Your story offers a vivid portrayal of Japan in the wake of the 2011 tsunami. Were you in the country at the time?
The story is totally fictionalised. I grew up in Brisbane and later moved to Japan and lived there for about seventeen years. Although the region struck by the tsunami was quite remote and I don't know it specifically, I'm fairly familiar with regional Japan. Like so many people, I was transfixed by the video footage of the tsunami.
Unlike many of the other sad or tragic disasters that have occurred in the last decade or so – the Indonesian tsunami the Haitian earthquake – I am very unfamiliar with those countries. Japan I am very familiar with, so I began to wonder what it must've been like to go through that and think about how you start the rebuilding process. When the cameras start to leave after the first two or three days after a disaster, I began to think, 'Well, what happens now?'
How did you do your research to envisage what the post-disaster setting would look and be like?
My research was a lot of YouTube videos, and particularly there was a lot of information online including interviews with the survivors of the tsunami. Of course, these are in Japanese, so the non-Japanese speaking part of the world doesn't get to hear them. They were terrific and very educational, and allowed me to understand – as best as somebody can who wasn't there – some of the things that these people went through.
More importantly, I was interested in trying to understand, 'What are the issues uppermost in [Japanese people's] minds now the wave has receded? What do you do first? How do you start again? Should you start again?' The interviews and the discussions that I found online with survivors of the quake were very instrumental in feeding the story.
Are the characters in the story based on anyone you met when you lived in Japan?
The main character really could have been anybody – he was an observer. He could have been a reporter, a volunteer, an aid worker, even a bureaucrat or politician touring the quake area. I thought of him as a camera lens, really. He's the guy looking around at what's left and talking to the people who went through it.
The narrator spends a lot of time with another key character, Takeshi.
One of Takeshi's main emotions is futility, because he sees so much around him that leads him to think he's required to present things positively. Actually, he sees very little that is positive. As far as his personal situation goes, he's an unhappy guy who is forced to move among people who are much more unhappy, but it doesn't make him feel any better.
On a personal level, the narrator is going through a turbulent time emotionally. Then, the situation he discovers in post-tsunami Japan is very distressing.
He's trying to survive himself, and he's confronting an entire community that has become a ghost. Many parts of rural Japan, including the area where the tsunami hit, are already in pretty seriously economic and demographic decline. They are populated by increasingly old people, and there is relatively little new investment going on.
When a place like that is effectively erased, the impression I got from the research online is that people are trying to picture the communities as still being there, but they are not. When you have an average age of, say, 60 or 70 in some of these communities, where do you start rebuilding? Why do you start rebuilding? As one of the characters in the story says, if you all agree that rebuilding on the flat land by the sea is not wise, then where do you put the rebuilt community? In a sense, the whole town is a ghost – it's the thing that used to be there and what people think they can still see.