Short stories and the cell phone: An Interview with writer Barry Yourgrau

February 24, 2008 | 1 7 min read

Although cell phone novels might at first appear to be a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, one of the form’s pioneers is a South African transplant to the U.S., writer Barry Yourgrau. Barry’s book “Keitai Stories,” a collection of short “flash” stories, was released for cell phones by a prominent Japanese publishing house, before making the transition to print.

Currently, Barry lives and works in New York City, where he’s hard at work on a series of popular children’s books (NASTYBooks). He has also released several volumes of literary fiction, performed his short stories in venues as diverse as MTV and NPR and starred in a movie based on one of his books, The Sadness of Sex.

The Millions sat down with Barry (electronically, but no cell phones were involved) to chat about his work in Japan, whether cell phone novels can work in the U.S. and how he writes short stories.

The Millions: You’ve been writing short stories for cell phones in Japan. When did you start? How did you come up with the idea?

BY: Got the idea when visiting In Tokyo for the first time in 2002, I saw kids surfing the Internet on cell phones (keitai). I thought my stories, which are generally very short, would be just right for cell-phone reading. Especially if I made ’em even briefer. (Which is an interesting exercise: as Woody Allen says somewhere, a general note to improve any comic writing is, Make It Shorter.)

I suggested to my Japanese translator and editor that I write a book for first-serializing on keitai. They agreed enthusiastically. I figured I’d hit on a real format innovation; turns out I was part of a huge wave of keitai writing. Though my stuff is literary; most other keitai writing is pretty schematic and manga-derived – and while their individual segments are short too, they’re parts of long novels!

The Millions: What has the reaction been?

BY: Delightful. 100,000 readers accessed the stories (Keitai Stories) online. The book has done well, though not in those same numbers, granted; nor in the millions that best-selling “keitai novels” have sold. My translator (Motoyuki Shibata, a renowned literary figure in Japan) thought it some of my best work! My editor too… Go figure. But we just serialized my kids’ book, NASTYbook, on keitai before pubbing in Japan. It wasn’t written for keitai, a normal book. But works fine on keitai….

The Millions: Do you think it could work in the U.S.? If not, what’s different about Japan that makes cell phone novels/stories viable?

BY:I don’t see why it wouldn’t work in US. But there is a difference; namely, that kids and younger folk in US access the Internet on computers and use computers for online reading etc. Japanese and Asian kids use cell phones; online computer connection is costly (I believe) – and there’s not much privacy at home, homes and rooms are tiny. People don’t coop up at home like in US.

The Millions: What’s different about writing for cell phones?

BY: For me, not much, other than the driving imperative to go shorter. So you really get to experiment with the essentials of what makes a narrative work – from prose poems to script-like description to just dialogue. But what makes the keitai writing in Japan successful in the market place (other than subject matter, material for young girls written by young women) is interactivity – readers can comment and writers will change storylines in direct response. I was thinking of doing something like this, but it’s hard from US to Japan, and time consuming.

The Millions: Your stories have a tendency to turn to the bizarre or experimental. What are your influences? Where do your ideas come from?

coverBY: Bizarre, sure. “Experimental,” hmmm… I think of myself as a quite conventional writer, albeit with a twist…. I riff on established genres and forms the way comedians send up things. I got started writing my own pseudo-dream-journal items. I read Cocteau’s remark that in order to make fantasy work, the details have to be extra-concrete. I had been working after college as a newspaper reporter (very slow and disorganized one). So I used some “newspaper” style features in my writing, e.g., having all dialogue “tagged” by speaker, never just standing by itself. My earliest big influence was Raymond Carver, I discovered Will You Please Be Quiet Please in the library I think in 1975? Blew me away. We had a brief correspondence: I wrote a short fan letter, he wrote back a nice short reply (mentioning something about trying to give up drinking…); I cracked open a tall beer and dashed back a single-spaced page and a half outpouring of my hopes, dreams, enthusiasms. Naturally that was end of our correspondence, I never heard back.

Isaac Babel I loved too, plus fine crime writing, Hammett and Chandler. And Woody Allen’s early standup routines. Lots of short poetry. The crime writing stuff is important: cause it’s such propulsive writing. Like joke-writing. Or writing for the screen. Twilight Zone made a big impact on me, I realize. Basically I write like a confessional poet, using surreal narrative and cinematic tools. On a mini scale.

coverMy ideas I just get. That’s how my brain works. I never have used my own dreams for inspiration – to me that’s “cheating.” Like I say, I riff fantastically on established things. My book, Haunted Traveller, for instance, is all my riffs on existential exotic far-flung writing, Chatwin et al. I finally read Paul Bowles after writing the book. Jeez, now I know where my ideas came from! (Actually, I had read and been much affected by his Mohammed Mrabet translations – short, semi-fabulous, and marvelously brutal). And I’ve been reading Borges a good deal recently too…

The Millions: In reading other interviews with you, I’ve noticed you travel a lot. For work, fun? Do your travels provide context/inspiration for your stories?

BY: I’ve traveled a lot in the past few years with my partner, Anya von Bremzen, who writes about food and restaurants around the world. (A happy gig for her, and me, indeed). These trips don’t really feed my inspiration. Ok, a bit. But I’m more Raymond Roussel type – he wrote Impressions of Africa by locking himself in a hotel room in Africa and writing without stepping outside. All in the mind.

The Millions: How do you write? Is the process different when you write for cell phones?

BY: I write my fiction longhand first. I need the pencil/pen in hand to connect to emotions. I then type up. For the first several books I used a typewriter, now I’m (late) on computer. But I find the computer too suited to Flow, not the weight of the individual word. I’ve half a mind to switch back to a typewriter…. I like to note that I wrote some of my little cell phone stories for Japan while staying in Madrid. I worked in the Grand National library, walking in daily to write little jokey tales about karaoke (say) or haunted vending machines (say) after passing under the big portrait of Borges in the hall.

The challenge for Japan cell phone writing was connecting the work to a (1) Japanese and (2) younger audience. So I trolled the Internet for Japanese trends. Most useful.

The Millions: So you were conscious that you were writing for a Japanese audience. Did that affect your writing in ways other than your choice of subject?

BY: Yes, very aware. I tried to write with simple but flavorsome constructions (always a good idea, no?). And I used details of a Japanese kind. For instance, I made a wizard’s spellbinding soup not chicken soup, say, but mushroom soup with big chunks of shitake…. Also, the karaoke story: I had to figure whether Japanese young readers would know who Neil Sedaka is. (Don’t how I finally decided…). But not huge issues, as you can see.

The Millions: When the recent article about cell phone novels came out in the New York Times, a lot of people suggested that this trend might represent the future of the novel. What’s your take?

BY: I think it might be part of the future of the novel. Not just the format, but the interactivity. In Japan, these books emerge from pools of people on web pages, all posting and getting notes. But I for one think the “old novel” still has lots of life.

The Millions: You mentioned you tend to write short (flash?) fiction. Does this “genre” have its own conventions? How is writing “flash” fiction different from writing novels or other types of short stories?

BY: I started writing very short just because it suited me. Then I later discovered a trend called “flash” fiction or “sudden” fiction. I had nothing to do with any movement as such, and always use the term with fingers crossed behind my back. I’ve always enjoyed compression in writing, and in art. Among my favorite reading are commonplace readers, such as Auden’s wonderful collection. Tidbits that enfume the imagination. Regarding the genre of very short fiction, I wouldn’t begin to make general pronouncements. I only know how I work. I find the form an endlessly rich sources of possibilities, of narrative gambits. I find very short items, when good, expand in the reader’s imagination. I sometimes, say, like to break off a story right before it’s resolved – at a surging cliffhanger. Let the reader finish things up. Next step for me will be to link the stories into a larger narrative somehow – without taking away their sense that the universe is starting afresh in each story.

The Millions: A lot of people would argue that this kind of fiction is much better suited for our “modern” world, with its short attention spans, etc. Any thoughts?

BY: I think that, too, in a hopeful way. And I like the idea of bringing “literary” stuff into the pop world of short attention spans. Stuff based on my stories for MTV twenty years ago, for example. I think getting fiction across multiple “platforms” (pardon the media speak) is great. I always perform my work, and we did a movie version of my book The Sadness of Sex (some of it is online at I used a wonderful line from Jerome K. Jerome for one of my books: “The thoughts we can understand are very little thoughts… All greater thoughts are undefined and vast to our poor childish brains.” And just to note: I’m not a “new media” maven or a techno head, at all. I mean, when I wrote cell phone stories for Japan, I didn’t even own a cell phone (nor did my translator). But I think my sensibility works sympathetically, as it happens, with techno stuff, certainly the trend to be “short.”

The Millions: Any plans to bring the cell phone stories to the States?

coverBY: I’d like to. I’ve started talking to a company that’s begun putting a range of books online for cell phones. At this point, my book of keitai stories for Japan, Keitai (“i-mode”) Stories, only exists as such in Japan. But I tweaked some of its stories and put them in my most recent kids’ book, Yet Another NASTYbook (HarperCollins 2007). I suggested promoting the book by saying it used some cell phone stories from Japan. I was told this wasn’t a great idea, people didn’t like books that had earlier appeared elsewhere. So we didn’t mention the cell phone background. But maybe not a bad idea? Obviously I think so, I’m doing it here.

The Millions: We had a review of a book of flash fiction from China on the site about a year ago. Apparently it has a huge following in China and Taiwan. Ever thought about publishing there?

BY: Yes, my books (other than keitai one) are well translated in Taiwan. Looked like a mainland China publisher was going to bring one out a few years ago, but then disappeared. But may be time again. My books in general are published in Japan, in the conventional literary manner. I have a wonderful translator, Motoyuki Shibata. His “stable” includes Paul Auster, Richard Powers, Millhauser, Kelly Link, etc. He’s a friend and cohort of Haruki Murakami, who’s also an influential translator of American lit (did a hugely successful translation of Catcher in the Rye). Now I’d like to get into Korea, that’s next on my list.

The Millions: And is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

BY: Yeah. I just saw MacBeth at BAM. Patrick Stewart is a magnificent powerhouse. But Lady MacBeth was a letdown, to my eyes, and dragged. Emmett White, the young actor playing Banquo’s son, was super!

is a Washington correspondent for the Japanese news service Kyodo News. He writes on US-Japan relations, reporting from the White House and the Pentagon. In his spare time, he works as a translator. He is currently writing a police noir set in Japan. Follow him on Twitter @benjamindooley.