They can laugh about it now. But when Arthur Golden's editor first heard the premise of his proposed first novel—that it be written entirely from the point of view of a leading Japanese geisha of the 1930s and '40s—she was blunt about its chances. "Shut up," he recalls her sayins. "There's no way an American man can pull this off."
Wrong. Golden's remarkable ability to imagine life in a highly secretive foreign subculture has turned his book Memoirs of a Geisha into a phenomenon. In the year since its publication, the critically acclaimed novel has sold more than half a million hardcover copies in the U.S. alone and been translated into 23 languages. It's already slated to become a Hollywood film directed by Steven Spielberg, who told The Hollywood Reporter, "I believe in love at first sight, which is probably why I fell so hard for Arthur Golden's novel."
For Golden, 41, the romance of Geisha was slower to develop, almost 10 years from start to finish. Even after tons of research and two drafts, he felt his story still lacked depth. "I found that people who read earlier versions didn't care about her," Golden says. A key breakthrough came in 1992, when he traveled to Kyoto, Japan, to meet 42-year-old Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha, who schooled him in the esoteric rituals and customs of her trade. He learned the intricacies of applying the formal, chalky-white makeup and also learned the surprisingly heavy price of beauty: The best kimonos can cost $15,000 and weigh 30 pounds. "Mineko took my understanding of a geisha's daily existence and stood it on its head," Golden says. "I had to throw out my entire 800-page draft and start from scratch."
The resulting Geisha is a powerful story tracing the life of Sayuri, a fisherman's daughter sold into servitude by her father at age 9. She is tutored in the arts and trained to entertain men. "It's not about sex," Golden says, though sex is available. "It's about being a woman and being present in this group of men and changing the social dynamic." Men pay geishas to sate their every wish, from drinks to dancing to witty repartee. In fact some geishas—a few still exist—accrue wealth and power by manipulating clients' affections. "It is the only subculture in Japan I know of," says Golden, "that is absolutely ruled by women."
Which has helped endear the novel to a growing number of book clubs around the country. When Geisha was the subject of a monthly 12-member meeting at Lisa Troller's Lake Forest, Ill., home last April, guests got into the spirit, donning authentic kimonos, nibbling on sushi and sipping green tea. "No chairs allowed," says Troller, 37. "I just thought it would be fun."
Growing up in Lookout Mountain, Tenn., a scion of the family that controls The New York Times, Golden didn't plan to become an expert on entertaining Japanese guys 60 years ago. His late father, Ben Golden, was publisher of The Chattanooga Times; his mother, Ruth Holmberg, 77, chairs the paper's printing division. Two of his three siblings are New York Times executives. But Golden, a Harvard graduate, decided to go for an advanced degree in Japanese history at Columbia. En route to Asia to study, he met an exchange student from Seattle, Trudy Legge, whom he wed in 1982. Today he and Trudy, now 45, live in a Victorian house in Brookline, Mass., with their son Hays, 14, and daughter Tess, 11.
For years, Golden, who is hard at work on a new novel set in the U.S., fretted about Geisha. "I thought sometimes, 'I'm never going to get this novel published,' " he admits. The fact that it's a hit may have solved another problem as well. "I called a friend of mine the day the book sold," he says. "And she said, 'Oh, Arthur, this is so great. Now you won't have to have a midlife crisis.' "
Nancy Day in Brookline
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