In the opening pages of the action-packed Book One of Lian Hearn's epic Tale of Shikanoko series, a future lord is dispossessed of his birthright by a scheming uncle, a mountain sorcerer imbues a mask with the spirit of a great stag for a lost young man, a stubborn father forces his son to give up his wife to his older brother, and a powerful priest meddles in the succession to the Lotus Throne, the child who is the rightful heir to the emperor barely escaping the capital in the arms of his sister. And that is just the beginning.
As destiny weaves its rich tapestry, a compelling drama plays out against a background of wild forests, elegant castles, hidden temples, and savage battlefields. This is the medieval Japan of Lian Hearn's imagination, where animal spirits clash with warriors and children navigate a landscape as serene as it is deadly.
The Tale of Shikanoko
Book One: Emperor of the Eight Islands
Book Two: Autumn Princess, Dragon Child
Book Three: Lord of the Darkwood
Book Four: The Tengu's Game of Go
About the Author
Lian Hearn is the pseudonym of a writerborn in England, educated at Oxford, currently living in Australiawho has a lifelong interest in Japan, has lived there, and studies Japanese. She is the author of the bestselling series Tales of the Otori.
Read an Excerpt
Emperor of the Eight Islands
By Lian Hearn
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2016 Lian Hearn Associates Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved.
"Did you see what happened?"
"Where is your father?" Two men were standing above him, their shapes dark against the evening sky. One was his uncle, Sademasa, the other Nobuto, whom he didn't like.
Kazumaru said, "We heard a funny noise," and he mimed placing stones on a board. "Clack, clack, clack. Father told me to wait here."
The men had come upon the seven-year-old hidden in the long grass, in the sort of form deer stamp out for their fawns. The horses had nearly stepped on him. When his uncle lifted him up the grass had printed deep lines on his cheek. He must have been there for hours.
"Who brings a child on a scouting mission?" Nobuto said quietly.
"He can't be separated from him."
"I've never seen a father so besotted!"
"Or a child so spoiled," Sademasa replied. "If he were mine ..."
Kazumaru did not like their tone. He sensed their mockery. He said nothing but resolved to tell his father when he saw him.
"Any sign of his horse?" Sademasa asked Nobuto.
The older man looked toward the trees. "The tracks lead up there."
A small group of stunted trees clung to the side of the volcanic mountain. Some were dying, some already stumps. The air smelled of sulfur, and steam hissed from vents in the ground. The men went warily forward, their bows in their hands. Kazumaru followed them.
"Cursed-looking place," Nobuto said.
The larger tree stumps were crisscrossed with faint lines. A few black stones, a handful of white shells were scattered on the ground.
"Something bled here." Nobuto pointed at a splash on a pale rock. He crouched and touched it with his finger. "Still wet."
The blood was dark, almost purple.
"Is it his?" Sademasa whispered.
"Doesn't look human to me," Nobuto replied. He sniffed his finger. "Doesn't smell human either." He wiped his hand on the rock and stood, looked around, then suddenly shouted, "Lord Shigetomo! Where are you?"
You, you, you, came back the echo from the mountain, and behind the echo another sound, like a flock of birds beating their wings.
Kazumaru looked up as the flock passed overhead. He saw it was made up of strange-looking beings, with wings and beaks and talons like birds, but wearing clothes of a sort, red jackets, blue leggings. They looked down on him and pointed and laughed. One of them brandished a sword in one hand, a bow in the other.
"Those are his weapons," Nobuto cried. "That is Ameyumi."
"Then Shigetomo is dead," Sademasa said. "He would never have surrendered the bow alive."
Afterward, Kazumaru was not sure what he remembered and what he had dreamed. His father and his clever, witty mother often played Go in the long, snowbound winters at Kumayama. He had grown up with their sounds, the quiet clack of stones on the boards, the rattle in the wooden bowls. That day he and his father heard them together. They had ridden far ahead of the others. His father always liked to be in the lead, and the black horse was strong and eager. It had been a present from Lord Kiyoyori, to whom the family were vassals and on whose orders they had ridden so far north.
His father reined in the horse, dismounted, and lifted him down. The horse began to graze. They walked through the long grass and almost stepped on the fawn, lying in its form. He saw its dark eyes, its delicate mouth, and then it was on its feet and leaping away. He knew the other men would have killed it, had they been there, but his father laughed and let it go.
"Not worth Ameyumi's time," he said. Ameyumi was the name of his bow, a family treasure, huge, perfectly balanced, made of many layers of compressed wood with intricate bindings.
They went stealthily toward the trees from which the sounds came. He remembered feeling it was a game, tiptoeing through the grass that was as tall as he was.
His father stopped, holding his breath, so Kazumaru knew something had startled him. He bent and picked him up and in that moment Kazumaru glimpsed the tengu playing Go beneath the trees, their wings, their beaked faces, their taloned hands.
Then his father was striding back to the place where they had found the fawn. He could feel his father's heart beating loud through his chest.
"Wait here," he said, placing his son in the trampled grass of the form. "Be like the deer's child. Don't move."
"Where are you going?"
"I am going to play Go," he replied, laughing again. "How often do you get the chance to play Go against tengu?"
Kazumaru didn't want him to. He had heard stories about tengu, mountain goblins, very clever, very cruel. But his father was afraid of nothing and always did exactly as he pleased.
The men found Shigetomo's body later that day. Kazumaru was not allowed to see it, but he heard the shocked whispers, and remembered the beaks, the claws as the tengu flew overhead. They saw me, he thought. They know me.
When they returned home, Sademasa reported that his older brother had been killed by wild tribes in the north, but Kazumaru knew, no matter who actually killed him, that he had died because he had played Go with the tengu and lost.
* * *
The news of his father's death plunged Kazumaru's mother into a grief so extreme, everyone feared she could not survive it. Sademasa pleaded with her to marry him in his brother's place, saying he would bring Kazumaru up as his own son, even swearing an oath on a sacred ox-headed talisman.
"Both of you remind me of him all the time," she said. "No, I must cut my hair and become a nun, as far away from Kumayama as possible." As soon as the winter was over, she left, with hardly a word of farewell, beyond telling Kazumaru to obey his uncle.
The family held a small parcel of land, confirmed by Lord Kiyoyori, on the side of the mountain known as Kumayama. It was made up of steep crags and deep, sunless valleys, where a few rice paddies had been carved out on either side of the rivers that tumbled from the mountain between forests of cypress and cryptomeria, full of bears, wolves, serow and deer, and boars, and groves of bamboo, home to quail and pheasants. It was seven days' journey east of the capital and four days in the other direction from the Miboshi stronghold of Minatogura.
As the years went by, it became apparent that Sademasa was not going to keep his oath. He grew accustomed to being the Kumayama lord and was reluctant to give it up. Power, along with unease at his own faithlessness, unleashed his brutal nature. He treated his nephew harshly, under the pretext of turning him into a warrior. Before he was twelve years old, Kazumaru realized that each day he lived brought his uncle fresh disappointment that he was not dead.
Some of Sademasa's warriors, in particular one Naganori, whose son was a year older than Kazumaru, were saddened by the harsh treatment of their former lord's son. Others such as Nobuto admired Sademasa for his ruthlessness. The rest shrugged their shoulders, especially after Sademasa married and had children of his own, thinking that it made no difference, as Kazumaru would probably never be allowed to grow up, let alone inherit the estate. Most of them were surprised that he survived his brutalizing childhood and even flourished in some ways, for he practiced obsessively with the bow and from his rages came a superhuman strength. At twelve years he suddenly grew tall, and soon after could string and draw a bow like a grown man. But he was as shy and fierce as a young wolf. Only Naganori's son, who received the name Nagatomo in his coming-of-age ceremony, was in any way a friend.
He was the only person to whom Kazumaru said goodbye when, in the autumn of his sixteenth year, his uncle announced he was taking him hunting in the mountains.
"If I don't come back, you'll know he has killed me," Kazumaru said. "Next year I come of age, but he will never step aside for me. He has grown too fond of being the lord of Kumayama. He intends to get rid of me in the forest."
"I wish I could come with you," Nagatomo said. "But your uncle has expressly forbidden it."
"That proves I am right," Kazumaru replied. "But even if he doesn't kill me I will not be coming back. There's nothing for me here. I've only the vaguest memories of what it was like before. I remember not being afraid all the time, being loved and admired. Sometimes I daydream about what might have happened if my father had not died, if my mother had not left, if more of the men were loyal to me ... but that's the way it turned out. Don't grieve for me. I can't go on living in this way. I pray every day to escape somehow — if the only way is through death, so be it."CHAPTER 2
The summer storms had abated and every day the stain of red leaves descended farther from the peaks. That year's fawns were almost full grown but still followed their mothers through the shade-dappled forest.
There was a famous old stag with a fine set of antlers that Sademasa had long desired, but the creature was cunning and cautious and never allowed itself to be encircled. This would be the year, Sademasa declared, that the stag would surrender to him.
He took his nephew, his favorite retainer, Nobuto, and one other man. They went on foot, for the terrain was too rough even for the sure-footed horses that grazed on the lower slopes of Kumayama. They lived like wild men, gathering nuts and berries, shooting pheasants and setting traps for hares, every day going farther into the pathless forest, now and then catching glimpses of their prey, then losing it again until they came upon its tracks in the soft earth or its brown compact scat. Kazumaru expected his uncle to grow impatient, but instead Sademasa became almost jovial, as though he were about to be relieved of a burden he had carried for a long time. At night the men told ghost stories about tengu and mountain sorcerers, and all the ways young boys had disappeared. Kazumaru swore he would not let himself be killed along with the stag. He hardly dared sleep but sometimes fell into a kind of waking dream and heard the clack of Go stones and saw the eagle eyes of tengu turned toward him.
They came one afternoon to the summit of a steep crag and the stag stood before them, its antlers gleaming in the western rays of the sun. Its flanks were heaving with the effort of the climb. The men were panting. There was a moment of stillness. Sademasa and Kazumaru both had their bows drawn. The other two men stood with knives ready. Sademasa gestured to Kazumaru to move around to the left, and drew his bow. Kazumaru was about to draw his, seeing where he would aim, right at the heart. The stag looked at him, its eyes wide with exertion and fear. Then its gaze flickered toward Sademasa and Kazumaru followed it. In that instant he saw his uncle's bow was aimed not at the stag but at him. Then the stag was leaping straight at him in its desperate lunge to escape. The arrow flew, the stag collided with Kazumaru and sent him crashing down with it into the valley below.
The animal broke his fall. As they both lay unmoving, winded, he could feel the frantic beat of its heart beneath him. He reached for the antlers and grasped them, then stood, fumbling for his knife. The deer was wounded, its legs broken. Its eyes watched him, unblinking. He prayed briefly and slit its throat, the hot blood pouring from it as its life slipped away.
Thick bushes hid him from the men above. He could hear their shouts but made no sound in response. He wondered if his uncle's desire for the antlers would be so great that he would follow him down the cliff, but the only way was to jump or fall. When silence returned he dragged the stag as far as he could, finding a small hollow under a bank filled with dry leaves. He lay down with the dead beast in his arms, slaking his thirst in its blood, reliving the moment on the cliff. It would have been easy to tell himself it was an accident, but it seemed important to face the truth. His uncle had aimed at him, but the stag had taken the arrow. It had saved his life. And then he felt again his own fall, the astonishment of flight, his hand gripping the bow as if it would hold him up, too young to believe in his own mortality yet expecting incredulously to die.
All night he sensed wild animals circling, drawn by the smell of blood. He heard the pad of their feet, the rustling of leaves. The sky was ablaze with stars, the River of Heaven pouring light.
At dawn the stag had cooled. He moved it into the clearing and set about skinning it, carefully cutting out the brainpan and the antlers, regretful for the way life had vanished so quickly from the eyes and face, wishing it could be restored, all the time filled with gratitude.
He found flintlike stones and spent the morning scraping the skin clean. The sun came around the valley and for a few hours it was hot. In the early afternoon he carved several strips of meat from the haunches, thin so they could dry quickly, and threaded them on a shaft cut from an oak tree, placing leaves between them. He left the rest of the carcass for the foxes and wolves and began to walk toward the north.
Mostly he walked all night; the moon was waxing toward full, bringing the first frosts. He slept for brief periods in the middle of the day, after softening the deer hide with water or his own urine and spreading it out to dry. He saw no one, but on the third day he became aware an animal was tracking him. He heard the pad and rustle of its tread and saw the green gleam of its eyes. Several times he set an arrow to the bowstring, but then the eyes vanished and he did not shoot. He did not want to lose an arrow in the dark.
It seemed to be guiding him or, he reflected uneasily, herding him. From time to time he thought it had gone, but at nightfall it always returned. Once he caught a glimpse of it and knew from its size and color that it was a wolf, drawn by the scent of the deerskin and the meat. He and his uncle had pursued the stag to the point of exhaustion and now the wolf was doing the same to him. It was driving him farther and farther into the forest, and when he was exhausted and weakened by hunger it would spring at his throat. He tried to outwit it, pretending to sleep then rising soundlessly, changing direction, but it seemed aware of his intentions even before he was. He saw its green eyes shining in his path.
One morning at dawn he stopped beside a stream that flowed through an upland clearing from a spring farther up the mountain. He had eaten the last of the dried meat a day ago. A path had been worn through the grass and there were tracks at the water's edge. He saw that animals came to drink there: deer, foxes, wolves. He slaked his own thirst warily, gulping quickly from cupped hands. Then he hid upwind with arrow drawn.
He must have dozed off, for a sudden movement woke him. He thought he was dreaming. Two animals appeared walking awkwardly side by side, their heads turned toward each other. They were carrying something between them, in their mouths. They walked strangely, as though they were not quite alive. Their heads were lacquered skulls, their teeth sharp and glistening, their eyes bright shards of lapis lazuli. Their skins did not cover flesh but seemed to be packed with straw and twigs. He caught their smell of smoke and putrefaction; his stomach heaved and his guts twisted.
As they came closer he saw the object they carried in their mouths was a two-handled water jar. They stood in the pool and lowered the jug into the stream. When it had filled they turned and walked back along the path, staggering a little and spilling water as they went.
Kazumaru followed them as though in a dream, without questioning but not without fear. He could hear the thump of his blood in his skull and chest. He knew he was approaching the lair of a mountain sorcerer, just as his uncle's men had described. He wanted to flee, yet he was driven forward not only by his own curiosity and hunger but also by the wolf, which now padded openly behind him.
He passed a rock that looked a little like a bear and then a tree stump with two jagged branches like a hare's ears. Closer to a small hut, which stood in the shelter of a paulownia tree, the forms became more lifelike and precise: statues carved from wood and stone, some with the same lacquered skulls, some draped in skins or decorated with antlers; owls, eagles, and cranes with feathers; bats with leathery wings.
The hut's roof was thatched with bones, its walls covered with skins. A strong smell of urine came from a large bucket by the door. One detached part of his mind thought, He must use it for tanning hides, just as his own urine had softened the stag's skin. Two fox cubs, real, were snarling at each other over a dead rabbit. The wolf sat on its haunches, panting slightly. The two beasts Kazumaru had been following stopped in front of the hut and whined. After a few seconds the sorcerer emerged. He took the jug from their mouths and made a gesture for them to sit as if they were dogs. His skin was tanned like leather, his hair long, his beard wispy, both deepest black with no sign of gray. He seemed both old and young. His movements were as deft and free of thought as an animal's, but his voice when he addressed Kazumaru was human.
Excerpted from Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn. Copyright © 2016 Lian Hearn Associates Pty Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Tale of Shikanoko List of Characters,
Also by Lian Hearn,
A Note About the Author,
Books in the Tale of Shikanoko Series,
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Lian Hearn
Lian Hearn first came to prominence in 2002 through her five- book Tales of the Otori series, a group of fantasy novels set in a world inspired by medieval Japan. (Her name is a pseudonym; previously, she had written a number of books for younger readers under her real name.) Her latest project is The Tale of Shikanoko, a series of four books using a similar approach, set in world similar to but quite distinct from the medieval Japan of history. In it, Hearn establishes an intricate plotline and explores the nature of heroism.
In some ways, Shikanoko is an archetypal hero: after an attempt is made on his life by those wishing to deprive him of his inheritance, he retreats to the forest, where he learns an array of skills and abilities, including some that venture into the supernatural. Eventually, he becomes part of a wider conflict involving lines of succession, mystical creatures, and betrayals. But Shikanoko is a more ambiguous character as well, moving out of a morally gray role over the course of Emperor of the Eight Islands, the first book in the series, and then discovering his capacity for much more horrific acts.
I reached Hearn via Skype at her home in Australia. Over the course of our conversation, we discussed everything from the influence of medieval Japanese literature on her fiction to her fondness for the Tournament of Books. An edited version of our conversation follows. Tobias Carroll
The Barnes & Noble Review: When you were beginning to work on The Tale of Shikanoko, what came to mind first? Was it the characters, the setting, or the central conflict? Was there even one element that came before everything else?
Lian Hearn: I was really interested in the central character. The idea for that came when I was in Japan about five years. I went up to Tohoku, where I hadn't been before, with some friends. We went to see two forms of folk dancing, and I was very struck by the costumes and the masks that the men wore in the performances the feeling of how being masked and being costumed changes your personality. There was one particular young man whom we spoke to afterwards who had had somehow been changed into something so formal and so courteous. I was really struck by the way that the dance itself transforms the dancers, as well as being something from a very ancient tradition.
I came home with that idea in my mind. It's always really hard to know with my books, because one thing leads to another, and I don't plot out formally I just let the whole thing emerge. Some fans had also contacted me to ask me about someone who's mentioned in Heaven's Net Is Wide, one of the Tales of the Otori novels. He's a legendary hero, Takeyoshi. They wanted to know his story; it ties up with how the Otori sword was forged and where the tribe comes from. All of those things were working together in my mind. The main character came out, and I could tell that he was going to be one of these rather rough young men who has to go through various transformations in order to become the person who he's meant to be. So that was my central character.
It's interesting when I was at university, I did Spanish and French as my subjects, and I've always really loved the play Life Is a Dream, by Calderón. In a way, the Shikanoko character is a bit like Segismundo from that play, in that you have this very rough person who is somehow the hero and yet is a very antihero sort of person who has to be transformed. It was only after I had finished writing that I made that connection.
BNR: For all that Shikanoko has a traditionally heroic back-story, he also ends up in a very dark place by the end of the first book, and the second book is much more about him wrestling with what he has the capacity to do.
LH: That's very true. The second book is much more of a redemption story, and how he comes back from that dark place. A lot of years had to pass so that Takeyoshi could grow up.
BNR: Whether they're sympathetic to or antagonistic towards the protagonist, you show off the human side of nearly all of your characters. The Prince Abbot emerges as one of the more openly villainous characters in the books what was the reason for having a character like that?
LH: Everybody in the book has the makings of power. That's what interests me in the books, rather than the more traditional good and evil: what human beings do in their quest for power. I suppose the Prince Abbot is the most powerful character in the first two books, and so he represents this sort of institutionalized power. He has spent many, many years building up that power, and he's not going to relinquish it quickly. I don't know if he has any redeeming features or not. My friend who read the books very early for me, whom I mention in the Acknowledgements, Randy Schadel he was very fond of the Prince Abbot as a character. He was his favorite character. I think certain people will like him, too. All of the other characters are all flawed. But as you say, they have a humanity about them. There's nobody else who is evil through and through.
BNR: There's also something that is, in its own way, appealing about characters who are aware of, and embrace, their own capacity for villainy in a situation like this and aren't necessarily torn about moral decisions.
LH: I think so, yes. I think this is why we admire people who, we think, are certain of themselves and don't agonize over whether they should do this or do that. They just go ahead and act. I think that can be a very attractive personality trait. We do follow people like that when they occupy positions of great power. The Prince Abbot certainly has that. He's certain that the way he thinks is the right way for people to be. In that hierarchy, he's up at the top, and he wants things to stay the way they are and the way that he wants them.
BNR: The books are all being released in the United States over the course of a year. Did you write them all as one work and then find the breaking points, or did you take small breaks between the writing of each of them?
LH: I wrote the one thing as one long story, and then I realized that it would fold into two parts. In Australia and the U.K., it's coming out in two volumes. It will be called Emperor of the Eight Islands and Lord of the Dark Wood. I'd worked with Sean McDonald before, and I think he's a fantastic publisher. When he was at Riverhead, he did the last two of the Otori books with me. When he suggested doing them as four short books they were already in four parts, because each of the two books had two parts I felt that that was a really great idea. I thought that it could work really well, to do them all in the one year, although it has been incredibly difficult doing all the various copy editing and proofreading for the books, simultaneously in three countries.
BNR: In your Author's Note, you write about taking inspiration from "the great warrior tales of medieval Japan." What were you looking to take from each motifs, a sense of history, or something societal?
LH: I really love the emotional content of things like The Tales of the Heiki and The Tale of the Soga Brothers. The way that a whole world is in there. They're very sophisticated and very deep in their portrayal of ambition and revenge and all of the striving, clan against clan and so on. One of the things I really liked is the way that the spiritual world, the world of supernatural animals, and the world of nature all intertwine in these tales. You have a sense of these very ancient rules and the spiritual beings, and they're all in this one world, immersed in it. I wanted to get that feeling of being immersed in a world where magic and spiritual things happen all the time. No one's surprised by them; they have to take them into account in their lives.
BNR: Earlier, you talked about taking inspiration from a dance performance that prominently featured masks. Is that where the idea of the deer mask, which plays a significant role in the books, came from?
LH: Yes, very much. I also read a lot about the making of ritual shamanistic masks in Asia and in Japan in the medieval period the use of skulls of animals and humans, and making it by passing it through the incense and the fires and so on. I found all of that really interesting. I used the deer mask for that.
BNR: In terms of the use of magic in the books there's one case late in Emperor of the Eight Islands where a character is killed but is able to potentially evade death. Dramatically speaking, how do you maintain tension when there is a way to return from being killed in some way?
LH: I do somewhat address that in the second book. That's a very specific one-off event, and I think it's explained by a combination of circumstances that enable that particular character to return as a spirit inside of a horse. For most people, when they die, they die that's it. Being able to call Kiyiyori's spirit back was a combination of Taro being there, dying at the same time, to take his place, and the fact that Shikanoko found that he had the power to summon that spirit back. There are many references in the books I read to things like "spirit return incense" and "spirit return ritual." I think it is something that appeals enormously to the human psyche. I don't have anybody else returning only the one.
BNR: Has having grown up in one country and then moving to an entirely different country had any effect on the way that you think about place? Has it had any effect on your writing?
LH: I think it has, very much. I was born in England, and then my parents lived in West Africa when I was a teenager. My mother and my father divorced when I was eleven or twelve, and after that time I felt that I had no family home in England any more, because my mother was overseas with my stepfather. When I started learning languages and spending a lot of time in France and Spain, as well as going to Nigeria once a year for school holidays, I felt as if I was always somebody adrift, somebody who had no place and no home. It was incredibly important to me, as a child. And then I ended up being an even farther-away exile in Australia.
I wrote children's books for years, as you may have seen, under my own name, Gillian Rubinstein. Those books, even the picture book tales, are all about searching for a home, of being lost and trying to find your way home. When I went to Japan for the first time, maybe it was that it's a Northern Hemisphere country, and it satisfied my longing for the Northern Hemisphere light and landscape, but I fell in love with it. Maybe that was part of it. Maybe it's still my quest to find somewhere where I feel at home. It always has been part of writing having a sense of wanting to attach myself to somewhere. I also think that's one of the reasons why I love learning languages. That's another way to give yourself another identity, to learn the language of a place you're living in.
BNR: Do you find that you write differently when using your own name, as opposed to a pseudonym?
LH: I don't really write under my own name any more. I haven't written a children's book for fifteen years or so. But I think that when you write for adults I found it a lot easier. You're writing with the brakes off; you're not constantly editing in your head about what might or might not be suitable for your age group. For me, it was very liberating, writing like that. I do think that, going back to this question of exile, I started writing for children when I came to Australia because I was learning Australian culture through my own children. As they were growing up in it, I was learning that culture as well, so that was where I felt comfortable writing. And then they grew up and left home, and I started writing about Japan. I'm not sure what that means.
BNR: How have your feelings about Japan changed as you've written more books set in a version of it?
LH: Every time I go back to Japan, or every time I start writing another book, I feel that it's much deeper and richer. I've found out more, I've understood a little more, or I've realized that there's so much that I don't understand, even more. I'm constantly trying to get to the bottom of the mystery that is, for me, Japanese history and culture. When I was about seventeen, I saw the film Hiroshima Mon Amour, which made a huge impression on me. There's a line in that, which is, "If you pay attention, you will understand." For me, the whole thing about Japan is that I think that is incredibly true about Japanese culture. It's very much about paying attention and noticing details and picking up on nuances and things.
BNR: Do you foresee yourself writing something for adults with a setting other than medieval Japan, or a version of it?
LH: I wrote two straight historical novels, Blossoms and Shadows and The Storyteller and His Three Daughters. I wrote Blossoms and Shadows about the Meiji Restoration, the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It's quite a long novel, quite a dense novel. When I wrote the second book, I was also very, very happy with how it turned out, but again, it didn't have anything like the impact of my medieval fantasy novels.
I'm not sure what I'll do next. At the moment, I'm in that stage where I'm thinking, maybe I'll start something else; maybe I'll do something completely different. I get a lot of requests from people saying, "Please tell us more about the characters that are still alive at the end of The Harsh Cry of the Heron." And I did start writing something along those lines last year. I haven't had time to get back to it. Probably this winter. Winter, I find, is when I do most of my creative writing. I'll see what happens over the next few months.
BNR: Are there aspects of Japanese culture that you've come across in your writing or research that have made you want to investigate them more deply?
LH: When I started writing Across the Nightingale Floor, maybe I was more naive and more obsessed with the more superficial elements the color and the movement, if you like, and the glamorousness of the samurai and everything. I think that, as I've learned more of the history, I've gotten more realistic. I think that Emperor of the Eight Islands is possibly a darker book than the earlier ones. That's not because I think that anything is particularly dark. It's more to do with the way that I'm viewing the world. It's all got more complicated, more complex. I think that always happens when start learning a language and you start reading the history of a country in its own language. You get a lot more depth to your understanding than when you're just seeing it through the English-language mirror.
BNR: When you're creating a world based on a historical place and time, do you have to establish a point where that world's history diverges from what we know?
LH: I sort of arbitrarily choose my own history in the sense of events. I don't really tie things to Japanese historical events. But I do try to keep very close to the social history: what people were wearing, what they might have been eating. All of that background stuff, I use the details to build out my world so that it seems realistic or real. I don't actually take any historical events. Although I guess there could be some echoes of things that actually did happen. I found, when I was writing Tales of the Otori, that I arbitrarily said, if it were Japanese history, it would be this date. Therefore, these things would be going on as the background, but I'm going to make up my own history entirely. That seemed to be the way that it worked for me.
BNR: When you're in the middle of writing something, do you find that it changes your reading habits at all? Are you generally reading for research in the middle of writing, or do you stay with work that's far removed from what you're writing?
LH: I'm an addictive reader of novels. I read all the time. At one stage, I was trying not to read fiction when I was writing it, because I found that the voice overlapped too much. But because I read mostly modern literary fiction, there's not an awful lot of overlap of voice at the moment.
I try to read a lot [in] Japanese, even though it's very slow for me to read Japanese novels. Just to try to get a sense of the voice and the way that the language is used. I just finished reading Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. It absolutely shattered me. It was so fantastic. He's writing about Chechnya in a way that you would swear he had grown up there. I was very impressed by that ability to present a different culture so completely and wonderfully. Before that, I read The Sellout, which was wonderful. I follow the Tournament of Books, and I get a lot of my recommendations from there.
June 8, 2016