Interview - Alan Gratz, author of Samurai Shortstop

Current Theme Song (aka what's playing on my ipod right now): First Time by Lifehouse.

Okay, I am totally stoked about this interview. Not only has Alan Gratz written an incredible novel about one of the coolest combinations I could never think of (baseball and samurai. So cool), he is also funny and so genuine guy and a joy to interview. I proudly present Alan Gratz of Samurai Shortstop.

1. Where you got the idea for Samurai Shortstop is a rather remarkable one. Would you mind sharing it with us?

Sure. Samurai was actually the third book I wrote for young readers, but became the first one I sold. Frankly, I never thought I would ever write historical fiction, because I was too lazy. Historical fiction takes LOTS of research, and great organizational skills. I wanted/had neither. But while I was writing one of Samurai Shortstop's predecessors, I got totally infatuated with Japan. It began when my wife handed me SHOGUN and said "Read this! You'll love it." I did, and she was right. I loved it. I started seeking out more fiction set in Japan, then moved on to non-fiction about Japanese history and culture, and on to manga, and on to travel essays--anything about Japan I could get my hands on. I was standing in a bookstore one day, wistfully flipping through a travel guide to Japan and wondering when I would ever get to go, when I saw a picture of a Japanese man in a kimono throwing out the first pitch at a 1915 National High School Baseball Tournament. That the Japanese were mad for baseball was not a surprise. That they had it so EARLY was. I had always assumed the Japanese learned baseball from American GIs during the Allied Occupation following World War II. But not if they were having high school tournaments in 1915. That picture led me to a book about Japanese baseball, and to more research about the Meiji Period, and the rest, as they say, is historical fiction. (Sorry. I couldn't resist.)

2. Do you happen to remember the name of the travel guide?

(the photo that started it all) ^_^

I don't remember the travel guide, but after seeing that picture and going to other books about Japanese baseball, I've seen the image over and over again. This one I scanned in from YOU GOTTA HAVE WA, by Robert Whiting, which I highly recommend for anyone wanting to read more about the history of baseball in Japan. That's the book that gave me a lot of ideas for the novel, including the gaijin who climbs over the Sacred Wall of the Soul. That really happened!

3. Is shortstop your favorite position in baseball? Why did you pick that position for Toyo?

I'm not sure I have a favorite position--although some of my favorite players have been first and third basemen. To be honest, Toyo is a shortstop for a very silly reason: "shortstop" sounded good with "samurai." Here's how the title came about. I was sitting in the audience of a session at the SCBWI Mid-Winter conference in New York one year, half-listening to the agents in the panel explain how none of them were actively seeking new clients, and I was daydreaming about writing something that combined all this baseball and Japan reading I'd been doing. I knew it was going to be about samurai, and about baseball, and I started thinking about what position my kid would play. "He's a samurai catcher? No. A samurai first-baseman? No." Then it hit me. I snuck out of the session, called my wife on my cell phone, and said, "I've got a great idea for a book. It's called 'Samurai Shortstop!'" My wife says, "Great, what's it about?" And I said, "I have no idea." But I had a title I liked. The rest of the book came later. :-

4. What is the one thing you wish someone would ask you about your stories, but never have?

That's a tough one, because I do a lot of school visits and kids as EVERYTHING. Stuff you'd never DREAM of. One school visit kids kept asking me, "If someone else was going to die at the end of Samurai Shortstop, who would it be?" I was incredulous. Nobody! WHy would anyone else have to die? What a weird question. It must have been part of some set of questions they had to answer for class-although what the right answer is I have no idea.

Otherwise, I suppose the question I'd love someone to ask about one of my stories is, "Can we give you a million dollars to make this into a movie?" I keep waiting to hear that question. I have my answer all planned out...

5. Now, the opening scene is quite - shocking. Why did you decide to open with his uncle committing seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide)? Was this particular scene difficult to write?

The seppuku scene in the first chapter was difficult on a couple of levels. First, I'm very uncomfortable with knives and blades of all kinds, both in real life and in fiction. So that wasn't pleasant. Second, I had to make sure I handled the scene with some sense of decorum and beauty, despite the grisly nature of the deed. Truly, the graphic part of that chapter is only a couple (maybe three?) paragraphs long, and I go out of my way NOT to be too gory about it, which still trying to paint a realistic picture of ritual suicide. But as soon as I read more about seppuku, I knew I wanted to open the book with it. I was already developing this family unit--the unhappy father and son, and the favorite uncle who died for a cause--and I knew we needed to see that scene. What I tell everyone who questions that chapter is this: while I certainly hope it grabs readers' attentions, it's not merely there for shock value. That opening chapter is the impetus for the entire book. Seeing a real seppuku is suppose to scare us, but more importantly it scares Toyo. It provides Toyo's motivation right from the start: "I will do what I can to prevent my father from doing the same thing." That's why he learns bushido from his father in the first place--to understand it so he can talk his father out of it. If we didn't see what's at stake, if we didn't know what he was trying so hard to keep his father from doing, I think the story wouldn't feel as compelling. It's bad enough that Sotaro wants to kill himself--but to do it like THAT? With Totyo standing over him? Seeing Koji's seppuku makes that vision very real for us.

6. Did you purposely offset the next chapter with something so humorous as the boys desperate clamor for the bathroom on purpose? I thought it quite appropriate and very funny myself, though definitely meant for boys :)

I didn't think, "Okay, that was a dark chapter, now I have to follow that with something funny." At least not in a formal way. But I knew from the start I was going to be dealing with some heavy stuff, so I made a pledge to myself from the start to put humor in whenever I could. I think readers need those breathers before plunging back down into the hardcore stuff. And yeah, it's a lot of boy humor. But there's nothing wrong with that, right? :-)

7. Speaking of boys, there are not a lot of girls that appear in the novel. Was this a conscious decision? Did you write it that way so that it might appeal to boys more, for example?

I didn't set out to write a book with no girls in it. The boys school was dictated by the era, but I'm guilty of killing off the mom so that I could focus on the father/son relationship. As a result, I've tried very hard NOT to kill the mom in my other books--notably my Horatio mysteries. The parents are divorced, but if there's any parent who's more involved in his life, it's his mother. In Samurai Shortstop though, I hadn't even realized there were no girls until I got my first editorial letter and one of the questions was, "Where are all the girls?" That's when I went back and added the girls school, and much of the stuff about the Mainstream Society and sneaking out to spy on girls. Still, Japan was (and in many ways still is) a very male-dominated society, and I though it would be disingenuous to portray it otherwise. And when most of your story takes place at an all-boys boarding school, the decision is kind of made for you. :-)

8. You did a lot of research for this novel. So I have to ask - what is the weirdest manga (Japanese comic books) you've read?

Hoo boy. That's a tough question, because I've seen a bunch of really STRANGE mangas. Um... Well, it's meant as a parody of manga, but it's still a manga: Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo. Essentially, the world is ruled by an evil dude named Baldy Bald the Fourth, whose Hair Hunt Troop goes into villages and, well, shaves off everyone's hair. Leading the fight against Baldy Bald is Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, a guy with a big afro whose special talent is the "Fist of the Nose Hair." It's almost not fair to use this one though, since it's meant as a parody of its own genre...but still.

I will say that my first "What the frak?" moment with manga came pretty early, when I checked Fruits Basket out from the library because it was popular and I wanted to see why people liked it. So, um, an orphan girl learns that her adopted family are possessed by animals from the Chinese zodiac, and they turn into these forms when they hug somebody of the opposite sex. Um...okay. And THIS was the premise that launched 23 volumes, and became an anime television show? That was when I learned that pretty much every manga is messed up to some degree.

9. What is the weirdest piece of information you discovered while writing Samurai Shortstop?

That before baseball came to Japan, they had no word in their language for "sports," as in athletic leisure games. Everything they had done before that--kendo, swimming, archery, sumo--it all had some practical purpose, usually military.

10. What is your favorite scene in the novel, personally?

Hmm. My favorite scene... Well, for two very different reasons, either when Toyo leads his room in a defense against the storm, or when Toyo has to take part in the Clenched Fist Punishment. I think those are two very big moments for Toyo's character--one we as readers cheer, and another we have to look at critically and ask ourselves, "Would I do the same?"

11. Did you have to cut out something you did not want to, editors or otherwise?

I had a scene I was very partial to, where Toyo went to the offices of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper and say his father at work on a typewriter, very uncomfortable with new technology. I liked that, but it didn't survive one round of editing.

13. What do you think is the best principle of bushido (the samurai Japanese "way of the warrior" - their code of ethics, if you will)?

I think the idea of honor is perhaps the best principle of bushido--and something I dearly wish we had more of in the West. You know, people used to fight over honor, to have duels, and while I'm not in favor of bringing back duels, I think we lost something very important when we abandoned the very public idea of maintaining one's public honor. Perhaps if we were all more concerned with doing what is generally considered to be right and honorable, we wouldn't make such terrible fools out of ourselves so often. Or maybe we would, and it would just be a lot worse. :-)

12. Ooooh, do tell us about this Book That Shall Not Be Named that came after Samurai Shortstop, but before your modern mystery retelling of Hamlet (starring Horatio Wilkes. That's just awesome). It was another historical, wasn't it?

Well, there's a reason it is the "Book That Shall Not Be Named," but yes, it was more historical fiction. I had just sold Samurai, and so I thought, "Okay, I need to submit another historical novel, to follow that one up." So I set aside what I was working on--the book that eventually became Something Rotten--and wrote a novel set in ancient Egypt that was the story of King Tut's murder, as told from the viewpoint of a young tomb painter. I still like the idea, but I nervous about writing a second book, and not particularly in love with ancient Egypt the way I had been with Meiji Japan, and so the book was forced and, well, not good. It remains in the file cabinet, along with the two novels I wrote before selling Samurai Shortstop, and two others that need work.

13. What book do you wish you wrote that someone else wrote already?

It's not a book, but a short story: Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald." I think it's pretty perfect--a mashup of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. It's one of my absolute favorite pieces of writing. I have the audio version which Gaiman himself reads, and I listen to it often on solo car trips. I can quote large chunks of it. I wish I had written it both because of the terrific idea behind it, and because of the fabulous writing.

14. Any hint to what you are writing next? (A third Horatio Wilkes novel? Based on A Midsummer Night's Dream? Is there going to be a fourth? And what is this I hear about a a pre-Nemo story before he became captain of the Nautilus? Is there anything you can't do?) :)

I'm currently juggling a few projects, including those you mention, but the one that you'll actually see published next is called "Fantasy Baseball." It's a middle grade novel about a boy who falls into a fantasy world populated by characters from classic children's fiction--Dorothy from Wizard of Oz, Toad from Wind in the Willows, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, et al.--who are all playing in a huge "fantasy baseball tournament." The winners get wishes granted by the Wizard of Oz, so the boy joins Dorothy's team as a first baseman--but of course there's much more to it than that.

My editor and I are talking about a third book in the Horatio Wilkes series--to be called "Something Foolish," and based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, but while I have the idea plotted out there's no due date or pub date for that one at present. And "Nemo," the prequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, is sold and has a first draft written, but I have more work to do on that, and no pub date to announce.

I also just turned in a book proposal to my agent that combines horror and steampunk fantasy, so we'll see if that has legs! Lots of irons in the fire...

And for those of you who are Firefly nuts like me, Alan's favorite character is Jayne Cobb. ^_^


PJ Hoover said...

Very cool interview! And staying busy with lots of projects is a great place to be!

PJ Hoover said...

And I got my book, BTW, Heather! Thanks!

Unknown said...

FANGIRL SQUEE!!!! I want SOMETHING FOOLISH like NOW! Midsummer Night's Dream is so wonderful!

And can I also put in a request for something King Lear based? :)

Vivian Mahoney said...

These books sound very cool! I'll have to go check them out. Thanks for a great interview.

Heather Zundel said...

PJ - I'm so glad! Happy readings ^_^

Beth - I LOVE Midsummer Night's Dream as well. King Lear is one of my friend's favorites. Have you ever read The Loser's Guide to Life and Love by Ann Cannon? It's a modern retelling of Midsummer. :)

Vivian - You're welcome. Definitely check them out. They are way good.