June 8, 2013
Author Interview: Keith Yatsuhashi
Yesterday on the Friday Indie Review, I reviewed Kojiki by Keith Yatsuhashi. Keith was kind enough to answer a few follow up questions from me, so as an added bonus we have another author interview! Keith’s reply to #6 really solved a mystery for me; I think we all know I would have come down in the “more books!” camp. Enjoy!
1. What got you into writing?
Probably the best answer to give is that while in college I found I had a knack for it. A knack is nothing compared to what it takes to hone a craft like this, but it was where I started. I majored in political science with a minor in history. Those two disciplines required a good deal of writing–analytical, not creative. Even so, I found I liked stringing words together to make a point. I even started researching great speeches in history. Words have power, and great speakers really show that impact. Bear in mind this was during the Reagan years. I was young, and Reagan’s speeches mesmerized me. From there, I looked at Churchill, some Lincoln, and then MacArthur. As for the actual idea of writing a novel, I toyed with it about the same time, and even began writing what will become Kojiki’s follow-up. So, I guess you can say I always had the bug, at least since my late teens. After graduating college, when I was trying to find my professional footing, I dabbled some more. It never went beyond the daydreaming stages, but I think it was what started the pot simmering, so to speak.
2. For folks who might want to get a taste of your writing before digging into Kojiki, do you have any other publications or short stories out? If so, where can readers find them?
Kojiki is all there is at the moment. It’s my first foray into storytelling. I have a blog up at kmyatsuhashi.wordpress.com where I babble about stuff that interests me. It’s a new blog, though, with only a few entries–more to come. That said, the blog won’t give you a feel for my fiction writing. The two styles are just so different.
3. When did you first get the idea for Kojiki?
The real inspiration came with the death of an eccentric aunt. At her funeral, my father’s sister-in-law started to relate some of our family history—things I never knew. She said our family was once part of the Imperial Court, back before the capital moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. That family history was enough to fire my imagination. My grandfather worked as an antiques dealer in Boston and came to the US as part of the Yamanaka Trading Company. My aunt became the inspiration for Keiko, who in the early drafts was actually 75-years-old but with a whimsical child-like innocence. She really did have the camera and took it with her wherever she went.
4. Kojiki captures a lot of very Japanese themes: family, honor, loyalty– but it has a bit of a spin in that most of the characters being tested by these themes are female– Keiko, Yui, Seirin, for example. Did you set out to intentionally spin the tale away from the traditional “Lone Samurai” scenario?
I really didn’t. Truth be told, Keiko was only supposed to be in the prologue. She would see some horror involving dragons and that would be that. A lot of horror novels start that way, as do TV shows and movies. A teaser of what’s to come. Like the opening murder sequence in CSI or some other procedural. In that draft, Aeryk was main character and Vissyus was your standard unstoppable God. That all went out the window as soon as I teamed Yui with Keiko. Their scenes came together so effortlessly, and I knew I had to keep them as much front and center as I could. Originally, Seirin was overly puritanical and judgmental. Self-righteous was the best way to describe her. I think that came about because I started with her battle scenes, which were brutal. I wanted her to take the readers’ breath away. Beautiful, but untouchable, and dangerous as Hell. As the story evolved, though, she became the catalyst for everything. Remember the perfect cheerleader in high school? That’s Seirin, only in Kojiki, we see what getting one’s way leaves behind. And it’s not pretty. I think Seirin evolves the most throughout the story, but she does have the farthest to go. Yui’s a close second. I suppose that’s really the answer to your question. These three characters, Keiko, Seirin, and Yui, are the ones with the real journey, so I focus more on them.
5. Speaking of “Lone Samurai,” you’ve said other places that Kojiki was an homage to all the anime you watched as a kid. What is your favorite Japanese film or anime series, and in what ways did it influence how you wrote this book?
Star Blazers! I can say that without hesitation. I’ll never forget the day I came home from high school, flipped on the TV, and came across it. I was spellbound. A hard SF story told in animation with a gorgeous, fully orchestrated score. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I became obsessed and tried to learn all I could about it. Back then–early 1980′s–without the internet it wasn’t easy. I finally found an article about the show and learned it was originally broadcast in Japan as ‘Space Battleship Yamato’. Star Blazers was a big enough hit to coax more anime out of Japan. Truthfully, no other title equalled Star Blazers for me, and in 1983, when getting ready for the World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Sapporo, Japan, I selected a suite from Yamato Final, the last full-length Yamato movie for some time, as my music for the competition.
So what was it about Star Blazers? It’s epic in scope and more heroic than just about anything I’ve ever seen. It’s about the greatness in people, how adversity brings out the absolute best in everyone. I know it’s in vogue for stories to have flawed, complex characters who’s morals are questionable, but I can’t tell you how many times Star Blazers hit me over the head with the notion that a few dedicated individuals can face death without fear and achieve the impossible for the betterment of those who don’t even understand their sacrifice. The story is inspirational in any format, and I wanted to write a story along those lines.
6. If you read the review, you’ll find I wasn’t a big fan of the flashbacks between Aeryk and Seirin. To summarize, I thought they slowed down the pacing in the front of the book without adding much empathy for the pivotal players. Here’s your spot to give a rebuttal.
In answering, I kind of feel like the magician who’s having a real problem with a trick. When it comes time to perform, he’s done the best he can to prepare and pulls it off fairly well, only to find another magician in the audience staring at him with a knowing look. In other words, Kojiki’s back story gave me fits. I can’t tell you how many times I moved it around, tinkered with it, tried to find the best place for it. For a while, every conference call with my editor–the fabulous Lorin Oberweger of Free-Expressions.com (She’s Veronica Rossi’s editor too, BTW)–centered on what to do with it. I couldn’t omit it without watering down the emotional impact I was going for at the climax, and I couldn’t find the right way to fit it in. I opted for what you see on the page, showing-not-telling how Seirin and Aeryk’s selfishness destroyed their world. Lorin offered the best advice–she told me not to get too cute, just present it and let the reader decide. She did say it made her really curious about the whole Kojiki history, and maybe I could have done a book with Seirin and Aeryk’s arc before the cataclysmic events in Kojiki. It’s a great idea, but I was so invested in what I had already–not to mention impatient to start querying agents–that I decided against it. I will say, though, I’m really proud of Vissyus’s backstory chapter. I think it’s heart-breaking, and the story would suffer without it. He’s my Billy Budd, and the reader needs to know he’s more tragic hero than villain.
7. On a positive note, I loved how many historical and cultural references you managed to fit into one book. Did you start out pretty much knowing which references you wanted to use, or is that something that developed over the course of writing the book? How much research did you have to do?
I knew I wanted to start in Tokyo, and I knew I wanted the climactic sequences to take place over Mount Fuji (I can say that without spoilers, right?). The rest fell in line as the story progressed. Miami was a natural place to begin Aeryk’s journey, with it’s propensity for hurricanes. I thought the same for Roarke, the Earth Spirit, in the Himalayas, and Lon-Shan, the Shadow Lord, in what is essentially Transylvania (you caught that right?) Once I decided on a location, I researched the geography, city layouts, climate, etc. I’ve been to Miami, Eastern Europe, and Tokyo, so I blended what I know with that research. I’d use Google maps and street view to get a feel for things. Other than that, I spent a good deal of time researching both world myths and Japanese myths to make sure I set the right tones and could make the characters and Guardians familiar without becoming cliche. That was the key. The reader should recognize these Spirits, but they should feel new.
8. Do you have plans for a book 2?
I’ve finished the first draft of book two and am working my way through the edits. It’s a follow-up of sorts, but with different characters and settings. If I may, sort of like the difference between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. I wanted to stay away from a pure sequel because I completed the story lines of Kojiki’s major characters. To throw them into something else would cheapen what they went through and would do my readers an injustice. You can’t follow one apocalypse with another and make it feel honest. It’s like: “you only thought you dealt with the biggest threat ever. BZZZT. Wrong. There’s a worse one out there.” Uh-uh. Not going to do that. How many times have you seen a movie sequel where the villain is ten times worse than the last one. Eventually, it becomes ridiculous. These characters are essentially gods. They know the score. After spending the book building up the conflict, finding a worse one would feel false.
9. What is the one most important thing you hope readers take away from Kojiki?
Obviously, I hope they enjoy the read. I wanted to create something different, and I would love it if the story sweeps the reader away. I’d give anything for a reader to come to some big scene and just go, “wow!” I did that the first time I saw The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and I’ll never forget it. The world disappeared, and for over two hours I lost myself in its beauty and majesty. Careful readers will find a good deal of Phantom in Kojiki–as crazy as that sounds. The idea of a mad genius, his unrequited love, the way he stalks that love. I left a tribute to that masterpiece in Kojiki’s final chapters. I’d be interested to hear from readers to see if they find it I’d wager I’ll get a slew of different answers. Everyone sees a book differently. And that’s really all I could ask for. Other than that, at its core, Kojiki is the story of personal responsibility. Takeshi says it: “We have laws for a reason. Breaking them has consequences.” Kojiki is about what happens when we do what we want instead of what we should, what it means, and how we live with what we’ve done.