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Golden goes Hollywood

Golden goes Hollywood

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For Arthur Golden, watching his best-selling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, transformed into a Hollywood movie was something like watching a painter at work, "taking my descriptions of scenes and making a beautiful painting out of them. It was a curious and strange and exciting experience."

Golden, 48, says he learned a lot about the complexity of filmmaking. "When you write a novel, you go up into your study, and you just hope the phone doesn't ring, and nobody bothers you.

"Making a movie is like a train. There are so many parts, and they all have to work together, and it's an enormous machine. It was amazing to see."

The movie, starring Ziyi Zhang and Ken Watanabe, opens Friday.

Memoirs begins before World War II and tells the story of a Japanese girl who is sold into slavery by her father and forced to work as a servant in a geisha house. The girl grows up to become the famous geisha Sayuri. She is lovely and captivating but haunted by her love for a man she cannot have.

Golden has always been attracted to the geishas' "curious subculture with its own curious rules" and says he knows why many Westerners are fascinated by it. "We don't have anything even remotely like geishas in this culture," he says. "I think people project a lot of their fantasies onto it.

"Quite honestly, I thought it would make a fabulous novel. And then I came across the book that Liza Dalby wrote years ago on the subject of geisha. (In the 1970s, Dalby, an American, apprenticed as a geisha in Kyoto and later wrote the simply titled Geisha.) "Suddenly, I realized I had been flirting with something kind of peripheral to that, and that was what I wanted to write about."

The result was a novel that has been translated into 32 languages. More than 5 million copies are in print in the USA.

Many people assume Golden is a starry-eyed Japanophile when, in fact, he says he has a more mature view. "It's a place I love visiting, but it's a complicated society."

Golden says fans of his book and geisha culture will be pleased with the movie's attention to detail. Much of it was filmed on a re-creation of a geisha town that was built in a field in Ventura, Calif.

"When you're writing a book, you can certainly consult photographs, but you cannot describe them because it becomes like a police description: It never works. The only thing you can do is to evoke the illusion of a scene."

Golden says he never had to imagine things such as whether a tea cup left on a table has left a ring or whether someone's fingernails had been trimmed. "But those are precisely the kinds of questions you have to answer when you're making a movie."

The movie was a "huge and joyful distraction," but he is now writing a novel that has nothing to do with Japan.

"It starts off with a young boy in Amsterdam in the 1850s," says the author, who lives in Brookline, Mass. "After his grandfather's death, he comes to the United States and ends up a successful businessman in the meatpacking industry. I've written a draft and have done a tremendous amount of research.

"One of these days I'll have it finished. I certainly want to get it off my desk and move on to my next project."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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