Today I’m interviewing Simon Higgins because he’s a fellow Iaido practitioner as well as a great writer, also I thought I’d ask him about fantasy writing and gender, to get his perspective as a male writer.
Look out for the give-away at the end of the post.
Q: You have a series of Young Adult novels set in Japan called the Moonshadow series. I like the covers, very manga. Are you a big fan of Manga? Do you get much say in what appears on your covers?
I do like Manga very much, and find it fascinating that most people don’t realize how old it actually is. Apparently, Manga first evolved from experimental perspective sketches that woodblock artists in Japan tinkered with during the Edo period, which in turn slowly evolved into a unique ‘pop-culture’ form of stylized drawing. Now of course, Manga has several main schools (multiple ‘dojos’ have evolved, which seems to happen with all things Japanese) and numerous sub and fusion styles. Working in conjunction with Random House Australia, I chose Ari Gibson of The People’s Republic of Animation as the cover artist for the Moonshadow books…Ari’s Manga is unique: strong, with classic lines, but still quite individual – I love it, and it’s pretty much the way I picture the characters in the series when I’m writing. The various foreign editions including the US version published by Little, Brown (the Twilight people) conjure up very different visions of the heroes. I should probably mention also that the Moonshadow series is actually pitched at the ‘middle school’ market, just a shade younger than the traditional ‘young adult’ category (not that everybody agrees on the age range those pigeon-holes actually encompass, of course)…
Q: The American Library Association described your Moonshadow books as ‘good old-fashioned adventure set in medieval Japan…exhilarating opening sequence…nonstop action…the pacing is so intense…the language is modern, but the setting, clothing, tactics and tools are well placed in their time period’. In Tomodachi, you had an English boy stranded in sixteenth century Japan. With the Moonshadow series do you use a European character to ground the audience in medieval Japan or do you plunge straight in?
The Moonshadow books feature pretty much an all Asian cast, as in this series I am dealing with a unique historical phenomenon, rather than an outsider’s eye on a specialized, complex warrior culture, as in Tomodachi. The Moonshadow series actually arose from an inspiring historical fact that I stumbled on while researching in Japan: that at one stage, Tokugawa Ieyasu, in order to keep his grip on the Shogunate, employed the spies of Clan Iga, many of whom (and this is the cool part) started their dangerous careers while they were still children.
Q: I see you competed in the Iaido World Titles in Kyoto Japan and came in fifth in 2008. Not bad for a ‘gaijin’. (For more info on the samurai sword see Simon’s page on his Kyoto Adventures). I remember the pair of us sitting in the bar at a national SF convention talking martial arts all evening. I think it takes a particular type of mind to appreciate Bushido. I know you do a lot of school talks. Do you find the kids respond well? Do you think they go away with some insight into the philosophy behind the martial arts?
It certainly seems that way to me; I often see evidence of students really getting where I am coming from in terms of my own martial arts paradigm: that we train to perfect technique and therefore ultimately ourselves, not to grow skilled at actually killing; that the more one trains, the gentler one tends to become; that violence does not equal strength any more than mercy equals weakness; and that as the Japanese have always maintained, the sharpest swords rarely leave their scabbards (for they rarely need to). If there is any one message I am constantly hoping to transmit to young readers it’s this: adopting a challenging code and choosing to follow an exacting path doesn’t make you old-fashioned, quaint or weak. It does the opposite; it’s empowering. It’s a secret for enjoying and making strong progress through the landscape of life.
Q: You worked as police officer, prosecutor and a licensed private investigator on murder cases. You have written thrillers such as The Stalking Zone as well as near future thrillers like Under no Flag, Thunderfish, Beyond the Shaking Time. Was this a bit like bringing your work home with you?
Not really, because the three crime thrillers I wrote, Doctor Id, Cybercage and The Stalking Zone, sat more at the fantastic end of the law enforcement story genre, though much of the gritty psychology of those tales was true to the environment that inspired them. My (young vigilante) heroes were allowed to have wins, to get results, though they had to really suffer along the way, so I suppose that in the end, the stories were in fact very positive though harrowing. Thunderfish, Under No Flag, and In the Jaws of the Sea, explored the idea that people labelled criminals under one perspective might actually be not only good guys from another viewpoint, but in fact the most useful humans in that particular equation. I found it ironic that numerous imaginary elements of the Thunderfish trilogy kept coming true in one form or another, such as the battles in Antarctic waters between whalers and the Sea Shepherd activists, or the discovery of a fissure in the earth’s crust, deep in the Atlantic.
Q: I see way back in 1975 you were part of a heavy metal band. It’s amazing how many writers have a musical background. Do you still practice music?
I still play guitar and sing, and have consistently written songs for most of my life. Music is very much a part of my family’s culture, as my wife and daughter are both songwriters and my son is a professional musician. If you love soul, funk or acid jazz, you can check out his sounds here.
Q: I was prompted to start this series of interviews because there seems to be a perception in the US and the UK that fantasy is a bit of a boy’s club. Do you think there’s a difference in the way males and females write fantasy?
Perhaps (as a generalization) but I also think that most of us could cite ripping action-rich fantasy novels penned by women and satisfyingly emotional and cerebral fantasy tales written by men; and I do find it a little funny that there is a perception of fantasy in some quarters as being male-oriented, after personally having heard publishers joke about pink, hazy covers (replete with flying horses) stretched around a solid high-quest fantasy book ‘that we can count on girls to buy’.
I reckon that one of the peculiarities of writing culture has always been that while most story tellers obsess over how to tell a timeless, boundary-breaking, universal tale, publishers are meanwhile apparently obliged to obsess over how to categorize, brand and anchor the field of interest in that story, in other words, to narrow and define its scope, so as to better sell it. The clash of these two unrelenting focuses can produce some interesting cross-perceptions about who writes or reads what exactly (and for who) while I guess the truth is that out here in the real world, we simply end up with a great deal of diversity.
Q: Following on from that, does the gender of the writer change your expectations when you pick up their book?
Not in my case, as a lifetime of reading has convinced me that a skilful, gifted storyteller can channel a thousand people whose skin they will never occupy; I’ve read the work of female writers whose male voice, drives and perceptions felt utterly real, and vice versa. So a good writer can always pleasantly surprise us, not only with their imaginings, but with all kinds of truths they can own and convey which transcend their culture, gender or generation. Of course I realize that many people are swayed, unduly perhaps, by unspoken notions of ‘gender suitability’. That old ‘men can’t write good romance, women don’t do bloodshed well’ viewpoint. I think it’s so often wrong, it’s worth dismissing entirely.
Q: And here’s the fun question. If you could book a trip on a time machine, where and when would you go, and why?
Like the traveler in HG Wells’ groundbreaking novel, though the past fascinates me, if only one trip was possible, I would opt to see the distant future (or yes, that current, possible future the machine could take me to, based on things as they now stand). So I’d visit my own locale, here in Australia, say, two hundred years from now. Why? Part of me just has to know: do we finally grow up as a species? Or does it turn out that our damned gadgets wound up destroying us because they kept evolving while their creators remained inherently paranoid and primitive? Hey! That’s a question that spec fic seems to keep asking!
When you are forced to suffer through some ‘oh no, not this again!’ cliché in a book or movie, what sassy, mocking or witty twist-outcome might you assign to it? Example: Vader wheezes ‘I-am-your-father!’ and Luke (at least in your rewrite) retorts, ‘The hell you are. I had DNA done. So I know it was a wookie.’ So yeah…pick your most nauseating cliché and…strike back!