Learning the art of interviewing from true ghost story author Aruji Kuroki - Getting people to talk writes your story itself
Article by: Ichibo Harada @HEW
"True Ghost Stories" is, as the name implies, a genre that consists of retelling ghost stories that someone actually experienced. The author Aruji Kuroki is well known as a flagbearer of the true ghost story genre, and has somehow managed to collect over 3,000 true ghost stories to date. The books he's written solo and contributed to with others totals at over 50 volumes.
Kuroki says that he's even collected stories from people he just happened to find himself drinking next to at a bar. What's the trick to getting someone you've just met to open up and tell you about their experience with a ghost? While searching for this secret, Kuroki not only was able to collect material for writing about many true ghost stories, but also began to develop a signature technique for conducting interviews.
- Aruji Kuroki
Currently lives in Yamagata prefecture, Japan. Debuted with the solo work "True Ghost Stories: Spirits." Has since then published numerous series including "100 Miserable Stories," "Kuroki Demon Chronicles," "Ghost Story Trade Book," and "True Ghost Stories Masterpiece Collection." Including collaborations, he has published over 50 books.
It's hard to return a straight pitch. A shortcut that feels like a detour.
── If you were to ask someone you'd just met for the first time at a bar "Have you ever seen a ghost?" there's a pretty good chance they'd reply with an immediate "No," right?
Well, I'd say about 8 times out of 10 they'll say no. But the kind of "ghosts" those people are thinking of are gaudy stories like "the bloody spirit of a defeated warrior" or "a decapitated head floating in the sky." People who like the same kind of stories as me are more interested in stories that seem like they could actually happen in real life, maybe even to them; stories that seem to hover on the boundary between reality and fantasy. So when you're trying to get someone to tell you about their experience, if you start out by demonstrating "For example, a story like this..." the person will often get on board and say, "Well, if that's the kind of story you're looking for, actually..."
── You have to lay out the foundation for them first.
── Honestly, have you ever been told a really cliché story and felt let down? Something like "I went to a place famous for ghost sightings and afterwards found a strange handprint on my car!" or something...?
── With just the addition of that information, a cliché story takes on new meaning, doesn't it!
── It seems to me that a lot of patience, and a high tolerance for gossip and small talk is required for gathering ghost stories.
I think it's important to be able to get interested in what people are saying. As far as I know, most ghost story writers are almost ridiculously cheerful and upbeat. They get the other person talking by talking themselves. I do get the impression that most of us like talking more than average.
By drawing the outline, the core becomes visible
── In your book "Ghost Story Trade Book: The Mockingly Laughing Monkey" (published by Takeshobo), you said "I'd much rather collect raw, unedited stories than those that have been 'brushed up' by the teller." You also said earlier that "The most important details are sometimes in the parts the teller leaves out," but do you think that these details are easier to search for in the "raw" original version of the story?
── When you encounter a clearly "brushed up" story, how do you dig down to the root of it and uncover the raw truth?
── By the way, in cases where you get a story from someone you met by coincidence while out drinking, it must be difficult to gather further information if you later think of something you wish you'd asked them, right?
── What kinds of things are you careful about during interviews to make sure there isn't anything you forget to ask about?
── This must take a lot of patience as well.
It's actually more self-defeating than you might imagine to approach interviews with the mentality of "I just need to get them to spit out a scary story!" When I was in university I participated in a folklore-studies field study, and I think that experience still helps me to this day. For example, when you're conducting research about festival events, you delve into the eating patterns and family structure of the people in that area; anything related to their daily lives, really. If you begin interviewing them as if sketching an outline, you may realize "That's how they live, so it makes sense that this festival holds this kind of meaning and takes this kind of form," getting an unexpectedly clear view into the very heart of the matter.
── It sounds like it's important not to be too trapped by the theme of your research.
Most good ghost stories are first or second hand stories at most
── Have you ever been in an interview and thought "This has got to be a lie" or "This person is seriously embellishing what really happened"?
── What kind of people put you on your guard that they might be lying?
── On the other hand, do you ever get any stories that make you think "The person who's telling the story seems scared, but it seems like just a figment of their imagination to me"?
── Is there any place that's especially easy to collect ghost stories? Personally, I have an impression of taxi drivers as the type of people who must have a lot of scary stories to tell...
── It never would've occurred to me to ask my relatives about ghost stories at a family reunion!
The borderline between a "True Story" and "Fiction"
── You also teach students how to write ghost stories, isn't that right? What are some mistakes that people who aren't used to writing ghost stories are likely to make?
── Indeed, if I hear stereotypical ghost story lines like "My blood ran cold" it gives me the disappointed impression "I think I've heard this one before..."
── When you're writing true ghost stories, where do you draw the line in terms of "It's okay to edit the story like this, but any more and it would cease to be a true story"?
── It's not impossible that two different authors might interview the same individual about the same event. If this were to happen, in what ways do you think the two stories might turn out different?
Things to be especially aware of when writing in a genre that deals with death
── I'm sure you've heard ghost stories about people who died in accidents and natural disasters. What kinds of things are you careful about when it comes to these stories?
This all comes down to my own personal interests, but I'm not really interested in stories of paranormal phenomena related to depressing and tragic events. Don't get me wrong, I do write those kinds of stories, and I don't mean to disparage authors who bring exposure to those kinds of events, it's just that telling stories that reveal the facts of true events and identity of real victims in order to prove the truthfulness of the story is not the kind of "scariness" I'm looking for. So, personally, I don't really deal with stories about accidents, etc. unless they have some kind of "scare factor" other than as simple gossip. And when I do occasionally write those kinds of stories, I always make sure that what I've written can't be construed as slander towards the actual persons involved in the case, and avoid writing in a scandalous and inflammatory manner, such as "Read here for the juicy details! Revealed for the first time anywhere, the exact location where the incident occurred!"
── The fact that ghost stories are part of a genre that deals with death certainly draws each author's stance into question.
── Do you ever feel frightened yourself while collecting true ghost stories?
── Do you regularly visit a shrine to undergo a purification ceremony, or anything like that?
No, nothing in particular. The man who's like a teacher to me, the author Yumeaki Hirayama, once told me "If it's providing you your livelihood, you should be prepared to sacrifice an arm for it, if absolutely necessary" and that's how I've decided to conduct myself too. If something happens, it happens, I suppose it can't be helped and I'll have to deal with it then. Other than what I have to do to put food on the table, I leave the supernatural alone. If I'm able to write a 1200-word story about it, especially if my deadline is looming, then I might actually not mind being haunted. (laughs)