The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia
04 December 2007
Interview with historical mystery writer Laura Joh Rowland
Today I welcome to my blog Laura Joh Rowland, author of the Sano Ichirō mystery series set in Japan in the 1600s. St. Martin's Press recently released the 12th book in the series, The Snow Empress. Once a poor and lordless samurai, Sano is now chamberlain of Japan. He is still solving mysteries for the Shogun, though. This time, he investigates the kidnapping of his son, Masahiro, and the murder of the mistress of the mad lord who may be holding Masahiro captive—if he has not already killed the boy.
Thank you, Laura, for visiting today.
James Clavell’s Shōgun was an extremely popular book in our teen years. Did it influence your choice of the time of the Tokugawa shogunate as the setting for your novels?
I looked to Shōgun as evidence that there was a market for books set in feudal Japan. That Clavell’s novel became a bestseller and a classic was proof that many readers were interested in Japan and willing to buy books on the subject. The huge success of Shōgun was a selling point for my first book. But I didn’t read Shōgun or watch the miniseries until after I started writing my first book, which is set almost a century later than Shōgun, in a very different political and social era.
Is it difficult to research this time period well since you don’t read Japanese? Do you have any research tips for novelists who wish to write historical novels but don’t know medieval Latin, Norman French, 17th century Japanese, or whatever the language of their time period is?
Research is always a challenge, but there’s quite a bit of material about 17th century Japan that’s available in English. That’s a popular period. Advice for budding historical novelists: Pick a setting that has enough written about it in your own language. And remember that a little research goes a long way. The disadvantage of writing about a place and time that has a wealth of accessible information about it is that all those historical details can bury your story, and no matter how hard you try to be accurate, there’ll be somebody who can spot your mistakes.
You were lucky enough to have the late science fiction writer George Alec Effinger as your mentor. How then did you end up choosing the mystery genre to write in? What other writers have influenced you over the years?
I’ve always been a big fan of the mystery genre. So was George Alec Effinger. He taught a course, at the University of New Orleans, on writing mystery fiction. That’s where we met. He had a solid understanding of the structure of mystery novels, and his landmark book, When Gravity Fails, is actually a mystery set in a science fiction milieu. I learned a lot from George. Other writers who have influenced me are P. D. James and Martin Cruz Smith, although my writing style isn’t much like theirs, and neither is my subject matter. If we have anything in common, it’s the serious treatment of the characters and issues in our books, and a strong sense of place and social context that makes our fictional worlds seem real.
One problem many New Orleans writers have is that recovering physically and mentally from Hurricane Katrina takes an enormous amount of time. You successfully balanced redoing your Katrina-flooded house with writing The Snow Empress. Any tips for the rest of us?
When disaster strikes, give yourself a break, because who else will? That was my philosophy during the aftermath of Katrina. I looked on my writing as a welcome break from dealing with insurance companies and contractors, living in a partially gutted house while workers renovated it amid much noise and chaos, and witnessing the devastation all over New Orleans. My fictional world of ancient Japan was my refuge. I was glad to immerse myself in my characters’ problems and temporarily escape my own. But I know other writers who couldn’t write at all for months after Katrina. Some of them write books set in New Orleans, and they had to adjust to drastic changes in the city. The time they spent away from writing was the break they needed in order to recover. There’s wisdom and healing in doing what comes naturally.
In The Snow Empress, Sano and his wife, Reiko, become unlikable as grief and rage over their son’s kidnapping drive each close to abandoning the samurai code of honor. This seems a risky move for a writer. Did you fear alienating readers?
I strive for emotional intensity in my books. That means placing my characters in serious dilemmas, where the stakes are high and they must make difficult, controversial decisions. People in that kind of situation are not warm and fuzzy to be around, and Sano and Reiko may turn off some readers who like tame stories about characters who can play by the rules because nothing that bad ever happens to them. But I don’t write for those readers. Maybe if I did, I would sell more books, but then again maybe not, because I wouldn’t have the readership that I do now.
Unlike many authors nowadays, you do little promotion for your books. Why is that?
Time and energy are in short supply, and I’ve always chosen to invest most of mine into writing rather than into sending out mass mailings or trying to make appearances at every venue for selling and promoting books. I do have a website, I do signings at bookstores and speak at conferences, and I occasionally go on tour. But unless the publisher foots the bill, it’s hard to reach a large number of readers without spending more money than I can afford. And the effectiveness of self-promotion is hard to quantify. More effort and money spent doesn’t necessarily equal more book sales.
What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?
I get up at around 7 a.m., have breakfast, and read the paper. Then I go for a walk while I plan the scene I’m going to write. I work up enough material about the characters, setting, action, dialogue, and plot development to fill up 5 or 6 pages. Then I write until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, with a break for lunch. I highly recommend walking. It’s good exercise, and it gets the brain moving. But I know that many authors aren’t morning people, and many don’t like regular routines. Every author has to create his/her own regimen.
Your next book, The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë (a March 2008 release), will take place in a completely different time and place. Why did you start a second mystery series?
I wanted to stretch my wings. Even though I love my Japanese series and plan to continue writing it, I’ve always wanted to try something else. I picked Charlotte Brontë because I love her novels, and I’m fascinated by her adventurous, tragic, romantic life. She’s the perfect heroine. I’m also fascinated by Victorian England. It has striking parallels with our own time, such as rapid, dramatic advances in science and technology that changed the world forever. I don’t know whether The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë will become a series, but I certainly hope so.
Thank you again, Laura, for taking the time to visit my blog and talk about writing and your books!
Readers, keep an eye on Sphinx Ink's site. Laura will be guest-blogging there soon.
Laura's Website is at http://www.laurajohrowland.com/. The Snow Empress is available at major bookstores and can be ordered online from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, as can the previous books in the series. The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë is available for preorder.