ANNOUNCING the latest addition to Excalibur Books!
Charles Kowalski writes both adult thrillers, and fantasy for younger readers. His debut thriller, MIND VIRUS, won the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold Award and was a finalist for the Killer Nashville Claymore Award (Best Thriller) and the Adventure Writers’ Grandmaster Award. He has lived in Japan for over 20 years. We’re delighted to have an exclusive interview with him before the release of his “Simon Grey and the March of a Hundred Ghosts”!
Who was the inspiration for the Simon Grey character?
My son Kento. When I first had the idea for Simon Grey, Kento was six, and on a visit to our American home, he developed an interest in knights and chivalry. That started me thinking: what kind of character in children’s literature could be a hero for him – one who could bridge the Japanese and Western traditions? Could a story be written, for example, of an English boy who sailed on a ship to Japan, found himself stranded there, and ultimately became a samurai?
Well, a little research showed me that not only could such a story be written, it had been: Chris Bradford’s Young Samurai series. But still, the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. At that time, the Yokai Watch franchise of video games, anime, merchandise, and pretty much everything was all the rage among boys of Kento’s age, and I thought: why not take the same idea, leave the martial aspect to Mr. Bradford (who does it better than I could), and add a supernatural element instead? A boy with a gift for seeing ghosts and spirits, who runs away to sea because everywhere he turns on land is haunted, but is then stranded in Japan and needs the help of yokai to find a way home? Thus, Simon Grey was born.
How did Simon get his name?
I looked for a family name by researching the members of English societies for the study of magic. When I saw the name “Grey”, I knew at once that it was for him. After all, yokai live in the grey zones, between civilization and wilderness, life and death, day and night – and the grey times of day, dusk and just before dawn, are considered the omagatoki or “hour of meeting evil spirits”, the time you’re most likely to encounter yokai. As for his first name, he’s the seventh son of a minister of the church, and all his brothers have New Testament names. His father was probably thinking of Simon Peter, but unwittingly destined his son to be more like Simon Magus.
What drew you to the world of the ‘Yokai’?
As I mentioned earlier, it was the “Yokai Watch” craze that planted the seed, but the more research I did, the more deeply I was drawn into the field of “yokaiology”. There’s so much material in Japanese folklore that one could dedicate a lifetime to studying it, and I’m very much indebted to several English-speaking researchers and artists who are doing exactly that, like Matthew Meyer, Matt Alt, and Michael Dylan Foster. It’s easy to see why yokai have such a fascination for Japanese people, and increasingly in other countries as well: like Halloween ghosts, they can be either scary, or silly and cute, as needed.
You’ve written novels before in quite different genres. What made you take up a new literary direction?
For me, it’s not so much a new direction as a homecoming. Ever since I was a boy, I dreamed that one day I would write books of the kind I most enjoyed reading: epic fantasy. Little did I know, at the time, that I had chosen one of the hardest genres to write well! Writing contemporary thrillers, within the constraints of the real modern world, was simple by comparison. Research was not necessarily easy (especially for an espionage novel dealing with notoriously secretive agencies like The Devil’s Son) or cheap (especially for a globe-trotting thriller like Mind Virus), but it was fairly straightforward. It was like moving into a furnished house, as opposed to being given a blank sheet of paper and a blank check and having to decide the location, design, and color of every wall, door, window, cabinet, table, chair, light switch…The freedom is intoxicating, but at the same time, having to make so many choices, knowing you’ll be stuck forever with the consequences, can be paralyzing. Writing a historical fantasy like Simon Grey feels like an intermediate step. The constraints are still there, in both the historical and folkloric aspects, but there’s a little more room for the imagination to play. I feel like I’m doing my own interior decoration now, with an eye toward the day when I’ll be building a “house” from the ground up!
How are your working days structured? Do you have a special time of day for writing?
I usually write when the day’s chores are done, and often find I do my best work when I “split the night”: nod off (usually unintentionally) when my boys go to bed, wake up again around eleven or twelve, and work until two or three in the morning. The nap brings some relief and refreshment from the stress and fatigue of the day, the rest of the world is asleep, and I can work without distraction. (And in Japanese folklore, the “Hour of the Ox” – around two in the morning – is the time when ghosts are most likely to be about, so that might explain why it seems such an auspicious hour for writing ghost stories!
Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just to see where an idea takes you?
This sounds like a variation on the “gardener or architect?” question, which I generally answer: I’m a landscape architect. I have my plan ready when I sit down to write, but I realize I’m working with organic material, and oftentimes it knows which direction it needs to grow in better than I do.
What literary works inspire you?
As far as young adult fantasy goes, I’m inspired by J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan, and have also learned a great deal from Neil Gaiman.
What books are you reading at the moment?
At the moment, I’m reading about tengu lore and Japanese shamanism, in preparation for Simon Grey II.
What else do you do, besides writing fiction?
I teach at a Japanese university: English conversation and composition, and interpretation between Japanese and English.
When can we expect the second Simon Grey book?
Around this time next year, gods and yokai willing! This one will have more of everything you loved in the first one: Japanese history, yokai lore, and a coming-of-age story as Simon wrestles with the question of how to live in the world as a young man, particularly how to relate to the enigmatic young woman he met in the first book.
How can readers find out more about your works?
Like Simon’s page on Facebook or follow him on Twitter for the latest news about his further adventures!