I met Steve Bein online on a writer's site, and you may recall that he did a post here for Tolkien Week about using inanimate objects as characters in a novel. Steve's first novel just released today, and anyone who has been around here for a while will recognize plenty of things we like around here: Japan, fantasy, swords, and great writing. Steve and I did an interview, and I think you'll find what he has to share interesting. In the meantime, here's Steve's website, and here's a link to his book on Amazon.
Tuesday, October 02, 2012
Interview with Steve Bein, author of "Daughter of the Sword"
1. Tell us about Daughter of the Sword. What's the book about?
Mariko Oshiro, the only woman to make sergeant and detective in Tokyo’s most elite police unit, has a misogynistic boss who wants to make sure she’ll never realize her dream of joining the Narcotics unit. She’s got a good lead on a cocaine ring but instead he gives her the least promising case he’s got: the attempted theft of an ancient sword. Things get a lot weirder when she learns the man who owns the sword says it’s magical, and a lot more dangerous when the would-be thief turns out to be a yakuza enforcer attempting to carve out a new criminal empire. The book alternates between Mariko’s story and historical interludes that follow the exploits of the three swords as they find their way in the hands of different warriors throughout Japanese history, from the samurai era up to WWII.
2. Okay, so this novel has a cop, some samurai, cursed swords, and Tokyo gangsters. How would you describe it? Is this urban fantasy? Police procedural? Mystery? Thriller?
All of the above, actually.
The question, “What genre is this?” has a lot packed into it, doesn’t it? It assumes there’s one answer. Mariko’s storyline, the one set in the modern day, is a police procedural and thriller with a touch of urban fantasy. But the forays into Japan’s past are clearly historical fiction, with a touch of historical fantasy.
3. I love Japan but I've never been there. Have you been there before? What draws you to that setting?
It’s a little embarrassing, but it probably started with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I discovered them in fourth or fifth grade, when they still only existed in black-and-white comic form. From there I graduated to chop-socky movies, then my own martial arts career, then my Eastern Philosophy course in college, and ultimately went to Nagoya and Tokyo to study Japanese philosophy. So yeah, Japan’s pretty much in my blood at this point.
As for what draws me to it, one of the things I really appreciate about Japanese culture is its aesthetic sensibilities. There’s a certain beauty in stillness, in potential energy held in check. Michael Mann and not Michael Bay, if that makes sense. I like a patient story that can unfold at its own pace, like Mann did with Heat, and like you’ll see in any Kurosawa film.
And there’s a certain beauty in impermanence and fragility that I don’t think we always appreciate in this country. The quintessential example is the samurai who dies at his prime, and (oddly enough) the cherry blossom. Even a gentle breeze can blow it apart, and there’s only about a week when they’re in bloom. Japanese people take days off of work to have picnics under the cherry trees and watch the blossoms fall like snowflakes. I suppose we do something similar when we go on road trips to see the fall colors, but not many people take the time to do that here.
4. How did you go about researching a novel set in Tokyo? What sort of research did you have to do for this novel?
It certainly helps to have lived there. These days you can get a lot from Google, but getting a feel for the city is important, especially if it’s a culture radically different from the one you grew up in. (I often think about how convenient it would be if I’d just write about someplace cheap and easy to get to, but no, I just had to set my stories halfway around the world.)
As for specific research, I read a lot of books on the samurai and their era, and a little on WWII, and as much as I could get on the yakuza (which isn’t much), and I was very lucky to find a good scholar who studies police work in Japan. I interviewed a lot of cops too, particularly female cops, to understand the job and to get a feel for what it’s like to be a woman in that profession.
But the most fun was the sword research. That allowed me to go back to training in kendō and iaidō—Japanese sword arts. I just love that stuff.
5. Are there more books coming in the series? What are you working on now?
I just turned in a revised manuscript for the second novel yesterday. Right now I’m plotting book three.
6. And there’s a companion novella too, right? What is Only A Shadow about, and how is it connected to Daughter of the Sword?
Only A Shadow was originally a part of Daughter of the Sword, but my editor and I felt that it didn’t drive the story forward, and in truth it stands very well on its own. It’s too short to be a novel in its own right and too long for most magazines that publish short fiction, so we decided to publish it as a novella for e-readers. It’s a heist caper, but with ninjas instead of Robert DeNiro or Steve McQueen. An aging ninja master has to steal a masterwork sword in order to save his clan from extinction, but he can’t manage it on his own. He needs to recruit someone faster, younger, and stronger to help him, though he knows the new recruit may well seek to betray him and take his place.
7. Daughter of the Sword just released today, and it looks fantastic. I'm going to start reading it tonight. Tell me that it's fantastic. Is it everything I am hoping it will be?
I think you’re going to like it a lot. I’ve been really pleased to see the nice attention it’s been getting from the critics, and I think the book has a little something for everyone. If you like police thrillers, Mariko’s storyline has a lot for you. If you like historical fiction, you’ll find plenty of that here, on a culture that you don’t often get to see in historical fiction. And of course if you like a little twist of fantasy in your fiction, then this book is just perfect for you.
8. I saw you described this book as a “thoughtful thriller.” What do you mean by that?
I don’t buy the idea that genre fiction has to be “summer reading,” as in, “turn off your brain and enjoy.” My characters wrestle with philosophical conflicts as well as physical ones. At the end of the day this is a book about duty, and about how we define ourselves based on what we perceive our moral duties to be. It’s about duty in the same way that Batman Begins is a film about fear and The Dark Knight is a film about whether human nature is intrinsically good or intrinsically evil. Those are thoughtful thrillers too. Very sophisticated scripts, plus some ass-kicking action sequences. It seems to me the two go together just fine.
9. If you could own one of the swords from your novel, which one would it be and why (assuming you can do this without spoilers)?
Beautiful Singer is the most elegant, but she’s dangerous, so not her. Glorious Victory’s curse is a mixed blessing, but it’s the most impressive of the swords in terms of sheer size. Tiger on the Mountain is really good for property values, for reasons I can’t disclose without spoilers. In the end I think I’d have to go with Glorious Victory for the sheer coolness factor. That sword would take up most of a wall no matter what wall I hung it on.