Author Interview – Charles Kowalski: “A Profoundly Connecting Experience”

Today we welcome Charles Kowalski, who contributed an exclusive preview of Book 2 of the “Simon Grey” series to “The Phantom Games,” the Tokyo 2020/2021 Olympics anthology. 

Charles Kowalski writes contemporary thrillers, including MIND VIRUS (winner of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold Award and finalist for the Adventure Writers’ Grandmaster Award) and THE DEVIL’S SON, as well as the middle-grade historical fantasy SIMON GREY. He has lived in Japan for 20 years, and teaches at Tokai University, Japan.

Tell us about the first Simon Grey novel, “Simon Grey and the March of a Hundred Ghosts.”

 The idea came about when the yokai craze was sweeping Japan (and my firstborn son was caught up in it). I wanted to write a story involving yokai lore that could also bridge the two sides of my son’s heritage, Japanese and Western. Simon Grey is an English boy in the early 17th century, blessed (or cursed) with the ability to see ghosts. Since they’re a constant nuisance in London where he lives, he sometimes seeks relief by signing up as a ship’s boy on long sea voyages. But when he signs aboard a ship bound for Japan, and a shipwreck leaves him stranded alone in a country increasingly hostile to foreigners, only with the help of the yokai can he find his way home.

Tell us about the story in the “Phantom Games” anthology, which is a preview of the second Simon Grey novel.

Readers familiar with Japanese folklore will recognize it as a retelling, or sequel, to the story of Urashima Taro – the boy who visits the magical undersea kingdom of Ryugujo, and then comes back to the surface to find his world changed beyond recognition. This story has always fascinated me because it breaks the rules, what you might call the “universal grammar,” of folktales. In most folktales around the world, kindness is rewarded and wickedness is punished. Either the protagonist makes the right choices and comes out ahead, or you can clearly see where he or she makes the wrong choice that leads to disaster. But for poor Urashima Taro, there was no choice he could have made at any point that would have allowed him to return home in triumph – no way to win. The only way he could have broken even – ended up no better and no worse off than when he began – would have been to decline the invitation that led him to Ryugujo. But according to Joseph Campbell, that wouldn’t have been an option either, because if the hero refuses the call to adventure, it comes again, and again, and keeps coming until he finally answers it. So the second “Simon Grey” novel is my way of diving deeper (pardon the expression) into the story of Urashima Taro – I suppose you could say of redeeming it, at least from my own point of view.

You wrote a stirring editorial piece in “The Phantom Games” on the state of the world in 2020. Six months later, what are your thoughts now?

One thing I observed with interest during the pandemic is how the arts connected us and kept us going. Not just as consumers, binge-watching Netflix and running up huge tabs on Amazon, but as producers. People who thought they had no creative talents, or whose talents had long lain buried without an outlet, were suddenly investing in cameras and microphones and creating all kinds of media for a virtual audience. Anyone who feels that the arts are a luxury, not a necessity, would do well to remember this time.

It reminds me of the Chinese version of Aesop’s “Grasshopper and Ant” fable. In this version, there were three little mice. All through the summer and fall, one of them was busy building a shelter, one of them was busy gathering food, and the other frittered away his time dancing, singing, playing the flute, and traveling from one end of the forest to the other.

When winter hit, you can probably guess what happened…

They all survived. Thanks to the first, they didn’t freeze. Thanks to the second, they didn’t starve. And thanks to the third, they didn’t die of boredom.


What are you working on now? Do you have any future projects you’d like to talk about? 

For me, Simon Grey – a paranormal adventure set in an otherwise real Tokugawa Japan – was a bridge from contemporary thrillers to something I’ve been wanting to write ever since I was a boy: epic fantasy. I was raised on a diet of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Michael Ende, and couldn’t wait to follow in their footsteps and create a world of my very own – but I quickly learned that, in order to create a satisfying imaginary world, you need to know a great deal about the real world. Fantasy and science fiction, I came to feel, are two of the easiest genres to write and the hardest to write well. Now, decades later, I’m working on putting this world onto paper – not because I feel I know enough, but because I realized that if I waited until I did, I would never start.

What’s one of the best things that’s happened to you as an author?

Authors, unlike performing artists, don’t often get to see the immediate effect of our work on an audience – but when we do, it’s magical. Once, a friend sent me a candid photo of her daughter curled up in an armchair, happily immersed in a copy of Simon Grey. When I saw it, I had the kind of warm and fuzzy sensation you get when your children give you a hug, or when you’re sitting by the fire and a cat settles down in your lap. To create a world that other people can visit and enjoy is a profoundly connecting experience.

What is one thing that you’ve learned about yourself as an author?

I’ve learned the truth of Edison’s famous quote about success being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. It’s very romantic to idealize the writer’s life as a process of courting the Muse, finding inspiration, converting raw ideas into elegant prose, and leaving the remaining mundane details to agents and editors. But the truth is that ideas and talent by themselves aren’t enough to ensure literary success. These days, even if you’re one of the few who manage to sign with a big-name agent and publisher, you’re still expected to get out there and promote your own work – which has never been my strong suit.

What does your research process look like? 

 I try to be as detailed and accurate as possible, so I spend a great deal of time ploughing through books, websites, and videos. When I’m dealing with real-world locations, I always like to visit them when I can, which for a historical setting like Simon Grey means a lot of museums in addition to real-world sites. The pandemic has curtailed my ability to do location research, though, which is why the release of the second Simon Grey book has been delayed.

Which book or books are you reading at the moment?

“Building Imaginary Worlds: The History and Theory of Subcreation” by Mark J.P. Wolf.

What book would you like to see turned into a movie, and who should play the leading roles? 

I’m the kind of person who likes to enjoy books on their own terms, without necessarily envisioning them as movies. (Unless they’re my own, of course, in which unlikely event I’d be happy to leave the casting to the director.)

When you aren’t writing, what can you typically be found doing?

Working on household tasks and thinking about writing. Sometimes my wife or sons see me washing up while staring off into space with an abstracted expression, and they say, “Oh, Papa’s communing with the aliens again!”

Tell us about something in your life that brings you happiness. What is it, and why?

The performing arts. I went to Oberlin, where there are more musical and theatrical ensembles to join than there are hours in a day (a fact I can verify from personal experience). I love the energy that comes from working together to bring a story, or a piece of music, to life for an audience. Especially choral singing. When you’re singing in harmony with others, it’s hard to stay depressed – that’s not just my opinion; there’s been psychological research that points to the same conclusion. Until the pandemic, I didn’t realize quite how much I missed it.

Where is an interesting place you went to before the COVID-19 travel restrictions?

I’ve traveled all over the world. My most memorable trip was when I came home from my first job in Japan, and joined an overland tour run by a British company: three months from Kathmandu to Cairo. I was nervous about going through Pakistan – political tensions were high and I was strongly warned not to tell anyone I was American – but the people were so hospitable, and the scenery so beautiful, that it stands out in my memory as one of the highlights of the trip.

What tasty dish have you cooked recently?

I grow habanero peppers in my garden, and use them to make infused olive oil for spaghetti pepperoncino. (Well, I think it’s tasty, but evidently I’m the only one in my house who does. The first time my unsuspecting wife tried it, she said, “This isn’t spicy – it’s painful!”)

Tell us a strange, random fact. 

When you dip your toes into the world’s languages (as I like to do when working on creating imaginary languages for imaginary places), you discover all kinds of quirks and mysteries. In most European languages, you can get the word for “night” by putting the letter “n” at the beginning of the word for “eight” (night, nuit, noche, noite, notte, Nacht). In the Zarma language of Niger, there is a short and simple word, “kindo,” that means “a person with six fingers.” I’m trying to imagine who decided that this phenomenon was common enough to warrant a word all its own. Maybe, at some time in the mists of legend, Inigo Montoya visited Niger in pursuit of the six-fingered man who killed his father.

Any final thoughts?

I’m looking forward to the day when Amabie beats the virus-spreading yokai, we can all move a little more freely, and I can present the long-delayed second adventure of Simon Grey. In the meantime, take care, stay safe, and while waiting for the state of emergency to lift, make sure you have plenty of Excalibur books to keep you occupied!

Thank you Charles, on behalf of Excalibur Books!

You can find “The Phantom Games” here …

You can find “Simon Grey and the March of a Hundred Ghosts” here …

You can find “Mind Virus” here …

You can find “The Devil’s Son” here …


About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
This entry was posted in Fantasy, Japan, Literature, Mystery, Mythology. Bookmark the permalink.

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