Today I have a marvelous interview with one of my favorite people and historical mystery writers, Susan Spann! I reviewed her fourth Shinobi mystery of feudal Japan last week, The Ninja’s Daughter. You can check that out here. Then, join us for jelly and sake as we talk about her work, her travels to Japan, and what’s upcoming in this marvelous series.
Hi Susan!! Welcome back to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I always love when you have a new book and drop by to see me (or when you don’t have a book out and drop by to see me – haha!). You are always interesting in so many ways. I was very excited for your fourth book, THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER and you didn’t disappoint. Of course, this summer you aren’t just returning from Japan like last summer, but you’re just as busy. What has your book release and summertime had you up to?
Susan: Hi Erin! Thank you so much for inviting me back – I love your blog and appreciate the chance to chat with you! This summer, I’m putting the finishing touches on next year’s Hiro Hattori novel, Betrayal at Iga, preparing the outlines for the next few in the series, and planning a research trip to Japan this autumn—when I’ll also be teaching two workshops at the 9th annual Japan Writers’ Conference.
Erin: You have a busy summer! It’s all gone so quickly and now I love seeing all four Spann titles on my bookshelf. I eagerly await more to come…and I love road trips. Come in and have seat. I’ve tried to prepare your favorite sake, I’m still a novice, so I hope you like it. And Hakuto peach jelly…I thought it was worth a try because I love peaches in the summer! I’ll serve it up and we’ll chat!
Caption: Hakuto Peach Jelly (Wiki)
Susan: Japanese jellies are fantastic, and sake is always welcome! Such wonderful treats!
Erin: Though all your mysteries can be read as stand alone novels, how does it feel to see the progression of Father Mateo and Hiro as well as the fourth of the mysteries publishes?
Susan: I love spending time with Hiro and Father Mateo, and I enjoy it even more with each new novel. I try to write each mystery as a stand-alone book, so readers can enter the series at any point without feeling lost, but I definitely consider the ongoing story of Hiro and Father Mateo’s friendship an important part of the series, and I try to deepen that relationship with every new installment. I believe that some of the richest relationships we form are those we develop with people who are different from ourselves, and Hiro and Father Mateo give me the chance to explore that concept in my fiction.
Erin: What do you think each has learned over this time that has changed them for the better?
Susan: Medieval Japanese culture was surprisingly tolerant when it comes to religion and personal views—as long as people showed equal respect for the views of others. However, Hiro has had to learn a deeper level of tolerance when it comes to Father Mateo, and the priest has been good for smoothing some of Hiro’s rougher edges. In return, Father Mateo has learned to appreciate the Japanese sense of honor (which often conflicts with his Western sensibilities) and to balance his usually blunt approach with a greater sense of cultural politeness.
Erin: I know you do a lot of research into feudal Japan for your books, through reading, studying, and travel. In this newest book you had much surrounding the political atmosphere of the time. What did you learn or study for The Ninja’s Daughter? Why is it important?
Susan: I typically read 3-5 new research books for every novel, and consult a lot of historical sources and experts to ensure I have the details right. I set my novels during the 1560s precisely because of the turbulent political climate (Japan was on the brink of a war that ultimately led to its unification by Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu at the start of the 17th century). War and political tension form an excellent backdrop for mystery, because of the increased dangers my protagonists have to face.
The main research for The Ninja’s Daughter actually involved Nōtheater, the traditional form of Japanese drama that features so heavily in the book. As usual, 99% of the research doesn’t make it onto the page—pacing and plot come first, as always—but I wanted the reader to feel immersed in the beautiful and often mysterious world of traditional Japanese theater.
For me, accurate details transform a novel from an interesting story into a living, breathing world for the reader to enjoy. I love novels that transport me to another time and place, and I try to do the same in my own books!
Erin: I always like how you showcase a different part of Japanese culture and history in each book as well, such as in this one you focus on the Kyoto theater guilds. I know socially, it was looked upon as shameful. Can you talk more about this? Why you chose it as backdrop for your mystery, the history of it, and how someone might find more information on it if they are interested?
Susan: Medieval Japanese society rested on a four-tiered system of social classes, with samurai (nobles) at the top, followed by farmers (this surprises many people, but samurai considered the farmers more important because they grew the rice that formed the foundation of Japan’s monetary system), artisans, and merchants. Merchants sat at the bottom, despite their wealth, because they did not produce anything on their own, but merely traded in the fruits of others’ labors.
Beneath and outside these social classes were several other groups of people—most of whom were outcastes and all of whom were considered less valuable than those who lived within the standard structure. While not entirely untouchable, actors (and other entertainers) were considered “outsiders” and often referred to by names I don’t actually use in my novels because of their negative social charge. That made this mystery fun to write, because the issues of class and society added another layer of meaning to the story.
Noh Theatre is a fascinating topic. You can find a number of performances on YouTube, and readers who want to learn even more may want to check out Zeami’s original medieval treatise, The Spirit of Noh (https://www.amazon.com/Spirit-Noh-Translation-Treatise-Fushikaden/dp/1590309944) which is one of the founding documents on which the discipline rests, even today.
Erin: Japan has rich and deep history. What are some of the favorite things you’ve come across in your visits to Japan? Favorite places and things?
Susan: How much time do I have? I can go on, and on, and on…
One of my favorite places in Japan is Fushimi Inari Taisha (Shrine), in Fushimi, just south of Kyoto. I used it as a setting in The Ninja’s Daughter because Nō plays were often performed there during the 16th century. The stage in the photo below did not exist at that time (they used a temporary stage) but the setup of the stage itself would have been similar even in that era.
Fushimi Inari is located on Mt. Inari, and is sacred to Inari Ōkami, patron of agriculture, rice, swordsmiths, merchants, fertility, foxes and many other things (Inari gets around); the shrine is famous for its thousands of bright red torii, Shintō gates that mark the entrance to a sacred space. The gates line the mountain’s slopes all the way to the top:
Another of my favorite locations in Japan is Itsukushima Shrine, which sits on the island of Miyajima, across the strait from Hiroshima. The Great Torii at the entrance to Itsukushima is one of Japan’s best-known iconic symbols, and it even survived the bombing of Hiroshima during World War II:
Miyajima is also home to thousands of sacred deer (sika) which have no fear of humans, as this photograph of my son demonstrates:
Itsukushima Shrine is unusual, because the shrine is built below the high tide line, on stilts, and when the tide comes in the shrine’s buildings appear to float on the water:
It’s one of the most serene and beautiful places in Japan, and I can’t wait to return.
Erin: At this point, I am sure that Mateo and Hiro are very real to you as they are to those of us who have followed the series. What other characters speak to you now as the series progresses? What new characters might we look forward to in future books?
Susan: Next year’s Betrayal at Iga takes Hiro and Father Mateo back to Hiro’s ancestral home in the mountainous village of Iga, home of his ninja clan, the Igaryu. In 1565, the Igaryu was led by the infamous Hattori Hanzo (later, known as “Devil Hanzo”), one of Japan’s most famous historical ninja. I’ve been looking forward to bringing him into the series, and hopefully my portrayal does him justice.
Betrayal at Iga also gives readers the chance to meet the women who played an important role in Hiro’s life: his mother, his grandmother, and the woman who left the scars on Hiro’s shoulder and inner thigh.
Erin: Speaking of future books, and without giving too much away, what are your plans for the series? I’m excited to find out what we might be looking forward to…
Susan: At the end of The Ninja’s Daughter, Hiro and Father Mateo head into the mountains east of Kyoto to visit Hiro’s ninja clan. As expected, things don’t go entirely smoothly in Iga, and the end of book 5 will find them once again on the road, with a mission to complete. Each of the next five books in the series will take them to a new location, giving me (and readers) a chance to explore some fun new settings before the series returns to Kyoto.
Erin: You’re busy being active, practicing law, and raising your seahorses and marine life, not to mention you have a family you must assist. Plus you teach writers at various retreats and seminars around the country. You’re a woman I highly admire. How do you become so disciplined to do it all?
Susan: I’m a big believer in lists and schedules. Normally, I practice law in the mornings and write in the afternoons, except on Tuesdays, when I mentor a local high school student in the morning (and, as usual, write in the afternoon). Weekend days are writing days, too.
It helps that I have a wonderful husband who became a stay-home dad when our son was eight. Now that our son is a senior in college, my husband works mostly as “mission control,” taking care of the house and the seahorses when I’m out of town. He’s trained as an artist, and used to work in the video game industry, so he understands and supports my writing completely. I’m very blessed to have him in my life.
Erin: I think I ask you something similar every time, but will you have any settings in an aquarium or featuring marine life? I can only picture you taking them there at some point after viewing your daily home aquarium updates. Considering? (hint hint)
Susan: The closest I’ve been able to get so far is fugu (pufferfish) poisoning, which will play a role in a future book. Sadly, the fish doesn’t make it. (Is that a spoiler?) I do love my seahorses and my reef, and would love to find some way to include that passion in my writing. Don’t give up hope—I might find a way to make it happen!
Erin: Do you have plans to write additional books beyond the Shinobi mystery series? If you could, what or who would you write about?
Susan: I actually do have a new project in the works, which my agent and I are extremely excited about. I can’t say anything more than that quite yet, but I can tell you that this autumn’s research trip to Japan is not only for the next few books in the Shinobi series. I’m researching another project there as well.
Erin: What else do you have planned for this year that excites you? I know you will be heading to Japan once again, and this time, to teach!
Susan: Yes! I’m thrilled to be presenting two workshops at the 9th annual Japan Writers’ Conference (http://www.japanwritersconference.org) in Tokushima on October 28 & 29. After that, I’m staying in Japan for another two weeks’ worth of research—at the height of foliage season!
Before I head to Japan, I’m teaching at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold Conference September 9-11, and also attending and speaking on the Historical Mystery panel at Bouchercon (the World Mystery Convention) in New Orleans, September 15-18. It’s going to be an exciting autumn!
Erin: Thank you so much, Susan, for stopping by for sake, jello, and book talk! I look forward more books from your in the future and our continued friendship. I can’t wait to hear all about your fall trip!
Susan: Thank you so, so much for inviting me, Erin! It’s always wonderful to talk with you, and I look forward to sharing photos from my trip online, both while I’m there and after I return!
The Ninja’s Daughter: A Hiro Hattori Novel by Susan Spann
Publication Date: August 2, 2016
Seventh Street Books
eBook & Paperback; 230 Pages
Series: Hiro Hattori Novels/Shinobi Mysteries
Genre: Historical Mystery
Autumn, 1565: When an actor’s daughter is murdered on the banks of Kyoto’s Kamo River, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo are the victim’s only hope for justice.
As political tensions rise in the wake of the shogun’s recent death, and rival warlords threaten war, the Kyoto police forbid an investigation of the killing, to keep the peace–but Hiro has a personal connection to the girl, and must avenge her. The secret investigation leads Hiro and Father Mateo deep into the exclusive world of Kyoto’s theater guilds, where they quickly learn that nothing, and no one, is as it seems. With only a mysterious golden coin to guide them, the investigators uncover a forbidden love affair, a missing mask, and a dangerous link to corruption within the Kyoto police department that leaves Hiro and Father Mateo running for their lives.
“In The Ninja’s Daughter, Susan Spann’s poetic voice brilliantly captures the societal disparities, political intrigues, and martial conflicts of sixteenth-century Japan through the persevering efforts of ninja detective Hiro Hattori to solve a murder authorities consider of no consequence.” -JEFFREY SIGER, International Bestselling Author
About the Author
Susan Spann is the author of three previous novels in the Shinobi Mystery series: Claws of the Cat, Blade of the Samurai, and Flask of the Drunken Master.
She has a degree in Asian Studies and a lifelong love of Japanese history and culture. When not writing, she works as a transactional attorney focusing on publishing and business law, and raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.
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