By Karen Harper
Karen Harper was recently able to catch up with busy Laura Joh Rowland whose career she has long admired. It takes talent to continue a mystery series for 17 novels, and the novels have grown in popularity with each one. Advice from such a successful writer is like gold. Thanks to Laura for a great interview.
Please give us a short summary of your latest release, THE SHOGUN’S DAUGHTER.
Japan 1704. The shogun’s daughter Tsuruhime dies of smallpox. Her death has immediate, serious consequences. Faced with his own mortality and beset by troubles caused by the recent earthquake, the shogun names as his heir Yoshisato, the seventeen-year-old son he only recently discovered is his. Yoshisato was raised as the illegitimate son of Yanagisawa, the shogun’s favorite advisor. Yanagisawa is also the longtime enemy of Sano Ichiro (the samurai detective hero in my series). Sano doubts that Yoshisato is really the shogun’s son, believing it’s a fraud and power-play devised by Yanagisawa. When Sano learns that Tsuruhime’s death may have been murder, he sets off on a dangerous investigation that leads to more death and destruction as he struggles to keep his pregnant wife Reiko and his children safe. While seeking the killer, he and his family become the accused. And this time, they may not survive the day.
Sano Ichiro is a samurai detective. Readers might expect a detective hero, but what do his samurai talents add to his character and this story?
Sano is pretty handy with a sword. Thrilling battle scenes are a staple of my series, and he’s been known to lop off a villain’s head once in a while. His wife Reiko is no slouch, either. That’s a little different from contemporary American crime fiction, in which guns and fists are the usual weapons.
Your excellent reviews for the series stress your grasp and portrayal of detail. “Evocative detail…” (PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY) “You can see, hear, taste, smell, even virtually touch Rowland’s Japan.” (THE TIMES PICAYUNE) This is an admirable feat for a writer who lives in the world she writes, but how have you managed this for 17th century Japan?
My visual imagination has been strengthened by my training in art. When I compose a painting, I choose details that will create vivid impressions. I do the same when describing scenes for my books. Old Japanese prints and photographs are sources of information and inspiration. I also employ the other senses. Sound, smell, touch, and taste can strongly evoke a place and time. Some things don’t change over the ages. A corpse smelled the same during the 17th century as it does now.
Why and how did you choose 17th century Japan for this popular series?
When I started writing mysteries, I needed to stake out new territory that other authors weren’t using. And I love samurai movies, especially those directed by the great Akira Kurosawa. I chose the 17th century because by that time the civil wars were over, and there was law and order and a justice system with detectives who investigated crimes. Sano started out as one of those detectives, and his success moved him up the political ladder into the shogun’s inner circle.
I found it a challenge to keep my 9-book historical mystery series fresh. Can you give writers advice on how you (and Sano) manage this in a 17-book series (so far)? Does Sano have an extended character arc or do you try to keep him exactly what your readers expect from previous books?
It is a challenge. I’ve managed it by having my characters age and evolve over time instead of keeping them static, which I think is an old-fashioned approach to a mystery series. I also throw new characters into the mix. Sano started out as a single man with no strong social ties; now he has a wife and kids, his retainer Hirata, and of course Yanagisawa for an archenemy. It is a risk in terms of reader expectations. Maybe some people would rather read about the dashing younger Sano instead of the middle-aged family man. But when I read I prefer characters who evolve, so that’s what I write. All my major characters have extended story arcs, but I plot one book at a time, so I don’t know how the stories will develop further down the line.
Your website mentions some fascinating facts about your background. In your earlier years you didn’t really like to read, for example. And your past professions (with a microbiology degree, a career as a chemist; sanitation inspector and NASA engineer at a facility where the space shuttle fuel tanks are made) would not seem to point you toward a life as a successful historical novelist. How has your past brought you to this place in your life?
I’ve always loved to read, but writing didn’t interest me at all when I was young. Writing wasn’t taught as a fun, creative thing at the schools I attended. Looking back, I see the signs that I was meant to be a writer. I always made up vivid stories in my head. Teachers and friends at college praised my papers. I earned my best grades in classes that required writing. At my various technical jobs I was always looking for opportunities to write instead of doing other tasks. But when I finally started writing fiction, and sold the first book in my series (SHINJU), no one was more surprised than I was. Except possibly my parents. They’d directed me into my science career, and they were amazed that I stepped so far off that path, and that I actually made money by writing.
Your titles (and book covers) are intriguing and striking. Do you have much input into the covers? Is it important to you to work your titles into each plot?
I usually have very little input into the covers, but with THE SHOGUN’S DAUGHTER, I had more. The first version of the cover design seemed dull and irrelevant to the story, and I said so. The art department at Minotaur went back to the drawing board, and they came up with a new, beautiful, stunning design that I love. I think it’s very important to make the titles of my books reflect the plots. When I read a book whose title doesn’t fit the story, I feel cheated.
Your foray into Victorian England with your new Charlotte Bronte series seems like a real departure for you. Why Charlotte as a heroine? Do you see links between the two nations and these cultures of England and Japan?
Charlotte Bronte had an amazing life. A country parson’s daughter who became a famous, best-selling author of a shocking-for-her-time novel? She should be the patron saint of aspiring authors. And she had two sisters who also wrote famous novels, and a brother who was one of the most notorious dope addicts in literary history. While researching her I learned that she craved a more adventurous life than she had. So I decided to give it to her in my books (THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF CHARLOTTE BRONTE, and BEDLAM, THE FURTHER SECRET ADVENTURES OF CHARLOTTE BRONTE). Victorian England and shogun-era Japan were of course very different, particularly in regards to sex. Japan was sexually freewheeling compared to the Victorians, who were famous for keeping up a prudish front and doing the dirty in secret. But both cultures had strong moral codes.
That’s it, Laura. Thanks!
Laura Joh Rowland is the author of a mystery series set in medieval Japan, featuring samurai detective Sano Ichiro. THE SHOGUN’S DAUGHTER is the seventeenth book in the series. Her work has been published in 13 foreign countries, nominated for the Anthony Award and the Hammett Prize, and won the RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best Historical Mystery. Laura lives in New York City.
To learn more about Laura Joh Rowland, please visit her website.