Interviewed by Cody L. Martin and Jacob Smith.
Could you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
There’s not much to say! I’m British by birth, and I have a background in journalism. I left the UK to go traveling and ended up here in Japan. I’ve been here for about twenty years now, and I’m an assistant professor in Communication and Media Studies at the Kanda Institute, central Tokyo.
What genre are your books?
The “Sword Mirror Jewel” series is Young Adult Urban Fantasy. The “Futurist Manifesto” series is Retropunk, but I’ll go into that another time. Urban Fantasy is a genre that specializes in placing fantastic creatures, heroes, and demons in the modern world that we inhabit. This means that in the SMJ series, we see a war between the Tengu and the Kappa take place, but in locations familiar to any visitor to Tokyo; the Tengu claim the sky and the rooftops of the skyscrapers, the Tokyo Tower, the Sky Tree, whereas the Kappa lurk in the rivers, the sewers, and subway tunnels.
What was the main inspiration for Sword, Mirror, Jewel?
I saw a gap that existed in the fantasy genre. The universe of Japanese Mythology is fascinating, mysterious and complex, and I realized that no non-Japanese writer had ever employed it as the basis for a long literary work. The comic world had used it; both Marvel and DC had featured Japanese Kamisama in their titles, most notably Neil Gaiman in the “Sandman” series. Nevertheless, I wanted to create something like what Rick Riordan had done with “Percy Jackson and the Olympians”, because I thought it had never been done before. Why use the tired old cliches of vampires, werewolves, and shape-shifters, when you have no end of weird Japanese legendary creatures to play with – the Tanuki, the Kitsune, the Nopperaboh and so many more!
What’s it like being a non-Japanese author living and writing in Japan?
It’s home to me now. Japan and I have a mutual love-hate relationship with each other, but I have done well here, I have absolutely no complaints regarding the Japanese people, and I have no plans to live anywhere else. One regret, however, is that these is no Japanese language version of Sword, Mirror, Jewel. Excalibur Books just doesn’t have the funds for it. If any kind patron reading this might be interested, please get in touch!
What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing about a culture that isn’t your own?
The advantage is that my viewpoint would be slightly different from that of someone born in that culture. In ancient times in many countries, the shaman used to live in a hut on the edge of the village. He or she existed simultaneously in two worlds; the world of everyday society, and the world of the spirits. I think of myself (maybe pretentiously) as living on the border between cultures, and seeing those cultures under a different light, a light that illuminates reality’s everyday facade and the shadows behind it.
Why did you decide to make the central character, Reiko Bergman, half-American and half-Japanese?
Two reasons: I wanted the main character to be accessible to Western audiences. Japanese high schools can be bizarre, obscure, frustrating places, with their cloistered pressure-cooker environments and arcane rules. If you’re not familiar with them, you might think – “Why the heck are these kids behaving like this?” So I wanted Reiko to be an audience surrogate. She has mixed parents and has returned to Tokyo after spending most of her childhood in the USA, so her thought-processes would be familiar to anyone reading the book.
The second reason is, I wanted to demonstrate that Japanese society itself had changed. I worked for a couple of years at Shibuya Makuhari High School just outside Tokyo, which had a Global Studies Department full of returnees like Reiko. These teenagers spoke fluent English and sometimes felt lost and alienated within Japan, even though they are Japanese citizens. I wanted to show that these kids are the future; in fact, they have got to be the future.