The Art of Unpredictable & Unclassifiable Literature

Writers Discuss Lian Hearn’s Fantasy Epic ‘The Tale of Shikanoko’

A word from the editors at Electric Literature & FSG Originals: This week marks the release of Book 2 — Autumn Princess, Dragon Child (FSG Originals) — in the The Tale of Shikanoko, the epic, mythical, mind-bending series from Lian Hearn (the pen name of English author Gillian Rubinstein). Hearn’s style, like her historical fantasy world-building, defies all easy description or easy understanding, so we asked four writers — each a practitioner of notably imaginative, genre-busting fiction — to sit down with Hearn’s four-volume epic of medieval Japan to try to figure out what’s at work in Hearn’s unusual storytelling. Sean McDonald, Hearn’s publisher at FSG Originals, also jumped in from time to time. And, in a final twist that was too good to forego, we asked the author herself — Lian Hearn — to read their conversation and tell us how she did it, and how these writers might have shown her something unexpected about her own writing.

Got all that? Is your head spinning?

Good, you’re almost ready for The Tales of Shikanoko.

But first, the participants:

Toby Barlow is the author of Sharp Teeth, a werewolf novel in verse set in contemporary Los Angeles, and Babayaga, a post-war Paris caper about witches, spies, and a detective turned into a flea.

Nicola Griffith is the author of six acclaimed novels, most recently Hild, a novel about St. Hilda of Whitby set in seventh-century England.

Kelly Luce is the author of Three Scenarios in which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, an avowedly imaginative collection of stories set in Japan, and a novel, Pull Me Under, forthcoming from FSG this fall; you can read an earlier conversation she had with Lian Hearn here.

Robin Sloan is the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a novel about a very curious man and his very curious San Francisco store that holds more books — including at least its fair share of multi-volume epics — and more secrets than seems plausible. None of the writers had read all four volumes of The Tales of Shikanoko at the time of this conversation.

Lian Hearn, of course, had read them all, more than a few times.

With that, we’re off…

Toby Barlow: I heard an anecdote once that, back in the 19th century, when Antoine Galland started publishing his volumes of translations of Arabian Nights, Parisian mobs would show up outside his apartment demanding he release the next stories. That’s how I feel about The Tale of Shikanoko. Somehow, the way it’s written, with the magic so organic and natural and the adventure so quick and sudden, it canters along and makes me feel almost childish in my joy. The book seems to work like a boxer’s jabs.

Also, it feels paradoxically totally cinematic and utterly unfilmable, which is my favorite kind of book, and it’s something I try to write myself, so that you hold the book not as a dry run for a yet-to-be-made motion picture, but the thing in itself. And you see it in your mind’s eye in a way that Hollywood would only botch if they tried. Though in this particular case, I would like to see them try.

Nicola Griffith: I was thinking about what Toby said about Shikanoko being cinematic. The books (well, book; I’ve only read the first one so far) remind me of something and I was trying to figure out what, and finally, this morning I grabbed the slippery little memory by the ankle before it could dive away again: Shikanoko reminds me of Monkey, a Japanese-made series from Chinese legend dubbed into English and shown by the BBC from 1979 (I think) to 1980 or 1981. Obviously my memories of it are hazy but I remember my amazement and delight in the sheer strangeness of the story about a monkey born from a stone egg who whizzed about on a magic-carpet-like cloud confronting demons and dragons and demi-gods… Anything could happen, and frequently did. I watched it because I honestly couldn’t predict what would happen.

That’s how I feel about Shikanoko: it’s not predictable. At all. It doesn’t follow Western storytelling sensibilities, certainly not literary ones. Kelley, my wife, has been writing screenplays for the last few years (watch out for OtherLife which we hope will premier later this year) so we’ve spent a lot of time over beer talking about film story vs prose story. Immersive fiction (the kind of thing I like) leaves a lot of emotional and metaphorical space for the reader to put themselves in the head, heart, and body of the protagonist. At the risk of getting loooong here, what I set out to do with Hild was for the reader to experience the seventh century, to see, smell, hear, taste and feel what Hild does; to gradually adopt her mindset and worldview; to think as she does, to learn her lessons, feel her joy — to be her, just for a little while. My goal was to run my software on the reader’s hardware: for them to recreate Hild inside themselves and know, not just think but know, what the early seventh-century was like. To do that I used very specific word choice and sentence structure to trigger not only the reader’s mirror neurons but something called embodied cognition.

There’s now a reasonable amount of experimental data (though I admit I don’t know how often it’s been replicated and confirmed) to indicate that certain written words can trigger the memory of scent and touch. For example, if you write the word ‘lavender’ a functional MRI will show the areas of the brain relating to smell lighting up. Similarly, if you use the word ‘leathery’ instead of ‘hard’ or ‘tough’ it stimulates your brain in the same way that actually touching leather does. So if you describe a character running a discarded leather glove drenched in lavender scent under her nose, the reader can actually feel the cool-warm of the leather against her skin, hear the faint creak of the leather, smell that lavender: we are there.

You can’t really do that with film. With film it’s all about what people say and do, not what they feel and think. Everything is built for you. In a novel you don’t have to describe everything; in a film you do. And there’s music and other audio effects to help.

I think Shikanoko would make a brilliant blueprint for collaboration in another medium, whether we’re talking film, animated TV series, graphic novels, or opera (it’s definitely operatic!). Hearn tells us what people say, she tells us what they think and why they think it, she describes the setting. It’s all there. And anything can happen — and frequently does. And those things are not small: death, demons, destruction, betrayal…

Kelly Luce: As to Toby’s “paradoxically totally cinematic and utterly unfilmable” — YES.

The world of the Shikanoko books is so richly imagined. The setting itself is novel to us, it is home to the unexpected, and yet it is populated with characters whose motivations and backstories strike an emotional chord. As readers, we then get to sympathize with these familiar feelings in an unfamiliar place. There’s a tension there between world and emotion, a safe and fruitful space. In that space, maybe, is where wonder and play and fun are created — the Fun Primordial Soup.

My background’s in cognitive science, so Nicola, what you said about those studies in which words trigger sensory experiences resonated with how I write in general. I think a lot about how words and sentences are translated by the reader’s brain into something not quite visual, like a film, but a thing that’s…super-sensory. John Gardner’s “vivid and continuous dream.” Because reading is a creative act — it’s active, not passive. The reader makes their own waking dream out of the author’s sentences. And as with a dream, it’s usually the feeling that sticks around, not the technical details (at least for me — I’m terrible at remembering plot and other specifics of books I read even just a couple weeks ago. What doesn’t leave, though, is how the book made me feel.) When the imagination is engaged in this way, it really does become fun.

Works that are aggressively imaginative are looked upon suspiciously: are they — gasp — genre? Are they for children?

It seems like maybe we as a culture are suspicious of play. It’s often overlooked — or devalued — when it comes to literary, or artistic, experiences in general. This for me is connected to imagination, another word that’s treated oddly. Works that are aggressively imaginative are looked upon suspiciously: are they — gasp — genre? Are they for children? (When people hear that my story collection has a story about a toaster that can predict the way a person’s going to die, for example, that is almost always their first question: oh, is it a children’s book? It’s fantasy, right?)

I agree; these books would make for an amazing opera!

Robin Sloan: One of the books I’ve been interleaving with my reading of the Shikanoko saga is Philip Pullman’s new translation of the Brothers Grimm. In one of his story notes, he cites a poet’s characterization of the ideal fairy tale narrator’s voice: “serene, anonymous.”

I thought of Lian Hearn when I read that, because in addition to the qualities you all have enumerated — the joyful canter, the waking dream — I think these books are delivered in a voice that is (a) a huge part of their pleasure, and also (b) totally beyond me. That serenity; that straightforwardness (even in its depiction of the very strange); that confidence!

No matter how weird the proceedings get in Shikanoko, the narration remains totally matter-of-fact — like a great dinner-table storyteller…

And Nicola, I think the voice plays into the unpredictability you identified; it’s what makes it work. No matter how weird the proceedings get in Shikanoko, the narration remains totally matter-of-fact, like a great dinner-table storyteller keeping a perfectly straight face while everyone around them melting down with suspense and/or laughter. Or like a standup comic! Somehow, the restraint enhances the pleasure, and furthermore, it makes wilder twists possible and plausible, in a way that a looser voice, insisting “You won’t believe what happened next,” precisely fails to do.

As a reader, I’m delighted by this voice, and as a writer I am covetous of it. So, allow me to pose a question to the wise demons gathered around this campfire in the Darkwood: to the degree you yourselves have employed this kind of voice… what does the down-and-dirty craft of it look like? Do you have to spend fifteen minutes in quiet repose before writing? Do you have to binge on fairy tales, books of myth? Does it all happen in the editing — the rigorous redaction of anything un-serene, non-anonymous? How does one narrate like Lian Hearn?

Toby Barlow: It would be interesting to discover how much Lian Hearn works out the details of the story in advance, not just the overall arc, which feels nicely premeditated with that sense of unfolding destiny we want and expect from epics, but also the nuances of the magic. Is there a lexicon there?

I tend to research in bursts, filling up the attic of my mind with potential — patterns of fabrics, anatomy of insects, various boat and carriage designs — and then let them fall into my writing as I go. Hearn feels much more comprehensive in her knowledge, I feel like she could knock out her own encyclopedic Silmarillion and fill out the entire history of the map. My guess is that this helps her write so sparingly, she can leave a lot out and still we sense some of the substance of what is missing, what the author is holding back. We know we’re in a world.

As for Robin’s question about voice or tone, I can only say that for me the story only begins when the tone arrives. I have too many narratives of what might bad or weird things might happen to a host of unlucky sorts, but until the rhythm or voice of the arrives, it’s like facing a forest without a path. I can’t force it, it comes of its own accord. That part is the inspiration. The rest is just screwing around with pieces on the game board.

Sean McDonald: This doesn’t exactly address Toby’s question, but Lian Hearn does say a bit about her process here. And elsewhere she’s said that she immerses herself very deeply in research and then tries to leave it behind while writing. This also addresses some of her world-building, especially towards the end.

Lian Hearn: Is there a specific thing I do? I suppose I do try to recreate the joy in reading I had as a child. I like to write early in the day, by hand, shutting out the world and my own inner critics. Like Nicola I start with a moment, visual, atmospheric, where a character exists in a world it’s up to me to discover. Somehow I know that character, and all the others that appear as I write.

I am often very surprised by what happens. I let almost everything in.

Maybe I’ll have some key scenes, and some images, that I know have to be fitted in though I don’t know where. Once a story is underway, it fuels itself, suggesting new ideas, new paths to follow. I love this first draft stage as I am in the “making up story” mindset that entertained and consoled me as a child and teenager. It is indeed the fun primordial soup. It is very rough, very free. I am often very surprised by what happens. I let almost everything in. I watch it unfold as if I am watching a movie and write it down. I realized, thanks to a very diligent proofreader this time round, that I instinctively use the where a would be more usual. It’s because I am seeing the scene: the boy who is right here, the palanquin that is by the steps. Later I’ll carefully work it all into a structure using timelines, charts, maps and so on, adding details and fleshing it all out.

A large part of it is my response to the history, art and culture of Japan. I did immerse myself in the warrior tales of medieval Japan, and folk and ghost tales, and found inspiration in Eastern forms of storytelling. I love Journey to the West, the origin of the Monkey stories. There is an almost visceral pleasure for me in recalling and recreating the way I felt in a Japanese landscape, a temple, a garden. And I think the Japanese aesthetic of ma — the space between things — influences my writing and gives it its sparseness and simplicity.

An article appeared earlier this year by Marie Mutsuki Mockett which refers to Hayao Kawai’s The Japanese Psyche. I read this book years ago, and have it on my shelf. I was reminded to reread it. Kawai says the Japanese fairy tale tells us that the world is beautiful, and that beauty is complete only if we accept the existence of death. Kawai also points out how naturally sex appears in Japanese myths.

Mockett also says in speaking of her her childhood experience of Japanese culture, both new and traditional: “Innocent people suffered as a result of living in a perilous if vibrant world.” The importance of the natural world and its beauty and danger is huge in Shikanoko.

Nicola Griffith: Robin asked about voice — how we write in the matter-of-fact narrator’s voice Lian Hearn uses. I don’t think I do. But I had to drive myself half-mad figuring out what voice I do use (sort of like trying to wrap my head around the notion of infinity as a pre-teen).

I’m with Toby on this: the voice comes with the story. Or maybe the story comes with the voice. But both voice and story begin, for me, with a moment: visual and atmospheric, a character in her place (most, though not all, of my fiction is from the perspective of a woman or girl) on the cusp of change.

First-person voice is easy to find, and it’s fast, but I find it limiting; it’s a challenge to write about anything the narrator isn’t involved in; it narrows our (me the writer, me the reader) window on the world. I sometimes feel a wee bit trapped when I write first person. It gives me enormous pleasure in other ways, though: it’s like acting, or singing: really going there, really swimming in a character.

The voice I’m working with now is variation on third person. I’m aiming for a variable focal length: zoom in on a tiny detail, pull out to panoramic view, and — very occasionally — drop into someone else’s head. But I always, always have my main character on the page. It’s versatile, but it can be hellish to control. (But, eh, that’s what rewriting is for.)

When I feel as though I’m flying, if I want to laugh like a maniac or have no idea where that phrase or that character came from, then I’m on the right path.

Which leads to me to the essential paradox of writing: It’s not about restraint, it’s about slipping the leash within carefully defined parameters. It’s running wild and free inside a walled estate. So I’ve learnt to build iron rules and then forget them, hurl myself about inside them, fly from side to side, plunge and soar, leap and dig. I can feel it happen at some point in writing a novel, that falling-off of restraint, and I worry until it does. When I feel as though I’m flying, if I want to laugh like a maniac or have no idea where that phrase or that character came from, then I’m on the right path.

To do that, of course, I have to know my stuff — whether it’s 21st-century bioremediation, or North American myth and legend, or 7th-century textile production. Like Hearn I prefer to do the research then forget it and dive into the people and place and see what happens. Having said that, I always know where I’m going, the end-point. Day to day, though, I don’t know what will happen or who will appear or what that will mean.

Finally, Kelly raised the spectre of genre. To me genre is just a handy tool, in the same way metaphor or setting or character or POV is. I’ll read anything as long as it’s good. Why wouldn’t I use anything, too? I find this insistence on genre old-fashioned and pointless. So, for example, my first novel Ammonite was described as “a radical re-examination of gender,” “a biological what-if story,” and “sex-romp on girlie planet.” Okay, I can see all that, maybe. But to me it’s a novel set in the far-future, just as Hild is a novel set 1400 years ago. Why does it have to be categorized any more than that?

How will Hearn’s books be labeled, do you think? And why?

Toby Barlow: (I just want to add that I watched Purple Rain again last night and I realized that Prince was Shikanoko.)

Robin Sloan: (This statement is amazing and must make it into the final edited thing.)

Lian Hearn: I hadn’t realized Shikanoko is Prince!

But I agree with you all, voice is so important. Even though the narration is all third person, I try to vary it slightly according to the POV. I began Shikanoko with Aki’s story, chapter 15 in Book 1, and then I realized I had started too early and went back a few years to set the scene with Shikanoko and Kiyoyori. Medieval tales were spoken and sung, usually by blind biwa players, or in the case of the Tale of the Soga Brothers, by Buddhist nuns, and I suppose I was partly trying to emulate that very rhythmic narrative voice, with its underlying Buddhist sense of sorrow at the transience of life and the stubbornness of human nature, and also to suggest that the novel is a translation (from another language outside of time, yes!) — I sometimes use idioms translated literally to give this effect.

Robin Sloan: Nicola asked, How will Hearn’s books be labeled, do you think?” and wondering about this makes me appreciate the bookstores with nonstandard and/or opinionated shelving schemes. “Underrated Writers.” “Talking Animals.” “Badasses.” In such a bookstore, I can imagine a shelf for “Books That Read As Though Translated from Another Language From Outside of Time.” That’s obviously where the Shikanoko saga belongs.

Given standard shelves, I do think Shikanoko will find fans among readers of fantasy, and I also think it might benefit from being placed on some YA shelves. I’m projecting: if these books had existed when I was 12 or 13, I would have been totally engrossed. I would have wanted to be Shikanoko, or Hina, or one of the tengu.

Maybe that’s a useful measure of fun: to what degree would I have liked this at twelve?

Okay, I am already plotting some surreptitious reshelving efforts. But I think we should keep Nicola’s question going. Where would you all put Shikanoko?

Toby Barlow: We all need our genres. It’s human. Genesis 2:19–20, Linnaeus, etc. We need our classifications. It tells us where we’re starting from and gives us a hint where we’re going. If the author wants to mess with that, well, okay, so long as they know how to fly that spaceship. But you have to start from somewhere.

My mother used to go into bookstores and move my novels from the “Horror” section to the “Romance” section. If I had a bookstore I would file Shikanoko under “Dreams You Wish You Had” or “Bittersweet Candies” or “Travel.”

Robin Sloan: The thing I love about genre is the freedom that comes from constraint. That sounded more Yoda-like than I intended. What I mean is: every genre is built on a bunch of implicit contracts between writer and reader. For example, in fantasy, one of those is: “I’m going to put a map in the front of this book, and you’re not going to ask me where in the hell these places are supposed to be.” It’s a fragile thing; I mean, the Westeros of Game of Thrones — is that another planet? An alternate history? A dream? It’s an impossible question and a totally deflating one. The key is: never ask. Genre is you, the reader, agreeing that you won’t.

The thing I love about genre is the freedom that comes from constraint.

I think you have to be conscious of those contracts when you start writing, or you risk getting bogged down trying to answer questions that should never be asked. Can you imagine Lian Hearn trying to “explain” the emperor’s magic lute in Shikanoko — where it came from, how it’s able to conceal itself and play of its own accord? Even keeping fully inside the fantasy frame — “it was crafted by the mountain goblins” etc., etc. — it would be a drag. Hearn knows better. She understands her readers have already agreed (or: are begging) to just go with it.

Viewed this way, the compact between writers and readers of traditional literary fiction seems pretty thin, doesn’t it? What is the contract? “I will read this book and see what I think of it”? Ouch. That’s not much fun at all.

Kelly Luce: PRINCE IS SHIKANOKO! I just started reading the third book and now when I picture him, I see a little mustache…

I’d file Shikanoko under “Devourable Epics” or “Books You’ll Stay Up All Night To Finish.” And definitely in Travel. Bookstores should be required to shelve books with a strong sense of place next to their respective Lonely Planet guides.

The genre label argument goes in circles. Labels are useful, as Toby points out, and as readers our easily-overwhelmed human brains need these heuristics to organize information and make decisions. But when you look at it from the writer’s standpoint, things get murky. I don’t know about you guys, but when I start a story, I don’t usually think about its taxonomic rank — maybe what kingdom it’s in, but not which phylum or class. I wait for the tone to arrive, usually for me in a voice I can hear in my head — either a narrator’s voice or a character speaking. And the creative process proceeds from there. We’re all products of everything we’ve ever read, and the more widely we’ve read among genres, the more likely it is that we’ll create something that falls in between labels. More writers are owning, are proud of, their genre-heavy reading past, and the result is this cool blending of literary and genre genes. Shikanoko is a perfect example of this. It’s exciting to find work that’s so engaging and yet so unclassifiable. It means literature is evolving instead of becoming stagnant. (Okay, I’ll stop with the biology metaphor…)

That psychic toaster story came from pulling three scraps of paper out of my “idea box” and making myself write something that included all three. I picked “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” “an appliance with a superpower,” and “a whole lot of beer.” I fit the pieces together in my head pretty quickly plot-wise, but it wasn’t until I realized that the narrator was a twelve-year-old Japanese boy who was sort of on the sidelines of the action that I knew how the story would feel its tone. Despite the weird premise, it’s a very standard “literary” story. It’s about death and fear and grief. It has a traditional structure. There are no monsters or villains or spies or sorcerers. All the magical/fantasy stories in my collection are like that. I think a few people were disappointed when they read the book — they were expecting hard fantasy. “You don’t tell us exactly what happens at the end,” is another thing I heard. Magic triggered in some readers the expectation of a clean, tied-bow fairy-tale ending.

Sean McDonald: This feels like the moment for our own clean, tied-bow fairy-tale ending. But in lieu of that, before we go, let’s blow up our neat conclusion with any questions you’d like to cast out to Lian Hearn. Toby has already wondered aloud about Hearn’s planning and process. Anyone else with questions?

Robin Sloan: There’s almost too much I want to know! Several of us have mentioned the sense of never knowing what’s going to happen next in these books — or even what could happen next. Did Lian Hearn know ahead of time? Or was her ride as wild as Shikanoko’s?

Nicola Griffith: I’m curious about which bookshelves she’d put Shikanoko on if she could choose….

Kelly Luce: Yes. And if she had her own bookstore, how she would organize the books.

Lian Hearn: I like to think I write in a genre of my own. It’s true that neither fantasy writers nor literary fiction writers have ever really accepted me as one of them. Maybe this is one of the consequences. Maybe the books are too easy to read, too much fun. But I don’t mind as it gives me the freedom to remain on the margin. Maybe I would use that as a category: books from the margin. I like very much the suggestions you made! I think booksellers should put books into several categories, so readers discover them in many different places.

I like to think I write in a genre of my own.

If I had my own bookstore… I should be rearranging my own bookshelves, all in a muddle after our move. I’m thinking about doing it by color as it’s the chief way I remember a book. And a lot of the books are in my bedroom so it would look pretty. But I would definitely have a section for “books that become best sellers that I personally don’t care for” and one for “books I love which inexplicably never became best sellers”. My husband said to me this week, “The books that you have been talking about all seem very idiosyncratic,” so maybe I would also have a category: “books that no one else except this author could have ever possibly written.”

I’ve just finished with second-pass pages for Lord of the Darkwood, making it about the 500th time I’ve read it. I’m at the stage where I no longer recognize if it is fun or not. So it was amazingly wonderful to read the responses, especially from a circle of such accomplished fellow writerly demons.

Many thanks from Electric Literature to all the participants.

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