Today we’re stepping out of historical Britain and Ireland, the places I always gravitate to, in order to explore Japan during the early 1700s. I’ve invited Laura Joh Rowland, author of The Iris Fan to visit Ascroft, eh? to answer some questions about her most recent novel.
Welcome Laura. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel.
LR: The Iris Fan is the conclusion to my series of thrillers set in feudal Japan. Amid the ever-treacherous intrigue in the shogun’s court, Sano Ichirō has been demoted from chamberlain to a lowly patrol guard. Then a horrific crime takes place: The shogun is stabbed with a fan made of painted silk and sharp-pointed iron ribs. Sano is restored to the rank of chief investigator to find the culprit. He becomes enmeshed in the most dangerous investigation of his life, at the center of warring forces that threaten not only his own family but the fate of his entire world.
What prompted you to write about this historical event?
LR: The Iris Fan was inspired by a real-life rumor that the shogun was murdered. The official cause of death was measles (there was a raging epidemic at the time), but I thought the rumored version was far more interesting. I wanted to show a “behind-the-scenes” view of what could have happened and the consequences of the shogun’s murder.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
LR: I try to stick closely to the realities of the period, including customs, class structure, and the position of women in society. I think that’s crucial to respecting Japanese culture as well as establishing a sense of verisimilitude for my readers. But I take big liberties with the details. My book is fiction, and most of the events in it never happened. If I have to choose between absolute historical accuracy and a good story, I’ll pick the good story, because that’s ultimately what readers of mystery fiction want, not a dissertation.
What research did you do for this book?
LR: I’ve been on a 20-year, self-taught crash course on Japanese history, religion, art, literature, and everything else related to the culture. That includes studying books, movies, paintings, websites, and YouTube videos.
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel? Which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
LR: Some of the characters are based on real historic people—the shogun, Chamberlain Yanagisawa, and Lord Ienobu. In some ways it’s easier to write about real people because they come with a ready-made biography. But it’s tricky to flesh them out and incorporate them into a novel without distorting them too much. Sano and Reiko, their children, Hirata and his family are fictional. I had to make them up from scratch, but I like having the freedom to make them whatever I want, within the parameters of their society. Overall, I prefer invented characters, and my real historic characters are heavily fictionalized.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
LR: I give my characters wants, needs, and emotions that are timeless and universal—they’re as old as the human race and will probably never change. Power, fame, fortune, a happy home, and a secure future for one’s children. Love, hate, fear. Those are things readers can understand. There are also physical phenomena that are the same now in the United States as in feudal Japan: the beauty of springtime, the sound of ocean waves, and the smell of a rotting corpse. I use these details to create a sense of place.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other, and, if so, why?
LR: I find it easier and more personal to write about my own sex. I “get” women in a way that I don’t naturally “get” men, and I have more in common with my female characters. Sano’s wife Reiko has to be an unconventional woman who steps outside the bounds of her society, or she would be stuck at home instead of solving crimes. But I’ve had a great time writing about Sano, Yanagisawa, Hirata, and my other guys. I think that after living in their heads for so long, I understand men better. You might say they made a man out of me!
Thanks for answering my questions, Laura. It’s quite an achievement to produce an eighteen book series. Sano and his cronies have obviously garnered fans as the series progressed. Congratulations and good luck with this last novel.
About Laura Joh Rowland: Granddaughter of Chinese and Korean immigrants, Laura grew up in Michigan where she graduated with a B.S. in microbiology and a Master of Public Health at the University of Michigan. She is the author of seventeen previous Sano Ichiro thrillers set in feudal Japan. The Fire Kimono was named one of the Wall Street Journal’s “Five Best Historical Mystery Novels”; and The Snow Empress and The Cloud Pavilion were among Publishers Weekly’s Best Mysteries of the Year. She currently lives in New Orleans with her husband. She has worked as a chemist, microbiologist, sanitary inspector and quality engineer.