Donald Richie Interview: Conversation with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Writing, Film, and Japan: An Expatriate's View: Conversation with Donald Richie, writer and film critic, 9/21/01 by Harry Kreisler

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Now, in addition to movies, it was in Lima that you found the power that words have. Tell us about that, your relationship to reading and to words, and to writing.

Well, as you can imagine, going to the movies all the time, escape was one of my concerns. Escapism is how the movies have been often defined. And they're excellent escape material -- you simply climb on and reel off, and you're not there anymore.

In the same way, books can also do that. You climb on the pages, the pages flap and away you go. So when I first learned to read, I was into much escapist literature. I read The Little Lame Prince, for example. That's the cloak that he rides in -- and Arabian Nights, The Wizard of Oz, the Edgar Rice Burroughs books -- all of these offered kinds of escape, often into violent environments that were quite the opposite of my own. I perfected, eventually, the means of escape; that it needn't be quite as wild as that. Before very long I was reading Booth Tarkington, and popular favorites of the day -- Little Men, Little Women -- that kind of thing. It was only later on, of course, that I got into literature. I didn't have much literature. I was mainly into escape material; I knew all about that, since the movies had given me an escape hatch, too.

Using it this way, I became interested, technically, in exactly how the escape was effected. I decided that a kind of precision book cover was necessary. And so I remember one day when I was feeling -- not, I couldn't say, creative; but I was feeling sort of -- it was raining and I couldn't go outside and there were no movies, and I couldn't get to the library. And I remember, I must have been about seven or eight, I picked up a yellow pad and looked out the window and decided to sketch, in words, what I saw. I sketched the color, the rain, the wetness, the general dankness, the general dreariness of it. And then I wondered exactly what it was that I had done. I remember getting down the Webster's and looking up things. And I came across the word "elegy," which appealed to me very much and even looked like I felt -- the two little e's like half-closed eyes. I realized that what I had done was something elegiac, which was a completely new word for me. I read it over and I, again, felt what I had felt when I [first] read it. I had created Hemingway's ideal. I had written an impressionistic piece of prose that gave the reader the impression that the writer had intended. I made the reader feel what I wanted him to.

This was a revelation to me because it not only empowered me, it also seemed to give a sort of a magical way of communication that had nothing to do with my being more powerful than anybody else, but allowed me to suddenly illuminate something. It was a metaphysical triumph at eight years old, all of which I only recognized later on.

And so, words having done all this, I instantly started -- just as I went gung-ho on Citizen Kane -- I instantly started writing a novel. I was at the kitchen table that night scribbling -- whatever happened to it and what it was about, I have no idea. But anyway, all of these things are good practice. And so my conjunction with words started quite early that way. And it had a number of levels.

And what were those levels?

Well, they were certainly "empowering," "escaping" -- high on the priority list -- but also "communicating," whatever that means. Also, teaching me to meditate upon my own feelings, which I had never had any occasion to do, except to express them. In general, it was a very flowering occasion for me. It also gave me a way in which I had hope -- I thought, maybe, I was doomed for life in Lima, Ohio; and it gave me reason to believe that there were ways, using my new tools, that I could move into something more congenial.

One minor point, which we should emphasize. You were also a very good typist, which became very important later.

That came later. Typing was the other thing which liberated me. If a person can't type, I don't see how you can be a writer -- nowadays, certainly. I mean, I can imagine Thackeray or Jane Austen sitting down and scribbling, but for anybody in my generation, learning the machine, which is now, of course, the computer, is something which is necessary.

I am very fond of things like that -- little, small mechanical things -- and I'm a very good librarian, I've worked at being a librarian. I'm very good at collating, the Dewey Decimal system -- I have that side of me. Typing fit into that. Before very long, without even thinking of it, I was a speed typist.

Now, the other element, the other theme that we must bring up is moving on, getting out, which became very important. What you just said suggested a kind of dissatisfaction with your milieu, pushing you. These tools, namely, insight about film and actually having your own camera, on the one hand, and writing on the other, empowered you to feel that you could do it. Was it inevitable that you would leave? And how did you go about leaving?

First, there is an American thought, which I think is true, that anybody worth his or her salt, leaves. Japan has the opposite idea, where, if you do that, something is the matter with you. But in America you have to leave. There are all sorts of precedents. I think everybody wants to leave, it's just this question of whether you can or not. At the age of eighteen or nineteen you find very few people who want to stay there forever. They've already got plans -- you know, you want to get out. So if you have the means to get out, then you get out.

In my case, I was early inspired to leave my milieu and to find something more like what I found in books or in the movies, or something that I felt would fit me more. There were several incidents, several ways that I discovered [this]. I read a book about 1939 that inspired me a lot. I don't know if it's readable now. It's called The Asiatics by Frederick Prokosch. And so I was alert to Prokosch. Later on, I read a book of his called The Night of the Poor about some boy, misunderstood, from this stifling middle-west town, who gets out, puts out his thumb, and hitchhikes all over America. And I did that. No sooner had I graduated than -- with my parents' blessing, to be sure -- I stuck out my thumb on Route 30 and went south, went to New Orleans, all by myself.

But then you joined the Merchant Marine?

Well, that was due to the war. I probably wouldn't have done that if the war hadn't come, and if I hadn't been about to be drafted. This we didn't want to occur! This was 1942. I joined the Merchant Marine the day before I got inducted.

Then you went to different parts of the world?

I went all over the world. I made it to Europe. You know, the Merchant Marine, at that point, was supporting the troops. The troops would go in first, but we would come in, two hours later, with all the chocolate bars and the toilet paper. We supported them. Our work was really just as dangerous, in a way. I mean, we didn't get shot at and we didn't carry guns, but we did have to go on convoys in the North Atlantic, where I would lie awake trying to read Proust, and I would hear "Boom! Boom!" And that would be the two end ships of our convoy being sunk in the North Atlantic during a storm by German submarines. So it was dangerous, and I lost my ship, various ships, three or four times. And then as the war ended in Europe, the alliance I was with went to Asia, and so I was in China when the war ended.

Were you keeping diaries during this time?

I was keeping diaries. I started keeping diaries very early. They all have titles, like Fifth Voyage, Seventh Voyage, and so forth.

During this time, from the time you started writing to being in the Merchant Marine, were you honing your writing skills? Was your writing getting better in your own mind?

I hoped so. I hoped so, yes.

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