Ep 319 Meet Lian Hearn, multi-million-copy bestselling author of the ‘Children of the Otori’ series.

In Episode 319 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Lian Hearn, multi-million-copy bestselling author of the Children of the Otori series. Also, check out Berbay Books’ callout for chapter books and junior fiction. Discover your chance to meet Allison! Plus, we have 3 copies of Mrs Groff’s Mischievous Book of Motherhood Management by Maggie Groff to give away.

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Writer in Residence

Lian Hearn

One of Australia’s most internationally successful writers, Lian Hearn’s books have been translated into 42 languages and have sold millions of copies. Nine of her books are set in a mythical country based on medieval Japan: these are the five Tales of the Otori books, starting with Across the Nightingale Floor; The Tale of Shikanoko: Emperor of the Eight Islands and Lord of the Darkwood; and Children of the Otori: Orphan Warriors and Sibling Assassins. She has also written two historical novels set in nineteenth-century Japan, Blossoms and Shadows and The Storyteller and His Three Daughters.

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks for joining us today, Lian.

Lian

Oh, thank you for inviting me.

Valerie

Now your latest books are out. For those people who have not yet grabbed a copy, tell us what they’re about.

Lian

They’re the two final books in my series, The Tales of the Otori. So the first one is called Orphan Warriors and the second on Sibling Assassins. So they kind of follow on the story in the series, but they’re also standalone novels about a relatively new character who’s a minor character in one of the earlier books.

Valerie

And so they are standalone books. If we focus on these ones, can you tell us the premise?

Lian

I was very interested in the events in Japanese history where you have families ordered to commit suicide. This often happened, you know, warlords who had been defeated or sons who had annoyed their father for some reason, or vassals who were thought to have been traitors. And so they were ordered to take their own lives and often the lives of their families too. And this seems to us to be a very cruel and harsh thing. And you hardly ever hear about the effect on the children. So sometimes the children died with their parents, or there are sometimes instances of where a loyal retainer will substitute his own child for the child of his lord, and so that child survives.

And so my two orphan warriors are both in this situation. One of them has had his parents ordered to commit suicide. And the other one has been the sole survivor of a family who were ordered to kill themselves because one of his father’s retainers did substitute his own son for him. So they have to live with these awful events having happened in their young lives.

Valerie

And so it’s Children of the Otori, and the first book is Orphan Warriors. The second is Sibling Assassins. Now you have set nine of your books in a mythical country based on medieval Japan. So presumably you are really into Japan! Can you tell us how that started and why you’re so fascinated by it?

Lian

It actually started when I was quite young. I’ve always been very interested in Japan. I’m never really quite sure why. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that when I was a child growing up, Japan was the enemy. And I’ve always been interested in what makes countries enemies with each other. And I’ve always had that sympathy for the person who’s perceived as an enemy or an underdog or something like that.

And when I came to Australian, suddenly Japan seemed very much closer. I mean it’s only nine hours away on a plan and it’s in the same time zone. And there are a lot of connections in between Japan and Australia now.

So I went to Japan for the first time in 1993 on a school trip, with my fourteen-year-old daughter. And I just fell in love with it. As soon as I was there, I felt that I had been there before. It was the most strange feeling, but it all seemed, although it was all very unusual and very familiar, it also seemed familiar in a very strange way.

Valerie

I think that’s potentially a book in itself! So based on medieval Japan, what kind of research have you done on medieval Japan? And what extent of that research has been incorporated in your books?

Lian

Well I suppose I’ve done everything that I could possibly do. I’ve spent long periods in Japan. I’ve been in the countryside where the books are set. I go to old towns and look at old houses and walk in places where castles once stood and understand why they were built there and that sort of thing. Check out the birds and the animals and the plans and the trees and all of that. I’ve been very lucky that I have been able to do that quite a lot.

And then I watched a lot of Japanese movies. I read a lot of Japanese literatures, both in translation and now in Japanese as well. Go to art galleries and museums. You know, look at a lot of artworks, read poetry, talk to Japanese people. All of those things, yep.

And all of that goes into the book. Sorry, I’ll answer the second half of your question.

Valerie

No, please do. Please go.

Lian

And all of that goes into the books. But I kind of have it all there, and then I try to forget it as much as possible, so that I’m writing naturally about people who actually live in this world, you know, that they’re not surprised by things in the world. Like I might have been surprised while I was writing, I’d go, wow, I didn’t know that. But my characters do know that, so I have to make it all seem very natural.

Valerie

So you’ve chosen to write about this world, as you have referred to it. How did you create this world? What did you start with? Or what kind of world did you want to create in order to tell your stories?

Lian

I wanted to… Well, my first prompt, I suppose, was I wanted to see if I could write a high fantasy set in a world that was not Anglo-Celtic. And that was when I began to wonder if I could set it in a world based on medieval Japan.

And when I started, when I first went to Japan, I had the voice of my main character very strongly in my head and I knew his story very clearly. And the other characters then came in. But I don’t ever really start with a sensible plan. I just sit down and I start to write. I may have some key scenes and some conversations and some sentences in my head. And an overall feel of the book. Like I usually know what colour the book represents in my mind. And I sit down and I start writing.

I write by hand in 240-page spiral-bound notebooks with gel pens.

Valerie

Wow. You write by hand?

Lian

I do. And I don’t write an awful lot at a time. If I write a thousand words a day, which is about three pages, I feel very pleased with myself and I feel that’s enough. But on my first draft I don’t stop. I just let everything in. And I write early in the morning, almost as if I’m in a trance, and I just sit down and let the story unfold. And I find that that’s the most absorbing and enthralling part of writing, because I really don’t know what’s going to happen, and my characters often surprise me. And the plot surprises me as well. It goes in directions that I hadn’t thought it was going to go in.

Valerie

So do I take from that that you don’t plot? Or do you have some semblance of a plot and you just let it go down a path? How does that work for you?

Lian

Yeah, I don’t plot at all to start with.

Valerie

Oh my god.

Lian

I just let the characters drive the story. Sometimes I have an idea of where the book’s going to end and I know what I’m working towards.

But after my first draft, I then go through that very carefully, and then I make a very careful outline of what’s actually happening in the story. And I put that onto a time chart so that we know the time of day and the day of the month and the phase of the moon and what’s happening and the seasons and all of those things.

And when I type it up, I’m a very stern editor of my own work. So I get rid of a lot of things that I don’t think are necessary and I can see where things need to be enhanced a little bit, widened out a little bit. The characters have got a bit off the track and they have to be reined back. So it’s not that I don’t write without form, but I don’t like to do it at first. It comes afterwards.

Valerie

And so I’m still back on that you write it out by hand on the 240-page spiralbound notebooks. Although I do like the gel pens. But if you do that, and you get your first draft out that way, at what point does it make it on to the computer?

Lian

Well, then I have to type it up.

Valerie

Oh my god.

Lian

So that’s when I type it in. But that’s good, because that works as a second draft.

Valerie

Yeah, sure. Okay, so when did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Lian

Oh probably very early on, as a young child. I was always making up poems when I was little and writing little stories about my toys and our pets and so on. And so everybody used to say, oh, well, Gill’s going to be a writer when she grows up. But I didn’t think I could be because it always seemed to me that you need to have lived some sort of life to be able to be a writer. I didn’t know what I was going to write about.

And I think what really inspired me was the books that I read as a child, which I fell so totally in love with, I have always had a dream to be able to write books like that, you know, that readers will love. And I think many writers say that, that it’s that thrill of kind of carrying on the torch, you know, and then passing it on to other people. That is one of the great things about being a writer.

Valerie

So you made reference to that people would say, you know, Gill’s going to be a writer. Because of course your first novel, back in 1986, was under the name of Gillian Rubenstein.

Lian

That’s right.

Valerie

So tell us – that was Space Demons – tell us why Lian Hearn?

Lian

Well, I wrote under the name of Gillian Rubenstein for quite a long time. Maybe 15 years. And wrote many books for children of all ages. You know, picture book texts, up to fairly complex teenage novels. And also ten plays.

And when I got to the end of my teenage novels, and I had the idea and I’d written the first book in the trilogy, Across the Nightingale Floor, and I said to my agent, you know, I would really love to bring this out under a pen name. And she said, actually, I think that’s a very good idea. So it made a clear distinction between one sort of writing, which was mainly for children and adolescents, and this new writing, which was more for adults.

Valerie

And so you said, you just referred to ‘when I came to the end of writing for teenagers,’ was that a natural end? As in did you make a conscious decision – I am now going to close that chapter? And I’m now going to start a new one? Or was it just circumstantial, because you ended up writing all of these amazingly successful books?

Lian

Well, it was a sort of decision. In fact, it was slightly premature, and I always feel a bit guilty about this. Because I had written two books that were going to be part of a trilogy, Galax-Arena and Terra-Farma, and I never wrote the third one. I started trying to write it, but I’d already got into my other persona by then. And I was so in love with the Japanese world that I found I couldn’t go back to this other world. So I still, you know, get letters from readers saying, whatever happened to Universercus? Which was the third book. And I have to say, I’m really sorry, I just could not write it.

Valerie

Okay. So you have sold millions of copies. And your books have been translated into 42 languages. Did you ever anticipate that that was going to happen?

Lian

Not at all. It was really a complete surprise to me. And I remember that my agent took the books to the Frankfurt Book Fair and she kept emailing me and telling me about the amazing auctions that were going on with all of the different countries. And I was completely mind-blown by it all. It just didn’t seem to be the sort of thing that would ever happen to me.

But I think what happened was that in the years that I’d been sort of plodding away being really interested in Japan and doing my research and studying Japanese, during that time a lot of people had also become very interested in Japan. And it just sort of came out at the right time and there was a great thirst for that sort of material.

Valerie

And so you’ve mentioned that about this ancient custom of requiring that either certain people or children commit suicide or are killed, what specifically gave you the idea for this book? Like, what made you think, I’m going to write a book about that and this is going to happen?

Lian

A lot of people have been asking me what happened at the end of The Harsh Cry of the Heron, which is quite a dark book. You know, quite tragic at the end. And I started to think maybe I would write about some of the surviving characters. And I’d had a lot of difficulty getting into the voice of the story. I made two or three false starts of several tens of thousands of words and I was feeling a bit frustrated by this.

And then I suddenly decided that I was going to write from the point of view of the boy. Partly because I think at the moment boys are struggling so much to know how to grow up in our world, which is so full of men who are not all that good role models. And who are also leading most of the countries of the world. And I started to think what it would be like to be the son of those world leaders and how they would feel. And so in a way, I was writing a book, these books, for that sort of person.

And so I settled on the child main character, which is interesting because even though it’s an adult book, really, the main character is a child and we see everything through his point of view. It’s a closed third person voice.

And once I got that, it was as if the two books wrote themselves. That was just exactly how I was meant to write these two books.

Valerie

That’s a pretty magical feeling.

Lian

Yes, it was.

Valerie

So give us a little more of an idea. So the first draft’s by hand. Your second draft is kind of like when you’re typing it in and no doubt you fix things here and there or change things here and there in your second draft. What happens after that? Can you just take us through the rest of you writing process? Do they come out fairly well formed and fully formed? Or is there a lot of going back because you forgot bits or got things in the wrong order? Do you restructure? Describe, typically, the rest of your writing process for a book for us.

Lian

Well once I have that second draft on the computer, I just keep reading through it and reworking it and changing bits here and there. But usually, it’s pretty okay structurally at that stage. I think because I use my charts and my maps and my timelines and everything, so I’ve got a very good sense of the bones of the book.

And I read it through endless times and add bits here and then take things away and so on. And probably I’ll have done that four or five times and then I send it to my agent and she then reads it and gives her opinion. And then it goes out to publishers. That’s the process.

Valerie

What did you find the most challenging thing or the hardest thing about writing these?

Lian

They’ve all been not exactly difficult to write. I’ve found them fairly easy to write.

Valerie

That’s great!

Lian

Once I get into that trance frame of mind, you know, I just let the story happen. And I’ve got such a clear idea of the characters and of their relationships to each other.

But I have to confess one thing to you, which is I absolutely hate being edited. So for me, editing is an extremely and fraught stage of the writing process.

Valerie

Is it because you think that the editor is wrong? Or because you just hate changing things? Why do you hate it?

Lian

It’s a sort of mixture of both of them. I think because I’ve been through my process for so long, and I know my world so well, that I find it hard to believe anyone else knows better than me on it.

Valerie

So I’m interested in…

Lian

I’m not saying that I don’t listen to editors. I do, and I often change things according to their suggestions. But it’s a very painful process for me.

Valerie

So I’m interested in the trance-like state. What… You say you write typically in the mornings. What do you do, do you have any rituals or do you have to get into the trance-like state in any way? Just take us through kind of like almost like a step by step, what happens when you start writing to get yourself into the groove?

Lian

I get up very early in the mornings. Often while it’s still dark.

Valerie

Like what time?

Lian

Maybe five o’clock.

Valerie

Okay.

Lian

And then I used to make a cup of green tea and go and sit at my desk with my pen and my notebooks and just start writing. And I find that writing at that time of day when it’s really quiet and nobody else is up is fantastic for silencing inner critics. And, you know, that voice in your head that says, oh, you shouldn’t be doing this, you should be doing something else, this is no good. You know.

And so I just write completely freely.

Valerie

And so can you write elsewhere? Like can you go to a cafe? Does it work for you there? Or do you have to be in your space?

Lian

I prefer to be in my space. But I have done quite a lot of writing on the road in, you know, on planes, for instance. And in airport lounges. And in different places.

When I was writing Grass for His Pillow, which is the second book in the trilogy, I had a spell of being writer in residence at an Indonesian school, and I did quite a lot of writing there, which was wonderful.

And I carry my books with me often so that I can write on the road. But my preferred place is at home at my desk.

Valerie

So the scary thing is, if you handwrite them into those spiral bound notebooks and you are out on the road, have you ever lost a notebook?

Lian

No, I’ve never lost one. I’ve always, always been absolutely terrified that I might. And in fact, when I had finished Heaven’s Net is Wide and The Harsh Cry of the Heron, which are both pretty big books and I think they went to five notebooks each, and I was telling my friends about this. And they go, you absolutely have to photocopy them! You can’t just keep them in notebooks. So I took them down to the local office shop and solemnly had them photocopied in case the house burnt down or, I don’t know, somebody stole them or something.

But normally I just hope that I don’t lose them.

Valerie

I mean, yeah, that would be horrendous.

Okay, so now, what are you working on? In terms of writing? Do you have your next book in your brain? Or coming out? Or half out already?

Lian

No, I’ve actually decided to retire from writing novels, because…

Valerie

Your fans are going to be in uproar! Seriously!

Lian

Well, I have broken the news to them. But I think probably nine books in this world is enough. And even though, I mean, I could go on and on. Because two of the books are set much earlier, like 300 years earlier, that’s the tale of Shikanoko, I could always fill in the years in between too with what was happening to everybody all through that time.

But I’ve decided that I really do want to stop now. I’m 77 years old. I’ll be 78 this year. And even though I’m very lucky, I’m in really good health and everything, but I can feel that I don’t have the energy to write a novel anymore. Because it does take a huge amount of energy. It’s a lot of work. And a lot of concentration and dedication.

Valerie

Yes. Will you not miss that trancelike state?

Lian

I think I will. But, you know, I’ve had a lot of ideas for poems. So I’m keeping track of all of them in a notebook and I’ll probably just work on doing short poetry.

Valerie

What a great idea. And what was the… Apart from the trance like flow that seems to come to you so naturally, what do you find has been the most rewarding thing about writing these books?

Lian

I think that the relationship I have with my readers has been really fantastic. So people have been loving these books for almost 20 years now. And early on, the American publishers had a forum for the books, which was on my website. And that was wonderful. You know, kids from all over the world were coming on to the forum and talking about the books and talking about their lives and everything.

And I did a book signing at Abby’s bookshop in Sydney the week before last, and some of those people who are now almost 40, you know, sent orders to have books sent to them in England and the States and other countries so that I would sign them for them. And I recognised their names. I feel as if I know them. So that sense of a readership out there has been really fantastic.

Valerie

Did you know as you were writing these that these were the last novels that you wanted to write? Or did you decide that later?

Lian

These two?

Valerie

Yeah.

Lian

I had a feeling that they might be, yes.

Valerie

So did you grieve the end of it?

Lian

A bit. But I also, the second one, Sibling Assassins, I like as much as anything I’ve written. So I was really quite happy to feel that I could finish on a high, on a book that I was really satisfied with.

Valerie

But, you know, never say never. Because you might have been Gillian Rubenstein before, and Lian Hearn now. Who knows? Maybe a new poet is going to emerge under another name, right?

Lian

Maybe. Yes. I’ll have to think of another pseudonym.

Valerie

Right, so, what’s your… I mean, what an incredible career, and what incredible success. What would your top three tips be for aspiring writers who hope to have a career like you one day?

Lian

Well, I think the first thing is don’t worry if you can’t get a long period of time, because you can write a novel at 500 words a day. And anyone can manage that. If you do 500 words a day over a year, you know, you have quite a sizeable piece of work.

And the second thing is to read a lot. Because that’s how we learn to write is through reading.

And I guess the third thing is not to get discouraged. Find some good writer friends and be very clear sighted about… You know, it’s hard now to make a career as a writer. In a way, I was lucky. I think it was a sort of golden age when I started writing, and then when the Otori books came out. But I think things have changed a lot. It’s so much harder now to have your first book published and for that to make a splash and then to have your second book published and so on.

So yes, that’s my third piece of advice. Don’t get discouraged.

Valerie

That’s great advice. And you’re certainly incredibly inspirational. So congratulations on all of your words and on having such a wonderfully successful and inspiring career. Thank you so much for your time today, Lian.

Lian

Oh, thank you very much. It’s been really lovely talking to you.


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