For those unfamiliar with your novels, how would you describe them?
My new novel, Blossoms and Shadows, is quite different from the five books that make up Tales of the Otori. I suppose it’s best described as literary historical fiction. It’s a serious book that attempts to tell a story that is unfamiliar to most Australian readers – events leading up to the Meiji Restoration of 1868. I chose a young woman from a doctor’s family as my narrator – doctors were an exception to the rigid class structure of the times and were the most receptive to foreign ideas because Western medical methods were quite clearly effective. As we follow Tsuru through the years 1857-67, we see the irrationality and turmoil of the times through her eyes and mirrored in her life.
Tales of the Otori is also set in Japan but is probably best described as historical fantasy. There is quite a lot of authentic history behind it and it is set in a real landscape, both of which give it its strength and conviction, but the world is imaginary, it uses a sort of magic, though nothing that is not claimed by ninjutsu, and the boundaries between the living and the dead those of a medieval world. It is hard to describe as it is not really quite like anything else around.
Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing your latest novel, Blossoms and Shadows?
In 1999 I was in Japan on an Asialink Fellowship to research and write the first book of Tales of the Otori, Across the Nightingale Floor. I spent most of my time in Yamaguchi prefecture – the old feudal domain of Chôshû – where the amazing history of Japan’s 19th century revolution, the Meiji Restoration of 1868, still feels very much alive. I became fascinated with the young men from this area who dedicated their lives to the modernisation of their country. While I was writing Tales of the Otori I continued reading about this period of history, and on my many trips to Japan, visited most of the places where major events happened. In 2002 I stayed in a village in between Hagi and Yamaguchi for three months to continue the research for this novel. As well as reading history in English and Japanese and exploring the landscape I visited museums, old houses, art galleries and so on – all the slow accumulation of detail that makes an unfamiliar world come alive. I am a member of an on-line Japanese history group and had many useful discussions with other members. Friends in Japan supplied me with books and magazines they thought I would find interesting. I started writing in 2008. I work in a kind of three pronged spatial way, using a large sketch book to make time lines, charts, plot ideas and flow, and writing every day by hand in A4 notebooks. I work for about 3-4 hours every morning, and revise and rewrite in the afternoons. Though I have many scenes clearly in my head, and usually some idea of the ending I am working towards, I never make a full plot outline but prefer to unravel the story as I go along.
Would you say that you use reasonably accurate portrayals of Japan in your novels (apart from the magic), or are they significantly influenced by mythical aspects of Japanese fiction, such as Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Samurai legends or Japanese movies?
You can’t really separate a country’s history from its culture and literature, least of all a country like Japan where the landscape is saturated in memory, cultural allusions and poetry. So I have tried to give this echo of legend and myth, while writing a story grounded in the reality of medieval life. Obviously at some level the Otori books are about “samurai” and “ninja” – the warriors and the Tribe – but I did not want to use these terms with all the cliches that are attached to them and I was more interested in subverting the samurai legend, and looking behind it at how that world might have been experienced by women and commoners. Again in Blossoms and Shadows I take an unconventional narrator – a young woman who has trained as a doctor – but the history and the culture she observes are all carefully researched and I think pretty acurate.
Blossoms and Shadows has been described as being about ‘the birth of modern Japan’. What were some of you favourite things about writing the previous novels set in ‘pre-modern’ Japan?
Blossoms and Shadows is set exactly at the moment when the feudal world is crumbling. One of the things that fascinated me was how long that world had persisted in Japan, giving the extended years of peace of the Edo period with all its cultural brilliance. Tales of the Otori is set much earlier, before the unification that took place in Japan towards the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries. It’s an era of warlords fighting among themselves, complicated by the appearance of foreigners from the West with new weapons. I liked writing about that period for many reasons – people had to be much more resourceful and resilient, physical enduring and mentally tough. The weather and the terrain play a much larger part in the outcomes of battles, and news travels as fast as a galloping horse. There was also an element to Japanese education then which is often lacking from modern life – both skill with the sword and in martial arts, and reading and writing Japanese characters are difficult and demanding, requiring great discipline and years of study. I believe many young people crave difficulty and love challenges, and this is one reason why the books appeal to them. There are different cultural constructs that control behaviour and attitudes, but underneath humans are all born with similar capacities for emotions, and the Japanese language contains all the same words as ours for courage, compassion, affection, pity, cruelty, jealousy, lust and love.
What kinds of research did you do into Japan to prepare you for writing novels set there?
I think the most important thing I did was learn to read Japanese. History is very important in Japan and the resources are endless if you can read them – many books and illustrated magazines on historical personnages, war and battles, society in every era, and daily life – clothes, food, amusements and so on. Second in importance was being able to spend a lot of time in Japan, getting to know the seasons, mountains, rivers, trees, flowers, birds and animals. As I said earlier the background culture of the society – the sort of books people were reading, the plays they saw, the paintings they collected. And many people, the internet group I mentioned earlier, and friends in Japan, have all contributed with suggestions for things to read or to go and look at, and of course endless conversation.
What kinds of fiction do you most enjoy reading, and do you have some favourites?
I don’t usually read fiction while I am writing it, but when I have finished I go on a binge of novel reading (in three languagesJ). Authors I will read anything new by include David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jane Smiley, Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve just discovered the American novelist Richard Powers and am besotted. Among Japanese authors I like Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa. I liked The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery very much, and I also like the African books of Le Clezio. Among Australian writers I like Peter Carey, Helen Garner, Alex Miller. (I wish W.G Sebald was not dead.)
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and what makes them stand out for you?
This is really hard to answer –maybe Arthur in The Once and Future King, Pierre in War and Peace, Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo. Rosalind in As You Like It. What makes them stand out? Their humanity in the face of great challenges, their belief in love and redemption.
What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give for new fiction writers?
Find your own voice, be original and put your energy into the piece of work that no one but you can write. (Then rewrite it.) Never take the easy way out.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I’m reading about Japan in the 1880s, which brings in the People’s Rights Movement and relations with Korea. The main character will be Michi, Tsuru’s adopted daughter in Blossoms and Shadows.
More on Gillian Rubinstein’s fiction under the name Lian Hearn can be found here.
The Australian Literature Review