to The Qwillery.
, the 3rd Fated Blades novel, is published today by Roc. Please join The Qwillery in wishing Steve a Happy Publication Day!
: Welcome back to The Qwillery. Tell us something about Disciple of the Wind
, the 3rd Fated Blades novel, that is not in the book description.Steve
: This is the darkest of the books, but also the one that takes you through the bleakest hours and into the light of dawn. Even as I was writing it, I wasn’t sure who was going to survive this one. One death in particular took me completely by surprise. (Of course I won’t tell you whose.)
I also think it’s the best book of the three. The stakes are highest, the characters are at their most resourceful, and the moral problems are the sharpest. At this point the readers and I know the world and the culture really well, which allows me the freedom to lead us deeper into it.TQ
: You teach philosophy and ethics. In your opinion, should novels be simply entertaining or should they make us think too?Steve
: I don’t think every novel has to be thought provoking, but all of the best ones are. As for myself, I’m out to write the thoughtful thriller. I call my overall project “philosofiction” because I think the best fiction transcends mere entertainment and the best philosophy transcends mere scholarship. Philosophy is bigger than that. It’s for everyone, every day, and fiction can make it accessible. A good story can take you deep into a thought experiment and leave you there for a while. You can steep in it, mull it over, think about it long after you’ve put the book down.
That makes fiction a powerful vehicle for doing the real work of philosophy. I can ask you a bunch of abstract moral questions, or I can make those questions concrete by confronting a protagonist with an agonizing choice. Fiction takes it out of the abstract and makes it visceral.TQ
: How does your experience in philosophy and ethics affect (or not) character development in your novels?Steve
: The books are constructed around moral problems. Given those problems, the characters have to develop in response. So, for example, Daughter of the Sword
is really a book about duty. The most important characters, Mariko and Daigoro, are a police detective and a fledgling samurai. Their occupations are quintessentially defined by duty. That’s true of the other POV characters too: two more samurai, an army officer, and a yakuza enforcer. All of these characters are defined by duty, and they’re at their best when I confront them with conflicting duties (family vs. profession, the letter of the law vs. its spirit, etc.).
The second book, Year of the Demon
, is about sacrifice. Would you kill one family member to spare the rest? Should a cop suspend the constitution to make an important arrest? Should a daughter abandon her entire family in order to save it? There again, the principal characters transform in response to the moral quandaries I’ve mire them in.
In Disciple of the Wind
, what’s at issue is the uncrossable line. Mariko might be able to stop a terrorist, but only if she betrays her badge. Daigoro can fight dishonor with dishonor, or he can hold firm to bushidō and lose everything. The same moral problems about duty arise, but this time with sharper teeth. The opportunities for sacrifice reappear, but this time at a greater cost.TQ
: Does your experience in philosophy also affect your world-building?Steve
: Yes, but in a more subtle way. I’ve set these books in Japan because Japan is fascinating to me, and I specialized in Japanese philosophy for the same reason. Some of the most fascinating aspects of the culture are summed up in aesthetic principles like mono no aware
(the sad beauty to be found in fragility and mortality) and wabi sabi
(the austere beauty to be found in the imperfect and the impermanent). Both of those concepts are far more complex than the rude translations I’ve just offered, but the novels provide the opportunity to express them in greater depth. They inform the world-building through and through, even though I never mention mono no aware
or wabi sabi
anywhere in the books. I think they’re a big part of how I create a world that’s distinctly Japanese.TQ
: Would you say that the Fated Blades series is character or plot driven? Explain.Steve
: The series is plot driven but the plots are character driven. By that I mean the story arcs couldn’t have developed the same way with any other characters. It matters that Mariko is an alien in her own land, and that she’s a woman in a male-dominated profession, and that she’s a skeptic, and that her moral compass leads her to be headstrong. If any of those things were to change, her entire storyline would change.
Similarly, it matters that Daigoro isn’t the swordsman he wants to be, isn’t the samurai he wants to be, isn’t the man he wants to be. I can’t tell his story if he’s not stuck in his father’s shadow. In Streaming Dawn
, Kaida lives in a similar shadow: she’s a phenomenal talent but she’s occluded by her sensei’s legacy. She’s always deriding herself, never as strong or as quick as she feels she needs to be. If Daigoro and Kaida were capable of seeing their own strengths, their stories would have veered off in entirely new directions.TQ
: How much of your martial arts training shows up in your novels?Steve
: All and none. (Sorry to keep giving you Yoda answers!) There’s a delicate balance to strike. The fights aren’t just there for the action; they’re part of the world-building, a way of understanding this particular aspect of the world through this particular character. They have to feel real, and sometimes that means naming a technique or a weapon or a stance—that is, using the terms that character would use. But lean too far in that direction and you end up drowning readers in jargon.
The same is true of the training sequences. In these books martial practice is an essential part of character development. Sometimes that means naming techniques and styles and so on—but again, not too much. Mariko, Daigoro, and Kaida approach swordsmanship completely differently. Mariko is new to the art, Daigoro was born into it, and Kaida’s skills have become so sublime that she’s almost contemptuous of it. Mariko gets more jargon, the other two very little, because Mariko is closest to the reader’s perspective. The words are strange to her too.
That’s what I mean by all and none. Martial art pervades these books, but the purpose is to give insight into the world and the characters. (And yes, also to entertain. I like a kick-ass fight scene as much as the next guy.) I can talk martial trivia and martial philosophy all day long, but I keep all of that out of the novels.TQ
: In a prior interview, I asked you “What is the most challenging thing about writing your female main character, Mariko Oshiro?” You wrote, in part, that “Everything about Mariko is hard.” Is she still difficult to write? How has she changed over the course of the 3 novels? How have you changed from writing her?Steve
: Wow. That’s a tough question. Yes, she’s still difficult, but either I’ve tamed her a bit or else she’s tamed me. The interviews and research I’ve conducted in these books seem to have seeped in deeper than I’d expected, because now when I consult my police resources for dialogue coaching, they tell me the dialogue already sounds like copspeak. I’ve also gotten better at asking them the right questions, and better at seeing which follow-up questions I need to ask. I think internalizing that mindset has helped me get to know Mariko in a much more intimate way.
It’s a little disconcerting, discovering that you suddenly know how to think like a cop. When everything went down in Ferguson last year, the first thing I did was call my cop buddy to ask him what isn’t
making the news. That’s a pretty weird response to that kind of tragedy. But one of the important relationships in Disciple of the Wind
is the uneasy partnership between law enforcement and the news media, so it’s been front and center in my mind for a while—including, it seems, my subconscious mind, because otherwise my thoughts wouldn’t have followed that strange path.TQ
: What’s uneasy about the relationship between the police and the news media in Japan? Is that relationship different there than in the US?Steve
: Yes, quite different. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department has a media liaison, and that person gets to tell reporters what to write. So, for example, yakuza groups in Japan refer to themselves ninkyō dantai (“chivalrous organizations”) but reporters are instructed by the police to refer to them as bōryokudan
(“violent crime organizations”). What’s bizarre to me is that the reporters actually do as they’re told. It’s understood as part of the quid pro quo. “You want us to give you something to write? Then write it the way we tell you to.”TQ
: Which question about Disciple of the Wind do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!Steve
: The most pressing question is probably, “Where’s Kaida?” She was a fan favorite of Year of the Demon
, and a favorite of mine too. Like Demon
, Disciple of the Wind
was originally three storylines: Mariko the cop, Daigoro the samurai, Kaida the pearl diver. But Disciple
came in overweight, and rather than cut a lot of good stuff from all three storylines, my editor and I made the hard decision to remove one of the characters entirely. Kaida was the natural choice, because her story was the most independent.
So now you can catch up with her in Streaming Dawn
. Extricating her from the novel turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because now I’ve been able to flesh out her story and her character in greater detail. We also get to know Daigoro’s father in that story, as well as his future nemesis, which is pretty cool.TQ
: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from Disciple of the Wind
: This book includes the longest sentence I’ve ever put in print, and I had a lot of fun writing it. The only background information you need to know is that Mariko is heading out for a covert assignment, she anticipates being searched, and the Cheetah and the Pikachu are both weapons of hers.
The order of events was eat; shower; change; find favorite purse for undercover work; find cigarette case used for undercover work; hide Pikachu in cigarette case; hide Cheetah in purse’s concealed pocket; toss cigarette case, cigarette lighter, tampons, gum, wallet, phone, keys, pepper spray, peppermints, compact, pack of tissues, second pack of tissues, little detective’s notebook, pen, lipstick, lip balm, hand towel, hand lotion, hand sanitizer, and boot knife in the purse, all in plain sight; and go downstairs.TQ
: What’s next?Steve
: My elevator pitch for the next project is “samurai cowboys versus space invaders.” It’s steampunk versus cyberpunk, with Neo-Bushido on one side and high-tech Arthurian legend on the other.TQ
: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.Steve
: Thank you so much! And many mahalos to your readers too.