Joining my occasional series of author interviews today I’m hosting Steve Bein, who writes the Fated Blades novels, contemporary fantasy thrillers set in Japan. The latest title, Disciple of the Wind, just came out this week! As a Kurosawa fan myself, I really enjoyed getting to know Steve a bit better. . . and totally agree that everyone should know about the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts.
What was the inception of the project you’re most excited about?
It’s hard to say which of the two current projects has me more excited. I have a new novel, Disciple of the Wind, and a new novella, Streaming Dawn. Together they wrap up the saga of the Fated Blades. A book release is always a thrilling event; even though this is my third time around, I’ll rush right out to the bookstore to see the novel sitting on the shelf. I still take a picture of it, and it still gives me a little buzz whenever friends text me pictures from their local bookstores. But this time Streaming Dawn may be the more exciting event, if only because I’ve never done anything quite like it before.
But since you asked about inception, let’s go with Streaming Dawn, because it has its inception in Disciple of the Wind. It was originally the third storyline of Disciple, chronicling the exploits of Kaida, the pearl diver and runaway fan favorite of Year of the Demon. In Demon we meet her before she begins her career as a ninja badass; in Dawn we get to see what an unstoppable terminator she has become. (Batman fans may recognize the homage to Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns.) In the end my editor and I decided that Disciple of the Wind was just too long, and my choices were to remove one of the three protagonists or to dramatically trim down all three story arcs. I think this is the best book of the series, and it couldn’t have stayed that way if I made deep cuts into the story. To keep it pure, Kaida slipped out—being a ninja, she’s good at that—and snuck herself into her own standalone project.
What were your first steps in building that idea into a viable story?
All of my novels intertwine stories from different ages of Japanese history. In Year of the Demon the principal characters were Mariko the 21st century cop, Daigoro the 16th century samurai, and Kaida the 15th century ninja-to-be. All three were to return in Disciple of the Wind, but Mariko and Daigoro had too much to do. (Their enemies are much more powerful in this one.) Extracting Streaming Dawn could have been nightmarish if I’d written the novel as a novel—that is, as one big storyline that just so happens to skip around in history. But I don’t write that way. I write all three storylines one at a time, as if each one were intended to stand alone. Every character gets my undivided attention. That’s part of why Streaming Dawn can stand on its own: it did stand alone, at least at first.
But the process was a lot more complex than a simple cut-and-paste job. Weaving all the stories together changes them all. New themes emerge, and then I go back and draw them out for each character. And of course each story is originally written in service of the novel; I write them individually but not independently, if that makes sense. The other storylines are always looking over my shoulder. So Streaming Dawn as it is now isn’t the story I wrote before I wove it into Disciple of the Wind, and it isn’t quite the story I extracted from Disciple either. It’s better than those; the characters matured with each iteration, and the plot unfolded and refolded into new and more interesting shapes.
What kind of research did you do before beginning Disciple of the Wind?
There’s that old proverb, “write what you know,” and what I know is samurai movies. Somehow I discovered Kurosawa in junior high—specifically Ran, his re-envisioning of King Lear in 16th century Japan. I’ll admit most of the Shakespearean themes were over my head; at that age I was more interested in the samurai slashfest. But my fascination with the bushido tradition started there, and it has only grown since then. Today I have a whole shelf of samurai history books, along with all my philosophical volumes on bushido and the Zen/bushido connection.
So that’s the body of background research I’m starting from in writing all of these novels. As I’m writing, it’s more about the specific details—family crests, waypoints on the great roads, that kind of thing. That work is never done. For Disciple of the Wind, I had to delve into marriage and divorce law of the Kamakura era. That was an unexpected turn.
How does your research inform your world-building? Can you give a specific example?
I think the world-building is born in the research. I decide what emotional tone I want to set in a given scene, and then I dig around for the right details to make that tone sing out. For example, in Streaming Dawn there’s a moment where Kaida is feeling trapped, and she has to meditate on what she’ll do next. I put her in a dingy attic crawlspace, the sleeping quarters for all the manual laborers in the castle she’s infiltrated. This made me look for the right source of lighting, something dirt cheap, ideally with the greasiest, foulest smoke imaginable. Lo and behold, there it was: poor Japanese servants used to use sardine oil lamps.
That’s the sort of discovery you can’t make up. You only find it by being true to the world and being true to the character, and then letting them tell you what you need to do next.
What’s your first-draft process? Outline, edit as you go, speed-writing?
I’d love to do speed-anything when it comes to writing, but for me the whole process is quite slow. For Disciple of the Wind, it was two volumes of hand-written notes before I could create an outline, then another hand-written volume that was filled in gradually as I ran across unforeseen wrinkles to iron out.
Even if I were a pantser instead of a plotter, I don’t know how I could write these books any more quickly. They’re more complex because the stories are braided together. Each protagonist’s storyline has to be structured so that it reveals the right information only at the right time. Otherwise one character’s high-tension moment is a spoiler for the next character’s moment.
How do you start revisions?
I always write Mariko last, because she’s the one who ties the whole book together. Once she’s done, there’s a massive cutting and pasting process to create what can really be called the first draft. This will open with Mariko, then cut away to a historical piece, then return to Mariko, then go back in history… you get the idea. Once I’ve got that, then I can read the whole thing through and look for problems to solve, themes to tease out, that kind of thing.
I revise the whole manuscript at least once before I allow anyone else to see it. Then it goes to my agent, and maybe to other beta readers. By then I’ve had more time to mull it over, so the next stage of revisions can change the book quite a lot. Only then does my editor get a look at it.
If you could choose a few descriptors that would go in a blurb on the front cover of your book, what would they be?
Bestselling novel in the history of publishing. Translated into 100 languages.
Just kidding. One reviewer compared me favorably to James Clavell; that was a big deal to me, because I’m such a fan of Clavell’s work. I get a lot of my world-building techniques from China Miéville, so I’d be delighted to see someone compare me to him. That would be a nice blurb to see on the cover: a quote from George R.R. Martin, singing my praises by comparing me to Miéville and Clavell. As long as we’re dreaming here, I’ll dream that.
What cool thing would you put in the DVD extra version that didn’t get into the published work? Any research or created detail you had to cut or couldn’t use?
There are little details about characters that never make it into the book. Mariko listens to the Black Keys. Daigoro is a hell of an archer on horseback. One of the characters—I won’t say who—is about 100 years older than s/he appears to be. If the book had a DVD commentary track, I could drop in little tidbits like that.
Where should readers go to find out more about your work?
I post updates, appearances, interviews, and all that stuff at http://www.philosofiction.com. You can also like me at facebook/philosofiction and follow me on Twitter @AllBeinMyself.
Care to share a link (aside from your own work) to something amazing you think everyone should see or know about?
I just love ARMA’s site. That’s the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts, and they have all kinds of interesting stuff on swordsmanship, ranging from the historical to the hypothetical. A major time suck for history nerd martial artists like me.
Steve Bein (pronounced “Bine”) is a philosopher, photographer, traveler, translator, martial artist, and award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Interzone, Writers of the Future, and in international translation. His first novel, Daughter of the Sword, was met with critical acclaim, and his second novel, Year of the Demon, was named one of the top five fantasy novels of 2013 by Library Journal. Steve’s newest book, Disciple of the Wind is in stores now, and his new novella, Streaming Dawn, is available now for your e-reader. You can find his work at Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Audible.
Steve teaches philosophy at Texas State University. He lives in Austin with his partner Michele and their Lab, Kane.