The Story Behind the Story: “Memoirs of a Geisha”

Often, the story behind how a writer develops a novel from idea to finished product proves as interesting as the story itself. As writers, we are eager to learn how writers approach the craft. A great case study is the story behind Arthur Golden’s brilliant 1997 novel, Memoirs of a Geisha.

Memoirs of Geisha is a first-person account of the life of a geisha in Kyoto, Japan, beginning before World War II and continuing after the war.

Golden, who studied Japanese language and culture, came up with the idea for the story while he was working in Tokyo. He met a young man whose father was a successful businessman and whose mother was a geisha. “After returning to the U.S., I began work on a novel in which I tried to imagine this young man’s childhood,” he said in an interview with BookBrowse. “Gradually I found myself more interested in the life of the mother than the son and made up my mind to write a novel about a geisha.”

He conducted exhaustive research on the topic and drafted an 800-page manuscript. While he was preparing to revise his draft, Golden’s grandmother offered to introduce him to a retired Kyoto geisha. The woman took Golden on an insider’s tour of the geisha district of Gion on Kyoto and arranged for him to observe and photograph the daily ritual of the geisha being dressed in her kimono. She spent time with him explaining the life of the geisha.

After his interview with the geisha in Kyoto, Golden threw out his entire 800-page manuscript and started over. He wrote a 750-page draft in the third person. Agents were interested, but begged off after reading the draft. “I didn’t think the writing itself had scared them away,” Golden said in the interview. “And the subject matter is so fascinating–or at least it was fascinating to me. The way I saw it, if I’d failed to bring the world of geisha compellingly to life, I’d done something dreadfully wrong. And in fact, as I came to understand, my mistake was having chosen to use a remote, uninvolved narrator. So you see, I’d ended up writing a dry book precisely because of my concerns about crossing four cultural divides.”

So Golden found himself having to begin again after completing two lengthy drafts. By this time, keep in mind Golden had already invested six years in this novel. He made the important decision to tell the story from a first person point-of-view. However, he also decided to add a translator, who is identified in the beginning of the book. Golden explained the role of the translator in the BookBrowse interview:

“In writing a novel from the perspective of a geisha, I faced a number of problems. To begin with, how would Americans understand what she was talking about? Even fundamental issues like the manner of wearing a kimono or makeup couldn’t be taken for granted if the audience wasn’t Japanese. When I’d written the novel in third person, the narrator had had the freedom to step away from the story for a moment to explain things whenever necessary. But it would never occur to Sayuri to explain things–that is, it wouldn’t occur to her unless her audience was not Japanese. This is the role of the translator’s preface, to establish that she has come to live in New York and will be telling her story for the benefit of an American audience. That’s also the principle reason why the novel had to end with her coming to New York. It took me a number of tries to find a believable way of getting her there.”

Here is the entire interview with Arthur Golden.

What lessons can writers take away from Golden’s experiences? First, research is important. Golden took the time to research a tradition in Japan that is very much a closed society. Secondly, even the best research will not necessarily produce a credible narrative voice. It wasn’t until Golden made the crucial decision to change from third-person to first-person narrative that he discovered the true voice of the geisha. Third, writers should stick with projects they believe in. It took Golden 15 years from inception to publication of his novel.

Memoirs of a Geisha is one of my favorite novels. It takes awhile for the story to develop, but it is a fascinating, well-crafted novel that teaches the reader much not only about the culture of the geisha, but about the human condition.

Golden received a degree from Harvard College in art history, specializing in Japanese art. In 1980 he earned his M.A. degree in Japanese history from Columbia University. Following a summer at Beijing University, he worked in Tokyo, and, after returning to the United States, earned an M.A. in English from Boston University.

Have you faced challenges similar to these in drafting your novel or work-in-progress? How did you address them? 


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6 responses to “The Story Behind the Story: “Memoirs of a Geisha”

  1. This article applies to me!

    Six months ago I read a few articles about college girls becoming sugar babies to fund their school loans. They don’t consider themselves prostitutes, and yet the line between dating rich older men for money and simply charging for sex is so subtle, it’s difficult to define the relationship for what it actually is.

    So I set upon the social research and added a drug dependency subplot, also something that needed research I’m happy to say. I wrote the story in the first person using my own “values” as the catalyst for my character’s choices: If I were 22 and needed money fast, and dating older men was the only way I could do that, what would I think about that pursuit and how would I maneuver around my morals? I then gave out my finished novella for three reviews. They came back all positive but now I’m not so sure how critical my reviewers were.

    Anyway, feeling confident about my work, I segmented the story and started publishing it on my site week by week. The story quickly lost readership and one person commented, “Write what you know.” I thought I did. But thinking back, maybe I didn’t.

    I went into the story with the assumption that the sugar baby practice was “destructive” and that girls dating for income were not respected (not really), and worse, didn’t respect their own behavior and consequently rationalized it. This projection weakened my protagonist from the get-go. I think I also protected her too much, because, after all, SHE was ME. I gave the story a “happy ending” which means I didn’t raise the stakes high enough. This may have been realistic for what’s happening in the real sugar daddy world, but it didn’t produce a suspenseful read. I thought it did, but it seems like it didn’t. Also, breaking up a novella week to week is not the best way to tell a story. I will not do it again.

    Anyway, the jury is still out about the success of the writing if read as one presentation. I’m waiting for three more reviews to come back to me.

    Still, I learned the BIG LESSON again! You can’t rush fictional writing, for ANY reason. Even for a blog.


    • Irv,
      Thanks for sharing your experience with your current work. Here’s a suggestion: if you know a young woman who is the same age as the character in the book, send her the story and ask her to evaluate whether she believes the voice of the character is authentic. I’m going through the same thing with my work in progress. My MC is a rapper and, needless to say, I have no experience in that area. I read Jay-Z’s autobiography, Decoded, to gain some insight into the mind of a rapper, but then I realized every rapper is different. I still don’t know how to resolve that one. Good luck.


      • Yes, good idea. I gave the story to a mother and her daughter. The daughter graduated three years ago, couldn’t find work, had to go back to school. She very pretty but terribly over weight so I don’t know if she could get into the mindset of heavy dating, let alone dating for gifts. Still, I’ll see what she says.

        I also interviewed an ex-prostitute who needed the money to feed her child back in the early seventies. It took a year of rationalizations before she finally crossed the line. She told me she felt dirty the first few times but eventually got over it. I also read a recent dominatrix autobiography. The author now teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence. I also followed the blog of Seeking, so I I sorta, kinda thought I had it figured out. Still don’t know.


  2. Irv,
    Sounds like you did some good research. Sometimes it just takes time to get the voice right. It’s a lot of trial and error, but stick with it. I like the premise of the story.


  3. Hi, Chris. Thanks for writing the story behind Memoirs of a Geisha. My wife and I have read it for a book club and I think your background will make an interesting addition. Bob

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