North Americans. It’s a niche to be done. It’s a need. And actually larger companies could use it too, but they don’t want to take advice.
Weld: Tell us about one of your funny episodes in Japan.
RR: There’s tons in the book. Let me give you a teaser thing. I won’t tell you the punchline.
There was a time where I went to get a haircut, my first haircut, when I was living there as a teacher in a small rural town, and I was the only Westerner there. And again, the little differences: sure it’s a barber with scissors, cutting my hair. Just like here. And yet, moment to moment to moment, all these little things kept happening that made me go, “I’m not in the United States anymore.”
Weld: What did you find odd?
RR: That’s what I mean by the little differences. It’s like what my friend John said, “There’s a surprise every day.” And that’s what makes it so fun.
Another time, this was when I was living there as a teacher, I learned this kotowaza, which is an old saying, a proverb, and there’s just hundreds of them. This kotowaza in English translates to, “Even monkeys fall from trees.” It’s basically, no matter how special you think you are, or no matter how much you think that which you defecate does not smell, you’ll get your comeuppance. Even monkeys fall from trees. So don’t get the big head.
I learned about somebody broadcasting on national radio, could have been regional, an American guy. I didn’t like him at first because I thought he was cocky owing to his fluent Japanese that I did not have. I’m conversant. But the word fluency — Oh no. But then I learned at the end of the day, even monkeys fall from trees: This guy wholly humiliated himself on regional or national radio. So my perspective changed on a dime from resenting this guy to being jealous of him to feeling sorry for him. But I still laughed.
Weld: Since the invention of the internet, travel writing has dramatically been affected because people have more information about places, more photos, and they have it instantaneously. How has that intersected with your writing?
RR: On the blog I’ve done since 2008 or 2009 I test drove several of the chapters that are in the book. Anybody who read any of the chapters or early, early drafts of the chapters on the blog wouldn’t recognize them now. And that’s only maybe half a dozen of the chapters. But being able to use the internet with the blog and test drive them there, I can get feedback.
With Facebook, post-book, that allows me to again supplement the book. And not wait until another year or so to decide to put out a second expanded edition. I’ve got the muse, which keeps kicking me to tell more, tell more.
Weld: Why did you write the book?
RR: I had the feeling just like you have, where you’ve been somewhere, doing something in some circumstance, and gone, “Oh good God. Nobody would believe this.” And you don’t have to have traveled overseas. I had enough of those situations overseas that I felt compelled to put it down on paper and share them. I want to be the eyes for the reader, saying, “Get a load of this.”
Weld: How has self-publishing been?
RR: Since I haven’t gone through an agent or publisher, I don’t have anything to compare it with. About a year ago, as I was getting into the last third of the book, I was having a cup of coffee with a friend who has been published several times, and I was talking about my dread of slogging through trying to find an agent. He said, “Publish it through Amazon.” I started hearing more and more about very prominent authors who have said to hell with publishing houses. It hasn’t been about making money off of it, it was about getting it out there.
Weld: What does this book have for Alabamians in particular?
RR: Native Birminghamians and Tuscaloids will find this book interesting. I’m a native Virginian, Alabama transplant. This book bounces back and forth between Alabama and Japan, China and India. There’s a lot in there about Alabama. There’s a lot of Southern Gothic. The Southerner who likes Flannery O’Connor — not that I’m on her level — but if you like that, you’ll like my book.
Weld: Who would you have turned out to be without traveling?
RR: Less aware of what’s around me. Less appreciative of the here and now. Less open to going with the flow. I’d be the person that anybody would be, who has never not only had the experience of going and having to work through the experience of being in another culture but also having enjoyed coming home.
When I was a little kid, like 11, I’d steal through my sister’s room sometimes and go through her books because she was six years older than me. And one little book she had was this Hallmark, cute little stocking stuffer book called Cancer the Crab, which both Ellen and I are. Cancer’s stone is the ruby, planet the Moon and all that. The thing that I really remember is that at the end of it, it said, “The thing about Cancers is that the only thing that they love more than taking a trip is the feeling of coming home.”