Talking Otori with Lian Hearn
It was with eager anticipation that I keyed the number into my phone, crossed my fingers that I’d got the international dialling codes and time zone right, and heard the ‘Hello?’ of Gillian Rubenstein, AKA Lian Hearn, on the other end of the line.
Lian is one of Australia’s most internationally successful writers and author of The Tales of the Otori, which began with Across the Nightingale Floor in 2002. Set a in mythical country based on medieval Japan, her stories captivated me through my teens and twenties. And I’m not alone in this. Her works have been translated into 42 languages and have sold millions of copies around the world.
But in January this year, Lian released the duology Orphan Warriors and Sibiling Assassins, the final instalments of the Otori—and of her writing career. So it is with great eagerness, and a touch of sadness, that I once again dive into Lian’s medieval world, where ninja, ghosts and samurai abound, and question the mind behind the saga.
NL: What was it about Japan that drew you to it? Why did you set your stories there?
LH: I have always had strong feelings toward Japan. I was born during the Second World War when Japan was an enemy, but growing up I felt great anguish over the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and I wanted to find out more about this country and its people. When I moved to Australia in 1973, Japan seemed closer. Rather than being on the other side of the world, it was a few hours’ flight away.
My first trip to Japan was with my daughter’s school trip. Despite having such a different culture, it seemed familiar. It felt like home. And that was when the voice of Takeo came into my head.
In 1999 I received the AsiaLink scholarship to go to Japan for 12 weeks to research the story. I wrote much of my first draft of Across the Nightingale Floor there. I’d already also begun learning the language—I’d always wanted to learn a non Indo-European language. And the more I learned, the more fascinated I became.
NL: You’ve extensively studied Japan and lived there, what Japanese stories/texts influenced the Otori Tales?
LH: The Warrior tales, Tale of the Heike and the Tale of the Soga Brothers. The characters from those stories seeped into me. Many Kabuki [Japanese theatre] stories influenced me too. They’re full of drama and heightened emotions, such as fear, jealousy and anger. Literature, films and art helped me immerse myself in the culture.
NL: Any texts you’d recommend as a starting place for people wanting to explore Japanese literature?
LH: I’d start with Royall’s Tyler’s translation of the Tale of the Heike. The Tale of Genji is also a wonderful entry into Japanese culture. The works of Lafcadio Hearn too—who inspired my ‘Hearn’ pen name—introduced me to the world of Japanese ghost stories.
Reading Japanese history is another good place to start—particularly from Japan’s point of view rather than the western one. That said, I had a great time reading the accounts of some of the early European travellers to Japan, such Engelbert Kaempfer and Ernest Satow. A.B. Mitford also has an excellent collection of stories called Tales of Old Japan.
NL: People often describe your writing as a blend of East meets West. We’ve already spoken about your Eastern influences, but what about western ones?
LH: I grew up on Arthurian legends and Anglo-Celtic myths. I also loved Norse mythology as a child. The stories you grow up with have such an influence on you. Another favourite childhood author was Violet Needham. I especially loved her novel, The Black Riders.
NL: When I visited Japan a few years ago, my main reason for visiting Nijo Castle in Kyoto was to see—well, hear—its nightingale floor, all because I’d read about it in Across the Nightingale Floor. Which made me think… If someone was to do an ‘Otori Tales tour’ of Japan to visit places that inspired your stories, where would you recommend they go?
LH: What a lovely idea. I was in Japan at the end of last year and visited a few other
nightingale floors—and they really do sing like birds, even more than the one in Kyoto. One is in Koshoji in Uji—south of Kyoto. [Read more here]. The towns of Hagi and Yamaguchi, which inspired the Otori cities of Hagi and Yamagata, and the Akiyoshidai Plateau in Yamaguchi prefecture. It has many caves that inspired some plot lines in Heaven’s Net is Wide..
Oh, and go in winter so you can see the landscape under snow!
NL: Did you have any doubts about writing about Japanese culture as a westerner/outsider? How did you overcome them? How did you make sure you remained faithful to the culture?
LH: It’s always a huge challenge to write about a culture different from one’s own. I think learning the language is the first and most essential thing. Then obviously spending time in that country, speaking to people and reading their history—from the Japanese point of view, not the western one. Being humble too.
I’ve been lucky enough to grow up in cultures outside my own while living for periods in Kano and Lagos. I also learned French and Spanish and spent time in France and Spain. So when I went to Japan, it was with the same mindset. The challenge with Japan is that the culture is so different that it is easy to fall into stereotypes and clichés.
NL: The last Otori series, Children of the Otori, came out on January 28. Did you always plan to write the stories of Takeo and Kaede’s children? What was it about the Otori that kept you coming back to write more?
LH: At the end of the Harsh Cry of the Heron [the fourth book in The Tales of Otori] fans wrote to me wanting to know what happens next. I was occupied with writing two historical novels and then the Tale of Shikanoko, set in the same world but 300 years earlier, before deciding to return to the Otori after the Harsh Cry of the Heron. I only intended to write one book, but at the end [spoiler alert] when Sunaomi says farewell to the ghost, Utahime, I knew there was another story to write between him and Utahime.
NL: What was your inspiration for the Hidden—the secret and persecuted sect of Christianity in the Tales of the Otori? History?
LH: There were two parts to it. The first was there were hidden Christians in Japan. Until the Meiji restoration (1868) they’d been persecuted and had lived in hiding for 300 years. After the Restoration, Christian themes became quite popular in Japanese stories.
However, the Otori tales are based on early 16th century Japan—before the religious persecution of Christians started—so, history gave me the idea of hidden Christians and I reworked it to fit the Otori landscape.
The second element of history I draw on is that there is a theory that Nestorean Christianity, based on the Gospel of Thomas, came to Japan via China in the 6th century. [And fans might note: the inspiration behind Takeo’s Hidden name, Tomasu]. I think of the Hidden in The Tales of the Otori as an ancient thread of Christianity.
NL: What about the Tribe? Was this idea inspired by ninjutsu (ninjas)?
LH: Yes, and I spent ages trying to think of a name for them in my story. I ended up using the Japanese word ‘zoku’ and translating it back into its English meaning: tribe.
NL: What about Takeo’s character? How did he come along?
LH: The voice came into my head fully formed. I don’t try to develop my characters as I go—they seem to come to me on their own.
NL: And Sunaomoi and Chikara? How did you find more stories to tell about these characters when you didn’t originally intend to continue them?
LH: Sunaomi, in particular, is a sympathetic character. But it took me a long time to find the right story for him after the Harsh Cry of the Heron. I made several false starts in Orphan Warriors. Oddly enough, it was during the 2016 US elections and I was watching Barron Trump and found myself thinking about boys living in the shadow of powerful fathers. As soon as I thought that, I knew I had Sunaomi’s story.
NL: What’s your favourite Otori book? Or one you’re particularly proud of?
LH: I love them all, but I really like Sibling Assassins. So much so that it’s one of the reasons why I’ve decided to stop and end on a high note. Everything just came together. I’m really happy with it, and now I’m ready to say goodbye to the Otori.
NL: Tell me about your writing process. How did you research your novels? How did you write them? Did you plan them out first or discover the stories as you went, or a mix of both?
LH: A mix of both, I think. I do a lot of reading and if I feel the need to visit a place, I’ll squeeze it into a trip. I also like to look at artwork. For some time the novel is simmering away in my unconscious.
When I start to write I have a sense of where the story is going, and a sense of its ‘colour’ as well, but not more than that. I write the first draft by hand in spiral-bound notebooks, without planning. I let everything in. Once that draft is down, I make a big time-chart and plot where people are, how long it will take them to travel between locations, the seasons, phases of the moon, what’s happening in the landscape, what flowers would be blooming, what birds and animals would be active and so on.
On the second draft, I type it up into the computer, adding the details from my time chart and checking the plot beats. That second draft is key for me. From there it is read, re-read and make changes and polish.
NL: Have any of your characters ever surprised you? (i.e. gone off script).
LH: All the time! They usually end up a lot darker and more badly behaved than I originally intended.
NL: With the release of Orphan Warriors and Sibling Assassins, you’re retiring from the writing scene. What are you looking forward to the most in your retirement?
LH: Writing a novel takes a huge amount of energy. It takes a lot of sacrifices. I’ve had to say no to a lot of things so I could write. Now, I’m looking forward to doing all the things I’ve put off. And not to mention spending more time with my family, especially my grandchildren.
To learn more about Lian and where you can buy copies of The Tales of the Otori, visit her website www.lianhearn.com or connect with her on Twitter (@LianHearn) and Facebook (LianHearnAuthor).
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