Interview by Tehani Wessely.
Lian Hearn is the pseudonym used by British born Australian writer, Gillian Rubinstein for her Japan inspired medieval fantasies, Tales of the Otori (2002-2007) and The Tale of Shikanoko (2016) These books have been translated into 40 languages and published around the world. She has also written two historical novels, set in 19th century Japan, Blossoms and Shadows and The Story Teller and his Three Daughters.
In her previous incarnation Gillian wrote over thirty books for children and teenagers, as well as numerous plays, winning many awards and inspiring many young writers. Previously she worked as a film critic, freelance journalist and editor in London and Sydney. She lived for thirty years in South Australia and now lives in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales.
Your latest series,The Tale of Shikanoko, is being released this year in four parts over just a few months – that’s an astonishing undertaking! What can you tell readers about the books, and the process of producing them to be released in such a short time span?
I started writing the books in February 2012. I’d had the idea since 2010 when I saw young men dancing the deer dance in Iwate prefecture. I was interested in setting something in the same world as Tales of the Otori, but several hundred years earlier. I spent a year thinking about characters, doing background reading and researching 12th century Japan, religious beliefs, supernatural beings, and esoteric Buddhism. In March 2011 the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident struck Japan and this tragedy overshadowed the writing.
My usual method is to keep writing and rewriting in a solitary way until I have something I’m happy to show to my agent; in this case it was at the end of 2014. The Tale of Shikanoko is really one long story, but it fell naturally into four parts. The titles went through several changes but have ended up as: Emperor of the Eight Islands; Autumn Princess, Dragon Child; Lord of the Darkwood; The Tengu’s Game of Go. My Australian publisher, Hachette, decided to put them out as two books (Emperor of the Eight Islands and Lord of the Darkwood) but Sean McDonald at Farrar Strauss & Giroux wanted to do the four in quick succession all within six months. I was very keen to do this as it suited the book’s structure and seemed quite innovative – Sean had done something similar with great success with Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. Because of parallel imports regulations this meant Lord of the Darkwood had to come out in Australia in August too. It did mean a very intense year of editing, copyediting and proof reading the two editions. Luckily I didn’t have to do the same thing for the UK edition, which is being published in two volumes but eight months apart. But it was also incredibly exciting following the reveals of the artwork and design for the books. I am looking forward to seeing the foreign language translations and covers – so far Germany, France, Indonesia and several other countries have signed contracts.
There has been a lot of discussion online in recent years about cultural appropriation and the issues associated with writing in a culture not your own – given the setting of the Otori and Shikanoko books, I would love to know how you avoid the pitfalls of doing this?
I was very hesitant about writing Tales of the Otori. I was captured by the characters and I desperately wanted to tell that particular story, but it seemed a very risky undertaking. Receiving an Asialink fellowship in 1999 gave me a certain degree of confidence. I was determined to learn Japanese and immerse myself in the culture and history of Japan, as well as spending as much time as possible there. I wanted above all to avoid stereotypes and cliches, and write about women and ordinary people as well as warriors and assassins. It helps that my world is a fantasy world but it is grounded in a real landscape that I have become very familiar with.
I’m always encouraged by how Japanese artists and writers borrow from all over the world, so you have manga set in Victorian England or the American civil war or the realm of King Arthur. I think cultures have always taken from each other, and crossfertilised in rich and creative ways. Of course there are dangers of exploitation and misrepresentation which individuals must strive against. It’s usually a question of being aware of where the power lies.
I enjoyed my time at Swancon very much. It was the first con I’d ever been too. The panels were on interesting subjects and I met some amazing people. I liked Swancon’s inclusive, laid back atmosphere. I’ve also been invited to SupaNova in Brisbane in November.
You’ve written in a variety of genres from historical fantasy to science fiction, for quite different audiences. Is changing styles something that has come over time, or did you always have this diversity of tales to tell?
When I was writing children’s books I loved the way there was a genre and a form for every idea from picture book texts to complex ya novels. I also worked in children’s theatre, as the writer on several plays, often image or physical theatre. Most of my ya novels have an element of fantasy in them, but very different sorts of fantasy. At the moment I am thinking about a collection of stories with a slightly creepy feel to them. But I like the historical fantasy field I write in now, I think it suits my style and my mindset. People often say my work now reads as if it is a translation from an ancient text, and that’s the effect I’m after.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I thought both Cleverman and Barracuda, in different ways, were inspiring examples of visual storytelling. I really loved Theatre of Image’s recent version of Monkey (Journey to the West). In fiction I found the ideas in Clade (James Bradley) brilliant and disturbing and I loved Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
Diana Wynne Jones, my inspiration to become a writer, and the wittiest of companions.