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Lian Hearn Interview – Orphan Warriors

Lian HearnOn Friday of last week, we reviewed Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori series, which begins with Across the Nightingale Floor. She has two more books in the series coming out soon: Orphan Warriors and Sibling Assassins. And today, we are lucky enough to have an interview with the author!

First off, I am going to ask the most unoriginal question: Who are your literary influences?

Childhood influences were writers who combined fantasy with real worlds, E Nesbitt, Violet Needham, C. S. Lewis. I also read and reread myths and legends, Greek, Norse, Arthurian. The Once and Future King was a favourite when I was a teenager, also The Lord of the Rings. Then I discovered Ray Bradbury and Ursula Le Guin. Just before I started thinking about writing novels myself, I found the novels of Diana Wynne Jones in my local library. She was a huge inspiration.

In writing about Japan I’ve always tried to balance reading Western writers on Japan with original texts and modern Japanese writers. One of the early books I read was Ivan Morris’ The Nobility of Failure, which struck a chord with me. Most of us have more knowledge of failure than of winning, and failure is more interesting to write about. Morris’ book led me to the novels of Yukio Mishima. The Tale of Genji, Tales of the Heike, and Tale of the Soga Brothers are works that I return to over and again.

(Interviewer’s Note: Yukio Mishima was a three-time Nobel Prize nominee for literature, as well as a model and actor. His style merged Japanese and Western styles, but he was also an ultra-nationalist who committed ritual suicide at Tokyo’s Police Headquarters.)

What inspired you to write Tales of the Otori?

Across The Nightingale Floor (cover 2)I was in Japan in 1993 (my first trip, when I was reeling from all the different experiences and impressions). The idea for the story of Across the Nightingale Floor, together with the voice of the protagonist, leapt into my head. I even had the opening line. Initially I was very diffident about writing it and kept putting it aside, but I started studying Japanese and reading all I could and the idea of setting a fantasy in a Japanese world grew more and more pressing.

In 1999, I applied for an Asialink fellowship to go to Japan to research this idea and I was given a grant for three months travel and study. I started writing in the Akiyoshidai International Arts Village, one of the co-sponsors of the grant, and wrote most of the first three books while travelling in Japan in 1999 and 2000. I went back to the same region in 2002 and lived in an old house in a small village for three months. I was researching a historical novel (Blossoms and Shadows) set in the bakumatsu period but while I was there, back in the landscape, more of the Otori story came rushing into my head and I ended up writing the sequel and the prequel, The Harsh Cry of the Heron and Heaven’s Net is Wide.

Your story shows a profound understanding of Japanese history and culture. The Hidden and Christianity. The outcast and the burakumin. The Enlightened Path and Buddhism. How long did it take you to research it all?

It was less research and more of a passion, or you could say obsession. I was living in a small coastal town in South Australia, but I was able to use the library at Adelaide University—I think I read through their entire Japanese section. The internet was in its infancy, though later it became very useful. I returned to Japan at every opportunity, visited many different places, looked at art and historical buildings, museums and battlefields, kabuki and bunraku. I watched quite a lot of movies during that period too. I have a magpie approach to research and am always looking for the shiny bits that will add to the drama of a story. And woven through it all is my own response to Japanese culture and history and my quest to understand it. All the time I was continuing with my language studies.

What books, movies, or television programs would you recommend for someone who wanted to learn more about Feudal Japan?

Orphan Warriors (cover)I’ve mentioned some books above. I’d add to these Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan, the stories and essays of Lafcadio Hearn, and Royall Tyler’s translations of Japanese folk tales. Really there’s such a rich amount of material on feudal Japan. And there’s no one book that covers everything. I’ve got a couple of very useful books on everyday life in premodern Japan, ones on architecture in the medieval period, illnesses, wounds, medical treatment. Japanese illustrated books on history and society are full of fascinating information. I’ve even got a book on gestures! On the internet, The Samurai Archives is a great resource. Japanese period dramas are inspiring, both TV and movies. My favourite film is Black Cats from the Grove (Kuroneko), directed by Kaneto Shindo. The ghost love story is echoed in my latest book, Sibling Assassins.

What was your favorite place when you lived in Japan? Any places that ended up in your story?

As I said above, I spent some time in Yamaguchi prefecture, and the landscape around the Arts Village became the landscape of the Middle Country. I used the city of Hagi, its position on the Japan Sea. The port of Hofu also became a place in my world. In 2010, I was in Tohoku and saw young men dancing the deer dance, and that became the inspiration for The Tale of Shikanoko. I used some of that landscape, of remote mountains and forests, and also the city of Kyoto, the ancient capital.

It’s hard to say which is my favourite place. There are so many places that are special to me, and still so many parts I haven’t yet been to. But I have to say I really love Hagi. Its name means autumn bush clover, so poetic.

Are any of the battles in Tales of the Otori based on historical battles? I connected Yaegahara to Sekigahara in terms of being a seminal battle that changed the fates of many clans.

Sibling Assassins (cover)Yes, that’s right. It’s not meant to coincide with the historical battle of Sekigahara as it would have taken place earlier, but it is a decisive battle, won partly through treachery. (Yaegahara was the place where I caught the bus, and I always liked the name. Lots of battle grounds are …gahara as they were usually fought on open plains.) Again, I don’t usually base battles on anything specific but on a mix of things I’ve read or seen. My writing is impressionistic and suggestive rather than heavily detailed.

The ending of The Harsh Cry of the Heron left me with something of a book hangover. I am thankful to see you have two new books set in the world scheduled to come out next year. Will they tie up loose ends?

The first one, Orphan Warriors, takes place almost immediately after the end of The Harsh Cry of the Heron; the second one, Sibling Assassins, seven years later. The ending of Heron was so devastating to me, I felt I needed to revisit the survivors. But for a long time, I could not work out how to tell the story. In the end, I settled on Arai Sunaomi as the central character, and we see the drama of the other characters (Kaede, Shigeko, Hiroshi, Hisao) through his eyes. I’d almost finished final pages of this book when the theme of the second book sprang into my head, and I knew I wanted to write the story of a young man in love with a ghost. I think it will be my last book.

We would like to thank Ms. Hearn again for taking the time to speak with us! If you want to learn more about her Tales of the Otori series and her other works, you can check out her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook!


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