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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Interview with Steve Bein (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Order “Daughter Of The SwordHERE
Order "Only A Shadow" HERE 
Read FBC's Review of Daughter Of The Sword and Only A Shadow 
Read Steve Bein's Guest Post on Cool Samurai Trivia

This year has been a great year for finding special debuts, Daughter Of The Sword by Steve Bein was the second of three so far I've read. It was a book that combined historical fiction, procedural thriller & an epic storyline along with terrific characterization. The book completely won me over and marked Steve Bein as a special author IMHO. I was curious to know more about Steve, his debut series and his overall thoughts on writing, the fantasy genre and his life. So read on to find out what Steve is addicted to, which authors he strives hard to emulate and how these books came to be...

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. For starters, could you please introduce yourself, tell us what inspired you to write in the first place, and describe your journey to becoming a published author.

SB: Thanks so much for having me! I’m Steve Bein, and I’m a philosophy professor by day and writer by night. I’ve been writing for about as long as I can remember, but I’ve been publishing since 2003. Daughter of the Sword is my first novel, and Only a Shadow is my first novella published only as an e-book. Prior to that I was publishing short stories, in magazines like Asimov’s and Interzone.

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of the Fated Blades series occurred. How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea (if any)?

SB: The first of the Inazuma blades—now known as the Fated Blades—appeared in my very first fiction publication, “Beautiful Singer,” which appeared in Writers of the Future almost ten years ago. Originally it was written as a stand-alone novella, with no vision for a future novel, let alone a trilogy. But I liked the idea of telling stories centered on swords, and I’d already invented Master Inazuma and the first of his Fated Blades, so I started thinking about what other swords he might have forged. Those formed the nucleus of Daughter of the Sword.

Q] Your debut novel is the first volume in a series. Could you give us a progress report on the next book, offer any details about the sequel “Year Of The Demon”, and outline your plans for the series as a whole?

SB: I just sent Year of the Demon to my editor at Penguin, and right now I’m working on plotting the third book in the series. As for details, aren’t you a sneaky one! I think the second book’s secrets should stay secret—for now. Ask me again this time next year and maybe we can do a sneak preview.

Q] In your book, besides the actual characters, the swords have rather peculiar traits and to a large extent act as characters themselves. What made you focus such a vital part of the story on them?

SB: I’m glad you noticed the swords behave like characters, because that was a very conscious choice. I’ve already said a little more about that for a Tolkien Week celebration, and I’ve answered the “Why swords?” question over at the Qwillery, so I want to give you something new here.

It was natural to fixate on swords for this book because if you’re telling a story set in Japan, confronting the legacy of the samurai is almost inevitable, and if you’re telling a story about samurai, you’re telling a story about swords. The bushido code may be dormant but it’s certainly not dead. All of my characters in Daughter of the Sword are trying to live up to samurai ideals, even the ones who aren’t samurai. To be a cop in Japan is to recognize samurai ideals. To be a yakuza street shark is to recognize samurai ideals. Duty, loyalty, self-sacrifice for the greater good—these are core values in Japan, core Confucian values, core values of the bushido code.

In Japan, the quintessential image that embodies those values is the sword. The samurai was to treat himself as a sword, to be honed to perfection and then to be used as his liege lord saw fit. So in my book swords aren’t just objects, and they’re not just characters either; they’re symbols, metaphors, archetypes.

Q] Your book has a multifocal POV approach. However only one of the POV characters is a female, and she is the main one. I’m curious as to why you chose Mariko as the main protagonist.

SB: Two reasons. First, I needed a master storyline to bind everything else together. Daughter of the Sword has four story arcs, two set in medieval times, one set in WWII, plus Mariko’s. Mariko is the only one who can bind the rest together, because she’s the only one in the modern day—the only one with perspective enough to see how all the other stories intertwine. 

Second, I’m really interested in the philosophy of alienation and otherness. There’s a word in Japanese, gaikokujin, which means foreigner, but usually everyone just says gaijin, which literally means “outsider.” I often feel like an outsider myself, and I’m very interested in that experience. Mariko is a vehicle for exploring that because she’s such a misfit. She’s not the delicate flower of femininity that so many social pressures want her to be. She’s a woman in a male-dominated profession. She’s a non-conformist butting heads with tradition at every turn. She can’t even feel fully at home with her own family. She’s a foreigner in her own land, an outsider in every respect.

Q] For someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write? What would be your elevator pitch for the Fated Blades Series?

SB: I guess we could start with the name of my web site: Philosofiction. I think philosophers and SF/F authors share a lot in common, and in my fiction I want to draw upon the best of both worlds. I don’t think thoughtfulness and playfulness are mutually exclusive. Moral questions matter to me. A lot. Questions of self-identity are important to me too. Tweaking the rules of reality a little bit allows me to test the boundaries of our intuitions about those questions.

Now, as for an elevator pitch: "Contemporary thriller, urban fantasy, and historical fiction cross paths in Tokyo, where the greatest swords ever forged exert their will over the men and women who wield them. "

Q] When you started out, did you have an overall plan for the Fated Blades series, such as a specific number of books to be written? How much of the plot do you plan out? Or to quote George R.R. Martin, “are you a Gardener or an Architect” when it comes to your writing? 

SB: At the beginning I had no vision for a series in mind, but as soon as Daughter of the Sword started getting the attention of editors, they asked how many more of these books I had in me, and whether this had the potential to become a series. It’s pretty hard for a debut author to say no to that—but more importantly, I like telling these stories. Of course I’ll write more of them!

And as for Martin’s question, I’m an architect all the way, but I never plot out more than one book in advance. In fact, I think that’s a little dangerous. I think every novel has to be self-contained.

Q] Please tell us about the books and authors who have captured your imagination and inspired you to become a wordsmith in your own right. Similarly, are there any current authors you would like to give a shout out to?

SB: China Mieville has been very influential for me in how I write setting. James Clavell set the standard for making Asian cultures feel lived in and alive. Tolkien set the standard for world-building. George R.R. Martin gave me permission to develop three-dimensional throwaway characters, characters that appear on stage just for a moment and yet have some depth and personality to them. Elizabeth McCracken has an eye for detail and metaphor that I’ll never match but I’m always trying to emulate. Milan Kundera has a gift for insight that, again, I don’t think I can equal but I can try to emulate. Philip K. Dick and Ted Chiang are the philosopher-kings of sci fi. I’m sure I’m leaving lots of people out, but those are the ones that leap to mind.

Q] On your bibliography page, there are two books listed “In The Works”: The Hundredsman’s War & The Raven Traitor: Book One of the Latterworld Wars. Can you tell us a bit about them to whet the reader’s minds and appetites?

SB: The Hundredman’s War is the first installation of an epic high fantasy series. Think Tolkien meets Machiavelli meets Camus meets Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The Latterworld Wars is a series concept I’ve been developing with Luc Reid. Better to say he’s been developing it with me, really. It started with his observation that there was very little to read to his son that was action-adventure and yet conveyed the right sorts of messages about using violence. Luc wanted to fill that gap, and so we concocted a world in which a human boy could learn various animal styles of kung fu from the animals themselves, but the consequences of what he’s learning aren’t always what he expects. The Raven Traitor is the first book of that series.

Q] From your bio, it seem that you are a martial arts aficionado who holds two black belts. What’s your fascination with martial arts? 

SB: “Aficionado” is probably too reserved a term. “Addict” might be closer to the truth, though I like to think this particular addiction has done me more good than bad. (That said, I’m nursing a newly sprained ankle even as I’m writing this.) I tried retiring from martial arts—twenty years of it is plenty, especially if you spent the first half of that fighting full contact—but I just can’t quit. It would be like not writing anymore. I have all these energies whirling around in my head, and they need an outlet or I’ll go nuts.

Q] Tell us a little bit about the research you undertook before attempting to write this series. What were the things you focused upon? Were there any fascinating things that you found amidst your research?

SB: I lived in Japan for two years, which certainly helps. Japanese is a fascinating language, and the deeper you delve into it, the better you understand the people and the culture. Beyond that, I love reading about samurai history (and in fact I got to teach a course on the subject last year, which was a blast), and I’m a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa, who was a real obsessive-compulsive when it came to getting the details right in his samurai movies. I think it’s very important to make historical settings feel authentic, so finding the obsessives is a big help.

For Mariko I felt I had to do more than just read up on police work in Japan. I don’t know cop life like I know samurai life. So I interviewed a lot of cops, and did a ride-along in a squad car, and shot pistols with range officers. That was a lot of fun.

Q] I really enjoyed how layered the world is and especially how twisted the strands run as seen through the various historical timelines! Can you tell us more about the timelines and why you specifically selected the ones you have?

SB: As I mentioned earlier, this all started with “Beautiful Singer,” set in 1308, which is the heyday of Japanese sword-smithing. Beautiful Singer is already 200 years old by then, which is why Master Inazuma is the world’s finest sword smith: it took 200 years for the greatest masters just to catch up with him.

We come across the second of the Inazuma blades, Glorious Victory, in 1587, which is smack in the middle of the most turbulent era in Japanese history. It’s a time of constant warfare and political machinations, and the whole country balances on the brink of permanent change. In the space of a few decades Japan goes from being an unruly mob of fiefdoms to the unified country we know today. It was too tempting a setting for me to pass up.

The third Inazuma blade, Tiger on the Mountain, gets two stories. One is now the e-novella Only a Shadow, set in 1442, and the other is in Daughter of the Sword, in 1942. Obviously WWII was another incredibly turbulent period in Japanese history, so as soon as it was clear that my book was going to hop around in time, I started reading WWII histories, looking for the right year and the right month to situate the next installment.

Oh, and Beautiful Singer and Glorious Victory resurface in 1942 as well—the first time the three blades cross paths since they were forged some eight hundred years earlier.

Q] Your world has a very light supernatural feel to it, I thought this was very reminiscent of John Connolly and his Charlie Parker series (as noted in the review). Was this intentional?

SB: I like two kinds of fantasy: either a very light touch or full bore, all stops out. Philosophically you can do two very different kinds of work with those. With a light touch, the world already feels lived in, so whatever you’ve introduced, you can dedicate a lot of attention to it because your readers already know where they are. With high fantasy you can make everything magical, and invest all of it with as much metaphysical or theological or political importance as you can think of. Nothing should be accidental in that kind of world. All of it can push the story forward.

Q] In closing, do you have any last thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers?

SB: Only to say thanks to you, Mihir, for the interview. I’m really glad I got to appear on Fantasy Book Critic because I think readers of FBC are going to really enjoy this book. I’m hoping it will attract anyone who reads contemporary thrillers or historical fiction, but the fact is, at the end of the day this is a fantasy story, and I think a lot of FBC fans are going to have a really good time with it.

 NOTE: Author picture courtesy of Dennis Green, Olivia Lewis & The


Amanda said...

All right, this is now next on my to-read list.

Ayisha said...

Do you know About Judgment of High court.


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