Saturday, September 16, 2023

Interview With Novelist Geoff Olton




1.      What inspired you to write this book?

A group of my older students had asked me to teach them how to write, as opposed to speaking, in English, and I sense that this was my answer to them. Walking through the central section of a golf course on the top of the Mt. Rokko mountain range behind Kobe, where I live, my ears were exposed to an extremely hard whacking sound - which proved to be a golfer teeing off from behind a clump of trees. However, this I imagined as the sound of a father whacking his son across the cheek- the question becoming why and to what effect.

Then, on subsequent walks, or in quieter periods at home, I would find fully-composed sentences coming up into my brain (quickly written down), each of which allowed me to expand upon already conceived situations or to create a new character or scene, and the story gradually evolved.


2.      What exactly is it about and who is it written for?

The story: A young man, Eric, dies and then enters an interim (neither heaven nor hell) existence ¾ with initially no memory of his previous life ¾ before being reborn. (This is very loosely based on reincarnation as presented in Buddhism with the afterlife described being purely one of my imagination.) The story is centered on the interim period, with flashbacks to his life as a child and the period he is growing up, until the point where he discovers how and why he actually died. In addition to being a journey of discovery and learning, the story is also one of an accounting for past transgressions (the taking of responsibility for hurts inflicted), and the relationship between Eric and Stella is intended as a rather different type of love story of the nature described in “The Pool of Time,” - a fairy tale told to Eric and his younger brother Clive by their Uncle Duncan - and one that would extend through an untold number of reincarnations. The poem “Child”:


This covers as much as possible all aspects of what we are as human beings, and everything that is being said is intended to complement what is being expressed in other words and forms throughout the story. Though much that is noted is, upon reading, quite obvious, the aim here is also to some degree to provoke the reader to thought, and possibly for younger people to enable them to develop a truer grasp of who they are, or rather (life being no more or less than what you choose to settle for) their potential or possibilities.  Although the poem appears at the end of “The Way We Are,” it was initially written to be included in the novel, and for that reason has been left here intact. The intended audience; Younger people in their late teens, twenties, early thirties, or anyone who is still in even the slightest manner interested in the so-called “mysteries of life.” I would note that the presentation in the afterlife is being made based on all I have learned whilst living here in Japan, a country with a very different culture, flora and fauna and set of philosophies, and in that sense, it should be of interest to anyone of any age.


3.      What do you hope readers will get out of reading your book?

A certain degree of pleasure, which I feel all books should give, and perhaps a peep in at a very different kind of world. Although the book is fiction, it is very much based on a set of personally-experienced realities. The book is also illustrating how the simplest of comments or incidents can set an individual on a certain course in life – equally true for both Eric and his father. And if this is so, a reader may at some point take time out to consider a little as to how they got into their own personal regimen – and if they decide they don’t really like it, how they might get out. “Fate is not always as kind as you might wish it to be.”


4.      How did you decide on your book’s title and cover design?

The title; The bowl and Erics experiences inside it being central to the flow of the narrative, it seemed a reasonable choice. The cover; This is a section taken from a (considerably larger) photograph of the late afternoon sun shining down through a tunnel of tall cedars (the dark parts at the edges) onto a small and somewhat aging shrine building. The original photograph was labeled seimei (life) by my Japanese partner and I gave it the name “Metamorphosis” in English; The body at the bottom of the photograph is diving into the ether and encountering a series of “life changes” as they cross each line.


5.      What advice or words of wisdom do you have for fellow writers – other than run!?

Starting young, hone your observation skills, and whenever you come across a situation, scene or dialogue that you find more unusual/interesting, make notes (/if possible, including short descriptive sentences). The descriptions may never be used as such, but if returned to later, such notes can become a source of inspiration or a means to work around writer’s block.

Read as many book reviews as possible and note points that reviewers find problematic – that is, points to be avoided. They almost always pick up on something, even in a well-written book. This can also help provide ideas or a theme to develop.


6.      What trends in the book world do you see - and where do you think the book publishing industry is heading?

Living in Japan, with limited input on the situation in the US, I would hesitate to comment on this in any manner. My only recent intake in this area would be a one-off comment from a young Japanese student to the effect that she wanted to read “real stories,” not fiction.


7.      Were there experiences in your personal life or career that came in handy when writing this book? 

Descriptions related to Ikebana/flower arrangement (Eryne), gardening in England and Japan (Mrs Rhondel), ink painting (The artist; “Seeing clouds and painting mountains” – something I have actually done) and Hatha yoga (Uncle Duncan talking to Eric and Clive) all come from many years of personal experience in the respective fields.

Also, I have done a lot of walking in the mountains here (and in Korea), and almost all the scenes of Eric walking over the mountain in the book are describing actual situations that I found myself in on these walks. In many cases, the words came up as I was walking.

Natural phenomena: The descriptions in the afterlife of the buzzards (Prologue), the piled feathers, giant toad, 40-foot-high spiders’ webs, moths that vanish, the grub being sucked dry by rows of parasitic insects, the rainbow appearing between clouds, etc., are all noting natural phenomena actually observed in the mountains here. Also, much of the detail of the earthquake and its after-effects come from personal experience (the 1995, 7.2, Kobe Earthquake) – including the buildings collapsing at Eric’s feet and the loss of his eyebrows and hair (experienced at the time of fighting a neighborhood fire).


The book was actually written some time ago during a period from my mid-forties to mid-fifties - a somewhat confusing/confused period for me, in that I had just been inducted into a secret Japanese society, as a result of which I was being forced to seriously consider various possibilities related to telepathy, the source of dreams and apparitions and various other points, in the West considered to be pseudo-scientific principles. (As one example, I learned in stages how to project an image from within my brain onto the surface of my eye and then onto other surfaces – that is, “how to create an apparition.” My younger Japanese students in their twenties, when informed of the fact, merely shrugged it off as “nothing particularly special.”)  If any reader wishes to understand how the realities of that highly complex situation and the details in the book fully relate – I was in fact being forced to re-define the basics in my life - it might make sense to read the relative chapters in my memoir “The Way We Are”/TWWA – written much later in my early seventies, but published prior to AB. My point here would be that in reality this is how we all live in our present daily lives here on earth.


8.      How would you describe your writing style? Which writers or books is your writing similar to?

Style; “Nothing too fancy.” The whole book is intended to be an easy read. Similarities; Before turning semi-professional with my ink-painting, I deliberately decided to stop receiving lessons from my teacher, who I had been with for over 15 years. The relationship, naturally, continued, but in the subsequent exhibition that I held, the work was all strictly my own. In the same manner, at the time I determined to write the book, I decided I did not want the writing to be influenced in any manner – style or content – by other writings, and again I made a conscious choice to stop reading, something that I had done regularly all my life up to that point. One of the last novels that I did read was “The World According to Garp,” which I suspect in terms of its whimsy, may have some connection with my own book.


9.      What challenges did you overcome in the writing of this book?

The scene where Stella dies, and the subsequent scene on the stairs where Eric and Stella recognize the realities of their situation were by far the most difficult to compose. My brain had come up with far too many possible similar descriptions and deciding which to include or reject became a real trial.


10.  If people can buy or read one book this week or month, why should it be yours?

Written in my prime, it is a beautiful book; at times funny, sad, and possibly a little frightening, and even today it can still make a much older me laugh and cry.


About The Author: Born in Rochdale on the outskirts of Manchester, Northern England in 1946, attended St. Peter's College, Oxford, majoring in mathematics. After failing final examinations, spent one year teaching English to Saudi Arabian Air Force cadets before moving to Kobe, Japan, where he has since lived for 53 years working in teaching, interpretation and translation. Lifelong interests include Japanese ink-painting (sold semi-professionally), “ikebana” flower arrangement and calligraphy; photography, vegetable and flower gardening, Hatha yoga, Japanese pottery and the tea ceremony, singing (karaoke in Japanese, English and Korean), a considerable amount of walking in the mountains (in Japan and Korea) and worldwide travels. Writing includes a memoir, “The Way We Are,” published by Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd (2021), and also a (as yet unpublished) 5,000-page analysis of the spoken English language in its relationship to Japanese and similarly-grouped languages.


“There are two kinds of truth, small truth and great truth. You can recognize a small truth because its opposite is a falsehood. The opposite of a great truth is another great truth.”

--Niels Bohr


“A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears.”



“If you wish to live, you must first attend your own funeral.”

--Katherine Mansfield


“Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

--Pablo Picasso


“Don’t wait for an opportunity to start getting ready. Get ready and then find an opportunity.”

--Best-Selling Author John Maxwell


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