Interview - Kara Dalkey, author of Little Sister & The Heavenward Path

Current Theme Song (aka what's playing on my ipod right now): Rebirthing by Skillet.

Thank you for inviting me onto your blog to answer questions about a couple of my favorite books. Let’s get right to it…

1. Yours was the first Asian fantasy I ever read (and it still remains one of my absolute favorites). What made you decide to write it? Why Japan, why Heian Japan (700 to 1100 AD)?

I don’t remember exactly when I became fascinated with Heian Japan, perhaps while I was studying anthropology and mythology at UCLA, perhaps after. But somewhere in there, I learned about this relatively peaceful period in Japanese history when the nobility were deeply enthralled with artistic pursuits. Men had poetry and perfume-making contests. Women styled their multi-layered kimono’s just so to match the season, and became masterful musicians on the koto. But most interesting of all, to me, was that the noblewomen of the palace, who were given little to do but make themselves attractive for marriage in order to cement connections between families, these women wrote. They wrote diaries and poems and romantic stories and lists of things they liked and didn’t like, and they passed them around to one another like ‘zines, or blogs. And better yet, many of these writings, monotagari, have been preserved and translated so a modern, Western woman can read them, read how life was a thousand years ago in a far away land, and compare her present-day life and thoughts to theirs. Not to mention that the oldest known novel, The Tale of Genji by Murakami Shikibu, dates from this period.

Part of my philosophy in writing historical fantasy is that one cannot make up cultures any stranger than those that have already existed in the past. I knew, once I delved into Heian culture, that I would someday have to write a story set there.

2. I had never heard of tengu before I read your book, but apparently they are fairly famous in Japan. Is there something in particular that compelled you to write about tengu in particular? Can you tell us a little about them?

Tengu are what mythologists today would call a “trickster figure” and therefore great fun to write. In Heian tales, tengu would harass monks for being so serious (ostensibly to test the monks faith), and play tricks and shift their shape from bird-like to human. They also were said to be highly skilled, some being master swordsmen (one of which I have make an appearance in my novel GENPEI.) There was also something slightly sad about them, for they seemed drawn to humans, yet always apart from them. Some tales said tengu were the reincarnation of monks who broke their vows. All this is why I thought a tengu would make a great character to play with.

3. How much research did you need to do to make this story come to life? Because it really is, in fact, quite transportive. It really felt like you were in 12th century Japan, complete with culture and their beliefs and views of the world. I loved it.

Short answer, lots. And yet it was never enough. (I haven’t learned much Japanese, so I had to deal with translated works). The best overview of Heian culture that I know of is The World Of The Shining Prince, by Ivan Morris. I think I’ve worn my copy of that book almost to pieces, it’s been so useful. But I’ve also read Genji (and the footnotes! Very important…) as well as Murakami’s diary, as well as the pillow books of other Heian women. Every now and then, I find another translated work to read for inspiration. The last one (which I haven’t finished yet because it’s in two large volumes) is “A Tale of Flowering Fortunes”.

4. Another Asian fantasy author, Cindy Pon, invented many of the creatures her heroine faced from her own imagination. Is that the case with you? Or are they all based on real myths/legends? I know tengu are real, but what about when Mitsuko meets the Judge of the Dead, for example? How much is based on already-existing stories?

To the best of my ability, I tried to keep the creatures and mythological personages as close as possible to those in the original tales. Part of my purpose was to introduce these figures to western readers who might be unfamiliar with them. So, yes, Lord Emma-O is based on mythological tales. I had originally envisioned Little Sister as sort of an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole sort of story, but populated with figures of Japanese mythology. It became a little more than that.

5. How did you decide to keep which parts of the conflicting tengu stories? And how did you develop such a realistic culture for them? (I highly doubt the legends went into such detail). :)

Actually, the legends –do- go into a lot of detail about the tengu (apparently the Japanese love them too), so I did not need to add much. As to which legends to keep, well much as other writers play with vampire myths, choosing those that suit their story, or keep them interesting, I chose the qualities of tengu that suited the character I wanted to write.

6. How did you like the covers? I thought they were absolutely stunning. Did you have any say in them at all?

I gave no initial direction to the artist, Victor Lee, so you could say I was very lucky. The only comment I made, when I was shown the preliminary sketches, was that the tengu on Mitsuko’s sleeve looked a little too cartoony, a little too…teenage mutant ninja turtles. So they were changed to be a little more ominous.

7. You used proper Japanese name notation (last name first). Can I say how much you rock for that?

You may say how much I rock. (I thought it was important too. Part of that verisimilitude thingy.)

8. Out of both books, which scene/scenes are your favorite, personally?

I’m afraid I wrote these so long ago, it’s hard to remember. But I am all too fond of the chapter in Little Sister where Mitsuko runs off with her sister to the abandoned shrine in the forest and that night meets a tengu for the first time.

9. Did you write all of those haikus yourself? Many of them are so beautiful.

Yes, I wrote them all myself. In my first Heian-set work, The Nightingale, I tried using haiku written in that period and found that although the poems themselves might be in the public domain, the translations were not. So it seemed easier to do my own for LS and HP. I’m gratified you like them.

10. While you were writing this did you have to cut out anything you didn't want to cut out, editors or otherwise?

Again, these were written and published years ago, so I don’t really remember, but I don’t think there were any scenes I adored that had to be cut out. The editor, Jane Yolen, took a very light hand with them.

11. You play in a band, correct? Is there any way to hear any of your music? Have you ever thought of writing music for your stories?

I was in a band. I’ve been in quite a few, off and on in my life. But these were cover bands, playing songs we liked. My main instrument is electric bass guitar, which is not, by and large, a composer’s instrument. I’ve written a few songs, but they are mostly silly ditties that I wrote for fun. My best known songs in fannish circles are “Captain Jenny” and the much earlier filk of “Swinging on a Star” based on fantasy tropes. I’m not quite as brave and artistically adventurous (and talented) as Ursula LeGuin and Catherine Asaro who have blended music and fiction.

12. Will there ever be a third book? It felt like it was supposed to be a part of a trilogy. Any hope of that ever happening?

As it happens, I did do a proposal for a third story of Mitsuko. But in the mysterious ways of publishing, it was not bought. So, alas, it is unlikely that book will be written…unless I just decide to do so on my own.

13. Is there anything new in the pipeline? I hear Asian fantasy is picking up right now. ;)

My most recent published work is a near future SF short story, “Flatland”, in Sharyn November’s YA anthology Firebirds Soaring, which came out this spring.

Right now, my agent is shopping around an alternate-history fantasy set in early California. Sort of Zorro-land with magic. We had a publisher interested, but then the downturn happened last September and that fell through.

Still in the word processor are a purely-fantasy fantasy called Wraithstorm, a girls’ near future sf YA based on some stuff in “Flatland”, and a Nazi/vampire alternate history called Bloodreich. (Wraithstorm is the closest of these to being finished, but it’s still a long way from done).

I’m also doing an Edwardian steam punk (early electric punk?) short story set just before the start of World War 1.

As you can see, I’m sort of taking a break from Heian and Asian fantasy. I don’t have anything new to say or explore in that milieu right now. But that could change some day. The wonderful thing about Heian culture is how it is so intricate and complex and beautiful and shocking that there are always wonders to discover there.

14. And here are some extras generously given by Kara Dalkey (awesome):

Here’s a bibliography of all my published Asian-based fiction, in case you or your readers want to find them.


THE NIGHTINGALE, May 1988 hardback, April 1991 paperback, Ace/Berkley

LITTLE SISTER, December 1996; hardcover, Harcourt Brace

THE HEAVENWARD PATH, 1998; hardcover, Harcourt Brace -- Young Adult historical fantasy set in Heian Japan, sequel to LITTLE SISTER.

GENPEI, January 2001, hardcover, Tor -- Historical Fantasy set in Japan, based on the Genpei War of 1180-1185 A.D.

Short Stories:

"The Ghost of Wan Li Road", THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT, September 1989, Harper & Row (Harper Junior Books), harcover, Martin Greenberg & Jane Yolen editors -- Ghost story set in China for Juvenile horror anthology.

"The Peony Lantern", PULPHOUSE HOLIDAY ANTHOLOGY SPECIAL; December 1990; Pulphouse Publishing, Kristine Rusch editor; Reprinted in THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASY & HORROR, Fifth Annual Collection, August 1992, St. Martins Press, Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling editors -- Ghost story set in ancient Japan.

"The Chrysanthemum Robe", THE ARMLESS MAIDEN, April 1995, Terri Windling editor, hardcover, Tor -- Anthology of fantasy stories on the theme of child abuse.

“Lady Shobu”, TALES OF THE SLAYER II, January 2003, Simon & Schuster, Anthology tie-in to the Buffy The Vampire Slayer television series.

“The Lady of The Ice Garden”, FIREBIRDS, September 2003, The Penguin Group, Sharyn November editor, YA speculative fiction anthology.

Thanks again for encouraging me to blather on about my work, and if you have any other questions, feel free to ask.

I'm going to make that an open invitation to all my blog readers. ^_^ If you have any questions or comments, put them here or shoot me an email and I will make sure to get them to her.


Jazz said...

This is a great interview! Now I definitely want to check out your work and follow what else you come out with. I'm very interested in steampunk, or early electric punk, if that is what it is. I'm a firm believer that things must run on steam in order for it to be steampunk.

Unknown said...

Great interview! Your interviews are always so them!

PJ Hoover said...

Japanese mythology! I love it! Makes me want to re-read my mythology book and listen more to that section.

Heather Zundel said...

Jazz - Great way to describe steampunk. Makes so much sense, but I never thought of it. ;)

Beth - Thank you SO much! I do try very hard.

PJ - I know, isn't it awesome? I absolutely love tengu now. Trying to figure out a way to sneak them into my own writing. Wait, is it on audiobook?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great interview! I read About Mitsuko a couple of years ago and loved it! It be great to see a third book, but we never know.

My best wishes to Kara, I hope I can read more of her work soon:)

Heather Zundel said...

lilsisCaro - I just sent your comment onto Kara. She really appreciated it. Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

You just made my day, knowing that she got my comment is amazing! Thanks :)

Heather Zundel said...

lilisCaro - You're welcome. She really loved getting the comment as well. I think you may have made her day. I'm trying to show her how many people love this series. Do you know of any others?

lilsis said...

Hi! I was wondering if you had any news on Kara and her books. I've come to realize that you're my only link to her :D

Have a nice day!