What Keeps Peter Tieryas Awake at Night?
An in-depth conversation with the United States of Japan visionary
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As I write this I am reading Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle for the first time. I considered reading it before diving into Peter Tieryas’ United States of Japan, which is described as a spiritual successor to PKD’s novel, but I couldn’t wait to dive into Tieryas’ book. From the description of the book to the awesome robot on the cover I could not resist cracking it open.
All that said, and if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t expect to love USJ. I expected to enjoy it and to be entertained, but I did not expect to become obsessed. And obsessed is probably a light word. I have been consumed by the world Tieryas created. I have thought about it daily for months. It has been a source of artistic inspiration that I have found in few books the last couple of years. So, naturally I was honored and excited when Tieryas indulged me in an email exchange that spanned months and spawned numerous other exchanges aside from the interview.
Art, powerful art, is often described as transformative and that is exactly what the combined experience of reading the book and corresponding with Tieryas has been.
Ryan W. Bradley: United States of Japan set me to thinking about alternative history. There are multiple schools when you break down basic plots. I have very little interest in the hypothetical “go back in time and kill Hitler” brand. What I realized draws me in is thinking about how the world would look for the everyday person and dealing with the realization that no matter the changes that are made there’s no such thing as “Utopia.” I think USJ falls into this camp. That said, what intrigued you most about exploring the alterations of World War II history and their effect on the society you crafted?
Peter Tieryas: Most Star Trek episodes focus on the senior staff, but one of my favorite episodes is Lower Decks when they show the perspective of regular crew members who are eager to get the attention of the officers. It was a completely different viewpoint from what I was used to, but also a more relatable episode as it was about the “everyday person.” I mention that because I was intrigued by the idea of what the world of The Man in the High Castle would be like for that everyday individual, someone with an office job, a bureaucrat, or, as it’s an authoritarian society, a member of the secret police. Not so much in the ‘60s as in High Castle, but what it would be like closer to our own time, skipping ahead a few decades. Would Axis rule have changed? What would the technology be like? How different would culture be since the memory of America pre-WWII would pretty much be a historical footnote? I’m making the assumption that with the advent of the Axis, religious perspectives would also change from a more Christian-influenced society to a Shinto one with the Emperor revered as a god. Would the judgment on what entails “good and evil” change? Would there be certain absolutes between alternate histories? Or would their system of values be almost unrecognizable by our standards? I was intrigued exploring these ambiguities and it was difficult finding the balance of being true to what they might espouse while writing characters that, even if not likable, could be understandable. If there’s one big regret I have in the book (among many), it’s that the timeline/mystery structure of the novel being split into hours and days precluded me from having moments where I could just slow down and bask in the society, showing how people shoot the shit in the USJ.
RWB: There’s a slippery slope, I think, in writing about characters who have a occupational relationship to the material. To reduce it to the basest versions: scientists in science fiction, wizards or dragons in fantasy, aging professors in “literature.” Something interesting happens when you start telling those stories in relation to the outlying characters.
By going further into the future you’ve also given your story a new dimension of being a second generation issue. USJ deals with some familial legacy questions that books like High Castle didn’t have the opportunity to explore. What kind of source material did you look to, whether research, personal experience, etc., to craft that tension between generations?
PT: One of the driving ideas behind USJ was trying to understand, what would the second and third generations in that alternate history think and believe? In High Castle, people still have memories of the world pre-Axis victory so they have a connection to it. But in USJ, they don’t.
I had to ask, would the morality and cultural values of those in the USJ be totally different, having been raised in a completely different environment? The generational divide could also be considered a philosophical one. These people don’t pine after a world they don’t/can’t remember. Axis domination is just a fact of life, and one they wouldn’t consider bad or evil because there’s no anchor of “good” to judge it against.
I think what made this more interesting was reading about life in Japan while WWII was going on. Propaganda hid defeats after the US entered the war, so that for those back at home, it sounded like everything was going great. It reminded me in many ways of the way the Iraq War was portrayed. I still remember Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” Speech. I think many Americans felt it was all over. None of us knew the conflict was just beginning and that all these years later, there still wouldn’t be peace. And the more news poured in from the front, the more people began to realize things weren’t going the way we’d been hearing about. The Iraqis view of America is totally different from our view, just the same way the view of those being attacked by the Nazis would be different from those under German rule (and the Japanese Empire as well). So those contrasts and dichotomies became an area I really wanted to delve into and explore.
A lot of that came from reading wartime accounts from those who lived through WWII, especially the civilian side. Some of that came from talking to people who had family members that lived through took place in Asia during the Pacific War. Another chunk of it had to do with my own experiences living in America (and Asia).
For the clashing and tension of generations, it really comes down to questions about ethics and morality. Is that part of the environment? Or is that something innately understood? I’d like to think it’s a combination of both, but as is shown in USJ, living for decades under an authoritarian regime changes their ethical system. Akiko’s attempt to find her “humanity” is part of the driving force in the book.
RWB: There’s a cultural relativism that goes hand-in-hand with moral relativism, and I think it’s easy, especially for Americans, to forget that every country’s citizens are going to see events differently, because our framework is not theirs. But I think something you express really well is the curiosity that comes in being a citizen of any country, any government. There is no “anchor” as you mention, to judge the USJ’s actions against, but as soon as there is a glimmer of an alternative, you see a person like Akiko have this drive to learn and investigate, even if she is, in many ways, a model citizen. It’s human to wonder about alternatives, once they are seen to exist.
You talk about the research that went into crafting the world view of the book. That is a part of fiction writing that fascinates me. Did you know what you were looking for at the start and seek that out or did your organic learning lead you places you didn’t know you’d end up? How did it work with the actual writing, were they concurrent or linear, going from research to drafting phases?
PT: It was definitely organic and this is part of where the nightmares came. The more I started researching about the Empire and its citizens, the more I started finding corresponding patterns and cycles with our own times. A lot of the extremism that happened had its roots in the economic turbulence of the ‘30s. That was right after the Great Depression where the entire world economy collapsed. People couldn’t just charge things to credit card the way we do now to stave off debt, and inflation made even the most basic requirements ridiculously unaffordable. It’d be like if you were told overnight, dinner costs a million dollars. How do you support your family? To what extent would you go to protect those you care about? And that’s where the back story began to take inception. Ben’s parents only appear for a short bit, but I talk about how the transition from the US Dollar to Yen caused great upheaval in the American economy.
It’d be like if you were told overnight, dinner costs a million dollars. How do you support your family?
With how volatile the economy and stock market have been the last few years, it was contemporary news headlines that had me asking myself, what if things take a drastic shift? How will we react as Americans if we default? Once I started seeing the history in that light and found the human core I could relate to, the specific nationalities might be different, but the fears, the hopes, and even the cruelties could have an understandable, if detestable, commonality. So much that at certain points, I actually swapped out Axis acts (which were often cruel to an inhuman extreme) with the forms of torture in contemporary life that people seem to regard as more palatable. And when that’s met with abhorrence, I wonder, why is it that the fiction arouses more anger than facts? Have we become numb to it when it’s foreigners aka “enemies?” That’s another aspect I explored in the atomic bombings of San Jose, Sausalito, and Sacramento. When it’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is there a different understanding of the price of war than when it involves American civilians? Again, questions like this kept me up at night and I understood why Philip K. Dick struggled with the idea of doing a sequel and eventually opted not to do one.
RWB: I believe that I read somewhere that the opening, where we see the end of the war and Ben’s parents, was actually a late addition to the book? Was that a product of the ongoing research? Were there other stories or historical tidbits you came across and wanted to use but couldn’t fit in the story you were telling?
PT: The opening was much shorter in the original draft. That’s when I visited the Japanese-American museum in San Jose where they had a recreation of one of the original internment bunks. The thing that was so shocking to me was that the people who were “interned” there were American citizens who’d committed no crimes, and yet were forcibly removed from their homes. If you were even a sixteenth Japanese, meaning your great-grandfather was Japanese, that meant you had to report to the camps. Some people had worked their whole lives just to establish a living, whether a business or a trade, and that was gone overnight. The photographs and notices ordering people to report for internment were of places that I recognized in San Francisco. These people’s lives were ruined and everything put on hold for several years. Why?
I couldn’t understand it. A few years after their imprisonment, when they were released, the guide told us many of the elderly didn’t want to leave as there was nothing to go back to. Many of their homes and businesses were snatched up by others who saw their vacancy as an opportunity to exploit.
Then I got to wondering, what if America started losing the war? What if they became scared of what this portended for those they’d imprisoned in those camps? Would things change in a negative light? What would be the perspective of the Japanese-Americans who’d been imprisoned to learn that they were being liberated by the Imperial Japanese Army?
There are lots of tidbits from the research I wasn’t able to use. Too many. Fortunately, I’m exploring them in a side story set in the USJ world and will take that further in the official sequel.
RWB: I’m glad you mention the sequel, because I think you are in a situation where most writers don’t find themselves, even as common as sequels and series might seem sometimes. Did you see USJ as a series or as more than one book from the outset or, if not, at what point did you realize the universe you had created would encompass more than one story? And what did you learn writing the first book that you have carried over into the sequel?
PT: I originally saw it as one book. Describing life under an authoritarian system took a big emotional toll because I’m a “method writer” (sorry if that term evokes a pompous feeling, ha ha) and try to become the characters I write about (which honestly sometimes weirds out my friends!). But as the book started coming to an end, another side of me didn’t want to leave the characters in the world yet. I wanted to know more about the USJ. I mentioned earlier how I had that one regret in not being able to just hit the pause and look around the world. I really wanted to get a glimpse at what it was like in other cities and their social circles. But would I get that chance? I spent a lot of time thinking about that so it is a very nice situation to get that opportunity and to know there are people who are looking forward to sequels.
The “official” sequel was going to follow some of the main characters and continue their arc. But before that, I actually wanted to take a step back and spend the length of a novella following the daily life of a student in the USJ. 40K words in, I find myself still going full steam, enjoying this in some ways more than USJ because not only was I familiar with the world, but I was spending time in some of the wackier/fascinating locales in the alternate America. Since I’ve paid my tribute to PKD in the first, I also felt a bit more liberated. I was worried that the first one, being a spiritual sequel, would stray too far from the spirit of the original, especially with its focus on the Asian side. But now, I’m taking the series in my own direction without feeling a sense of restraint which is both exciting and daunting in that it’s totally new ground.
Since I’ve paid my tribute to PKD in the first, I also felt a bit more liberated.
I learn from every book. I read many of the reviews. Most have been superb. Critiques usually revolve around the level of violence (for those who weren’t familiar with the past and were taken by surprise by the extent of the brutality), to the implausibility of mechas in the 1980s (I find it fascinating here that I actually followed PKD’s lead in which he mentioned the Nazis are colonizing space using robots, only taking that two decades further).
A few readers have specifically criticized the dream sequences which I interjected as a sort of allegorical representation of the bridge with the alternate universe, our world. In a repressed society, I felt dreams would be even more wild. So while most of the book is told in an almost restrained and brisk fashion to represent the general atmosphere of fear, there are bursts of language hinting at a deeper underbelly whenever the characters (particularly Akiko, but Ben too when he gets tortured) let their guard down. It was an experiment and as several people people found it distracting from the main narrative, I’m removing those sections for future iterations.
The rest, I’ll discover as I write and carve away. But having that first one in place as a sort of guidebook with specific rules makes it easier to focus on the characters and themes rather than the worldbuilding, even though there’s plenty of that left to do.
RWB: Sequels sometimes get a bad rap, but it seems like there is an advantage to them in the sense that some of that world building work has been done. Suddenly there’s almost a sense of writing about your hometown. Do you see the sequel and any future books in the universe as a “series” or as “stories of the USJ”? In essence, do you still see yourself writing a direct sequel or has the foray into the life of a previously unseen character opened up a broader scope for the world you created?
PT: A lot of times, and this is just my personal speculation, but I think it’s because either the sequel doesn’t get enough time, or the reasons for making it aren’t necessarily because there’s a story there. I’ve heard theories how if there’s X work (whether book, film, or game) and X amount of interest, a sequel has to come out within X amount of time in order to have the attention/excitement continue to build. Which is true in a sense. At the same time, if you rush something out to meet demand and the quality suffers — I think the saying goes, you can forgive a movie/game/book if it’s late, but not if it’s bad. Blizzard Games is a perfect model for that. They’re known for delaying games as long as it takes to achieve quality. They want to stay true to that world and reward the fans with an amazing experience. The same goes for Nintendo. I very much believe in that model and hope I can always stick to it.
For the USJ trilogy, I’ve always envisioned this as Agent Akiko Tsukino’s arc. I was heavily inspired by Yukio Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. All four books revolve around Shigekuni Honda, though in each, there’s a new character that’s the focal point. There’s themes between all four books, and yet each feels uniquely independent. The chaotic harmony threading through that “sea of fertility” is ripe for evolution and growth. So that’s what I originally was hoping to do after USJ came out. But I started getting really depressed again diving into the world of USJ, getting into the minds of the secret police as they tracked down a different kind of group. I was tantalized because this one had a bonafide villain, whereas the first one focuses more on tracking down Mutsuraga as a general threat (a la Man in the High Castle). But the more I got into it, the more I felt this sense of dread re-inhabiting that USJ state of mind.
On top of that, the areas I wanted to explore, I couldn’t because it detracted too much from the main narrative. I actually wanted to stop everything taking place and inject a scene where everyone has a day off so I could follow the characters around. No hunt, no villains, no Tokko business. Just follow the characters for a day (or two) having breakfast, driving to work, find out stupid things like what their bathrooms are like, where they drink, read books, go on dates, etc. I know, it sounds boring, right? But I wanted to know more about this world and just kick it with some different characters that live in a world where Nazis have developed all sorts of crazy monsters and you can see mechas stomping through the city on any given day. With the secret police members, I felt this approach probably wouldn’t work. So I started the above mentioned novella set in the universe with a different cast (that is now a novel). It’ll be very different in tone and structure to the first USJ and is more of a “story of the USJ” than a sequel. I love that because I feel way more freedom to improvise. Also, this story is much more focused on mechas which has been a blast to write.
I wanted to ask you: is there a big divide between literary and genre fiction? Are they mutually exclusive? I only bring this up because on two separate instances, “literary” authors have expressed their disappointment in me for writing “genre” with a big mecha on the front cover of my book without even reading my book. I was so surprised. I’ve never thought of myself as a genre writer per se and find these categories somewhat misrepresentative of what goes into any given story. They’re more of a marketing category, no? Good writing is good writing irrespective of whether there are mechas or not in the story?
RWB: It’s interesting that you mention how the historical background of the world brought on depression. That’s a side of this kind of writing people don’t think about. But I know that feeling of being emotionally drained by a topic you’re writing about. There’s an intensity and a grief almost. I think what you describe is a part of the maturation of a writer, too. We all experience it to one degree or another, finding where we can push ourselves, but also how to regain the enjoyment of what we’re doing.
Another aspect people don’t talk about much is the pressure of writing a sequel or a series. I imagine that, in part, that is what you’re talking about when you discuss the original ideas for a direct story arc surrounding Akiko. Bucking that pressure must have a lot to do with your publisher, Angry Robot. Were there discussions about your plans or your feelings about changing things up for the second book?
And to answer your question, it would depend on who you speak with. There are definitely literary writers and academics who look down on genres. But I have encountered the flipside of that as well, people who think that writing realism is boring and pointless. Obviously both points of view are very narrow and reductive. Like anything else in life there are great works of writing in any genre, just as there are terrible “literary” books. There is a false impression, especially in some circles, that literary equates to “better.” I’m the first to admit that I don’t read much science fiction or other genres, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying a Neal Stephenson novel as much as one by Dave Eggers, though they couldn’t be more different. What they have in common is that they are both masters when it comes to storytelling.
PT: Intensity, grief, and sense of responsibility. What weighed on me the most was that a lot of the facts in the Pacific side are not well known here. Can you name some of the important WWII military figures in the Japanese Empire? How about in China, Korea, Singapore, India, Thailand, and more? I ask this because I’ll admit; I myself didn’t know many. I’d heard of a few, but they weren’t names I grew up with the way it was in the western front with the obvious figures like Hitler, Rommel, Goering, Himmler, Guderian, and others on the German side (on the American side, there’s obviously MacArthur, FDR, Churchill, Patton, and so may others). But it wasn’t the historical personages that were on my mind as I wrote USJ. It’s the fact that somewhere between 20–30 million civilians were killed in Asia. 20–30 million civilians, which doesn’t include military casualties. In bringing to light their experiences, I kept on thinking about all those who’d died and suffered heavy bouts of self-doubt. It wasn’t just the horrible photos I saw, but reading their accounts, hearing their stories, that made this such a difficult experience. I reworked sentences, took out anything that felt extraneous, and tried to create a plausible alternate history without spoonfeeding facts to readers in the form of an obvious chronology (although I eventually relented and did a little bit of that with Akiko).
In terms of pressure for the sequel, honestly, I don’t feel much because the sense of pressure I felt after United States of Japan was so intense, the day it published, it was like a flood releasing inside of me. If anything, I’m going to enjoy working on the sequels a lot more than the original. As for Angry Robot, they’ve been fantastic, totally supportive, and always a joy to work with. I’m immensely grateful to them for the chance to do more books in the series.
I am passionate about storytelling and feel anyone can do it in any genre, format, or style.
Genre vs. lit: Words and stories were the way a younger me came to enjoy, understand, and even endure the bleaker aspects of life. I am passionate about storytelling and feel anyone can do it in any genre, format, or style. That’s why I enjoy experimental works as much as poetry and even the next blockbuster. Every story is important to me and serves a special purpose. I recently read a view of USJ which said that while they recognize it’s a great and meaningful story, they were actually hoping for some popcorn escapism to cheer them up. I totally empathized. Sometimes I too just want to see big robots fight each other without any rhyme or reason. Escapist entertainment has its value as does highbrow independent literary works that push the frontiers of language. But why do they have to be mutually exclusive? I think if anything, the two working in conjunction produces the best results. I’m time and again struck by Iain M. Banks’s Culture series and how gorgeous his prose is. Margaret Weis fired my imagination growing up as a kid as I wandered the worlds of Dragonlance. I loved the philosophical sorties in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. How can you not marvel at how lyrical Aliette de Bodard’s writing is in The House of Shattered Wings?
RWB: You’re right. Even as a former history minor there are very few names I can pull out of the ether beyond the United States, England, and Germany. Of course Tojo in Japan. Mao was a commander in the Chinese Army, I believe. And Zhukov in the Russian Army. When it comes to history in the United States the things we learn that pertain to other countries are the devastations. They are talking points. It’s a way to boil down history, and it’s an incredible disservice, not just to the past but to ourselves.
I had a tumultuous childhood as well and was a voracious reader from an early age. For me, I think there was a calm to it. Sitting in my room reading was a way to have some peace. I read anything and everything. As long as a book is engrossing in terms of the writing I will give it my time.
I don’t think there’s any kind of solid agreement on what makes something literary, but what concerns me more as a writer and a reader is a book that is viewed as disposable. I believe writing is important as any art. I’ve never read the Song of Fire and Ice/Game of Thrones books, but George R.R. Martin seems to take his time writing them despite pressure from his audience. I respect that over someone churning out books like they’re episodes of a TV show. Creating art and creating entertainment shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.
You seem mindful of wanting to write something that people will enjoy, but also of wanting to steer clear of producing something just for the sake of producing it. How do you balance your internalization of reader opinions with crafting a story you can get excited about? Because many writers will tell you to filter those opinions out.
PT: I often think about Clarence Budington “Bud” Kelland. Have you heard of him? I’m copying and pasting this from wiki:
“Clarence Budington “Bud” Kelland (July 11, 1881 — February 18, 1964) was an American writer. He once described himself as “the best second-rate writer in America”. Although largely forgotten now, Kelland had a long career as a writer of fiction and short stories, stretching from 1913 to 1960. He was published in many magazines, including The Saturday Evening Post and The American Magazine. A prolific writer, his output included sixty novels and some two hundred short stories.”
60 novels, 200 short stories, and his work inspired over 30 films. But I’d never even heard of him until I came across his name randomly in an article mentioning people who were famous during their time but are forgotten now. Contrast that with someone like, say, Herman Melville, who during his life was pretty much panned outside of his first two books, Typee and Omoo. Near the time of his death, he wrote a long poem. “Among the longest single poems in American literature, the book had an initial printing of 350 copies, but sales failed miserably, and the unsold copies were burned when Melville was unable to afford to buy them at cost.” And by “1876, all of his books were out of print.” Yet now, he’s considered one of the great American writers. (I personally love his work including White Jacket and Mardi which inspired parts of my earlier book, Bald New World, as well as his long novellas like “Billy Budd” and “Benito Cereno.”)
I went on that long segue just to point out how you can never tell the fate of a writer based on popularity, critical acclaim, and even sales. Ultimately, what we do will most likely be forgotten in a short period of time. In a year or so, most people won’t even remember United States of Japan. (fingers crossed that they do!)
So in that sense, I definitely try to keep everything I do in perspective. Writing is a love for me. Well maybe not writing so much as telling a story I feel passionate about, as writing is the technical expression of that desire. And as with any writing/story-telling, you’re doing it for an audience. Otherwise, you can just write journals to yourself. I try to take a serious look at what I love, studying my own reaction to favorites scenes in books, films, and games, then learn from them. How did they do that? What was the tempo in the diction and the number of syllables per sentence (Steinbeck is a master of rhythm)? How much description versus dialogue?
Learning how the masters did it is part of the development of a writer. But reviews can also be enlightening.
Technique is so important as is character development, and the latter is especially hard to do in a way that is organic for the reader. Learning how the masters did it is part of the development of a writer. But reviews can also be enlightening. You’ll always have your share of nasty reviews that just hate your work outright and those, I’ve come to filter out (though occasionally, one will slip through, stab me in the tongue, and convince me I should quit writing). There’s also criticisms that I can agree with. One I get on USJ a lot as I mentioned above is people’s shock at the amount of violence. But that’s intended. I didn’t want to censor the violence of WWII; I wanted to depict it in a brutally honest fashion, so I not only accept it, but embrace it. It’s when you start seeing a consensus about certain aspects of your writing that is producing an unintended effect that I go, oh, I should learn from that. Case in point, the dream sequences I mentioned above which will get toned down as it was detracting from the narrative experience. Then again, I get confused when other reviewers state that the dream sequences are their favorite part and they love the prose there!
The main thing I try to do is take the role of an audience member. Is this something I’d like? If yes, then I stick with it. I know my tastes are weird, so it might not always agree with everyone out there. But that’s okay.