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Interview with Keith Yatsuhashi

Keith Yatsuhashi

Keith Yatsuhashi is a fantasy author and long time anime fan whose critically acclaimed books Kojiki (2016) and Kokoro (2017) are published by Angry Robot. He’s repped by Red Sofa Literary Agency.

He stopped by Fantasy Faction to talk to us about his books and his writing.

Hi Keith! Thank you for joining us. Please introduce yourself for our readers, and tell us a little bit about yourself and your books.

Okay, but before I do that I want to thank Fantasy Faction for hosting me. I’ve been a member of your Facebook group for a couple of weeks now, and I really enjoy the conversations going on there. I’ve been a science fiction fan since I was really young, but I wasn’t much of a reader. I’ve always been more of a TV and movie guy, which I think shows in my writing. I work for the government in international trade/consulting and help companies ship products overseas. My books, Kojiki and Kokoro, are tributes to the things I like best in SFF, but mostly in anime — I’ve even left lots of Easter eggs for anime fans to find. I’ve always wanted to write something cinematic, almost operatic, with larger than life characters that come to the story with tragic backgrounds and the need to right wrongs they committed.

Kojiki by Keith YatsuhashiHow did you get your publishing deal with Angry Robot, and what has it been like working with them? 

Signing with Angry Robot Books was pretty much a dream come true for me. My contact with them came out of the blue. Two years ago, I saw a Pitmad contest over on twitter. I’d never heard of it before, and I thought I’d give it a try. I really didn’t have anything to lose, right? I had a lot of interest from that contest, but the one response that really stood out to me came from Michael Underwood, Angry Robots’ North American sales manager. Since I knew the rules clearly say publishers aren’t supposed to favorite tweets, I figured it was a mistake. I started to follow Mike on Twitter. He was talking a lot about the latest Mad Max movie, so I started up a conversation. I finally worked up the courage and asked if his favorite might be an accident or if it was intentional. As it turned out, he said my tweet interested him and wanted to see more. From there I went through the usual submission process, set my query letter and all the rest of my pages.

At the same time, Laura Zats, from Red Sofa Literary favorited my tweet and asked for the first few pages. She came back not long after that requesting the full manuscript. A few months later we had our introductory call. I pretty much accepted her offer on the spot. She’s a fantastic agent. I love her outlook and optimism. She took over from there, and I signed with Angry Robot.

How is working with Angry Robot Books? They are absolutely fantastic. They’re a fun group of people. I couldn’t ask for more on the editorial side. I’ve worked with two different editors there and have been thrilled with each one. As a new author, they are a dream company. I feel lucky to have them as my publisher. Everyone from Mike Underwood in sales to Penny Reeve in publicity to Marc Gascoigne, the Robot Overlord, is incredibly supportive. It’s the perfect situation for me.

Your work captures the feel of classic anime, from Ghibli-esque conflicts between spirits, gods and humans to giant robots in Kokoro. How big an influence is anime? What are some of the key films or series that influenced you?

Do you realize what a huge compliment that is? Wow! I started out imagining my books as anime, not fan-fic really, because I didn’t base them on any one anime. People who are into the current shows coming out of Japan may not be familiar with the titles that really motivated me. Studio Ghibli is of course one of the biggest. Look no further than Aeryk and his sky castle. I know it shows up in classics throughout literature and science fiction/fantasy TV shows what have you, but that concept is a direct nod to Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky. There’s a good deal of Spirited Away in here with the ideas of the gods. It’s really the whole structure, the idea of these gods hanging out on earth and pretty much ignoring the people and doing what they want.

The tone of my books has less to do with Miyazaki and more to do with the more melodramatic anime I liked as a kid. Number one and number two on that list are Space Battleship Yamato and Giant Robo. I’m not sure how many of today’s anime fans are familiar with them, but to me they are just the most incredibly heroic and spectacular pieces I’ve ever come across in any medium. They’re huge, operatic productions that focus on how the smallest people, the most insignificant, can stand against the worst situations and come out victorious. They’re about courage and heart and beating the odds. I knew I wanted to mirror that tone. If you stream the soundtracks to Yamato and Giant Robo when you read either book’s final chapters, and you’ll see what I mean.

Did you always want to write fantasy? What books got you into the genre?

I didn’t even know I wanted to write until I started. In high school, I tried my hand at what turned out to be Kokoro but dropped it because I didn’t have the tools to write a whole book. I’d already read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but as you’ve seen from my books, Tolkien didn’t have as much of an influence on me as anime did. Oddly, I prefer fantasy books to science fiction. There are just so many good books out there.

Keith YatsuhashiKojiki deals believably with Keiko’s experience growing up between two cultures and embracing her Japanese heritage. Is this something you were always wanting to write about?

Yes. I started writing the book after the death of my aunt. She was the last surviving member of my father’s family. During the funeral, my father’s sister-in-law told us some incredible things about my family. She said we came from a very old family, that my grandmother’s ancestors fought against the Mongols when they tried to invade Japan but were killed by the legendary kami kaze that defeated Kublai Khan’s hordes. (I want to make sure your readers know I can’t verify any of this). It’s no surprise to those who know me that the aunt who died would become Keiko. The personality is undeniable, right down to the camera. Everyone loved my aunt. She retained the child-like worldview we all seem to lose as we get older. I can’t remember her not laughing and smiling.

The Yamanaka name is significant too. My grandfather worked for the Yamanaka trading company and was an expert in fine Japanese antiques. He came to the US during the Meiji Restoration when Japan’s nobility was in transition. Takeshi Akiko’s crimson armor and shield are a tribute to my father, (as is Takeshi himself), who went to Harvard and Harvard Medical School. Keiko’s father has a periwinkle blue shield, another tribute to my father and the surgical scrubs I always saw him in.

As for the growing experience, yes, that was a big part of the book. You’ll notice Keiko is very American, something Yui keeps noting. Keiko doesn’t even recognize her Japanese heritage until she goes to Japan. She doesn’t even speak the language. This mirrors my upbringing. I grew up in a small suburb during the Vietnam War. It was a different time. Diversity wasn’t as celebrated or important culturally as it is now. My parents made the conscious decision that we would be as American as we could be. The Japanese were the enemy. The Vietnamese were the enemy. They didn’t want us to be seen that way. I don’t blame them. I will say, adamantly, we didn’t face discrimination or bullying as kids. Not because of being Japanese. I think that speaks well of our town during a time when we think discrimination was rampant. It wasn’t.

In Kojiki, Vissyus is a world-threatening power, but he also has a tragic backstory and sympathetic motivations. How important was writing a well-developed antagonist for your story?

Vissyus is a bit of a paradox. He’s the most complicated character in the book. I modeled him on three basic character tropes. He’s the classic mad scientist; you know, like Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or even Bruce Banner. He keeps experimenting regardless of consequence, and eventually those experiments get away from him. The second trope came, from all places, a tragic love story. In Vissyus’s case, I relied heavily on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic The Phantom of the Opera. Vissyus is doing what he’s doing for love. So on the one hand, he’s a rampaging monster when we get to meet him; on the other, he’s Kojiki‘s most sympathetic character. Lastly, I really wanted to base him on Billy Budd. For all his faults, Vissyus is an ideal; he’s as perfect as any one of the book’s characters could be. He’s tall and handsome, and he controls wild elemental powers. He’s also immeasurably strong. He does have this one weakness however, and that just happens to be Seirin. Vissyus, despite his greatness, doesn’t have the ability to get what he really wants, and that becomes his downfall.

Writing him was a hell of a lot of fun. You have to balance the madness with the moments of clarity. I wanted to be sure I made him a more complicated villain then a simple run-of-the-mill cape-wielding-evil-mustache-twirling baddie. I hope readers get the idea that, at the end of the day, he really isn’t the book’s villain. If anything, you can lay more of the villain tag on the more selfish characters, the ones who really need to grow as the story goes along and live up to and face what they’ve done. They’re the ones who turned their best friend into someone who could trigger Armageddon.

Your work also draws heavily on Japanese mythology. Can you talk about how it has influenced your writing?

It didn’t really. I’ll take you back to anime. Anime is the main driver here. If you do a quick search, you’ll see anime based on all kinds of myths that have NOTHING to do with the actual myths other than the names the writers use for the story. One of my favorites, Arion, is supposedly about Greek myths, but would be unrecognizable to scholars of Greek mythology. In Kojiki you even have the characters admitting the holy Kojiki is, in fact, made up to keep Vissyus off guard. Those familiar with The Kojiki myth will notice I never tried to tie the myth into my book: no names, no places, no circumstances, etc. I think you need to be a true scholar and know the work in great detail to write a piece of fiction about it with any accuracy. I’m not that to be sure.

Is there any favourite fantastical creature or anime trope you wanted to use in Kojiki and Kokoro but were unable to fit in?

Hmmm. Well, I’ve covered so many and put so many into Kojiki, I don’t think there is room for much more. The book is practically overflowing with them. I think that’s me what made it so much fun to write. Maybe the only thing missing is the mecha. I took care of that with Kokoro. I couldn’t stuff any of the mecha/giant robot tropes into Kojiki because they really don’t fit. Kojiki‘s more of an organic book; it’s about the gods themselves and the creatures and guardians they command.

Kokoro has elements of that, but it doesn’t start that way. I wanted to write something closer to my absolute love of anime mecha stories. You’ll find some aspects of the classics in Kokoro, including The Vision of Escaflowne and a bit of Evangelion here and there.

Kokoro by Keith YatsuhashiSo, Kojiki came out last year and Kokoro is out now, what’s next for Keith Yatsuhashi?

I’m really happy to say that I finished the first draft of what will be book 3. Unlike Kokoro, book 3 goes back to Keiko. She’s the central character, and she faces a very different challenge. While I was working on book 1 in the editing phase, I talked to my editor Phil Jourdan, and we came up with this crazy idea of how teenagers grow to adulthood and how they strike out on their own. Keiko’s journey mirrors that. Think about getting your driver’s license. First, you start out in the classroom, learning everything you can before you get behind the wheel. Then comes the instruction part, that’s when you’re in the car with an instructor learning how to drive. The test is the last part, but you really don’t know how well you’ve learned until you’re out there driving own. That’s a little bit of what happens to Keiko in all three books. In book 1 it’s sort of like the classroom aspect. She’s learning about the greater world around her. Book 2, gives her the first opportunity to have a supervised – I’m doing air quotes here – mission. She goes to Higo under Takeshi’s supervision and helps solve one of the world’s major problems. She’s mostly on the sideline as a counselor, helping the people of work their way through the greatest crisis they’ve ever faced.

Book 3 is all about Keiko coming to grips with who she is, what she can do, and the responsibility that weighs down upon her. She’s on her own for the first time, and she has to solve something without help. At the same time, she’s a teacher and mentor to one of the new kami. I won’t say which one other than it’s someone you haven’t met before. As I’m still in the draft phase, I can’t really tell how these will all shake out, but the outline certainly is complete, as is the prose; I just don’t what will survive the editing process or how I’ll flesh things out detail and deepen them.

Finally, your author bio says that you used to be a champion figure skater! Can you tell us anything about that?

Yes, I was a competitive figure skater when I was a teenager. I started out when I was really young. I was in the sport for maybe eight or so years. Toward the end of my career was when all the good stuff happened. My sister and I competed in ice dance. Our first big competition was the US National Figure Skating Championships in 1982. Our second year was even bigger. We went to the World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Sarajevo and won the bronze. We were silver medalists in the 1984 World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Sapporo, Japan, the following year and went on to win the US National Championships two months later. Being half Japanese you can imagine how it felt to visit Japan and see the places your family came from. Being an anime fan only added to the experience! Many of the places we went to made it into Kojiki, especially the great Buddha in Kamakura and various locations in and around Tokyo.

Thank you for sharing all that with us, Keith!

Keith Yatsuhashi

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