1) BLADE OF THE SAMURAI is the second Shinobi mystery, and I know that the third is already written and in production. I’m curious about your process for crafting each mystery. Does a crime present itself to you and you fit the characters and their relationships around it, or do choose a character you wish to develop (in this case Kazu) and fashion a crime that involves him? Or do other factors, such as Hiro’s own character development or the larger, overarching mystery into which the individual volumes fit, determine the particular murder Hiro and Father Mateo must solve in a given book?
Great question – and the short answer is, “It varies.” Although each novel is stand-alone, I also have a master arc which follows Hiro and Father Mateo, and their friendship, through the series.
Some of the crimes relate to aspects of Hiro and Father Mateo’s lives that I want to highlight at a certain point in the series. For example: Blade of the Samurai shows the start of a conflict between Father Mateo and other Jesuits in Kyoto.
Some of the books also give me the chance to highlight secondary characters, bringing them “to the front” to share more about their stories. Blade of the Samurai does this, too. It’s Kazu’s chance to shine.
In other cases, I wanted to explore a specific part of medieval Japanese culture, and the crime arises from a murder that might have actually occurred in that setting. For example, the fourth Shinobi Mystery, Blood of the Outcast, deals with the murder of an actor’s daughter and the ripples that killing sends through the theater company.
2) What did you learn about Hiro in BLADE that you didn’t know at the end of CLAWS? About Father Mateo?
Ironically, I didn’t learn the “big, surprising secret” Hiro reveals to the reader near the end of the book. That particular piece of information was one I intended to disclose in this book all along.
However, I always learn at least one new thing about each character as I write, and Blade was no exception. I learned that Father Mateo is stronger, physically, than I thought he was – and that Hiro has more compassion than I originally believed.
But the biggest surprise in this novel, for me, was the fact that the victim had a teenage son. The boy did not appear in my outline. He rode “onstage” and revealed himself while I was writing the book’s first draft, leaving me with the unique decision whether or not to let him “live” – first, by letting him stay in the book, and second, by deciding whether or not he’d survive to the end. I’ll let you read the book to find out what ultimately happened.
3) What aspect of the samurai code that governs Hiro’s behavior conflicts most strongly with Father Mateo’s religion? What aspect of Hiro’s own character does the shinobi find hardest to control?
On the page, Hiro and Father Mateo argue most about telling the truth, and whether or not a person of honor lies. Shinobi (ninjas) were trained to lie, and considered it part of the job assignment. In Father Mateo’s world, a lie is a sin that a man should avoid at almost any cost. These differing world views lead to conflict, but also to some of the most interesting conversations between them.
For Hiro, the hardest part of his current assignment is the limitation on violence as a form of conflict resolution. Medieval samurai, and shinobi, often resorted to violence (fights or assassination) to eliminate problems. Since Hiro is working undercover, and can’t afford to raise suspicions about his true identity by killing the people who cause him problems, he’s forced to work out issues a different way. Hiro isn’t bloodthirsty by nature, so he doesn’t necessarily mind the change, but it’s definitely forcing him to stretch in new directions.
4) The Jesuits in Kyoto operate two missions—the superior, Father Vilela, works with the nobles, while Father Mateo spreads the Gospel among the commoners. Was this a typical strategy of Jesuit missionaries in Japan? What made such a strategy effective? What difficulties does it pose for Father Mateo?
Actually, this was a fairly common strategy for the Jesuits in various parts of the world, including Japan. The Japanese culture was highly regimented, and people from different social classes did not interact. The samurai would have been appalled by the equal treatment of commoners—by clerics or by anyone else—so separating the missions kept the Jesuits’ work with the commoners “out of sight and out of mind.”
Father Mateo’s difficulties arise primarily when his work as a sleuth takes him out of the commoners’ realm and into that of the samurai. As we see in Blade, samurai didn’t appreciate a Jesuit treating their servants as equals, or as people deserving of respect. Father Mateo’s refusal to act like a samurai in that regard triggers trouble with the shogun’s men, and also with his superior, Father Vilela.
5) Ichiro, the teenaged son of the murdered Saburo, makes his debut in BLADE. You seem to have a particular affection for this character. How is he typical of Japanese youth of the time and how does he defy expectations?
Ichiro defied expectations by his existence—he wasn’t in the outline at all. As far as his actions, however, he’s a fairly accurate portrait of a samurai youth on the cusp of adulthood. In many ways, society expected a samurai’s son to behave with adult manners from the time he could walk and talk. Medieval Japanese children were raised with a sense of honor and a mandate to follow the stringent rules of etiquette from a very early age.
At the same time, I wanted Ichiro to reflect the fact that children—even samurai children—are more than miniature adults. He ended up becoming one of my favorite characters in the entire series.
6) Your vivid descriptions pay close attention to the details of Japanese architecture. Is architecture a particular interest of yours? How do the architectural particularities of sixteenth century Japan lend themselves to or complicate the unfolding of your mysteries? With interior walls being constructed of heavy paper, it seems as though it would be quite difficult to communicate with any degree of privacy inside a home or office.
I adore Japanese architecture, particularly the architecture of the medieval period. For the Japanese, construction has always encompassed more than merely “four walls and a roof,” and the creativity and versatility of Japanese homes, businesses, and palaces, has fascinated me for many years.
My love for Japanese architecture started at Tufts University, where I attended college. The Asian Studies department offered several courses in Japanese architecture (and Japanese architectural art), and I love being able to share the details in my novels.
Since the interiors of medieval Japanese houses were largely constructed of lightweight wood and paper, often with open ceilings and rafters, privacy was in short supply. However, some buildings did have ceilings, and solid doors, and the versatility of the available “sets” gives me lots of range and flexibility when it comes to deciding which characters overhear things, and how much they hear.
7) I love that each discrete mystery in your series fits into the larger, overarching mystery of who hired Hiro to protect Father Mateo and why. Hiro himself does not seem to know the answer to these questions. How do you balance the demands of the micro- and macro-mysteries? When will readers learn the answers to these broader questions?
That balancing act is one of my favorite parts of writing the series. My goal is to bring the readers a little more into Hiro’s world (and reveal more of his history) in every novel. At the same time, I’m committed to keeping the novels stand-alone, and minimizing spoilers, so readers who come into the series later on won’t feel like “outsiders” to the characters or the narrative. It definitely takes some planning – much of which took place before I started writing Claws of the Cat, the first book in the series.
As far as the broader questions, like “Who hired Hiro to protect Father Mateo?” and “How did Hiro get those scars on his shoulder and inner thigh?” – the only answer I can give for now is keep reading … the answers are coming, in time.
8) What have you found to be the greatest challenge of writing a series set in a culture so unfamiliar to American readers? What do you hope readers take away from reading the Shinobi books?
The biggest initial challenge for me was finding a way to “translate” the culture without talking down to the reader or spending too much time in backstory and “info-dump.” I originally created Father Mateo to solve that problem. Initially, I intended him to provide a set of Western eyes through which I could explain things to the reader. I quickly learned he was much, much more than that.
Mostly, I hope the novels give readers an enjoyable escape to an exotic time and place. At the end of the day, they’re stories—and I hope readers like them as much as I like writing them (which is to say, a LOT). If they also take away a little knowledge of Japanese history and culture, so much the better! But I’d be thrilled just to hear that readers like spending time with Hiro and Father Mateo.
Thank you so much for having me on your blog and doing this interview! These were great questions and really fun to answer!!
You can find out more about Susan Spann and her Shinobi Mysteries at her website.