by Ian Walkley
To write a historical novel in a foreign setting is challenging. To write a fifteen story mystery series about a detective in feudal Japan is an achievement only one American author can claim. Her name is Laura Joh Rowland.
The Ronin’s Mistress, Laura’s latest in the Sano Ichiro series (release date Sept 2011, St Martin’s Minotaur), sees Sano become embroiled in the biggest, most scandalous true-life story of the period—the revenge of the 47 ronin.
On a snowy winter night in 1703, the 47 ronin murder the man they blame for the wrongful death of their master. It’s Sano’s job to get to the bottom of things and help the government decide what to do with the 47 ronin. And in case that sounds straight forward, it isn’t. To this day there are still unanswered questions about the events that led up to the master’s death and the reasons why the 47 ronin waited almost two years for revenge. Meanwhile, Sano must also save his political career after the demotion he suffered during his previous adventure (The Cloud Pavilion).
David Liss, Edgar Award-winning author of A Conspiracy of Paper commends The Ronin’s Mistress as: “The most accomplished novel yet in Laura Joh Rowland’s remarkable series, brilliantly weaving together historical fact, meticulous research, and page-turning story-telling.” Laura’s thirteenth book in the series, The Fire Kimono, was described by the Wall Street Journal as “One of the five best historical mystery novels.”
What brings you back for another Sano adventure?
I’m interested in Sano’s ongoing political struggles, especially his rivalry with Yanagisawa, his archenemy. I’m planning some dramatic developments. Also, I want to see Sano’s children grow up and what they’ll do.
Tell us about the character of Sano?
Sano originated from a bare-bones historical fact: In 17th century Japan, crimes were solved by samurai police detectives called yoriki. That’s what Sano was in my first novel (Shinju). His character and career have developed over the course of the series and he’s now Chamberlain, the shogun’s second-in-command. I didn’t plan any of it while I was writing the first novel. At that time I didn’t know if I would ever be able to sell that book, let alone 14 others about Sano.
Is Sano ageing in real time like Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch?
Sano is definitely ageing. He has two kids and a lot of battle scars to show for it. However, the series progresses a bit slower than the real-time years it covers. The first book was published in 1994, seventeen years ago. Only 14 years have passed for Sano and company.
Is it Japan or the historical setting that is the main appeal for readers, do you think?
I think the Japanese setting is a big draw. I hear from many readers who have a special interest in Japan (they’ve lived there, or they have Japanese ancestry, or they practice martial arts). But they must like history, too, or they would stick to contemporary fiction instead of reading my books.
I think readers sometimes get fed up with the complications of modern life. When you read historical fiction, you can forget about technical stuff such as computers, cell phones, e-mail, and forensic science. It can be an escape to a simpler time. But I also think that historical fiction is a reminder that life in the past was often much harder than it is today. No clean water, air conditioning, antibiotics, or civil rights. Read books like mine, and you’ll come away with a new sense of appreciation for living in the present.
Do you try to weave modern themes into the Sano stories?
I think Sano’s stories have classic issues and themes. Honor versus duty, loyalty, and politics. Women’s place in society. The personal cost of doing what one believes is right. These issues and themes are timeless.
Tell us about your research…
I have been to Japan, but I’m not much of a traveler. My stories are primarily based on literature research and imagination. I know the basic 17th-18th c. Japanese life pretty well, but I try to explore different aspects of it in each book. The Ronin’s Mistress required some research into the true story on which it’s based. And the next book in the series deals with the great earthquake of 1703. I’ve been studying up on that earthquake. There are many parallels with the recent earthquake in Japan. Both were among the worst natural disasters in history.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
I’m a long time fan of P. D. James and Martin Cruz Smith. Their books have such a rich sense of place and character. I aim for that in my own books. Newer favorites are Carol Goodman and David Liss. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction. It’s a refreshing break from writing novels. I like Diane Ackerman for her poetic reflections on nature, science, psychology, and culture.
For writers, I recommend Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas. I reread it after I finish a first draft. It helps me pump up the conflict, drama, and suspense in my stories and bring out themes that will boost their emotional impact.
What’s one thing you’ve learned about writing in the past year?
It finally sank in that I have one of the long-running series in the mystery genre. It seems like only yesterday that I was an aspiring author trying to get my first book published. I have to make a special effort to avoid repeating plot lines, characters, situations, and phrases.
On promotional activities…
It’s a challenge to write a terrific book while doing signings, conferences, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. I’m still trying to find a good balance. I enjoy meeting my readers. I also like spending time with booksellers. They’re some of the nicest people. When I can convince somebody who’s never heard of me to read my book, that’s really fun.
Laura’s work has been published in 13 foreign countries and nominated for the Anthony Award, the Hammett Prize, and the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. She is also the author of Bedlam: The Further Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte, the second book in a historical suspense series that stars the famous Victorian author.
To learn more about Laura, please visit her website.