It's over ten years since the publication of the first book Across the Nightingale Floor (2002). Since then the Tales of the Otori have been world wide best sellers appealing to millions of readers in over 36 countries.
I had been interested in Japan for years, ever since I was a child really, but I only went there for the first time in 1993. It was while I was there that an idea suggested itself to me - to try to write a fantasy set not in an Anglo-Celtic world but one based on medieval Japan. I resisted it – it seemed misplaced and arrogant to write about a culture that was not my own and I did not think I would ever have the confidence or the competence to attempt such a thing. But almost immediately the main characters appeared inside my head and began to demand that I discover their story. I could even hear strongly the tone of voice of the narrator, Takeo. I did not reject the idea completely but let it simmer while I began to learn Japanese and to read and research everything I could get my hands on about the history and culture of Japan. I visited Japan as often as I could.
Six years later in 1999 I received a grant from Asialink – the Australian organization that funds artists to live and work in Asian countries – to spend three months in Japan expressly to write this novel. I was encouraged by the faith they showed in my endeavour, even though I was still not at all sure that I could achieve anything of any worth. I began writing Across the Nightingale Floor in October in the Akiyoshidai International Arts Village in Yamaguchi Prefecture. The manuscript was ready to send to my agent in August 2001, by which time I had already written a first draft of the next two books, Grass For His Pillow and Brilliance of the Moon.
The final book in the series, the prequel, Heaven’s Net is Wide, was published in 2007, eight years since I started writing, fourteen years since I started researching. Since the early success of Across the Nightingale Floor I’ve been able to let go the other forms of writing I used to do. It coincided with a move from the city to a small coastal town, as well as a decision to withdraw from all other literary activities until the series was finished.
I’ve read some writers who say they enjoy ‘having written’ but they don’t actually like writing. For me it’s exactly the other way round: writing is the pure joy, I don’t much like anything else about the process! I don’t like talking about my work, being interviewed or going to conferences or festivals. The months when I sit in isolation and silence writing a first draft are incomparable. It is like being under a spell. Slowly the plot knits itself together, the characters emerge, act and react, the landscape forms, the seasons turn. I write the first draft by hand in big notebooks, using only the right hand side of the page, working for four hours or so each day, usually in the mornings, and walking for miles at other times to let the next scenes float to the surface of consciousness. I reread and rewrite constantly, making corrections and additions on the left hand page, indicating where these are to be inserted in red ink.
I use a large sketch book to draw maps, plans of towns and houses, calendars with phases of the moon, time charts and plot outlines. I look at art books, illustrated histories and my own collection of photos.
I think about the characters and the plot constantly – the time away from actual writing is important to let each stage evolve but the process goes on day and night. I don’t really want to do anything else. I resent interruptions. It’s like being possessed until the story is told. When the story is finally down I have it typed onto the computer. I used to do all my own typing but the sequel and the prequel were too long. My son, Matt, who has been the first reader on all the books, did it for me. When they were typed and printed I went through them again and added many corrections and rewritings which he then put in for me.
I like this point – the story is in tangible form. I no longer worry about the house burning down and losing the manuscripts. It is on disc, saved and copied on my computer and on Matt’s. But now I have to send it out into the world. It is no longer only mine. Other people will read it. What will they think of it? Will the spell that was so strong for me work on them too? I miss the days when I was alone with my characters and no one else knew them except me.
I’ve written five books in the Tales of the Otori series. It started as a trilogy (Across the Nightingale Floor, Grass for his Pillow and Brilliance of the Moon) but I realised I had more to say about the characters and have written one book (Heaven’s Net is Wide) that ends where Across the Nightingale Floor begins...
A land of incomparable beauty torn by civil war. An ancient tradition undermined by spies and assassins. A society of rigid castes and codes subverted by love. Takeo is raised among the Hidden, whose beliefs forbid them to kill. When his family fall victim to religious persecution at the hands of Lord Iida of the Dairyo clan, he is rescued and adopted by the warrior, Shigeru, of the Otori clan...
A beautiful, haunting evocation of a time and place just beyond the reach of an outside world, the third instalment of the Tales of the Otori transports us once again to a medieval Japan of Hearn's imagination, a land of formal ritual and codes, harsh beauty and deceptive appearance...