It’s been a big week for the publishing of tarot and oracles and such at Casa Art and Words. Besides receiving first hot-off-the-press copies of the Sacred World Oracle (which is now available for pre-order on Amazon), I’m pleased to announce that the Goddess Tarot android app has finally been rereleased. This update was to address compatibility issues that arose from the last Android operating system update. I fear it was a rather complicated process. That written, my wonderful developers at NewGenApps have done their best to catch every last bug and software conflict. (Can I hear a hearty hooray?)
If you already own the Android app, the update is automatically available for free. If you don’t own it, here’s more good news: to celebrate, both the Goddess Tarot Android and iPhone apps are discounted 50% for the next two weeks, through August 6, 2013; instead of $3.99, both apps are now $1.99. On top of this, I’ve discounted THE BOOK OF GODDESSES, the book that started it all, 50% at $2.99 (regular price $6.99) on Amazon, BN.com, and iBooks. Much of the art from the Goddess Tarot was adapted from THE BOOK OF GODDESSES.
So go forth and get inspired!
I have a special treat for today’s Creativity Friday post. As my guest, I’m happy to welcome author Susan Spann. Susan’s interest in Japanese history, martial arts, and mystery inspired her to write the Shinobi Mystery series featuring Hiro Hattori, a sixteenth-century ninja who brings murderers to justice with the help of Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit priest. The first novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT, bears this intriguing premise: When a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, master ninja Hiro Hattori has just three days to find the killer before the dead man’s vengeful son kills both the beautiful geisha accused of the crime and Father Mateo, the Jesuit priest that Hiro has pledged his own life to protect. The investigation plunges Hiro and Father Mateo into the dangerous waters of Kyoto’s floating world.
In our interview, Susan and I discuss creative process, East versus West, the history behind her story, and her secret weapon for writing her first drafts. (Believe it or not, it’s something I’ve never heard of before.)
Kris Waldherr: What was your initial inspiration for CLAWS OF THE CAT? Can you describe the moment that made you say, “I must write this”?
SS: It happened in spring of 2011. I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, getting ready for work, when a voice in my head said, “Most ninjas commit murders, but Hiro Hattori solves them.” I’d never written a mystery before, but I knew immediately I would have to write this one.
The plot and the setup took several months longer, but from the moment Hiro popped into my head I had no choice but to write about him.
KW: When I first met you at the Historical Novel Society conference in 2011, you had written a more traditional “marquee” historical about Joan of Arc. CLAWS OF THE CAT is quite a departure—a mystery set in sixteenth century Japan. How did you jump from one to the other, in terms of research and writing? Was a radical mind shift necessary?
SS: Until that morning in front of the mirror, I’d always considered myself a historical novelist. I love history—Asian history in particular—and also the challenge of weaving historical fact into fast-paced, compelling fiction.
I’m a lifelong fan of mysteries and thrillers, but always thought the challenge of writing one beyond me. Imagine my surprise when I tried it and discovered that my talents actually work better for writing mysteries than traditional historical story arcs. Mystery allows me to set the multi-faceted gems of history within a more puzzling and less straightforward framework, and I love the challenge that presents.
It also lets me kill my imaginary friends. What’s better than that?
KW: Your dual protagonists of CLAWS OF THE CAT are Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit, and Hiro, a master ninja with a shady past. I can tell that you had a lot of fun writing about their interdependent relationship! Did you base them on anyone from history or literature?
SS: Yes, but not intentionally!
Hiro is a fictitious cousin of famous historical ninja Hattori Hanzo (aka “Devil Hanzo”) who ruled the Iga Ryu during the time in which I set the Shinobi series. Hattori Hanzo was such a famous shinobi, and so important to ninja history, that I wanted to include him in the books. It didn’t work historically to make him the sleuth, however, so I invented a fictitious (and somewhat rebellious) cousin: Hattori Hiro.
I had a similar issue with Hiro’s sidekick, the Portuguese Jesuit, Father Mateo. The Jesuits documented their missionary efforts in detail, and I wanted to respect the history in my Shinobi novels. As a result, I felt it best to create a fictitious priest who could act in accordance with history without being bound by calendar details.
Then, while doing some secondary detail research for the later drafts of CLAWS OF THE CAT, I discovered a Jesuit record that mentioned an unnamed priest who arrived in Kyoto in autumn of 1563 – precisely the time my fictitious Father Mateo arrived in Japan. That Jesuit apparently reported to Father Gaspar Vilela, then the senior Jesuit in Kyoto, and then “disappeared” to conduct missionary activities in Japan.
My Jesuit, Father Mateo, lives and works separately from the other Jesuits (for reasons I explain in detail in the book), and if he had been real, the historical record about him would have read in precisely this way.
I set out to create an entirely fictitious priest, but it seems there’s an analog in the history after all. I found that pretty cool.
And no, I haven’t researched the phantom Father any farther—in the end, I like keeping Father Mateo fictitious, despite his hint of verisimilitude.
KW: In my book DOOMED QUEENS, I enumerated the various ways nobility can be ritually dispatched from life: guillotine, poison, burning, and beyond. In CLAWS OF THE CAT, you mention seppuku, or ritual suicide by disembowelment. As fascinated as I am with the macabre, seppuku is something that, for me as a Westerner, it’s very difficult to contemplate—the suicide is performed in a very ceremonial, artistic way. To my mind, it epitomizes how very foreign the Japanese culture can appear to outsiders, and reiterates the “East versus West” theme you have running through your novel. Can you offer other examples from your novel, good or bad, of cultural phenomenon we would never, ever find in American society? Are there any you wish we’d adopt as a culture?
SS: Great question!
I, too, find the seppuku ritual strangely fascinating. An early word for the process translates as “self-determination” – the idea that sometimes a person may find more honor in ending his life than continuing it.
Another strange dichotomy I explore in this novel (and will return to in others) is that involving the “proper” roles of women in medieval Japan. On the one hand, a wife was expected to serve her husband and care for his household, but women in the “floating world” [KW note: also known as ukiyo] of the entertainment district were permitted near-complete independence. Some women of the samurai class even shed their wifely roles and trained as warriors—such women were more rare than female artisans, but did exist, and I feature one in the book.
A positive aspect of Japanese culture involves the warrior’s attitude toward honor and family. To samurai, honor and family transcend all other values; they are the cornerstones upon which a samurai—male or female—builds a life. In modern times, we often bypass character in favor of wealth or “success.” I’m drawn to the samurai dedication to living an honorable life, though I’m not as keen on the samurai penalties for failure.
KW: Besides being a novelist, you’re also an attorney specializing in intellectual property and publishing law—your Twitter feed is a marvel of generous and helpful legal advice. How does your professional background as a lawyer feed into your creative work as a writer? Is it helpful to writing mysteries?
SS: First, thank you! I love authors and writing, and I love being able to use Twitter, and the #PubLaw hashtag, to help spread information that hopefully helps authors protect themselves and their work.
Some would probably tell you lawyers know all about lies from personal experience. That’s not entirely wrong. Unless, of course, I’m lying … because I’m a lawyer!
More seriously, I think the complexities of document drafting probably help me juggle the mystery plots and subplots better. The biggest benefit, though, is probably all of the time spent typing. I type over 100 words per minute, which really helps with hitting the daily goal in a shorter time!
KW: Can you tell us a little about your creative process for your writing? Are you a “pantser” or a “plotter”? Do you have any special tools, writing programs, or rituals?
SS: I’m a plantser! I write two outlines for every book, one of which details the “onstage” action and the other tracks where my characters actually were when they weren’t onstage. Characters in a mystery novel rarely tell the truth when a lie will do, so I need to track their movements to be sure I really know what’s going on behind the scenes.
Once I start writing, however, the outline becomes a guideline and the characters do more or less whatever they please.
As far as the writing itself, I always write first drafts on an Alphasmart Neo, a fabulous little device with a four-line display and no Internet connection. It keeps me moving forward until “The End” – at which point I transfer the file to my laptop and start editing!
KW: Now that you’re officially published, what advice would you give to writers starting on the path? What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
SS: The best advice I can give is “whatever you do, keep writing.” It took me nine years and 5 complete (and polished) manuscripts—500,000 words—to find an agent and get a publishing deal.
I’d like to say I wish I’d known sooner that I was writing in the wrong genre—historical fiction vs. historical mystery—but the reality is that I needed to write those unpublished novels. I couldn’t have done the mysteries justice until I had put in the hours and honed my skills.
KW: Finally, what are you planning for your next novel? Will it be also set in Japan with Father Mateo and Hiro? Or something completely different?
SS: The second Shinobi Mystery, Blade of the Samurai, is scheduled for publication by Minotaur Books in July 2014, and the third installment, Flask of the Drunken Master is currently due for publication in 2015.
Beyond that, it depends on readers. I’m hoping that people like Hiro and Father Mateo enough to allow me many more happy years in their company.
Thank you so much for inviting me to share your space and to talk a little more about writing and CLAWS OF THE CAT! I truly appreciate the opportunity!
KW: My absolute pleasure, Susan! To learn more about Susan’s writing, publishing law, and CLAWS OF THE CAT, visit her website here.
Over the weekend book lovers were stunned to learn that J.K. Rowling—yes, the J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame—had published a crime novel under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. She was outed on Twitter by an anonymous tweet stating THE CUCKOO’S CALLING was, in face, authored by Rowling; the tweet was in response to someone musing that THE CUCKOO’S CALLING seemed too accomplished to have been written by a debut author. When approached, Rowling immediately ‘fessed up to her deception: “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”
To Rowling’s credit, THE CUCKOO’S CALLING has received overwhelmingly positive reviews—far more than THE CASUAL VACANCY, Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter novel, did. Both Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal granted THE CUCKOO’S CALLING coveted starred reviews; PW called it “a stellar debut.” So, it’s a good book. Yet, despite this, THE CUCKOO’S CALLING was turned down by publishers before being acquired by Little, Brown, Rowling’s publisher for THE CASUAL VACANCY.
More stunning news: Since its April 2013 publication, Neilsen Bookscan reports THE CUCKOO’S CALLING has sold only 459 copies in the United Kingdom. [ETA: And only 500 copies in the United States, according to Time magazine.]
Repeat after me: 459 copies.
To place into context, most self-published authors sell on average less than 250 books—about 200 copies less than Rowling’s anonymous debut in the UK.
I’m bemused and horrified by this story in so many ways. First, I’m certain the anonymous tweet was generated by someone with a vested interest in Rowling’s career. Since being outed, THE CUCKOO’S CALLING has assuredly sold far more than 459 copies in the UK. Within 24 hours it had raced up to #1 on Amazon’s bestseller list; I presume the New York Times Book Review will follow suit. Secondly, it brings to mind how incredibly capricious publishing a book can be: if an anonymous book by J.K. Rowling can sell less than 500 copies in three months, despite being brought out into the world by a major publisher and receiving glowing reviews, is there hope for any of us? Or is it only a matter of authors having their turn on the wheel of fortune? Sometimes you get lucky; other times, Barnes and Noble doesn’t approve your co-op advertising.
This story of Rowling’s hidden-in-plain-sight new novel brings to mind a post I wrote in 2007 about the violin virtuoso Joshua Bell’s experience of busking in the DC Metro. Since it seems relevant, I’m reposting it below. Enjoy!
A friend forwarded me this article today from the Washington Post about Joshua Bell, one of the most brilliant violinists of our time. As an experiment — or PR stunt, you decide — Bell was asked to perform as a busker for 45 minutes during rush hour in L’Enfant Plaza, a major Washington DC Metro station.
The concept: To see if genius would be recognized if hidden in plain sight.
The disguise: None. Unless you count Bell wearing street clothes instead of concert formal a subterfuge.
The instrument: Bell’s beloved Gibson ex Huberman, which was crafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari. This violin is considered one of the greatest stringed instruments created by perhaps the greatest luthier who ever lived.
I’m sure you could guess what happened. Of the more than one thousand people who passed Bell as he performed, only several stopped to listen. And only one person recognized him. For his efforts, Bell received a measly $32.17 in hand outs — about $40 an hour.
So why didn’t anyone pay attention to Bell’s free concert? It wasn’t the Metro’s accoustics — Bell said they were particularly resonant. Nor was he slouching — he thought that he played particularly well on some especially difficult pieces, such as Bach’s Chaconne.
One theory that comes to my mind is that the number of people who stopped were in proportion to classical music lovers everywhere. Or that many of the commuters were plugged into their iPods, unable to hear anything outside of their chosen aural environment. More likely, it was that they were so used to quickly classifying (excuse the pun!) whatever stimuli reaches their senses down to its most basic info-byte to save time: I see a violinist, is he asking me for money? Will he slow me down? Am I running late? Will I get to work on time? This is a common survival mechanism for city dwellers (and I’m guilty of it myself). There’s just so much going on around you at all times that you filter things. Otherwise, you’d just be overwhelmed with Too Much Information and become strained and drained from the effort of processing it all.
Still, it’s so sad to consider that so many people missed such an experience of beauty. And it was there, right in front of them for the taking.
I was thinking about this strange-but-true story this afternoon, as my toddler daughter searched for easter eggs that we had hidden for her to find. Tom and I were careful to hide them in easily accessible places, so Thea would find them without becoming frustrated. Thea was so persistant as she hunted. Yet every so often, an egg would elude her, even though it was right there before her eyes. It was almost too obvious, too easy, even for a two year old with a limited attention span.
These sort of events, great and small, makes me wonder how often we stumble across gifts of beauty and inspiration, hidden in plain sight. It makes me wonder how many I’ve missed along the way, because I was too busy or too preoccupied with the soundtrack of my thoughts.
Sometimes all we can hope for are eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to recognize.
As I mentioned last week, I recently gave a visual presentation about how book covers are used to market historical fiction at the Historical Novel Society Conference. This presentation was part of a panel I moderated entitled “Is ‘Genre’ a Dirty Word? Literary versus Commercial Historical Fiction.” My co-panelists were Mary Sharratt, Michelle Cameron, Mitchell James Kaplan, and Christy English. I’m pleased to report that my presentation was so well-received that some urged me to post it online.
So here it is, in slideshow format. Enjoy!
However, one wonders: where did all those missing heads go? One answer: to grace the covers of literary historical novels. The examples shown here are Hilary Mantel’s BRING UP THE BODIES and Sarah Dunant’s SACRED HEARTS. Both covers present historical paintings to evoke their eras, unlike marquee historicals that tend to use modern photography or illustrations. The extreme close up and sans serif font upon Mantel’s novel sends the reader the not-so-subliminal message that they’re in for an unconventional, incisive look at Tudor history—we’re not in Philippa Gregory territory anymore. Though the Dunant cover is more traditional in its typographic treatment, it’s interesting that both covers use a blackletter gothic font for their “a novel” text lines.
Read part one of my Historical Novel Society Conference recap here.
Despite averaging 4.5 hours of sleep over the past two nights, I was awake by 6:30 the following morning. After all, Saturday was the “big” day of HNS: panels, evening banquet, costume parade, and much more.
After breakfast, I attended Teralyn Pilgrim’s wonderful panel on depicting religion in historical fiction—I thought she did an amazing job moderating. I especially liked her observations on how a character’s religious beliefs can enrich a novel. Next up was the panel I moderated with Christy English, Mary Sharratt, Mitchell James Kaplan, and Michelle Cameron. It was entitled “Is ‘Genre’ a Dirty Word? Literary versus Commercial Historical Fiction.”
I did my best as moderator to encourage a lively back-and-forth with the audience. I think it worked: many expressed very strong opinions about what entails literary fiction (character- or description-driven, lush language, doesn’t sell well, boring, pretentious) versus commercial historical fiction (plot-driven, life without the boring parts, all-queens-all-the-time, salacious romances, even—gasp!—trashy). However, one of the points of our panel was to explore the many exceptions to these preconceptions: there are character-driven commercial novels just as much as there are plot-driven and salacious literary novels. The sub-genres of historical romances—Regency, Victorian steampunk, “bodice-rippers”—are ever-expanding in sales and influence; romance novels generated approximately three times as much money sales-wise as literary novels for publishing houses in 2012. Yet so-called “literary historicals”, such as Sarah Gruen’s WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and Hilary Mantel’s BRING UP THE BODIES, grace bestseller lists and best-of lists, churning millions of dollars into the industry. In other words, there’s room for all at the table.
The bottom line: what makes a historical novel literary or commercial often comes down to plain marketing, or how the publisher thinks the book will best sell. For example, the cover of Mitchell James Kaplan’s award-winning BY FIRE, BY WATER featured a beautiful painting of Isabella of Castille, despite the novel’s male protagonist. This was to make the book more appealing to female readers, who buy upward of 70% of fiction. Finally, I ended the panel with a visual presentation on the semiotics of historical book covers, which I’ll share here next week—everything from Philippa Gregory to Sarah Waters.*
I was so relieved our panel went well that the rest of the day seemed anticlimactic, though no less wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed C. W. Gortner‘s keynote speech during lunch, which reminded authors to persevere and love what we do. In the afternoon, my hardest decision was which panel to attend. I often ended up compromising by sitting in on the first half of one, then the second half of another. I volunteered an hour critiquing manuscripts at the Blue Pencil Cafe before heading over to the book signing, where I scored autographed novels from Mary Sharratt, Erika Mailman, and Stephanie Lehmann. I also autographed a few DOOMED QUEENS myself.
And then it was finally time for the evening banquet and costume parade. Teralyn Pilgrim and I helped each other with our costumes—she had a tricky Vestal Virgin headdress, and I had tricky Victorian tea gown fastenings. Here we are, about to leave for the banquet.
And then we were off to the banquet! Here’s author Stephanie Lehmann (ASTOR PLACE VINTAGE) dressed in appropriately vintage clothing, Mary Sharratt, and author-queen Margaret George adorned for the Titanic.
The very glamorous Leslie Carroll (CONFESSIONS OF MARIE ANTOINETTE, ROYAL ROMANCES) in Versace. She served as one of the judges for the costume parade.
Stephanie Renee Dos Santos as Frida Kahlo, sporting cigarillo and attitude. (“What do my friends say about me?” Long pause. “Friends? I don’t have friends.”) She deservedly won for best depiction of a historical personage.
Finally, Teralyn brought down the house as a deep-in-denial pregnant Vestal Virgin. (“How dare you say I’m with child! I just have to lose some weight.”) She won for most historically accurate costume.
As for myself, I carried a goblet of faux absinthe—green food coloring mixed with water and milk—and swooned about in my best Pre-Raphaelite/Jane Morris manner in my hand-sewn Aesthetic Reform tea gown. Fun! (Photograph courtesy of Christopher Cevasco.)
The evening ended with a lively under-the-full-moon cocktail party at Deann Smith’s hotel suite, which featured an expansive outdoor terrace overlooking the sea and sky. As I chatted and celebrated with my fellow authors, I swore to myself I’d remember how happy I was at that moment, and that I’d return to the next Historical Novel Society conference come what may.