Isuna Hasekura’s Spice & Wolf is a long-running manga and light novel series (yes, there’s an anime too) about Lawrence, a traveling merchant, and Holo, a harvest goddess, who team up and travel through medieval Europe cutting deals and having adventures. It’s a smart series with some great surprises and plot twists, and a really great read in either format.
Hasekura was a special guest at New York Comic Con last year, and I had the opportunity to sit down with him for a one-on-one conversation about the series. At the con, Yen Press announced plans to publish the short story collection Spice & Wolf: Volume 18: Spring Log, a short story collection, as well as Spice & Wolf New Theory: Parchment and Wolf, Vol. 1, which launches a new adventure featuring Holo and Lawrence’s daughter, Myuri. Both books are expected this year.
What was your inspiration for Spice & Wolf, and how did the finished series differ from your original concept?
There are actually three big influences. The first is Jean Favier’s Gold and Spices: The Rise of Commerce in the Middle Ages, which is about the economic history of medieval Europe; the second was James Frazer’s Golden Bough, which is a collection of world myths; and the third was Moyoco Anno’s manga Sakuran.
The first two make sense, but why Sakuran?
I’m not sure if it carried over into the English edition, but in the original Japanese, the pattern of speech that Holo uses in [Spice & Wolf] is very Edo period language, and so it was more the diction and the language that was the inspiration for that.
In terms of the second half of the question, I would say that the story pretty much went the way I wanted it to from the beginning to the end. For example it didn’t suddenly turn into a battle manga.
Did you grow up in the country or the city? What inspirations did you draw on when you were creating the world of Spice & Wolf?
I would say I grew up in a place that was half and half. It was a place that was both close to a city and yet also very close to the country. In terms of the inspiration I had, I would say a lot of books that I read, and then I kind of built upon it through my imagination. And Google image search. [laughs]
The setting seems to be similar to Medieval Europe. Why did you set it there and not in Japan?
In part it’s because to me, older Japanese civilization isn’t as flashy or showy. I didn’t feel like it would be very inspirational.
For me, when I think of medieval Europe, what comes to mind is cool things like swords, bladework, wizardry, and dragons, whereas if I think of the equivalent period in Japan, I come up with yokai, demonic creatures, katana, and sort of shamanistic [chanting] sorcery, which just seem more subtle and very dark, as opposed to my images of what medieval Europe represents to me.
And also perhaps because I am Japanese, Japanese history to me is too close. I feel like I know all the facts and there’s not much that my imagination has to feed upon, whereas to me, Europe is the land of fantasy. It’s the land of Dragon Quest, so there are all sorts of things for me to come up with.
Holo is a harvest god who feels her services are no longer needed because of improvements in technology. Do you feel that this reflects an aspect of modern-day life—the struggle between the traditional and the modern?
It wasn’t necessarily a conscious ideological decision or anything that I thought of to deliberately do, modern versus ancient or modern versus past. It’s just that with every succeeding generation there is always something that gets left behind, and a unique sadness associated with that, and girls that are sad about things are kind of cute. That’s why I decided that would be one of the overarching themes.
I think it’s something that crosses borders in terms of, for example, Superman is always going off to rescue some crying girl. So that’s analogous. Common themes.
Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you think of it in terms of single story arcs?
I did have an idea of what I wanted the ending to be. I knew the conclusion, but the intervening arcs I thought of along the way.
How do Holo and Lawrence change from the beginning of the series to the end? Did you find you were surprised by the way the characters evolved over the course of the series?
Actually what surprised me is that while Lawrence likes Holo from the beginning, Holo actually starts liking Lawrence at the end. I totally didn’t anticipate that that’s how it would end up.
I guess that’s a bit of a spoiler…
It’s kind of a nuance, so depending on how sharp the readers are, they might pick up on it sooner.
Is Lawrence sad about something?
I don’t feel like he is.
To talk a little bit in more general terms, why did you decide to become a writer?
I loved reading both manga and prose from when I was very young, is definitely one reason, but the other was that I really didn’t want to be a businessman, to work for a company.
What sort of training did you have? How does one become a light novel writer?
I just wrote. There wasn’t any specific course or training that I underwent. It was just writing every day.
I think this is not something unique to me. I think this is quite commonplace, actually, that writers in Japan do not tend to be focused on writing in school. They might study something else in school but also write in their free time as a hobby.
Did you write something before Spice & Wolf that didn’t get published?
Nothing that was (mass) published. I did have some works that were self-published, in doujinshi [amateur] form.
When you first started writing, what were you writing about?
A fanfic of a shooting game.
What do you like best about writing light novels? What is most challenging?
Perhaps until about 10 or 15 years ago there was more of a gap between what’s considered a light novel and what’s considered a regular novel, but I think that that distance has shrunk in the intervening years, and now there is really not much that differentiates the two genres. Although there are exceptions. For example, I feel that if you want to write a plot that involves a lot of girls running around squeeing, that is still easier to get published as a light novel.
I would say that one challenge that I do face with light novels in particular is that they do have a younger readership in general, and so especially if it’s a longer series they mature over the course of the series to the point where by the time the series ends, they may be adults, in which case I am always worried that they may not buy my next series, because of course, the start of the next series is aimed at an audience that is now younger than they are. So I feel pressure that I need to put out as many volumes as quickly as possible. Since three months to a middle school student is different than three months for an adult.
How does that influence your writing?
I try not to use very complex vocabulary, and I try to keep individual sentences and paragraphs shorter. But that’s pretty much it.
I’m often asked what a light novel is or what differentiates a light novel from other types of fiction, so it is something that is constantly at the back of my mind.
Can you tell me about the other projects you are working on now?
I’m working on the new Spice & Wolf series, but I’d also like to some day work on a novel set around the Mediterranean Sea that is kind of a historical fiction.
And this isn’t a novel, but I am also currently working on a virtual reality animation, one of the headset types (which is completely unrelated to Spice & Wolf). I’ve not just written the script, but am also directing and producing it.
What is it about?
Something set in the near future. I suppose it might be considered slightly science fiction, but it’s got elements of mystery and also romantic comedy.
Is there anything that’s not in it?