It is clear that Haruki Murakami has perfected the art of telegraphic humour.
"I am a fan of losers," says the self-described optimist in a conversation about baseball teams, at a packed Aotea Centre on Saturday night at the Auckland Writers Festival. One gets the feeling the bestselling author of Norwegian Wood and 1Q84 is talking about life in general.
Pauses are a large part of Murakami's comic timing, at least when he's speaking in English. The last audience question of the night is about his favourite food. "Doughnuts," he says. Pause. "I am a doughnut addict." He also misses tofu when he's away from Japan. Long pause. "Doughnuts and tofu," he summarises finally. "People are making tofu doughnuts in Japan, it's good!"
Murakami is wearing salmon trousers, blue trainers and a green t-shirt featuring the words "Keep Calm and Read Murakami" below a picture of a cat. Cats come up in the discussion with American literary critic John Freeman several times (as they do in Murakami's novels). Freeman starts one question with "if your house was burning down and you grabbed your cat and your wife..." "Cat first," interjects Murakami, who has been married for 44 years and whose wife is sitting backstage. "It's going to be a long drive home!" suggests Freeman.
The family cat was Murakami's only friend when he was growing up as an only child: "My parents didn't understand [me] at all. I love my books, I love my music, I love my cat."
An audience member asks later if Murakami thinks cats have a spirituality.
"No, it's just a cat," comes the immediate reply.
As his parents were both Japanese literature teachers, their son "naturally... hated Japanese literature". Murakami rebelled by reading French and Russian literature and American detective novels. "Everywhere, children are doing what their parents don't like: they pierce their tongues... they listen to hip hop. So what I did was not read Japanese literature."
He first started to write in the late 1970s, after a famous epiphany experienced while enjoying an afternoon watching baseball and drinking beer. But, he says, at first "I couldn't write in the right way. I know so many words, so many expressions, and it's very complicated." So he translated his words into English and then back again into Japanese. And that is how he found his "simple and clear" style.
And his content? He doesn't start out knowing what each of his characters will be like; writing involves discovering them. In one story, the protagonist asks a woman to marry him and she asks for two days to decide, and that's the end of the book. Murakami has had irate readers begging him to tell them what she does. "But," he protests, "I don't know!"
"I'm always looking for the bright side of the things, but it's strange, most of my fictions are not happy endings. I don't know why," he says. "In many of my books the protagonist is seeking for something and finally he finds it but it is not what he expected and he's kind of disappointed and he's sad.... In most cases he is going to be left in chaos."