Ask the Monkey


The way I write a story is simple: what (or who) is the story about (a person, an event, a location, a specific time in history), and who is the main character? Once I have that, the story pretty much tells itself. As Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in The Rain says, “No story comes fully formed. Writing is a process of discovery. It has to be. I can’t imagine it any other way. We have an idea for a character, and as we write, the character begins to tell us about him or herself. And then we are in partnership with our characters and our story, and eventually, the characters and the story take over and we are merely typists.” To me the process is learning to ask a character what the character wants to say.

One night in 2006 I woke up from a dream about a large Japanese monkey. I had never had a dream about a Japanese monkey, or any other kind of monkey, so I sat and puzzled over it as I drank my morning coffee. Why a monkey, and why now? So I asked the monkey. The result was a story about an elderly Japanese villager named Genjiro Yamada and a big Japanese monkey named Yukitaro (Japanese for snow monkey). Yukitaro told the story of the old man and the monkey; I was the typist who listened and wrote the story down.

Did it work well? Here is what one reviewer said, “Prepare yourself, dear reader, to enter the magical world of Yukitaro and Genjiro, and the friendship that develops between them. It is a story that reminds us of what true story telling, like true friendship, should be, (opening) our eyes and our hearts and (leaving) us richer for having entered into their world.” (The book’s title: The Old Man and The Monkey.)

The same approach went into each of my novels. Grandfather and The Raven, began when a big raven buzzed my head cawing loudly as I set out for a walk one morning. when I got home, I sat down at my computer, asked the raven what that was all about, and began typing. In a month’s time I had a book of interlinked stories about a Sapporo grandfather and his big raven friend. These two characters are quite a pair.

My novel about a big, bearlike dog named Bear and an eleven year old boy named Andy, is set in Seattle, my hometown. When Andy’s little terrier is killed by a car, his aunt and uncle give him Bear as a birthday gift. Andy’s life changes with the arrival of this big, bearlike dog that many of the neighbors are afraid of until they see how friendly he is. Sad to say, the book didn’t do well, as the publisher shortly thereafter went bankrupt, which meant that both the Kindle and the paperback editions were out of print , though you can buy copies of the paperback edition from other sellers.

My most recent novel is The City Has Many Faces, a love story about Mexico City, in which the city is the main character. I struggled with this book for years (forty-one, to be exact) before it hit me that if I was going to tell Mexico City’s story, I had to let people who live there tell it with their lives, so that is what I did. Over twenty people, including two Aztec gods Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli) tell the story of this great city in eighteen interlinked stories. This is what one reader has to say about it: “A love story between a man and a city. The city is attractive not just for its geographic and historic beauty, but for the interesting characters that inhabit it. While each chapter is a story unto itself, they move you through one man’s adventure discovering a new love – Mexico City.”

Whatever your style of writing is, stick with it, keep learning, and never ever give up.

About gwpj

Originally from Seattle, I now live in Sapporo, Japan, where I write, explore this city, read widely, and ask questions about things that i see as important. I'm also an author, with three novels published ("The Old Man and The Monkey", "Grandfather and The Raven", and "Bear: a story about a boy and his unusual dog"). For more information about my writing, drop by my website, at
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