Conversation with Lian Hearn

Lian Hearn interview

What is your background? How does it impact on your writing?

I was born in England and [have since] emigrated to Australia. I think the main influences on my writing were my rather disturbed teenage years (I won't go into details) and studying modern languages (French and Spanish) at Oxford. I love languages and words: to learn a foreign language is to enter into a love affair with a country and its culture. It is to become a different person and begin to think in a different way.

Coming to Australia brought me closer to Japan, a country I had been interested in for many years. Australia has many links with Japan, and is in the same time zone, though a different hemisphere. Being an Australian means being between West and East and living in a society that has formed itself out of many different and contradictory elements. I identify with this.

What drove you to become a writer?

For as long as I can remember I have been a story teller, making up stories to entertain or console myself. I've always loved reading and wanted to write books that would enthrall the reader in the same way I have been enthralled.

What kind of research did you do for the series?

I started to learn Japanese first . . . I can speak a little and read quite a lot. I received a fellowship from Asialink, the Australian foundation which encourages artistic and cultural exchanges between Australia and Asian countries, to spend three months in Japan in 1999 and 2000. During these periods, I spent some time in Western Honshu which provides the landscape for the series. I have made many other trips to Japan as well in the last ten years, since I first had the idea of the story and characters. I went to museums, old temples and other buildings, watched many movies and read many books, including Japanese literature and poetry. And walked endlessly through rural Japan reflecting on its history and character. My way of gathering material is very intuitive: I steep myself in it and then forget the research while I write the stories, using details to bring the world to life.

The Tales of the Otori series appears to be an Arthurian type story set in a medieval Japan. What inspired you to create this world and series? Why did you pick a Japanese-like location?

It's interesting that people see it as Arthurian as that was not a conscious choice of myth: many of the elements that seem to be Arthurian (the sword, the lost son, the blind woman) are also part of Japanese legends. Of course, I am a Westerner and the myths that I internalized as a child are Anglo-Celtic. But I did not pick a Japanese location as such: it was more a question of being in the location and knowing a little about the history, and the characters and the story coming to me and grabbing me. In fact, it was rather a terrifying idea: I did not think I was in any way qualified to write from another culture and I was filled with doubts and misgivings about attempting it. I tried to deal with this by setting the story in a fantasy world, but when I was writing one of my main concerns was to be true to the culture that had inspired the fantasy and not to allow the characters to act in ways that they might not have done historically. I think this gives certain realism to the fantasy.

The Tales of the Otori series has themes of love, betrayal, familial honor and honor as a warrior, death, and revenge. These seem to be prevalent in Japanese literature. Why did you decide to focus on these issues?

These are themes that recur in kabuki drama and in the many Japanese monogatari. As I was writing, these were the ideas that my characters seemed to be concerned with. I was writing about a feudal society with all its codes and restrictions. My characters are forced into types of behavior by the society they are in: their reaction to this coercion drives the plot. But I did not want to write about "good" and "evil" and the struggle between them. The struggle in Tales of the Otori is between human individuals who seek power. I think the character of Arai is a good example of this. Arai starts out as a hero and champion of Kaede, but his ideas for her future end up being quite different from what she wants. And his drive for power leads him quite naturally to betray Takeo (or outwit him to use a less loaded term). And even the "good" characters are driven to perform shameful acts which they bitterly regret.

One issue never resolved in the series is whether peace can be attained and maintained without violence. What are your thoughts on this issue?

This is one of the key themes of the books. Takeo, who has been brought up with the belief that it is wrong to kill another human being, finds himself adopted into the warrior class whose sole purpose is fighting and killing, and then taken into a secret society of assassins. He can join them or die himself. He always chooses to live, at great cost to his own emotions and soul. At the end of Brilliance of the Moon he takes upon himself the responsibility all states take: to control violence for the sake of all their people. The book I am writing now looks at how successful he is in this.

Takeo is such a strong, heroic figure. Was he based on anyone specific? How did you decide to create the mystery of his heritage with the Otori, Hidden, and Kikuta?

He is not based on anyone specific, though he may have elements of some historical figures. I am interested in flawed, gifted people with divided and vulnerable natures: his character just seemed to develop from that. I was also interested in the balance between compassion and ruthlessness that a feudal leader must need, and also in the way Japanese tradition combines the artist and the warrior.

In Grass for His Pillow, Takeo has a sexual relationship with one of his closest male friends. Why did you decide to add this to the story?

Like most young men Takeo has a strong sex drive and is susceptible. And, like most humans, grief sets desire alight in him. One reviewer wrote about the "matter-of-fact eroticism" of the series being true to the spirit of mediaeval Japan. Again this was where I was trying to let my characters live in a historical world. Strong attachments between young men of the warrior class were very common: their sexual nature was not an important issue. Fidelity in marriage was also not expected of men, though women's jealousy was recognized and validated in many plays and stories, and I felt this gave a plausible basis for Shigeru's pledge to Lady Maruyama.

The Tribe seems to be a ninja type of group. Is this intentional?

The words "samurai" and "ninja" have become somewhat cliched in western ideas of Japan. I wanted to avoid using these words and also to avoid romanticizing either of them. So the Tribe has skills that are all based on ninjutsu, but they are also money-lenders and merchants, extremely pragmatic and cynical.

The Hidden have aspects of early Christianity in their actions and religious practices. Why did you make them outcasts? Are the Hidden an early form of Christianity?

The Hidden come from two separate strands of Japanese history. One is the "hidden Christians" of the 17th and 18th century who were severely persecuted but who emerged in Meiji Japan (only to be imprisoned again) with vestiges of their faith intact. My story is set just before the first Westerners arrive in the Three Countries, and my Hidden are the remnants of a Nestorian type of Christianity which might have come from China hundreds of years before. The Hidden are not outcasts as such, but many outcasts are Hidden, because of the appeal of a belief that holds all people are equal in the eyes of their Creator.

Kaede is another amazing creation. She is both strong and feminine at the same time. She can be impetuous, and yet she loves her family and Takeo with her entire being. What was the inspiration for her character?

Kaede is my tribute to all the Japanese women who are nameless in Japanese history, who figure in samurai family trees simply as "onna": woman. And to my Japanese women friends who have little resemblance to the fragile Madame Butterfly type. But for all Kaede's strengths I wanted to show her realistically, constrained by a feudal, patriarchic society. She thinks she is riding into battle in Brilliance, but, even though she is armed, when it comes to fighting her physical strength is no match for a man's. The books contain a lot of unspoken references to the yin-yang nature of the universe, the balance between the masculine and the feminine. Kaede has to be strong according to her female nature. The love between her and Takeo is the balancing force that will bring peace to the Three Countries. Their marriage is a matter not only of romantic love but also of metaphysics, as well as, more mundanely, good strategy in war.

At the conclusion of Brilliance of the Moon, Kaede is horribly scarred on her neck and back. I thought this was an interesting place for scarring as in Japanese culture, the nape of the neck of a Geisha is considered a very erotic notion. Was this intentional?

Yes, the scarring of the nape of the neck is intentional: it is such an erotic part of the body in Japanese culture.

What inspires you to write?

It's the way I understand the world, as well as an addictive pleasure, to create a whole world and people who have not existed before and to discover their stories.

Do you attend any writing groups? If so, how did your participation enhance your writing?

I am a very secretive and isolated writer and never show my work to anyone or even talk about it when it is in progress. It's both strength and a weakness, I think. The strength is that the voice emerges strong and original; the weakness is in being cut off from other writers and what is going on in one's field. But then I don't really feel as if I have a field.

What made you a science fiction, fantasy, and horror fan? What are your favorites and why?

I can't really describe myself as a science fiction or fantasy fan. I hardly read anything in these genres. I'm a great admirer of Diana Wynne Jones, but I haven't read her latest books. I like J.G. Ballard too. And another favorite author is Haruki Murakami.

What do you enjoy doing when not writing?

I like being outside, doing physical things. Walking, swimming, kayaking, bird watching.

Any movies you particularly enjoyed?

I think my all-time favorite movie is Kaneto Shindo's The Black Cats from the Grove -- Yabu no naka no kuroneko: It's a stylized ghost story, very moving and sad. The moment when the husband meets his ghost wife is sublime.

Has anyone optioned the Tales of the Otori?

The film rights to the trilogy have been bought by Universal for Kennedy Marshall. The script is being written at the moment by David Henry Hwang. It's exciting as Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall are such great producers.


Lian Hearn writes...

Between the Darkness and the Light

I’ve written five books in the Tales of the Otori series. It started as a trilogy (Across the Nightingale Floor, Grass for his Pillow and Brilliance of the Moon) but I realised I had more to say about the characters and have written one book (Heaven’s Net is Wide) that ends where Across the Nightingale Floor begins...

Across the Nightingale Floor

A land of incomparable beauty torn by civil war An ancient tradition undermined by spies and assassins A society of rigid castes and codes subverted by love Takeo is raised among the Hidden, whose beliefs forbid them to kill. When his family fall victim to religious persecution at the hands of Lord Iida of the Dairyo clan, he is rescued and adopted by the warrior, Shigeru, of the Otori clan...

Brilliance of the Moon

A beautiful, haunting evocation of a time and place just beyond the reach of an outside world, the third instalment of the Tales of the Otori transports us once again to a medieval Japan of Hearn s imagination, a land of formal ritual and codes, harsh beauty and deceptive appearance...