Lian Hearn interviewed by Julia Eccleshare
When the deal on Across the Nightingale Floor was struck (in the early days of big-figure, high profile deals before we had got quite so used to them), Macmillan were coy about their mystery new signing. That it was a pseudonym was quickly established as was the implication that this brilliant and original series needed to be given a new author name so as not to get so great a work confused with her children’s stuff. As I have no head for either pomp or mystery, I always find this kind of thing tiresome: if the book is good, it doesn’t matter much what the reputation that has gone before is like. I humphed my way through the pre-publication wait on this but then, like many others, was bowled over by the book when it came and forgot and forgave.
But of course, all of this was in my head when I went off to meet Lian Hearn and was compounded, to some extent, by the strict interviewing instructions which said that she was happy to talk about her writing as Lian Hearn but would be ‘politely resistant to more personal lines of enquiry’.
My worst fears were being confirmed… Who was I interviewing and about what? A conversation just about the books – even though they are a rich seam to mine – would be limited. Despite so admiring her writing, I’d find Lian Hearn difficult, private and mysterious and maybe a bit precious about her hot author status.
As is so often the case, she wasn’t at all what I’d expected. Far from being superstarish or private or difficult, she is mild, humorous and above all, deeply thoughtful about her writing and how the Otori trilogy came to be. Of course, the interview was a bit strange as I was clearly interviewing Lian Hearn and not Gillian Rubinstein, another person altogether though one with the same biographical background, which rather limited the framework but gave us ample space to explore everything that lies behind The Tales of the Otori, including her own, simply expressed reason for the name change: ‘I don’t like the way publishing is going towards this cult of personality and celebrity.’
In other words, Lian Hearn wanted to protect her old writing self and her real self in case these books took off in the way that was predicted. She wanted the books and above all the story that she is trying to tell about a world which fascinates her to be counted while she remained shadowy.
It’s a decision that’s paid off handsomely: Tales of the Otori certainly has taken off giving her a whole new writing identity without troubling anything else. It’s not just the world wide sales (there are editions available, published variously on adult and children’s lists, in 32 countries) and the financial rewards that they bring which interest Hearn only a little because, as she says, ‘she’s too old for life-changing’ – but the huge satisfaction she’s had from writing the Tales. ‘I loved writing Across the Nightingale Floor more than anything I’d ever written before. But I’m always terribly unselfconfident. All the time I was writing them I was thinking, who on earth would want to read it? I started writing in 1999 and I’ve now finished five books. It’s only now that the scale of it all is starting to sink in.’ And yes, when pushed, she admits, to suffering terrible withdrawal symptoms. ‘It’s been part of my attitude of me against the world and I don’t want to lose that.’ But sink in it has and there’s no going back. Hearn says decisively, though with regret, that ‘Gillian Rubinstein has gone’.
As Gillian Rubinstein, Hearn had 12 plays and about 20 novels and picture books published in Australia from about 1981. She was successful and established; she was doing the very thing she had always wanted to do. ‘As a child, I always wanted to write and had always done so. I loved making up stories for my sister and my friends. We played elaborate games with complicated plots and characters. They were really like soap operas.’
Brought up in an English village, Hearn’s stories came readily out of her imagination and love of high drama. ‘I had terrible night fears – my imagination was just too tightly strung. Things I’d read about like plane crashes and bizarre deaths would frighten me very much.’ But there were real things in her life that made things difficult too. ‘My parents divorced when I was about 11. I was the only person in the village with divorced parents. I really hated some children’s authors who made childhood look so good.’ Her mother remarried and moved to Nigeria and Hearn began a new phase of her life moving from boarding school in England to holidays in Nigeria. ‘It was a fantastic experience. Going from England in the 1950s to Nigeria was mind-blowing. Discovering the African and Arabian cultures and meeting a lot of fascinating people. Above all, I was so impressed that most people spoke at least three languages.’
Hearn also read hugely as a child, including historical novels and books in French, Spanish and Latin, all of which she studied at school. ‘I had a stammer as a teenager and so was very silenced for a time. I still love reading in other languages and hearing how it sounds in your head.’
From these origins and after marriage, the birth of her three children and moving to Australia where she created the steady output as Gillian Rubinstein, Lian Hearn built herself up as a writer. After years of studying Japanese history, Hearn went on a visit to Japan with her daughter in 1993 and out of it came the idea for the book. ‘I wanted to write an historical fantasy from a new perspective.’ From the beginning, she knew she wasn’t intending it to be a children’s book. ‘I couldn’t be limited by being just for children because I wanted to write with the brakes off. Children’s books are under a lot of scrutiny in Australia just now and because of that it’s very hard to write unselfconsciously. That’s bad for a writer.’
Hearn is an experienced professional and she knew the scale of what she was planning was big. Almost from the beginning, she knew that what she wanted to say couldn’t be contained in one book. ‘I quickly realised that it would be three books and that I would write it all before any of it was published.’
Hearn used the epic structure of Kabuki with its terrible tragedies and larger than life emotions as a model and then set about writing about the themes that she finds most interesting and most important within Japanese culture. In particular she discovered that ‘there’s an increasing interest in Samurai and in the role of the sword which has always played an important part in Japanese culture. The traditions of the Samurai are very complex and very specific but there is an increasing number of young men in Japan wanting to become one. I wanted to explore those themes and look at why they might be attractive.’
The result is her creation of a world with its own mythology and traditions. As with anywhere else, these include loyalty and honour, which is exceptionally codified, as well as revenge and treachery. Hearn frames these within stories of love: not just love between men and women but love of all kinds. But none of it hides the most powerful theme of all which is the juxtaposition between the role of fate in an individual’s life and their role as individuals in taming, tempering or derailing it. The scene is set from the outset in Across the Nightingale Floor . The moving union between Takeo, a young boy taken from his life with the peaceful Hidden by the powerful Lord Otori Shigeru who leads him to his destiny, and the beautiful young heiress Kaede who must find a way of controlling her own life in a world of men is the arch expression of this but all the characters of the trilogy are governed and guided by the same forces. And it matters because for all, survival is uncertain and death and destruction lie just a hair’s breadth away.
The plotting on such a scale in terms of time, place and characters was clearly complicated. Hearn writes everything in longhand, working out the fine details of the plot on walks she takes between writing time. As she writes, she is surrounded by huge pieces of paper on which she maps out the plot as it develops. She doesn’t always know exactly where it is going to go to next as characters can influence actions but she has a strong overall picture to guide her. She uses her knowledge of Japan for cultural and topographical details and yes, there is such a thing as a ‘nightingale floor’ (strictly, ‘bush-warbler’ in Japanese). Nijo castle in Kyoto has the most famous one and Hearn not only describes it graphically but also uses it as the emblem and centrepiece of the first part of her story.
But as she talks, it seems clear that the real joy for Hearn and the driver of the stories were her characters. ‘I like all my characters. I think that’s one of the secrets. The author’s respect and affection for their characters is part of what makes a book so successful.’ For readers, the empathy with characters and the scope of their emotions is one of the most attractive ingredients of the stories. But Hearn has brought their adventures to an end saying, ‘I miss the characters very much but I knew it was time to stop with them. Their voices were silent in my head.’ There are many readers who will also miss them and who will, instead, re-read and re-visit the trilogy not just to re-engage with the powerful emotions which bind and repel the characters but also because the complexities of the action are so easy to miss.
So, Gillian Rubinstein is gone and Lian Hearn has let her characters rest. We can only wait eagerly for what Hearn may choose to write next. She certainly isn’t telling.
Julia Eccleshare is co-director of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education and the Children’s Book Editor of the Guardian .
The Books published by Macmillan
The Tales of the Otori trilogy
Across the Nightingale Floor , 978
0 330 41528 6, £6.99 pbk
Grass for His Pillow , 978 0 330 44701 7, £6.99 pbk
Brilliance of the Moon , 978 0 330 41350 3, £6.99 pbk
The Harsh Cry of the Heron , 978 0 330 44961 8, £6.99 pbk (sequel, June 2007)
Heaven’s Net is Wide , 978 0 230 01397 1, £12.99 hbk (prequel, September 2007)
See also www.lianhearn.com