Ken Schneyer tagged me for this meme in his own post last week.
I’m a bit late posting this… Been madly finishing work on an audiobook and trying to care for my very flu-felled wife. But here’s my response!
What is the title of your book?
Risuko. That’s Japanese for “Squirrel,” which is the protagonist’s nickname.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
A couple of places:
First of all, I read an article about a war widow in sixteenth-century Japan who set up a school (of sorts) that trained young girls to be kunoichi (female assassins, spies and bodyguards), all under the guise of being shrine maidens (miko) — something like the Shintō equivalent of novice nuns.[†] I’d always been fascinated with the Japanese Sengoku (civil war era), so when I read that, I thought, Wow! There’s a story someone should write! A while later, I had an image of a girl climbing a tree… and realized that someone should be me.
The other thing that got this started was reading the Harry Potter books with my kids, loving them, and thinking, Now, what about these has to be fantasy? As I’ve been writing Risuko, my intent has been to write a story that feels like a fantasy — but isn’t.
What genre does your book fall under?
Many. It’s a young adult historical adventure novel. That’s three right there, right? It’s also a coming-of-age story, as well as being a variation on the boarding-school genre. Maybe I’ll get pirates in there somewhere. And kunoichi are sort of like ninjas. Only not.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Heh. Well, if we’re going to indulge in that fantasy, I’d want it to be an anime directed by Hayao Miyazaki. For voices… Hmm. Elle Fanning as Risuko, maybe? With Joel Courtney, her Super Eight astmate, as Aimaru. Not sure about Emi, Risuko’s glum best friend — maybe her sister Dakota. But I think it would be more fun to have her as Toumi, the girl Risuko loves to hate….
For the adults, not so sure. Michelle Yeoh has the right voice for Mieko, but the accent probably wouldn’t work. (If you’re going to have everyone –except the cook — be from the same country, you can’t have random accents showing up. Also, wrong accent. Ms. Yeoh’s from Hong Kong.) Someone older with a smoky, badass voice for Lady Chiyome, who runs the “school.” Judy Dench or Maggie Smith? Or Meryl Streep. She can do anything.
And Billy Connolly would be perfect for the Korean cook, Kee Sun.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Risuko is a young orphan who just likes to climb, but finds herself swept up in a plot that may lead to Japan’s unification — or its destruction.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It’s already represented by the wonderful Danielle Svetcov of Levin | Greenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org), who is carrot-and-sticking me through another round of rewrites.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Interesting question. I wrote the first chapter, then did whole bunch of historical research — it’s one thing to have an interest in a period and quite another to write a historical novel set in that period. After a couple of months, I felt as if I had a pretty good sense of what I needed to know for the purposes of my story. (It was tough, however, finding accurate information about the daily lives of people in sixteenth century Japan; huge battles, sure, but not what they ate!) I threw together a pretty sketchy outline of the story and began plowing away at the opening chapters.
Then, about twenty chapters in, I hit a wall.
I knew where I wanted the story to go, but couldn’t see exactly how to get Risuko and Co. there. I put the book aside for a bit. Then I got involved in a huge editing project, and suddenly four years had passed since I had looked at the manuscript. Four years! I opened the file, looked at the outline, and realized two things: first of all, my outline was actually for a three- or perhaps four-novel series, and second, I finally knew how to get Risuko back to where she needed to be. I started work again, got bogged down… But Brenda and Donal Brown, friends to whom I’d given the opening chapters, kept asking me to how it turned out. Asking very persistently. I offered to give them the outline, but no — they would only be satisfied with a finished draft. Well, then, a finished draft I would give them!
I finally completed the first draft of Risuko two years ago — nearly eight years after I read that article that sparked the idea. I began the process of revision, and in the mean time the Browns (who deserve some sort of medal for this among a million other acts) passed the manuscript along to a neighbor, Danielle Svetcov, who happened to be a literary agent. She signed the book that summer, and I’ve been revising ever since. Rewrote the opening chapter a half a dozen times, eliminated a number of secondary characters who didn’t add anything, cut the first third of the book in half — and then added a new subplot in. I’m almost there. I think. Whew!
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Not many that I can think of. The Kite Runner comes to mind (sort of) as a young girl’s descent into adult madness, as well as Linda Sue Parks’s books A Single Shard and The Kite Fighters — they’re both aimed a bit younger, but do a wonderful job of capturing a distant time and place while making them feel very immediate.
Who or What inspired you to write these books?
As I said, that article about the historical Lady Mochizuki Chiyome was the initial inspiration, as well as the Harry Potter books — and the wealth of wonderful middle-reader and young adult adventures that I read along with my daughters. Tamara Pierce’s Song of the Warrior books, for example.
I will say, too, that watching Kurosawa films with my dad as a kid certainly had an impact, as did the characters played by Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Also, watching my daughters, who were heroes every day.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Civil-war Japan was a time when that very structured society was breaking apart at the seams. As the book begins, the country has been in a state of armed upheaval for over a century, so all of the very rigid rules about sticking to the roles dictated by your clan, class, and gender were for a brief time much more fluid. Risuko is the orphaned daughter of a former samurai who chose disgrace and dishonor over further violence. She struggles throughout the book to honor her father’s legacy while living in the very tumultuous world into which she has been born.
Now, I tag these authors to answer these same questions next Wednesday:
I forgot to ask these folks until the last minute, but I’ll be a jerk and tag them anyway, because they’re all wonderful writers, and I want to hear what they have to say:
- Jean Johnson (jeanjohnson.net) is a fantasy author best known for her wonderful series of romantic fantasies (fantastic romances) The Sons of Destiny.
- Craig Allen (wood-artist.livejournal.com) is an artist in many media. Truly a master of woodcraft, he is also a gifted wordsmith who has been turning his hand to writing non-fiction, and has been working on a series of historical novels set in Germany during and after the Second World War.
- Christine Gengaro (facebook.com/christine.gengaro) is a music scholar specializing in film scores (check out her recently published Listening to Stanley Kubrick), but she is also a wonderful storyteller working on her first (to-be-published) novel.
[†] Miko are the lovely young ladies in red-and-white kimonos whom you see assisting at a lot of Japanese religious ceremonies and festivals.