Colors seem to be the connective tissue in “Ghost River Red.” Can you tell us more about the significance, and how this story came about?
Akamiko means “red maiden” in Japanese. I’m fascinated with colors and how they are interpreted in different cultures. In Japan, light green is considered a different color from green and is called ki midori (yellow green). The Chinese character (adopted by Japan) for blue is sometimes interchangeably used with green. Hence in Japan, green traffic lights are referred to as blue lights and there is some confusion over identifying the traditional four guardian animals (red phoenix, white tiger, black turtle, and green/blue dragon). I have explored the issue of colors in other stories set in alternate versions of Japan. “Blue Cherry Sky” deals with the use of ideograms in magic and “Hokkaido Green” involves a photographer in contemporary Japan.
The story came about because I love Barry Hughart’s Master Li and Number Ten Ox books (novels of an Ancient China that never was) and the Chinese Ghost Story movies and wanted to write my own ghost hunter story.
Another source of inspiration was a news story about a pair of 1250-year-old Japanese swords that were only recently identified. X-rays revealed inscriptions marking them as swords dedicated to the memory of an emperor who died in 756. The swords had been buried at the foot of the Great Buddha statue in Nara for more than a thousand years.
Why did you choose an older leading character?
Older protagonists aren’t as common in fiction. I have older female friends and relatives who have described becoming increasingly invisible in social situations as they get older. I liked the idea of an older character that was quietly spoken, but at the same time was too powerful to ignore.
In some ways Japan is a youth-obsessed culture, but it is still strongly influenced by the Confucian idea of age commanding respect. It is generally not considered rude to ask people their age in Japan, as it is important to know whether someone is older than you. If they are your senior, this dictates the verb endings and style of language you should use when speaking with them. My landlady’s mother in Japan would exercise in the park every morning, even when she was 93. Once a month people from the neighborhood would come to her house and listen to her give a talk on how to live a good life.
From the story, we can guess what a swordwriter does, but a lot is left to the imagination. What made you go this way? Also, can you tell us a little more about the nature of swordwriting?
There isn’t a lot of space in a short story for backstory and exposition, so I kept the explanations about swordwriters to a minimum. I had been reading about Japanese calligraphy and the emphasis placed on creating simple yet beautiful strokes. I wanted to apply that kind of philosophy to a dedicated warrior, mixed with the idea of having a palette of different colored swords. Although swordwriters are only permitted to travel with at most seven swords, in the capital Akamiko has more than a hundred different colored swords. I like the idea of choosing the right tool for the job and each particular color being suitable for a particular task.
What do you think the most important bit of advice is to give to new writers?
The most important thing is to consistently make time to write. My advice for writing short stories is to think of an interesting character and start the story when they are in trouble. Give them a difficult choice to make, and end the story when there is some kind of resolution.
What’s next for you?
I’ve finished a young adult novel set in a version of feudal Japan involving monks that use equations to control dragons. That is currently on submission. I’m working on a novel featuring a zombie outbreak at a computer game tournament in Japan, as well as some more color-themed short stories. I also have plans for a novel set in the world of the swordwriters.
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