I continue with the series of scenes that were edited out of The Kimono Tattoo. The edits always improved the narrative flow, dramatically. Narrative timing is a skill I am still learning.
In the early stages of writing The Kimono Tattoo, I understood that readers expect mystery fiction to move quickly. But I have long admired the way Kirino Natsuo, Miyabe Miyuki, and Patricia Cornwell slow the narrative down here and there with details and force the reader to pause. As a result, the authors build in anticipation. I also knew that readers could just rush over those places if they couldn’t bear to wait, and I suspected my readers would skim if the details were annoying.
I admit that I had a hard time controlling my desire to explain. I suppose all those years of lecturing, of expounding on contexts and histories for my students, made we want to do more telling than showing. And boy did I tell a lot.
More than once, I realized I was losing control of the narrative. There’s a scene where Ruth is running from men she suspects of killing her friend, Yuriko Daté, and as she rushes past a certain temple, she pauses in her mind to dredge up its illustrious history! You will notice in the excised excerpt below, I make a concession for Ruth’s prodigious knowledge!
In this scene, from “Chapter Five: Cranes,” Ruth visits the Kyoto Prefectural Library to try to find out more information about the Tani Kimono family. I’d gone past the library numerous times but had never noticed it. To this day, I’ve not ever been inside. But I must have spent the better part of an afternoon digging up the detail found below and struggling to describe the building, researching the “Vienna Secessionist Movement” and getting lost down architectural wormholes. Most of what I wrote ended up on the cutting room floor! But, I was particularly proud of this sentence: “The addition loomed up behind the original building, reflecting the sky, as if the future were pressing down on the past.”
Here’s what was cut:
The Kyoto Prefectural Library was housed in a stately building erected in 1909 to celebrate Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War. The architect, Tadeka Goichi, had trained in Europe, and the library—with its harmonious lines offset by decadent gold flourishes and inscriptions bore the traces of the Vienna Secessionist Movement. A number of years ago, feeling the need for more space, the library added a glass box extension that looked like it was designed by a construction company. The addition loomed up behind the original building, reflecting the sky, as if the future were pressing down on the past. I was not that crazy about either building. But the library itself was surprisingly airy and open.
Kyoto trivia came naturally to me. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I had worked hard to acquire all the tidbits of information. During the summer between college and graduate school I had returned to Kyoto, eager to reacquaint myself with my familiar haunts. My mother arranged for me to take a job as a tour guide leading groups of American tourists through the city.
I had to pass a qualification exam that had me memorizing page after page of historical facts, dates, names, and other useless bits and pieces. They were useless because the tourists I squired about were inevitably less interested in facts and figures and more inclined to ask about the everyday behaviors and manners they found curious.
Why do women cover their mouths when they laugh? Why aren’t there paper napkins in the restaurants? So accustomed to these manners and events myself, I had never even noticed them.
It was much easier to reel off facts than it was to answer what seemed obvious. Unable to off load my collection of tidbits completely that summer, I found the information I had so carefully stocked away resurfaced when I least expected it.
Yes, Ruth, I chided myself, Kyoto Prefectural Library is a resplendent building. Now will you get on with it!
End of cut
Poor Ruth. It’s hard to be such a know-it-all. In The Kimono Tattoo my eagerness to share “my Kyoto” with readers led to an often overly encyclopedic approach to scene setting. Some of my readers have said they enjoy all the detail. Others complain that the narrative plods. I take heart in David Cozy’s review of the novel, published last spring in the Kyoto Journal.
That it’s never easy to stop turning the pages of Copeland’s novel is a testament to her skill, especially when one considers the chances she has taken. In choosing, for example, to teach her readers about Japan, about Kyoto, and about kimono, she runs the risk of being pedantic in the worst as-you-know-Bob style. She manages, though, to fold what she teaches us into her narrative in such a way that, far from slowing her story to a slog, it instead makes the feverish page-turning a richer experience.