When I first read Lian Hearn’s novel, Across the Nightingale Floor (2002), it was a snow day. I sat in my apartment with my feet against the radiator, my heart thudding—not so much over the story, though it was suspenseful, but over the encounter with the atmosphere and the mind behind the story. I soon learned that the author was a woman and that she had written many others novels under a different name. Across the Nightingale Floor—a tale of adventure, love, honor, and assassination set in a world like medieval Japan—was the first in the series Tales of the Otori. Fourteen years later, Hearn published another series, The Tale of Shikanoko, set in the same world. Its four books were published at two-month intervals, and I awaited the arrival of each volume with the anticipation of a childhood Scholastic book order. Having just published my debut novel, Wilberforce (FSG, 2015), I felt a kinship with the author, who had created a complete world, explored across several books; a world that takes some effort to enter and understand, one ostensibly alien from her background and certainly at odds with what our culture seems to value today. This spring, after completing Grievous (FSG, 2019), set in the same world as Wilberforce, I was even more eager to speak with Hearn and to hear about her experiences writing these wonderful, ambitious sagas.
H. S. Cross: You were a successful author of more than thirty children’s books and YA novels, but at a certain point you became captivated by Japan (the language, history, culture, etc.) and began to imagine these stories set in a world like medieval Japan. When you showed your agent (or your publisher?) the draft of Across the Nightingale Floor, what was the response? How did you deal with the uncertainty of writing something so different from what people had grown to expect from you?
Lian Hearn: I’d had a deep interest in Japan since my teenage years and had always longed to go there. When I finally fulfilled this dream, at the end of 1993, the voice of the protagonist of Across the Nightingale Floor came strongly into my head. I had a lot of doubt and diffidence about writing this story but it would not go away. I applied for a fellowship from Asialink (an Australian government organization that enables cultural exchanges between Asian countries and Australian artists and writers) and was given the chance to spend three months in Japan.
It was a time of transition for me. I felt I had come to the end of my spell as a children’s writer. My own children were all grown up, the youngest had recently left home, and we had moved to a small town on the coast. I no longer had daily contact with the world of young people. People are so quick to put writers into pigeon holes, but I needed to break away from that and do something completely new. I wanted to write with no brakes on.
I started writing while I was staying at Akiyoshidai International Arts Village in Yamaguchi Prefecture, October 1999, and wrote all three books of the trilogy in the next two years. My agent immediately realized this was quite different from anything I had written before and took the books to the Frankfurt Book Fair. I said early on I wished I could write under a pseudonym, and she thought it was a good idea.
The book arrived on the desk of my Australian children’s publisher as the second in a two book deal, but it was moved to the adult division. Again it was recognized as a new departure and was given an amazing launch into the world in 2002. But I was in Japan at the time, so I missed most of it. I was still hiding behind my pseudonym.
Cross: What’s it like to be known and perhaps addressed, in some circles, by a pseudonym? Was the androgyny deliberate?
Hearn: Lian is a short version of Gillian and was my nickname when I was young. I hadn’t realized until after publication that it would be taken as masculine. I’ve always had problems with names, how they pin you down and fix you in position, and it was liberating to choose a new one. It’s also something that happens a lot in Japan, indicating a change in circumstances, a new direction in creative pursuits.
Cross: Can you talk about the appeal of creating a whole world vs. writing standalone novels?
Even when I’ve written what I thought were standalone novels, there is always a pull to follow the characters further.
Hearn: It’s seductive and satisfying to slip into a world that you know so well. Even when I’ve written what I thought were standalone novels, there is always a pull to follow the characters further. And then there are minor characters who I long to know more about, such as Arai Sunaomi, the son of Zenko and Hana, who becomes the main character in my two latest books: Orphan Warriors and Sibling Assassins. Readers wanted to know what happened, after the end of The Harsh Cry of the Heron, to the next generation, the children of the Otori. Many of the protagonists from the earlier books reappear, but the character I most wanted to write more about was Sunaomi.
Cross: The Tale of Shikanoko series has a deceptively simple prose style. The storytelling lens seems to have a long focal length, yet we’re given just enough intimate, realistic detail to make the various characters come alive and cement themselves in our mind. How do you manage this complex story and world in a way that feels so effortless and uncluttered?
Hearn: I don’t know how I do that. Maybe it’s the influence of reading a lot of medieval Japanese warrior tales. They were originally recited so they have that old storytelling magic that held listeners spellbound. I was aiming for a slightly distanced chronicler style, but at the same time I am obsessed with people’s way of speaking, their body language and gestures, the magnetic pull of their relationships, the sudden use of a name, whether the family name or the given name, the silences that occur within conversations, all the undercurrents. I think you do this in Wilberforce too.
I have a very visual imagination; my characters appear in my head and I watch them. Then I write it down, by hand, very early in the morning. It comes straight from the unconscious mind which is why it is hard to describe. It is like a meditation, a spiritual discipline.
Cross: I really identify with this. When I was a teenager and trying to figure out how stop being a dutiful student and become someone who could write novels like those I admired, I came across Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. She tells you to sit up in bed the instant you wake and write quickly by hand in your notebook. I used to make myself do that before school, and it was my first encounter with writing from the unconscious, the first time my writing was beyond my control, and therefore the first time it showed any signs of life. I also identify with your watching characters in your head and writing down what you see. For me it’s like being an actor, playing one and then the other; my first instincts are usually terribly overwritten, and when I’m editing, I’m rolling my eyes at my over-descriptions. Oh, he exhaled again, did he? And he set that thing down on the table? Fascinating!
I love the way you bring readers inside your characters’ physical activities and particularly their interactions with animals. Do you ride horses or work with them? Have you handled weapons? Or been taught to use them? Have you ever hunted? Or handled raptors? Reading your work makes me feel I could do all these things.
Hearn: I’ve been involved with horses throughout my life. I love them! So, I’ve spent a lot of time with them, watching them, and getting to know their characteristics. As children we lived close to nature, always outdoors, away from adult supervision. I loved the countryside with a fierce passion, knew its plants and animals, became physically sick when trees were cut down or places trashed. We built fires and made our own bows and arrows. My family knew gamekeepers and farmers, hunters, and poachers. We played what we called acting-out games, with involved plots, which continued for days, weeks. I draw on those memories, mingled with imagination.
Cross: One of the things I love most about The Tale of Shikanoko, and also Tales of the Otori, is the blend of ruthlessness/violence and beauty/compassion. The violence and power play in your world are never gratuitous or simply sadistic. You treat the human use of power with such depth and truth. What do you make of the apparent gap between the life inside your mind and the life you lead on the outside?
Hearn: I am like all human beings, flawed, prone to making mistakes and losing my temper. Outward appearance has nothing to do with the imagination. There’s increasing pressure on authors to look the part, to provide some authenticity to their work by being a certain way in real life. The power of imagination is overlooked and downgraded.
So much of my writing is about concealment. The clever hawk hides its talons. In my books everyone hides their true intentions, everyone practises self-control. The dangerous spies are not the flamboyant ones; they are the overlooked, the unobtrusive, the ones who seem normal, nice. My world does not set good and evil against each other. Rather, I write about the human desire for power and how that leads to corruption and cruelty.
Cross: Your world strikes me as fundamentally countercultural. It’s ruled by duty and tradition, by honor, by the naked exercise of power; behavior is tightly regulated, self-control a prime virtue; the masculine and the feminine are differentiated, both given their full expression and influence; the natural and supernatural worlds are understood and respected; power imbalance, inequality, restriction, and injustice are felt, but the narrative doesn’t respond to them as our society tends to do. Love, fulfillment, honor, passion, adventure, and human flourishing are all possible there. What does your world offer that our twenty-first century world doesn’t?
Hearn: “Character” seems like an old fashioned concept now but everyone knows instinctively that societies survive on mutual trust and respect. I become quite stern when I think about this, in the way that nature is stern and unforgiving. It’s hard to grow up as a human. It takes dedication and determination. It’s all too easy to wreck your life and the lives of those around you. I don’t want to give my time and attention to people who are not honest, who despise and fear anyone different from them, who cheat and lie for material gain, who destroy and exploit nature, who are cruel, whose sexuality is out of control.
In the world of my books everyone is connected. People know who they are and what their responsibilities are, whom they have a duty to protect or to whom they owe respect. Differences between that medieval world and our modern one, that might seem minor, have a huge impact. For example, few people there are known by sight, as anyone famous is now. That is a great gift and freedom. Distances are vast, to be traversed on foot or on horseback. Cold and heat are real and intense. Nights are dark, lighting dim. There is no instant news. I like escaping into this world where outcomes depend on the strength, endurance, and courage of the individual, and their ability to seek and offer help.
Cross: Relatedly, what does our contemporary Western culture misunderstand about power; about the masculine and the feminine; about the erotic?
Our culture of capitalism has distorted everything, turning everything into a commodity. If something can’t make money for someone it has no value.
Hearn: Our culture of capitalism has distorted everything, turning everything into a commodity. If something can’t make money for someone it has no value. Our innate awareness of status and power has been inflated to the point where no one can relax. Unlike 90 percent of human history it seems normal to us now to be completely cut off from nature and to spend none of our time seeking a spiritual connection with the great forces of the universe. We cannot exist without all the other beings that make up the web of life on our planet, yet we are seeing them disappear before our eyes. I am afraid no one will fight for what they do not know and love.
Many of our foundation stories and myths are based on people helping each other, offering hospitality, being generous and honest. When these are ignored and belittled by our rulers and the media something within us dies. We become hypocrites. We betray our old stories at our own peril.
Cross: You’ve said that you’ve been making up stories your whole life. When you were a child, or even a teenager, what were the central stories and/or worlds that you made up for yourself? Where, in your imagination, did you go to again and again? What was the atmosphere or emotion or set-up you craved?
Hearn: Some were tied to the landscape. I had an long story set in the New Forest, involving animals. Any historical ruins would usually set a story going in my mind. I borrowed characters from books I was reading and added my story to theirs, just like fan fiction. Often I would take a man as hero, and I would be an orphaned or abandoned boy who would come under his protection (like Takeo and Shigeru in the Tales of the Otori series). I think the emotions I was craving (this is a fascinating question by the way) were safety and recognition.
In these stories and in the acting games we played I was always male. In my own reading boys had so much more fun and freedom than girls. I thought it extremely unfair that I was destined to grow up into a woman. My best friend was my foster brother, three months younger than me. When he went away to school it was a painful separation for me. We never recovered our childhood closeness.
I loved books where the young hero was watched over without being aware of it, so youthful impetuousness and mistakes were corrected gently by someone who had his best interests at heart, for example, The Black Riders by Violet Needham, Treasure Island, and probably Stalky & Co. There’s a marvelous and essential relationship between older and younger men, young men and boys, but sexual predation has blighted it in many ways.
So now that we’ve mentioned Stalky & Co., maybe we could talk about your work a little. I am intrigued to know where your passionate interest in the English public school came from. Was it through books like Stalky?
Cross: Yes, in fact Stalky was the gateway drug. Beginning with the classic school stories that Stalky and his friends mock (Tom Brown’s School Days; Eric, or, Little by Little; St. Winifred’s, or, The World of School), I eventually read my way through the whole canon. That a sheltered American girl should become captivated by the rather brutal and arcane world of the English public school is, I suppose, about as irrational as a twentieth-century English girl becoming captivated by medieval Japan. One could spend years on the analyst’s couch exploring why, but in a deep, interior way, I felt then that I was more like those boys than like my closest (and dearest) friends.
Hearn: Have you seen If? I loved that movie so much, saw it in my twenties. Growing up in England, of course, that world was inescapable. Most of the boys I knew went to public schools. It was a closed world to anyone outside it, revealed by scraps of slang and anecdotes. How did you get interested in it and what sort of research did you do to get it all so right?
Cross: I also saw If in my twenties! On the one hand, the extreme cheekiness of the main characters and the matter-of-fact exercise of power were, frankly, hot. On the other hand, the creeping surrealism and the armed rebellion left me behind. Unlike people who had actually attended such schools, I wasn’t interested in debunking or destroying them. Just as you said you were looking for safety and recognition in your childhood imaginings, I think I was (and am, still) too, in the world of school. Although St. Stephen’s (the school I created) can be rough, and sometimes unjust, I think when it is operating as it should (as it does in Grievous, and sometimes in Wilberforce), it holds its characters within moral bounds. There are men watching over these boys, reeling them back from error, educating their minds, sensibilities, appetites, and spirits—though often with methods unappreciated by the boys. And the boys are doing the same to each other. As in your world, the characters are interconnected; they can’t escape one another and can’t help affecting one another. The governing ethos is oriented to truth, justice, and, yes, mercy, though sometimes mercy doesn’t look the way we expect it to look.
The characters are interconnected; they can’t escape one another and can’t help affecting one another.
Is there a moment or a scene in one of your novels that your mind returns to even long after you finished it, one that you long to be inside?
Hearn: There are a lot of these. Scenes come to me fully formed and I dwell in them for a long time before writing them. Conversations, relationships that resonate. One of the strongest is when Takeo comes to Terayama at the end of Grass for His Pillow. I love the atmosphere of the old temple, the snow falling outside, the place of safety.
Cross: Both men and women have created elaborate fictional worlds and written about them, in the past and now. In your experience, what particular challenges do women face in producing ambitious works of art, and in doing so prolifically? How have you responded to those challenges?
Hearn: On the one hand I feel I have been very lucky. The work that I was so diffident about embarking on has been published all over the world. I have received so much encouragement and help from friends in Japan and from the publishing world. On the other I wonder how much more widely the books would have been read if my identity had continued to be a secret. I would like all novels to be published, as yours are, under initials, and with no author photos. Then they would be read without bias and judged solely on the content. But even as I write this I am reminded of the hunger to know the author behind the work, the way people flock to literary festivals and readings, the yearning for the personal connection.
Cross: Besides the fact that women and men deal differently with the demands of family life—even in the most egalitarian households—there’s also a difference, I find, in the way men and women deal with ambition. I have wildly ambitious ideas, but my first instinct is to calm myself down and consider that “who do you think you are?” voice. Like many women, I have an impulse to apologize when presenting my work. In my writers’ group (which happens to be all women), we have a joke about this—we all have secret male names, and when someone starts to be self-effacing, we all put on our male personas so that “I didn’t get much done this week, and I don’t think it’s any good” becomes “Dudes! I CRUSHED it!”
When I think about women like you who have realized so much ambitious work, it seems to me that it requires not only chutzpah, but also an iron will to ward off other people’s requests and needs, and to defend the time (and mental space) needed to create big things. We’re ninety years away from A Room of One’s Own, and it takes more than a room these days. What have been the most important factors for you in being able to continue creating prolifically?
Hearn: I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I was plagued by shyness and self-consciousness as a child and young adult. I envied the self-confidence other people had and wished I could be like them. But that extreme sensitivity is also the source of my writing. I would not want to lose it.
I think having children forces you to be efficient in time management. I became very good at compartmentalizing and dividing the day into sections. Like many writers I gave up a lot of outside activities and pleasures in order to preserve my energy and freshness for the work. When I started writing in the early morning I think my writing became better and I felt less stressed. These were hours that belonged solely to me.
I am quite solitary as a writer. I learned not to engage with readers’ sites like Goodreads and Amazon. I rarely read reviews of my work. I don’t belong to any writers’ groups. Like everything this has a plus side and a minus. I preserve my single-minded dedication to my own vision and write exactly as I want to, but I miss out on critiques and encouragement from peers.
It does take a strong will. I don’t realize how completely absorbing it is, and how exhausting, until I stop, and then I am amazed at how much energy I have for everything else.
H. S. Cross is the author of Grievous (FSG, 2019) and Wilberforce (FSG, 2015).
Lian Hearn is the author of numerous books, most recently of the Tale of Shikanoko series (FSG, 2016).