Writing Seiji

Posted by Derek Chamberlain on Tuesday, November 29, 2011 Under: Guest Blog

by George Polley


Reading and Writing

I grew up surrounded by books. My parents were avid readers I’ve been an avid reader since childhood, especially adventure, humor and historical fiction. My mother had a whole shelf of historical novels by Louise Muhlbach (Born: Jan. 2, 1814 - Neubrandenburg, Germany, Died: Sep. 26, 1873 - Berlin) that I devoured. Grand novels about Frederick the Great of Prussia, Napoleon and Josephine, the Austrian Imperial Court, Henry VIII that I’ve never forgotten. She had a wonderful way of involving her readers in her stories, which I read again and again. I’m sure it was her influence that sparked my interest in history. Amazingly, her books are still widely available on Amazon.com and other places.

But she wasn’t the only influence. I loved reading Westerns (Zane Grey was a favorite) and fantastic adventure. I read every single one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan, Mars, and Venus books in elementary school, L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, and science fiction. 

Learning the craft

My interest in being a writer came from a remark a seventh grade English teacher made about a story I’d written for class. “George,” she said, “you have the talent to be a fine writer. Keep at it.” I didn’t do a thing more with it until I was in my early thirties. Why the delay? I was lousy at grammar, couldn’t diagram a sentence (and still can’t) to save myself, didn’t know the parts of speech, and even today couldn’t explain the difference between a noun and a verb, though I do know that verbs are “action” words. Ask me what a “predicate” is and you’re likely to hear me say “Whazzat?” or “Haven’t a clue.” Sad, isn’t it? The point is that it has nothing to do with my -- or your -- chances of being a good writer. The secret is sitting down, beginning, and never quitting. (You English teachers who are reading this can stop gnashing your teeth and muttering now.)

How did I learn the craft? Here are the steps I’ve taken: (1) Learn from successful writers. Pay attention to their language, style and storytelling skills It’s also a good way to learn grammar. (2) Listen to the way people talk. (3) Find someone to mentor you. Meet a writer,  invite him or her for coffee, then listen to what they have to say about writing. I was lucky early in my career. I met American novelist Frederick Manfred (“Lord Grizzly” and other novels), who asked to see something I’d written and became my mentor. He sent one of my stories -- “Jonah’s Birth” -- to the editor of The South Dakota Review, who published it in 1968 or 69. It was my first published story. I was hooked! If a writer isn’t available, read every single author interview you can find and read it. I used to buy every issue of The Paris Review just to read the interviews. I wanted to know what the experience of being a writer was like, the ups and downs, the whole experience. Wonderful resource. 

From there I sat down and began writing and sending things off to magazine publishers, always with a self-addressed stamped envelope so I’d get it back. Most of it was awful. I just kept going, because that’s what I’d learned from the interviews I’d read and from Fred Manfred. This quote from Nobel Literature Prize winner Toni Morrison pretty much describes my reason for writing: “If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”  


How many novels did I write before writing “Seiji”?

Seven. The first five novels I wrote (three of them finished), I tossed. Two of them were angry diatribes, one ended up a short story, and two of them may yet see the light of day as finished novels. Then I wrote a novella “The Old Man and the Monkey” that was published in early 2010, and a novel “Grandfather an the Raven” that was also published in early 2010. 

How I came to writing “Seiji”

This is interesting, because it illustrates how serendipitous writing sometimes is. I know an editor and blogger from Kuala Lumpur, who encouraged me to submit a short story to a professor there who was seeking contributions to a book of new Asian short stories. Not being Asian, I turned her down. Fortunately for me, she encouraged me to do it anyway. What would I write about? Hadn’t a clue. Then I read an article about the carpet firebombing of Tokyo in the spring of 1945, opened a file of news clippings and lifted out a photo of the disaster. Staring at the photo, I wondered what it was like living there when that happened. Over 100,000 people died in those two attacks. I thought of a little boy, his baby sister and his mother, racing down the blazing streets toward the Sumida river, and I had my story. Two months later I submitted it to Professor Mohammad A. Quayum. Some weeks later I received an email from him saying that he had accepted my story for his book. Out of 140 entries, my story had made it. I was thunderstruck. A Rainbow Feast: New Asian Short Stories was published by Marshall Cavendish Editions, Singapore, in late 2010.

Then I made a discovery: There was a lot more to Seiji’s story than would fit into a short story. So a little over a year ago, I began writing my novel about the life of an extraordinary artist and human being named Seiji Matsuda, owner of a little art shop named Matsuda and Son on Nakamise Street, in Asakusa.


Seiji is a survivor, a visionary, a supremely talented artist, a teacher, a community builder, a loving husband and father, a funny guy, and a very good friend. Few are aware of the terror, pain and loss he experienced as an eight-year-old boy during World War Two, and what it cost him. Or what his friendship with the American Army sergeant would mean.  (I was as surprised as he was about that.) At five feet nine and a half inches tall, he’s taller than average for men of his generation, but if you were to see him in a crowd, you might not notice him, his face being so ordinary-looking that it is easily missed. It is his way of carrying himself, his presence, and the way his eyes probe so deeply everything around him that people notice.

“Who is that?” people ask.

“Him? Oh, that’s Seiji Matsuda. He owns Matsuda and Son over on Nakamise Street. You ought to drop in there sometime. It’s quite an experience.”

The novel is finished except for some editing, and then it goes to the publisher. It’s been a long year-and-a-half, and it’s been worth every minute of it. Seiji is an unforgettable character.

What’s next?

I have seven novels in the pipeline. The first will probably be a thriller set in Seattle, my old hometown. The next one will either be another thriller, or “The City Has Many Faces”, about Mexico City in the early 1970s. Then there is “Grandfather and the Raven, Book Two”, “Bear”, “Long Beak” and “The Portal”, a paranormal tale set in Mexico City. I’m looking forward to beginning the first one in January. I’m taking notes on each of them as I go along.

After that, who knows? That’s the way of the writing life.



In : Guest Blog 

Tags: writing  novel  short story  authors 
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Meet the scribbler

I'm a writer, editor, indie publisher, and dedicated Magic Spreadsheet user. Originally from Adelaide, Australia, I've been living in Japan since 1995. I've had a life-long interest in writing and in speculative fiction. My first book was published in mid-2014.
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