by David L. Gregory
“They are noisy and people don’t like them, but they are good for the environment – just like writers.” – Hillel Wright on his Tokyo anthology title Jungle Crows
How does a fisherman earn a living with words – and in a land where his words are foreign?
Dubbed a “writer/editor/fisherman/anarchist” by one peer, Hillel Wright proudly engaged in the activities those labels implied, but avoided labeling himself – except when admitting he had been a hippy. USA born, he started a PhD thesis on William Faulkner to avoid the Vietnam War, took a break that never ended to work on a Hawaiian fishing boat, emigrated to Canada because Richard Nixon became president, and continued commercially fishing for more than 20 years. Meeting a freelance yacht magazine correspondent on one fishing trip and another trip that went bad pushed him back toward working with words. He wrote fishery magazine columns, started two literary magazines¾both with “Tides” in their titles – edited a poetry anthology, and twice published his own poetry books before moving to Japan at 53 years old.
Ocean fishing taught Hillel how to operate in harsh environments, so he thrived in Japan, becoming known as an expert on Japan fishing through freelance photojournalism for Fishing News International magazine and other publications (including the Japan Times), doing travel reviews, editing or co-editing three poetry books and four literary anthologies, publishing the anthologies (Waseda University and other schools adopted the bestselling Faces in the Crowd as a textbook), writing and publishing three novels and a mixed short piece collection, lecturing at universities, and helping Tokyo’s international writing community with leadership, funding, and creative contributions, which set up connections for his other above pursuits.
Hillel’s main Japan income source, university teaching, kept him afloat on land well enough to pursue his many writing projects.
Back in British Columbia after seventeen years, Hillel expanded his East-West bridging. He covered Japan and Hawaii for Fishing News International, consulted for a British TV documentary on Japan tuna fishing, reviewed Pacific Rim books, wrote about Japan and Okinawa influences on Hawaiian culture, restarted a literary magazine with new Japan contributors, and started an FM radio program featuring music, fiction, and poetry from Japan and Okinawa. One night in 2017, at 73 years old, he went to sleep and did not wake up.
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So others might better succeed with their writing, or anything, Hillel Wright offered these tips and stories on doing things his way (from Japan Writers Conference* presentations and discussions 2007~2013):
- Elements you need for success:
- Talent: “Develop yours…I learned how to organize research in the doctorate program – but fishing had greater influence on my career.”
- Luck: “Create your own, and change bad to good.” A chance meeting and a bad experience rechanneled Hillel’s career. “I eventually earned more money writing about fishing than from fishing itself.”
- Connections: “Make and use them…Book reviews do not earn much money, but they set up connections¾and you receive free books when you ask to do them.”
- Focus: “You can’t do too many things at once.” If that was a fishing boat lesson, Hillel learned well; just look at all he accomplished on land by prioritizing.
- Stay balanced: “Journalism is intellectual, logical; fiction is intuitive, emotional.”
- Slant reality: Hillel created multiple travel reviews for the same locations, depending on target readers.
- Steal from yourself: Hillel perfected this tactic, cutting and pasting his fishing articles to re-use in different publications in different countries.
- Be honest: A magazine offered Hillel a better camera for his work. He said it probably would not improve his photographs and turned them down.
- Be your own boss: Hillel applied to writing the discipline he developed in commercial fishing. His work rules:
- “I always write in the morning, and never after noon.”
- “I write until I fill seven notebook pages, in pen, or for two hours, whichever comes first.”
- “STARBUCKS is great: You can sit for hours with one coffee without being hassled – and there’s no smoking.”
- Think long term: A young, cash-strapped Japanese once asked Hillel for his books to take on the world-circling Peace Boat. Hillel agreed when the voyager promised to put them after reading into the Boat’s library.
- On novel writing:
- Start with a “controlling metaphor”: “Inspiration is required – but I do not know where that comes from.”
- Add structure: “Logic enters here.”
- Use routine: “Logical time discipline” leads to progress.
- Be flexible: “Sometimes working backwards is best: write the ending first, then fill in earlier parts.”
- Be realistic: “Stopping and throwing out is useful if something is not working.”
- Show gratitude: “Remember to send copies to people who assisted you.”
Years after his generosity to the Peace Boater, Hillel received a message from a man in Okinawa. His wife was a Peace Boat doctor, she had read and recognized settings in Hillel’s books—and knew Hillel’s sister. Hillel later stayed in their home after fleeing the Fukushima nuclear disaster and soon was teaching at an Okinawa university. Talent, luck, and connections again paid off.
* * *
Hillel Wright made his marks on the world and became “The Man Who Knows Fishing in Japan” only by venturing from both land and homelands, and his books—a fisherman’s haul in words—might still be following in his wake, out crossing the oceans. For someone who worked on and wrote about the sea for so long, how could there be a better legacy?
Select Hillel Wright books:
Faces in the Crowd (2002 Printed Matter Press; Tokyo international anthology)
Rotary Sushi (2003 Orphic Publishers; own writings collection)
Jungle Crows (2007 Printed Matter Press; Tokyo expatriate anthology)
Thanks for inspiring and informing go to Japan Writers Conference organizer John Gribble, his “A Pirate with Principles: Remembering Hillel Wright” (2017), and Marc Antomattei.
Hillel Wright at Japan Writers Conference #7
Okinawa Christian University– Nishihara City, Okinawa 2013.11.2
Hillel Wright passed away in Canada at age 73 on 1 August 2017.
Photograph by Nagashima Kumiko.
Copyright © 2017~2022 David L. Gregory All rights reserved.