Murakami: In April 1978, I was watching a baseball game in the Jingu Stadium in Tokyo, the sun was shining, I was drinking a beer. And when Dave Hilton of the Yakult Swallows made a perfect hit, at that instant I knew I was going to write a novel. It was a warm sensation. I can still feel it in my heart. Now I am compensating for the old, open life through my new, closed life. I have never appeared on television, I have never been heard on the radio, I hardly ever give readings, I am extremely reluctant to have my photograph taken, I rarely give interviews. Im a loner.
The Tokyo Marathon, 2008. "Im a loner," says Murakami.
Murakami: I wasnt impressed by the book. Its boring. You can tell that Sillitoe wasnt a runner himself. But I find the idea itself fitting: running allows the hero to access his own identity. In running he discovers the only state in which he feels free. I can identify with that.
SPIEGEL: And what did running teach you?
Murakami: The certainty that I will make it to the finishing line. Running taught me to have faith in my skills as a writer. I learned how much I can demand of myself, when I need a break, and when the break starts to get too long. I known how hard I am allowed to push myself.
SPIEGEL: Are you a better writer because you run?
Murakami: Definitely. The stronger my muscles got, the clearer my mind became. I am convinced that artists who lead an unhealthy life burn out more quickly. Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin were the heroes of my youth -- all of them died young, even though they didnt deserve to. Only geniuses like Mozart or Pushkin deserve an early death. Jimi Hendrix was good, but not so smart because he took drugs. Working artistically is unhealthy; an artist should lead a healthy life to make up for it. Finding a story is a dangerous thing for an author; running helps me to avert that danger.
Murakami: When a writer develops a story, he is confronted with a poison that is inside him. If you dont have that poison, your story will be boring and uninspired. Its like fugu: The flesh of the pufferfish is extremely tasty, but the roe, the liver, the heart can be lethally toxic. My stories are located in a dark, dangerous part of my consciousness, I feel the poison in my mind, but I can fend off a high dose of it because I have a strong body. When you are young, you are strong; so you can usually conquer the poison even without being in training. But beyond the age of 40 your strength wanes, you can no longer cope with the poison if you lead an unhealthy life.
SPIEGEL: J.D. Salinger wrote his only novel, Catcher in the Rye when he was 32. Was he too weak for his poison?
Murakami: I translated the book into Japanese. It is quite good, but incomplete. The story becomes darker and darker, and the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, doesnt find his way out of the dark world. I think Salinger himself didnt find it either. Would sport have saved him too? I dont know.
SPIEGEL: Does running give you the inspiration for stories?
Murakami: No, because Im not the kind of writer who reaches the source of a story playfully. I have to dig for the source. I have to dig very deep to reach the dark places in my soul where the story lies hidden. For that, too, you have to be physically strong. Since I started running, I have been able to concentrate for longer, and I have to concentrate for hours on my way into the darkness. On the way there you find everything: the images, the characters, the metaphors. If you are physically too weak, you miss them; you lack the strength to hold on to them and bring them back up to the surface of your consciousness. When you are writing, the main thing isnt digging down to the source, but the way back out of the darkness. Its the same with running. There is a finishing line that you have to cross, whatever the cost may be.
SPIEGEL: Are you in a similarly dark place when you are running?
Murakami: There is something very familiar to me about running. When I run I am in a peaceful place.
SPIEGEL: You lived in the United States for several years. Are there differences between American and Japanese runners?
Murakami: No, but when I was in Cambridge (as a writer-in-residence at Harvard), it became clear to me that the members of an elite run differently from ordinary mortals.
SPIEGEL: How do you mean?
Murakami: My running route took me along the Charles River, and I was constantly seeing these young female students, Harvard freshmen. They jogged with long strides, their iPods in their ears, their blonde ponytails swinging to and fro on their backs. Their entire body was radiant. They were aware that they were unusual. Their self-awareness impressed me deeply. I was a better runner, but there was something provokingly positive about them. They were so different from me. I was never the member of an elite.
SPIEGEL: Can you distinguish a beginner from a veteran runner?
Murakami: A beginner runs too fast, his breathing is too shallow. The veteran is at rest. One veteran recognizes another just the way that a writer recognizes the style and language of another writer.
SPIEGEL: Your books are written in the style of magical realism, reality blends with magic. Does running have a surrealist or metaphysical dimension -- quite apart from the pure physical achievement?
Murakami: Every activity acquires something contemplative if you perform it long enough. In 1995 I took part in a 100-kilometer race; it took me 11:42 hours and in the end it was a religious experience.
Murakami: After 55 kilometers I broke down; my legs would no longer obey me. I felt as though two horses were pulling my body apart. After about 75 kilometers I was suddenly able to run properly again; the pain had vanished. I had reached the other side. Happiness surged through me. I reached the finishing line filled with euphoria. I could have gone on running. Nevertheless, I will never run another ultramarathon.
SPIEGEL: Why not?
Murakami: After this extreme experience I went into a state that I have called Runners Blue.
SPIEGEL: What is that?
Murakami: A sort of listlessness. I was tired of running. Running 100 kilometers is terribly boring, you are on your own for more than eleven hours, and this boredom gnawed at me. It sucked the motivation out of my soul. The positive attitude was gone. I hated running. For weeks.
SPIEGEL: How did you restore your pleasure in it?
Murakami: I tried to force myself to run, but that didnt work. The fun had gone out of it. So I decided to try a different sport. I wanted to try a new stimulus, and so I started on the triathlon. It helped. After a while, my desire to run returned.
SPIEGEL: You are 59 years old. How long do you intend to go on taking part in marathons?
Murakami: I will go on running for as long as I can walk. You know what I would like to be written on my tombstone?
SPIEGEL: Tell us.
Murakami: "At least he never walked."
SPIEGEL: Mr. Murakami, thank you for this interview.
The interview was conducted by Maik Grossekathöfer.