Stephanie Scott’s accomplished debut novel is an evocative thriller based around the Japanese marriage break-up industry. What’s Left Of Me Is Yours explores love, betrayal and the grim and far-reaching consequences of hiding the truth, and was published in April, 2020.
Welcome Stephanie! Your luminous debut novel What’s Left Of Me Is Yours was published at the start of lockdown. How has COVID-19 affected the fortunes of your novel, and how have you overcome these problems?
Hello! Thank you so much for speaking with me. Sadly, COVID-19 has been very difficult for everyone and sometimes it can feel insurmountable. My husband and I both contracted COVID-19 in early April and are still experiencing symptoms. My novel also came out later that month when lockdown was in full force and all the bookshops were shut. Publishing is still dealing with the aftermath of that. What has been inspiring, however, is the fortitude and grace of my fellow novelists, particularly the other debut authors who have been launching their books with me this year. Much of the writing life involves perseverance and grit and working long hours from home, so in this sense it has been very much business as usual. The online community and its willingness to engage – finding new ways of talking about books, arranging author appearances, sharing readings filmed on our phones – has also been absolutely wonderful and I am so grateful to the literary community and every single reader for their support.
In What’s Left Of Me Is Yours, you afford the reader an extraordinary insight into Japanese life, and you don’t shy away from the very seedy side of Tokyo, and the dark undercurrents of the marriage break-up industry. How long did What’s Left Of Me Is
take you to write, and has the final novel strayed far from your original concept?
I first read the newspaper article that inspired What’s Left Of Me Is Yours in 2010, so the novel has taken ten years from inception to publication. My original concept has remained in place, but of course the story and characters evolved and developed in complexity with research and drafting.
The murder which inspired the novel involved a marriage break-up agent in Tokyo who strangled his lover when she discovered his true profession and threatened to leave him. The agent swiftly confessed, but as he was speaking to the police he said, “I loved her. I love her still.” I wondered if what he had said was true – could you truly love someone and kill them? Love, in its ideal form, requires selflessness, and I am interested not only in the many forms of love themselves, but also Tolstoy’s idea that there are perhaps as many different kinds of love as there are people. I wanted to explore what love means to each of us – the point at which one’s own survival and happiness can hinge on another person – how we love and what we are capable of doing to each other for love. In this way, even though the novel is to some extent a who-dunnit, it is very much a why-dunnit, exploring the thin line between passion and possession and the stories we tell ourselves.
Your research was clearly wide ranging and rigorous, from vivid descriptions of contemporary Tokyo and beautiful coastal settings to the intricacies of Japanese law. How important was it to you to get all the details right, what was your favourite part to research, and are you a very disciplined writer?
I wanted to be true to the setting of the original story and to base the novel in Japan with an entirely Japanese cast, so it was essential that I got the details right. This was at the forefront of my mind until the very last draft – in some ways I never stopped researching.
I really loved working with lawyers in Tokyo who were very generous with their time and experience and I am so grateful to the prosecutors at the Japanese Embassy in London and all the professionals who helped me understand how the law in Japan has developed into the system that exists today. The British Association of Japanese Studies Toshiba Studentship awarded to me for my anthropological research on the novel also enabled me to undertake further fieldwork in Japan and this was a profoundly rewarding part of the process, particularly studying the evolution of culture across generations, visiting locations in the novel and spending time with the people who live there.
At the heart of What’s Left Of Me Is Yours is a very potent and sensuous love story, which is based upon a lie. Was it difficult to develop and write this plotline within such a constraint, and how did you keep all your narrative threads so tightly plotted with momentum maintained until the end?
Lies and the shifting perceptions of truth, especially within relationships, are a gift to a novelist, so this was very much a source of inspiration rather than a constraint. That said, building intimacy without truth is very difficult, so you need to introduce truth in other ways, and to combine a central love story with a murder (not to mention several personal journeys of discovery) was particularly challenging. The most helpful technique for me was walking the novel – this was even captured by my husband and has been shared on social media. When completing the first draft, I laid the novel out across the floor of my living room and literally walked the book, gauging its rhythms and deciding what needed to be moved or cut. From this point, I could visualise all the different threads, plots, subplots and character arcs, and I wrote them out repeatedly across sheets of paper which still litter the floor of my study!
Please tell us about how you chose your agent, and a bit about your journey to publication.
I was very lucky to have agent interest early on when writing this novel – this came from the Faber Novel Course and writing prizes I won, and gave me the confidence to stick with it. It was also very important to me to only send the novel out when it was absolutely ready, so I took my time and sent it to everyone simultaneously. My lovely agent Antony Harwood then saved me from the complete and utter panic that accompanies submitting a manuscript by offering to represent me within 24 hours.
What’s Left Of Me Is Yours is very cinematic – are there any plans afoot to make it into a film?
Thank you! I love world cinema and my writing is very much influenced by films and directors. So far, some producers have expressed interest, but what comes of it remains to be seen.
Which novelists inspired you to write, and what have you been reading during lockdown?
Maggie O’Farrell, Donna Tartt, Tolstoy, Euripides, Natsuo Kirino, Sayaka Murata, Han Kang, Kazuo Ishiguro, Helen Dunmore, and Ruth Ozeki are the writers who have most inspired me. During lockdown, I’ve been preparing for my next novel by reading Asako Serizawa’s incredible Inheritors and Tim Marshall’s Worth Dying For. I also finally got my hands on the concluding part of S.A. Chakraborty’s stunning Daevabad series, The Empire of Gold, which I’ve been saving for a long weekend.
This novel was inspired by a newspaper article you read about a murder case in Tokyo – has your next project been prompted by something similar?
My next novel is inspired by my Asian family’s experiences of the Second World War, more specifically, my Indian grandmother’s time in Malaya during the Japanese occupation and the life she built for herself after that in Singapore.
And finally, as a great supporter of writing competitions, what advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2021?
Writing competitions have been invaluable in my career. They are a wonderful source of support and also much-needed structure for any developing writer. Enter now!