Writerland, Chapter 26: “I Was Haunted by a Nineteenth-century Ghost”

Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.

Storytellers possess a singular power and that is the power to transport. For readers that power is a wonderful thing to behold. But then readers see only the final result of the writer’s labor, and delight in the experience of being taken someplace new, or faraway, or mysterious, even terrifying through the careful arrangement of words on a page. 

For writers, of course, it is not nearly so simple; the work is hard, vexing, sometimes deflating, but, yes, also thrilling. The joy readers feel in being transported by a story is measured in minutes, hours, or days. But for writers the joy -- even when it is accompanied by doubt and fear -- can go on seemingly forever. Not a bad way to make a living, if you think about it.

I discovered a book not long ago that so transported me that I needed to find the writer and ask how she did it. The book was Stranger in the Shogun’s City. I discovered the book the way most people do: someone I knew and whose opinion I trusted told me I had to read it. (Side note: Over the years I have asked well over a hundred students how they came upon a story or book. Was it a) a review, b) a mention on the radio, c) a social media post, or d) someone told them. Almost always the answer is D. Right now you are nodding your head thinking, Yep that’s how it happens for me too.) In this case the recommendation came from my wife. I was looking for a book. As it happens, we had lived in Tokyo for almost five years and this one held the promise of transporting me, not to the Tokyo I knew, but one that had existed two hundred years before we arrived. 

The recommendation and promise got me to open it. But would it deliver? Would the author, Amy Stanley, succeed at what I so much wanted her to do: take me there?

Stanley tells the story of a woman named Tsuneno. Tsuneno was a person of no great achievement, no particular significance, no historical importance. She lived in a small town in rural Japan where her father and then her brothers were the priests of a Buddhist temple. Later she moved to Edo, the original name of what became Tokyo. Her life was made eventful by a series of bad decisions. We know this because the one thing of note that Tsuneno did in her relatively short and mostly unhappy life was to write letters. 

Those letters would come to consume Amy Stanley’s working life. And then some. 

“She would complain, rejoice, despair, rage, and apologize,” Stanley wrote introducing Tsuneno. “She would cross out words, correct them, and begin again. She would disavow her previous writings and insist that they were never what she meant. She would introduce new return addresses; unknown, eccentric characters; and different vocabulary. She would write until eventually letters to Tsuneno, from Tsuneno, and about Tsuneno would dominate the collection.”

The collection was the letters the family saved and which over a century later Amy Stanley would come upon in the northern province of Niigata. So began the journey that would lead to Stanley transporting first my wife and then me to Tsuneno’s sad, frustrated, sporadically hopeful world. 

There are no shortcuts in the work required to transport readers. Many try to cut corners, to get what feels like just enough material and then, by virtue of their cleverness with a turn of phrase, create the illusion that they have more than they really do. The result is writing that is often short of memorable, in the way that a fleeting romance is an approximation of true love. You need to put in the time. You need to sweat the small things. You know you are doing the work the right way when you lose sleep and forget what you were supposed to do next. People who love you wonder where you are, even when you are standing right next to them.

That is what happened to Stanley. She is a history professor at Northwestern, and a scholar of Japan. Her training merely gave her entry. Then the work began.

“I think obsessed is the right word!,” she wrote to me. “When I first went to the Niigata Prefectural Archives to look at Tsuneno's letters, I couldn't read anything. Even though I could read nineteenth-century Japanese, the handwriting looked like squiggles to me (and, in fact, there's a special dictionary that people have to use to decipher manuscripts, because it even looks like squiggles to Japanese people). 

“I felt hopeless about the whole project -- how could I write a book about letters I couldn't read? But somehow, I couldn't tear myself away from those letters. I spent hours trying to decipher them, wearing out my dictionary, even when I knew I should be doing other things. Once I had Tsuneno's voice lodged in my mind, I couldn't stop hearing it, and all the little mysteries in the letters left me desperate to know more. 

“Just reading the letters took a few years. Then, when I finally had a grasp on the narrative, I wrote constantly, and everywhere. I had two little kids, the first born when I started the research, and the second three years later. So I wrote paragraphs on my phone while rocking them to sleep, or in the middle of noisy birthday parties. I felt like I couldn't stop, like I was haunted by a nineteenth-century ghost.”

The letters, however, got her only part way there. Writers often assume that all they need to do is land the big interview, to gain access, to get “the get”, and the story will write itself. Stories do not write themselves. They can, however, feel as if they do, because without necessarily being conscious of just how much they have learned, a writer will sit down at a keyboard and feel like the words are flowing as if by magic. The magic is all the work that came before. The writing is the payoff. 

In the case of Stranger in the Shogun’s City, Stanley understood that as central to her story as Tsuneno’s letters were, they were the frame, the arc. They supplied the first half of her title: the stranger. It was up to her to recreate the shogun’s city, Edo.

That process, what fiction writers call “universe building,” can feel to a nonfiction storyteller akin to the experience of filling a 55-gallon drum with an eyedropper. You gather and gather, and over time see what you need and what -- and this is key -- what you have learned enough to know you can discard. Stanley knew a lot about nineteenth-century Edo. Enough to know what she needed to learn and what a joy this could be.

“This was really the most fun part of the book -- using the enormous visual, textual, and material archive of early modern Japan to figure out how to convey what it might have been like to live in Edo in the early 1840s,” she wrote. “I was lucky because the legacy of Edo is alive and well in Japan, in museums and in bookstores, and even in popular fiction and advertisements. And as a result of this intense interest in the history of the old city, you can find a lot of fun materials, aimed at a non-specialist Japanese reader, that explain everyday life in Edo and even illustrate what ordinary utensils looked like, or umbrellas, or signs. You can also find a huge number of maps of the city, even some superimposed on the current maps of Tokyo, which allow readers familiar with the modern landscape to orient themselves. When I got stuck on a passage that needed an image, I would flip through these kinds of materials -- or remember trips to the Edo/Tokyo Museum, the Fukagawa Museum, and the Open Air Architectural Museum -- and that would spark my imagination. 

“When I got really desperate trying to figure out what a safflower field in Yamagata Prefecture looked like, or how Shinobazu Pond looked in autumn, I even used Google image search to "see" their modern equivalents!”

I have been doing this work long enough to understand what was required of Amy Stanley to tell her story of Tsuneno and Edo, in a way that would allow me to see what she wanted me to see, and feel what it was like to be there. I also understand that there never comes a point when this work becomes easy. Each new journey begins with a vague sense that while there is something out there, it is shrouded in mist. 

The only way to begin is with a fact, then another and another. The facts, random, not necessarily connected, and whose value is yet to be determined, go into a folder, or file or a Google doc. All the while you gather and gather and ask yourself, What is out there? Why can't I see it? Will I ever? 

Even if you’ve done this a hundred times you still wonder and worry. You are a long way from joy. But it’s there, waiting for you to find it.

Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.