We’d like to thank Reviews by Crystal for hosting an author Q & A for our tour! After we get through critical information like my preference for mint chocolate chip ice cream, we get down to the important stuff, like protagonist Toru’s daddy issues, the historical inspiration for the fictional Toru, why American audiences need a little help understanding Japanese emotional expression and exactly how defensible from ninja attack my writing space is. And an excerpt introducing Masuyo, Lord Aya’s difficult daughter. I hope you’ll check it out on Crystal’s site!

Below please find the Author Q&A.

Q&A with Stephanie R. Sorensen:

Q: What is your favorite ice cream flavor?

A: Chocolate and mint chocolate, in carefully crafted layers. This may explain my difficulties in sticking to a tight genre definition. I prefer “both/and” over “either/or.”

Q: Which mythological creature are you most like?

A: I’ve always felt a certain kinship with dragons. Flying, intelligent, flame-spewing dragons who fight for the good guys.

Q: First book you remember making an indelible impression on you.

A: We had an old and battered copy of a big, thick children’s book of stories. Maybe “The Golden Treasury of Children’s Stories” or something like that. In that volume, mixed in with some short children’s stories, was an excerpt from “The Hobbit” called “The Birthday Party.” I was hooked, and started rolling through “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” I went through the Laura Ingalls Wilder series as well, living in her world as a pioneer girl. For a year or so, my poor mother was very patient as I began every other sentence with the phrase, “Well, Laura Ingalls Wilder said…” I also remember reading Irving Stone’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy” because my mother wouldn’t tell me what “ecstasy” meant. I didn’t really figure out much about ecstasy by reading the book, but I did learn a lot about Michelangelo. I decided I liked Irving Stone, so I read his “The President’s Lady,” and learned about Andrew Jackson and adultery, which was almost as fascinating as ecstasy when you are eight or nine years old.

Q: How do you develop your plot and characters?

A: I dance between reality and fantasy, character and plot, trying out ideas until character drives plot and plot makes sense. Way more art than science. I have no idea, really. I just keep messing around until I feel ready to write.

For historically based characters, I steal and embellish. I love history, and find the deeds of real people thrilling and moving, so the seed kernel of a plot and character are often right there in history.

Regarding “Toru,” I wanted to write a steampunk novel set in Japan, so I went looking for a historical moment where steam technology would have made a difference. That brought me to the moment before Japan met the West, when Japan was an agrarian, closed society. I still didn’t have a character, so I poked around a bit and discovered a young Japanese ship’s cook named Manjiro who was shipwrecked, rescued and taken to America. He came back to Japan a year or so before the Americans showed up with gunboats, even though returning to Japan was forbidden under the law of isolation. The Shogun made him a samurai, and had him explain the Americans’ behavior to the Japanese government. In reality, Manjiro didn’t affect the outcome; the Americans forced Japan to open.

Here’s where I tried on some “what if?” questions in my hunt for character and plot. What if Manjiro’s experience in America HAD made a difference? What if he had brought back technology that could defend his nation?

BOOM! Here’s the kernel of a story…a hero who comes back like Prometheus with fire, bearing Western technology and know-how, and uses it to save his country. And I get an excuse to include dirigibles!

So I had a skinny general direction for a plot with a beginning and an end: “Come back to Japan and use Western technology to fight Westerners.” To get to a fun middle of the plot, which is the adventure and heart of the story, I needed to know my character better. Starting with the bare facts of Manjiro’s experience, I dreamed up my version of a hero. Toru was smarter, better educated, younger and had fancier relatives than poor Manjiro the ship’s cook; in short, he was more capable of leading a revolution. Excellent!

But life isn’t all silk sheets and mint chocolate chip ice cream. Toru was raised in a poor village with an uncertain relationship to his powerful noble father, illegitimate and unsure of his place in the world. Kid’s got issues. So {spoiler alert!] Toru has to save his nation, and that goal will drive a lot of the plot and choices in the middle of the story. But what he really wants even more than that, deep down, is respect and an honorable place in his world.

That need drives a lot of the feeling in the story, what he cares about, his motives and how he approaches his mission. He’s pretty stoic, and as a Japanese warrior he doesn’t get to display much outer emotion. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t feeling deeply. If you’ve watched a lot of Japanese movies, you’ll recall that many of them feature doomed lovers who gaze at each other meaningfully while a flute plays wistfully in a minor key for quite a while. You can tell the guy really loves her because the director shows us the tiniest twitch in the lead actor’s jaw as he bids her farewell, or, more commonly, turns away without a word and rides off into the sunset.

This is where the prepared viewer breaks into helpless sobs.

I am aware that American audiences untrained to burst into helpless sobs at jaw twitches may have a hard time understanding this kind of character. When it came time to put Toru on the page, I faced several challenges with writing him, with conveying on the page this sense of the character that I had, of this passionate yet reserved man. I’m not sure I succeeded, but I know where I fought the battle.

Challenge one: my prior writing experience with screenplays had created in me a habit of describing only what the camera can see. Screenwriters don’t get to describe what is happening inside someone’s head. I know, intellectually, that in novels you get to describe those feelings and thoughts, that some novels dwell for hundreds of pages on thoughts and feelings. But habit dies hard, and I was burdened by this screenwriter habit of describing only the outer, trying to convey the inner feelings through external action…which is tough with a stoic, reserved character. Challenge two: In Japanese, it’s not exactly grammatically correct to say, “He thought Y,” or “She believed X.” There’s this sense that the other person’s truest, deepest thoughts cannot be directly known by anyone else, a cultural assumption that people will act and behave in correct and prescribed ways but might have feelings very much in opposition to their visible actions. So it felt very invasive, very rude for me as the omniscient writer to spell out what Toru was thinking or feeling. I forced myself to do so every now and then, for I am writing for an American audience that expects more insight into character feelings, but I struggled with it. Part of what excited me about this project was the chance to convey Japanese culture to an American audience, so I had to find a way to show that tension between what the character really feels and then actually does, without being inside their heads too much because that would be un-Japanese.

Q: Describe your writing space.

A: As I sit here now in September at 10,000 feet elevation, the aspen leaves outside my big bay window are rustling in the late afternoon breeze, dappling the shadows and light. The last few nights have been cold, frosty even, and the first golden leaves of fall are invading the green, but it’s warm today and I have a window open to hear the leaves and bring the outside into my little nook. My writing studio is on the second story of a 130-year-old Victorian house on a hill. After the aspen leaves fall, I will be able to see the mountains that ring our town. It’s a funky odd-shaped little space, with sloped ceilings and funny angles and rough unfinished wood planks on the walls and ceilings. I’ve jammed four tables, a dresser and a desk into the space, with computer and extra screen on one, a sewing machine and a serger on two others, and piles of books and sketches and notebooks piled on the fourth. It’s an orderly mess, with fabric stashes neatly boxed and research books stacked up by writing project. A wooden circular staircase is the only way down; this is my hideaway atop that narrow access. I could defend it pretty well if I ever came under attack. I feel very safe and very bold up in my light and open aerie atop the circular stairs.

 

Written by Stephanie R. Sorensen

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