I’ve been meaning to write a post about my novel for a little while—if only to have something to refer people to when they ask me about it and I don’t have time to respond.
But I also find it a little uncomfortable writing about it. I’m uncomfortable for several reasons: firstly, it’s still in progress and who knows whether it will ever see the light of publication? Secondly, there are cultural issues involved that make the whole thing a little sensitive, and while I don’t quite agree that I have no right to tell this story the way I am, I am conscious of the issues and how complicated the whole thing is. Thirdly, I’m not sure I have more to say other than, “I’m writing a novel and it’s about this”.
But anyway. Here’s a post about my novel. Enjoy.
To talk about this novel, I have to talk about another one first—one that I started and then stopped, because it wasn’t quite working.
It was during the period Ben and I were going through a trial separation (which is a story I am not going to ever blog about, but I’m throwing it out there because it happened, we are all the stronger for it happening, and just as it’s helpful to know that other people also struggle with depression and anxiety, it’s also helpful for married people to know that other people’s marriages are sometimes difficult and complicated, but that’s not the end of the world for the relationship).
So as I said, it was during the period when we were going through a trial separation. I was quite depressed, and one of the ways I coped with my depression was to lose myself in daydreaming. I had this idea for a fantasy story about a girl chosen by a magician to become his special helper because they shared a magical connection, and I thought it might work as a novel.
I started writing bits and pieces of it while I was working on my novella (which is very close to seeing the light of publication if only I had the time and energy to do the necessary revisions and get it out there). The setting started off as being very European medieval fantasy. But then I read someone on Twitter bemoaning the fact that most fantasy was European and medieval, and couldn’t writers conceive of something else? And something in me shifted.
Around the same time, I had been revisiting one of my favourite anime series, Samurai Champloo, which was made by the same director as Cowboy Bebop. It had just come to Netflix and even though I own the series on DVD, it’s so much more convenient to stream things instead of fiddling with players and discs. (NB: It’s no longer up on Netflix, but you can watch 25 episodes on this YouTube playlist plus episode 26 with an English dub.)
The series is about a teenage girl named Fuu who enlists two rogue swordsmen—Mugen from the Ryukyu islands and Jin, who is a rōnin (i.e. a master-less samurai) to protect her and help her find a samurai who smells of sunflowers. The three have little love for one another, but as they travel along the length of Japan and have all sorts of crazy adventures along the way, they develop a bond—something deeper than friendship, something forged of promises and loyalty. A lot of people find the ending anti-climactic, but I think it’s because their expectations are wrong: it’s one of those series that is more about the journey than the destination. The more I’ve watched it, the more I’ve come to appreciate the story and why it ends the way it does.
Anyway, one of things I really love about it is that it’s set during the Edo/Tokugawa period—that section of Japanese history 1603 and 1867 when the country was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate. (Though on reflection, Samurai Champloo probably set more towards the end of that period as it has an entire episode about American baseball.) I find the Edo period fascinating: it was a time of peace as the country had been more or less united under the shogunate; it was a time of prosperity as peace and social stability led to both an economic and a population boom; it was a time of great social change when the ruling classes—the samurai and the nobility—were on the decline while the merchants were becoming more prosperous; and it was a time of artistic flourishing when a number of traditional Japanese arts and crafts really came into their own. (It should also be noted that it was a time of isolation as well, because Japan shut its borders to everyone except the Dutch East India Company. Samurai Champloo episode 6 has an interesting story about a character who worked for them.)
In my depression that year, another thing I found myself doing was travelling to Japan in my imagination. I have only been there once—in January of 1993 when I was 15 and it was bitterly cold. I remember visiting Tokyo Disneyland when it was snowing; seeing people wearing face masks in the subway because they either had colds or wanted to avoid getting colds; seeing beautifully dressed girls in kimonos in one of Tokyo’s gardens (though I don’t remember why they were all dressed up); going up Mount Fuji and marvelling at how I could see one side of the country to the other; staying at an inn known for its hot spring but not understanding why that was significant; waking up the day we were supposed to go to Kobe and learning about the earthquake, and thinking about the guy on the bullet train the day before who had been going there and wondering if he was okay (I don’t actually remember how I knew he was going to Kobe; maybe he disembarked there before we did?); and catching the bullet train back to Tokyo. I would very much like to go to Japan again, and I had started saving up for a trip when COVID hit. (And then we bought a house, which decimated the fund, so I’ve had to start again.)
Somehow those two things—my novel and my love of Edo Japan—coalesced and I decided to make the setting of my fantasy novel Edo-inspired.
Of course, the moment I decided to do that, I ran into a whole bunch of world-building problems. It wasn’t that I wanted to be slavishly faithful to the Edo era; it was more that as I researched the period, I started to see how different aspects of Japanese culture influence and determine other things. For example, geography and climate: Japan is an island nation that sits on the ring of fire, which means that it is subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. (I confess I did know until a couple of years ago that Mount Fuji is a volcano.) Its weather ranges from extreme snow in the winter to soul-crushing heat and humidity in the summer. This is why traditional Japanese houses are built in a particular way—to facilitate air flow and temperature regulation when it’s hot, with the ability to close everything off when it’s cold (though the Japanese are more into space heating with hearths in the floor, instead of heating the entire house). Houses are usually made of wood, which makes them a little bit more flexible in the event of an earthquake, but wood also means that fire is a major hazard, and often it is expected that structures will be rebuilt after a suitable period of time has elapsed.
The more I researched (as much as one can via the internet, and I certainly feel very lucky to have the whole of the world wide web at my fingertips for this, though it makes me feel a lot like armchair traveller Ann Radcliffe), the more I would come across little details that were essential to my story, but that were of no interest to historians. Sometimes I was able to unearth answers after trawling the internet in different ways. (For example, did Japanese sailors use hammocks on board? The answer is no, but you’ll have to read pages 678-679 of the book I linked to to find it.) Sometimes I couldn’t find the answer—even if it was for something that I thought was rather simple. (For example, how often did Japanese people do laundry in the Edo era? Given that cleaning a kimono involves taking it apart, washing it and sewing it back together again, I take it they wouldn’t have been doing that very often. But their undergarments? Absolutely no idea. But I’d guess surely they would change those almost every day, given the Japanese penchant for bathing, which is linked to Shinto and ideas about pollution.)
I know, I know: it’s fiction. It’s fantasy. I could have just made stuff up. But I kind of liked that the research was leading me in all sorts of place to all sorts of things I had never considered before—which is why I stuck with it as an exercise in world-building. Japan is different in just about every regard to the western culture I had grown up. And yet there were parts of it that felt familiar to me because Japan borrowed so much from Chinese culture—Buddhism and Confucianism, of course, but also their writing system, their style of dress, and even aspects of their cuisine and handicrafts. At one point, I read something about Japanese history and was struck by a line saying something about how Japanese society back then was obsessed with Chinese culture. It shocked me because I have never had much interest in Chinese culture, despite that being my heritage. But seeing China through the lens of Japan changed all that. My appreciation for Chinese culture and history, and even my own Asianness, started to grow. (It also helped that around the same time, I discovered xanxia dramas.) Even so, my relationship with my Chineseness is an ongoing journey that I’m not sure I can write about at the moment. (Or ever …)
The thing is, I know that me writing about Japanese culture (even if it’s heavily disguised as fantasy) will be seen as problematic. I’m not Japanese; I’m Chinese. Japanese history and culture is not mine. Furthermore, the relationship between China and Japan is difficult and fraught with traumatic history. (I don’t know how true it is, but I heard that my own grandfather, who died before I was born, became an alcoholic sometime after the Japanese invaded Hong Kong.) The whole situation is complicated and messy.
However, one thing I admire greatly about the Japanese is their ability to borrow things from other cultures—not just Chinese, but Portuguese and even American—and make them their own. I hope they will not mind me doing likewise.
Boring Fantasy Novel
Back to the novel—not the current one, but the other one—the one I called “Boring Fantasy Novel” as a joke when I participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) that year. (This is log line I would tell people: “Magician samurai at magic school who need to learn to work together in order to defend their kingdom from an invading empire”. That makes it sound less boring.)
Going through a trial separation meant that I had more child-free time on my hands, because Ben would take the girls to his place every Friday and drop them back on Saturday. I had always wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo, but every year had seemed like a bad time to do it. With more time and a project I actually wanted to work on, participating that year was a no-brainer. And as you can see from the above certificate, I did actually finish.
The following year—2019—I worked on Boring Fantasy Novel—the story about the girl who was chose to become a seer’s helper or familiar. But it branched: initially I had approached it as a single narrator story told from the point of view of the girl, who I named Sia after the musician Sia Furler. (It’s not a particularly Japanese name—it comes from Old Norse—but it is kind of fitting for Reasons that would probably take another blog post.) She lives in the kingdom of Archaia (also not a particularly Japanese name. Reasons. Also, I just liked the name [it’s a comics publisher]) where magic is a part of the natural world. But only the seers—the magic-users—can see it and manipulate it to their ends.
As my cast multiplied, I decided to adopt two other point-of-view characters: a boy named Taika (who is a seer, but not the one who chooses Sia) and a girl named Piper (who is also a seer, but also not the one who chooses Sia). Both Taika and Piper are friends with Caspian, the seer who does choose Sia. You’d think Caspian as a POV character would be the obvious choice, but I didn’t want to make him one. I was drawn to Taika and Piper instead—again, for Reasons.
Anyway, I kept going with Boring Fantasy Novel, telling the story from three points of view—Sia, Taika and Piper. I’d never written a multi-POV novel before, and I dealt with it by switching between the three of them in a set pattern—Sia, Taika, Piper; Sia Taika Piper, etc.
Then I realised I had completely underestimated how much story would fill one novel. That’s what happens when you have three POVs and plot arcs for each of them! I had a rough outline and enough story to fill a trilogy. But what I was calling Book #1 waaaaaaay too long: I hit 80,000 words and realised I wasn’t done. I thought it would work if I split what I was calling Book #1 into two books, thus making the trilogy a quadrilogy. The thing with doing that is that the first half didn’t quite work as a self-contained book. Furthermore, when I started workshopping sections of it with my writing group the following year, I realised from their feedback that it really wasn’t working—that each POV didn’t stand on its own—and that I had to do something quite drastic.
Of course, my solution was to run. I was 67,000 words through what became Book #2 when I did it, and it was because I was writing a Taika chapter and realised I needed more of his backstory.
The Taika Novel
It was around this time the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia—about the second quarter of 2020. In between supervising home learning and trying to do my job, I wasn’t writing much of anything. I was trying to keep it up, but it was fragmented and rough, and I found I was using the time to work things out. I wrote about Taika and Piper’s backstories, trying to trace the trajectory of who they were up to the beginning of Boring Fantasy Novel. I thought it would just be a useful exercise in character development. But as I looked over what I’d written, I realised that Taika’s story could work as a standalone novel on its own. (Piper’s could work, but it’s not quite there yet.) Boring Fantasy Novel/Quadrilogy wasn’t working, and that was partly because I was trying to juggle three POVs. I decided I should learn to walk before I tried to run and attempt just one POV instead.
So earlier this year, I started on the Taika Novel. It starts a few years earlier than Boring Fantasy Novel and it is about Taika, a fifteen-year-old boy who was born into the lowest social class in the kingdom of Archaia (which is analogous to the Burakumin in Edo Japan; that’s something else that might get me in trouble). Taika is discovered to be a seer and made to enrol in the Seer Academy. He must learn to master his powers and make his situation work for him, despite the hostility and obstacles he faces (the Seer Academy is full of aristocrats, you see). The alternative is execution, because the Crown can’t have untrained magic users running around; the law says that everyone who is discovered to be a seer must serve the King and the Kingdom.
I describe the Taika Novel as being a “small” story that’s not aiming to do much. As I’ve been writing it, though, I’ve been drawing correlations between Taika’s story and mine—connections that were largely unconscious until I realised how they were influencing the material. Chief among them is that feeling of entering an existing situation where everyone else has been there a while and is familiar with the way things work, while you feel out of place and don’t know anything. Taika doesn’t know how to read or write, but everyone else at Seer Academy does because they all come from the upper class and had private tutors. It’s a lot like when I was six and I moved from to Canada to Australia. I struggled a lot at school. In Canada, I had completed Kindergarten 1 and Kindergarten 2 at a bilingual school where lessons were taught in English and French. But I didn’t know how to read, and when we arrived in Australia, my age meant that I was placed in Year 1 halfway through. (We arrived in July.) I went from being at the level of my peers to being far below. I have a very clear memory of standing up in front of the class, being asked to write “jump” on the board and not being able to get past the letter “j” while all the other kids yelled the answer. For the rest of that year, I had to sit at a desk right beside the teacher, who set me special work to help me catch up. And for the longest time, I thought of myself as not being particularly smart—until I started excel academically and discovered what I was really capable of.
As I wrote in this post, I’ve outlined the whole novel and written bits of it. I’m currently writing the rest of it rather badly and I’m almost halfway. I’d really like to finish the whole thing this year, but that will depend a lot on the pandemic, us coming out of lockdown and the girls returning to school.
What of the Boring Fantasy Novel Quadrilogy? Well, I do actually have a plan for that, but it’s looking more like two more stand-alones plus a trilogy, according to my current rough outlines. None of what I wrote will be wasted. In fact, many of the characters in that are in the Taika Novel; I’m just writing about them when they were younger.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Learn to walk before I run. Let’s finish the Taika novel first.