Excalibur Books is honored to have an exclusive interview with the award-winning author team, Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani! Lowitz has published over 20 books in genres including young adult fiction, memoir, poetry, fiction, and translation, and also runs a popular yoga studio in Tokyo.
Oketani is the author of the middle grade novels “J-Boys”, “Kazuo’s World”, “Tokyo, 1965”. Among other distinctions he is the translator of “America & Other Poems” by Ayukawa Nobuo, winner of the 2003 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature from Columbia University’s Donald Keene Center.
You’ve written twenty books so far in your career. What genres do you mainly work in?
Fiction, Poetry, non-fiction (memoir), and occasional hard-to-classify books on language like Kanji Box and Sacred Sanskrit Words: For Yoga, Chant and Meditation. Basically we write as a labor of love, like most writers, and so we write about a topic that we’re passionate about. That’s why we’re all across the board.
I understand that you both work as a team. Does Leza write the novels first and then hand them to Shogo, or do you work together from the beginning?
We don’t always write as a team—we’ve done three books together so far. Only one has been fiction (Jet Black & the Ninja Wind, Tuttle Publishing). The others were a translation of Japanese modernist poetry (America and Other Poems by Ayukawa Nobuo, Kaya Press) and Kanji Box: Japanese Character Collection (Stone Bridge Press), a collection of selected ideograms for tattoos and design. In all three cases, Shogo has done the original work in Japanese, and I edit and sometimes re-write the English. He has the much harder job!
Would you describe Jet Black and the Ninja Wind as an Urban Fantasy? How comfortable are you with that term?
We hadn’t really thought about it, but after researching the term, it does seem like a good fit for the Jet Black trilogy. Urban fantasy novels are set in the real world but contain elements of fantasy, mythology, paranormality and so on. Another aspect is that in YA, the protagonists are “amateur” superheroes drawn into situations where they have to discover their abilities. That fits! And there is also the action/pulp fiction element. Some of our heroes such as Phillip K. Dick have published in the genre, and many of our favorite Young Adult writers including Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Rick Riordan, and J. K. Rowling, have written Urban Fantasy novels, too. We would be in great company.
Who was the inspiration for the main character, Jet Black?
Well, about twenty years ago, after Memoirs of a Geisha came out, we had a conversation about how few strong Japanese heroines there were in popular fiction, and how we’d like to create one. Shogo told me that historically, there were female ninja, or kunoichi, who were an important part of ninja history, known for their skills in espionage and spying. They were highly trained in the art of henge (disguise) as well as in psychological warfare and manipulation so they could infiltrate enemy territory. Kunoichi were skilled in using weapons that were smaller than that of their male counterparts, such as blinding powders, poisons, darts, daggers, ropes, neko-te (cat’s claws) and metal fans. All of these tools were easy to carry and to conceal. They used their “feminine charms” to gain access into enemy clans and build trust, then they used the close-range weapons to subdue their victims, without ever leaving a trace. However, up until then, Kunoichi were usually shown in manga and anime as one-dimensional seductresses. We wanted to create a deeper character with very human concerns and conflicts—who is she, where does she belong, and how can she help save her ancestral land from destruction?
The novel includes martial arts/ninja style fighting because Shogo is a black belt in karate and has studied a variety of martial arts including shaolinquan, kendo, and judo. As a yoga and meditation practitioner and teacher, I’m interested in Buddhist teachings of interconnectedness, compassion and service. Both of our backgrounds come into play in her character. Jet is a kick-ass ninja, but her ultimate goal is to restore peace and harmony to her native land and its people.
We also wanted to create a multicultural character, because we are raising a teenage boy in a multicultural household. We wanted to create a character that was like him and like many of his friends. The world is becoming more global, more inclusive, and we need teenage characters to represent that diversity.
What was the inspiration for the story?
Shogo felt that Kunoichi got a bad rap—but so did ninja in general. We usually think of them as kind of B-Grade assassins. But what if they were more three-dimensional than that? What if they were guerrilla fighters struggling to save their land from invasion? That really happened in the 8th century in Japan in the North, and maybe those fighters became what we currently think of as ninja. Though our novel is contemporary, we used the history of Japan’s indigenous Emishi tribe in the North, and their fight to save their land, as a background to Jet’s contemporary quest to find her family and protect their heritage.
What about the Navajo elements of the novel?
Shogo was interested in Native American culture, and we spent a lot of time in the American Southwest among Navajo people and on the sacred land. There are many parallels between the indigenous people of Japan and the native American peoples. And when we learned of the efforts of the Navajo Code Talkers, who had helped the U.S. win the Pacific War against Japan, Shogo and I both felt that this history should be far better known and honoured. We connected with many of the original marines, who were still alive and had written a book about their experience. We decided to include that story in our novel. So, Jet Black and The Ninja Wind is set in the American Southwest and the Japanese North Country of Aomori. It weaves culture, history and adventure with martial arts together against a backdrop of environmental concerns and a teenager’s quest for identity and belonging.
If the novel were to be adapted into a live-action film, which actors/actresses would play the leads?
ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS MAUCH.
We got to fantasize about that in this post, where we also posted some amazing storyboards to the Jet Black Movie by our friend Chris Mauch, storyboarder for Divergent, Limitless, etc: http://mybookthemovie.blogspot.com/2016/02/leza-lowitz-shogo-oketanis-jet-black.html
Your recent YA novel, Up from the Sea, was inspired by the 3/11 tsunami. How much of it is fiction and how much really happened?
I was in Tokyo when the earthquake struck at 2:46 on March 11, 2011. The yoga studio I own organized relief to send to the disaster zone, but I wanted to do more. When school started again after spring break, I traveled to Tohoku and volunteered at the temporary housing shelters. At that time I was not planning to write about the disaster, but I met a boy who inspired me to write this novel to keep a light shining on the area, which is still struggling. I began to write Up from the Sea, a novel about a boy who loves soccer and creates a team to rally his town after the tsunami. Months later, I discovered that exactly this had been done in coastal Onagawa. The team is the Cobaltore Onagawa Football Club. Supporters from all over the world helped in the difficult days following the disaster.
Later, I learned that a soccer ball belonging to a teenager in Rikuzentakata washed up in Alaska. Amazingly, the ball was found by a man with a Japanese wife who could read the messages written on it. The couple traced the owner and traveled to Japan to return the ball.
In June 2011, four Japanese high school students who lost their parents and family members in the tsunami, and university students whose parents had perished in the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, Japan, flew to New York to raise awareness and money for the children of Tohoku orphaned in the March 11, 2011, disaster. Two American students—one who had lost her father in 9/11 and another who had lost his mother in Hurricane Katrina—joined efforts organized by the Ashinaga (“Daddy Long Legs”) NGO. I was deeply inspired by this story of survivors of tragedies in one country reaching out to survivors in another. Based on this event, I took creative liberty in imagining a meeting between children of 3/11 and children of 9/11 culminating in a visit to the National September 11 Memorial on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
I based the novel on true events of March 11, 2011 and their aftermath as well as events surrounding the tenth anniversary of 9/11, but the setting and characters in the story are fiction.
I have talked about Up from the Sea to kids at schools in the U.S., Japan, and the United Arab Emirates, and some of the students have been inspired to visit and support the area. I was so moved that a group of international school students who had read the book came from Kazakhstan to volunteer in Tohoku.
It is my hope that Up from the Sea will continue to keep a light shining on Tohoku, and that it will inspire kids to know that we can help each other, even across vast oceans.
Why did you write this novel in verse?
Well, they say that necessity is the mother of invention. In the days and months following the quake, Thousands of aftershocks rattled the country; some of them were earthquakes as large as 7.2 magnitude. Writing a conventional novel requires uninterrupted chunks of time and the ability to focus for long stretches. I didn’t have either! Every time a quake hit, I’d dive under the desk. But I managed to sit still long enough to write one poem at a time. The verse form arose from these circumstances.
It turned out to be a fitting form for the novel. The verse form lent immediacy to the events, and many young readers (some with short attention spans or learning differences) have found this form to be engaging. Teachers have reported to me that Up from the Sea was the first novel that some students had finished, and this inspired them to read more. Moments like this are why a writer writes!
What exactly is a “Verse Novel”?
A novel written in poetry. There are many forms and styles, but basically, that’s what it is. In recent years, they have become popular in Young Adult fiction. Kids are reading less, are used to texting, and verse novels have more white space, less words on the page, more emotion. They can be much faster reads. Also, they get right to the heart of the issue, often packing an emotional punch from the outset. Many verse novels deal with difficult subjects for teens—drugs, violence, suicide, natural disasters.
How is the writing discipline different between writing a Verse Novel and a more conventional novel?
I think the discipline is the same. Writing is writing. You sit in the chair and you bleed, right? That’s what Hemingway said. Writing this novel was very emotional for me, and I think this comes through on the page. Verse novels share similarities with Dramatic Monologues—just like with Dramatic Monologues, in verse novels we don’t get stage directions, we get lights! camera! action! There’s no “fourth wall” as we experience what the protagonist is experiencing firsthand. It’s a powerful form for the writer and hopefully, for the reader as well.
Historical events can seem remote; news items that have happened at a remove of time and space. The verse form is immediate, bringing the reader into the action. You’re there with the protagonist, time-traveling back to the event itself, experiencing it in real time as it unfolds. We get the “who, what, why, when, where and how” without embellishment. The central event is stripped down to its essence.
Writing is only one strand of your career. Can you tell us more about Sun and Moon Yoga?
Over the years, I found that writing was very lonely, and also very much brain-centered work. At some point, my body cried out to me—I had to get up and move! I was getting so stiff from sitting in chairs, hunched over a computer. So I started practicing yoga. I loved it so much, and my friends noticed a big change—I was nicer, more relaxed, and happier. My neighbours started asking me to share it with them in California, and I got certified to teach so I wouldn’t hurt any of them. When we moved to Tokyo in 2003, I decided to open a studio here. I have had Sun and Moon Yoga ever since. It’s so much fun being in an international yoga community where people from all walks of life gather to practice yoga, meditation, and do community work together. It’s a great balance with the solitary, intense work of writing. I think we need to evolve and develop our creativity in both body and mind.
What is your next literary project going to be?
Shogo is working on Jet Black II, the second volume in the trilogy. He’s also kicking around a novel about an eccentric seventeenth-century mystic samurai called Basara. Leza is set to publish a collection of animal fables— re-tellings of the ancient Buddhist Jataka tales, called Virtuous Heart, with art by 10,000 Buddhas founder Amanda Giacomini. That will come out this summer. She is also co-writing a YA novel about the holocaust with French-Canadian novelist Deni Bechard titled Farewell to the Night.
How can readers find out more about your works?
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Thank you for this opportunity!
A very big thank you to Leza and Shogo for taking the time!
Jet Black and the Ninja Wind by Leza Lowitz & Shogo Oketani
Jet has no idea what a ninja is, and she’s pretty sure she isn’t one. But when her dying mother sends her to Japan to meet her cousin and grandfather, they’re pretty sure she is. That’s when the trouble starts. Stalked by bounty hunters and dogged by gangsters who want to trash their village, Jet must discover her hidden powers. Joined by a kick-ass band of eco-warriors and a ninja dog, Jet and her tribe fight to protect the family treasure and preserve the ancient culture. Can they save a sacred mountain from destruction? Can Jet triumph as the last living female ninja in the world? Things get even dicier when Jet falls deeply in love with the one man sent to kill her. Can she save him from the dark side before he takes her down?
Jet Black and the Ninja Wind is book one in a trilogy, inspired by urban fantasies like the films of Miyazaki Hayao and “Your Name.”
Motion picture rights have been optioned.
Up from the Sea by Leza Lowitz is a powerful novel-in-verse about how one teen boy survives the March 2011 tsunami that devastates his coastal Japanese village.
On that fateful day, Kai loses nearly everyone and everything he cares about. When he’s offered a trip to New York to meet kids whose lives were changed by 9/11, Kai realizes he also has a chance to look for his estranged American father. Visiting Ground Zero on its tenth anniversary, Kai learns that the only way to make something good come out of the disaster back home is to return there and help rebuild his town.
Heartrending yet hopeful, Up from the Sea is a story about loss, survival, and starting anew.
PUBLISHER: Crown Books for Young Readers (Penguin Random House)
PUB DATE: 1/12/16
AGE RANGE: 12 and up to adult
GRADES: 7 and up
ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS MAUCH.