HITOMI KANEHARA convinced her parents to let her drop out of school at the age of 11. At 16, she left their Tokyo home to move in with a boyfriend. Now, at 21, with no formal secondary or tertiary education, she's a literary prodigy, with awards such as the Akutagawa Prize and more than a million sales for her two novels. 'If I went to school, I don't think I could be where I am now,' the aloof Kanehara says, through an interpreter, as she grinds out a cigarette butt in an ashtray at Central's Fringe Bar. 'When it comes to writing, you have to make use of your life experiences. I didn't go to school, which was kind of a unique experience.' Some of those experiences became the blueprint for her explicit debut, Snakes and Earrings (Vintage), whose English translation had its international release as part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. The novel, written when she was 19, deals with street life for modern Japanese youth. Kanehara is a star in her homeland, but she avoids any suggestion that she represents her generation, emphasising that she only writes about her own interests. To keep her books personal, Kanehara says she never conducts research, whether writing about paedophilia or how to fork the human tongue. 'I really can't speak for them,' she says of Japanese youth. 'It's hard to generalise such a large group of people. My world is only a very small part of a very big world.' The Chinese edition of Snakes and Earrings will be released next month. Thai, Eastern European and South American editions are on the way. Although happy to gain an international audience, Kanehara says translations create a sense that she's losing the books she writes to understand herself. 'It's your book, yet it's no longer yours,' she says. Festival audiences were curious about the writer, who is thin and softly spoken, wears black eyeliner and heavy mascara and dyes her hair red. In blue jeans, high black leather boots and a black shirt with flared sleeves, she's eerily beautiful. Not so the passage from Snakes and Earrings a translator reads to the full house at the Fringe Theatre. The audience shift in their seats while hearing about 19-year-old Lui, a girl obsessed with body modification, tattoos and piercing. She falls for Ama, who has a split tongue. While trying to have her tongue forked, she meets tattoo and piercing artist Shiba. The three enter a bizarre love triangle. Kanehara insists that most of the story came from her imagination. She has no tattoos or unusual piercings. 'I only have my ears pierced - three holes on each side,' she says, fiddling with her hair. 'When I came across a forked tongue in a magazine I really wanted to try it. And the tattoos, too. But I just didn't get around to getting one. I've been too busy.' The magazine image inspired her novel. 'I just wanted to know where that urge came from,' she says. 'That was why I started writing. Enlarging or stretching a hole on your body is definitely not something fun. But once you start, you can't stop. It gets bigger and bigger. Such craving is not fun, and it's not comfortable. But I wonder where this urge comes from. 'It's not a fashion statement, and definitely not the hippest thing in Japan. But when I wrote the stories I understood better where such an urge came from. I think [tattoo or piercing] is something that gives energy. It's something new to your body. It gives you new life.' By the time Kanehara received the Akutagawa Prize, she'd already completed her second novel, Ash Baby, which deals with the Lolita complex or lolicon - the Japanese name for men who are obsessed with girls and girlish women. The central character of Ash Baby is a girl who wants to be killed by a lover. Kanehara became interested in the Lolita complex through male friends who were under its spell. 'I don't have redundant information in my book,' she says of her refusal to study the issues she touches on. 'When I write I just have these big questions in my head, and I try to answer them by writing a book,' she says. 'I just wanted to express the emotions and the anger within myself. I didn't expect people to read my work, particularly Ash Baby. I never thought it would be published. 'I just write about the themes I'm interested in. Whether the theme will be popular among readers is not my consideration. [The theme] has nothing to do with the popularity of your book. It's the quality of the book that matters.' Snakes and Earrings is already being marketed as a 'cult classic', perhaps a reflection how much Kanehara has written since its release. Ash Baby came out last April and topped sales charts in Japan. Later this summer, Kanehara's untitled third book will be published. 'It will focus on the psychology deep inside me,' she says. 'I analyse what I've experienced thoroughly.' Instead of going to school, Kanehara says she educated herself by reading and matured through writing fiction. 'This is my process of growing up, and by the end of it you settle and come to terms with yourself. Every human being is different, and everyone should be growing up under different environments. And for me, my place of growing up isn't school. It's not a fatal mistake if I didn't go to school. 'When I finish writing, I feel better and satisfied. It's the same for any writing, particularly [Snakes and Earrings]. I could see myself in a way I couldn't see before. I'm just like the book's main character, Lui. As illustrated in the last chapter, she grew up.' Kanehara's father, Mizuhito, a university professor who specialises in English and jazz music, agreed with her decision to leave school. He supports his daughter's career by editing her manuscripts. Kanehara says it took a long time to convince her mother that life outside school was the right path for her. Her brother, who is two years older, finished school and went to university. 'My mother was very worried about me - she even took me to a counsellor,' she says. 'But my father didn't really interfere. He thought that if I really didn't want to go to school, I didn't have to.' Without school, Kanehara says she had a lot of time to read contemporary Japanese novels and write her own. Her favourite author is Ryu Murakami, one of the judges of last year's Akutagawa Prize. Kanehara left home when she was 16. Moving in with her boyfriend, who supported her financially, she may have enjoyed a great deal of freedom, but she also endured harsh treatment from those around her. As she wrote in Snakes and Earrings: 'People always assume I'm an orphan, but yes, I do have parents.' 'Yes, people always ask me, or assume my parents are divorced simply because we don't live together,' she says. 'But I just had a different base for myself. 'It's OK if they want to think of me that way. It makes me look more mysterious. But the truth is I do stay in good relations with my folks. We communicate. But I don't know whether I was able to convince my mother at that time. I just told her, 'I'm leaving at the moment. I want to have a life, standing on my feet.' I think when she sees me with my achievements she understands now.' After spending most of her life rebelling, Kanehara says she hopes for a simple existence. The income she earns from writing is spent on more books to read. 'I just want to keep on writing,' she says. 'It might not be a dream, but this is my biggest wish. I just want to keep doing what I'm doing.'