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Aisuru Interview - Part 1

Happy March!  Happy Spring Break!

Here is part one of the transcript of my interview with Anma Natsu about her book Aisuru, which premieres on  March 27th.  It is currently available for pre-order!  You can check out her website and stay tuned for part two of this interview for more details.

I paraphrased some of the interview and took out some of the "uhh's" and "okay's" and "so's" so you didn't tear your hair out trying to read our conversation.  If you'd rather listen to it, you can go here or look up Anma Natsu's podcast,  The Lackadaisical Writer, on your favorite podcast app and look for episode #60.
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I met Anma Natsu a couple of years ago through our writing group for NaNoWriMo.  We’ve gotten to know each other much better, read manuscripts for each other, and given each other feedback.  I’ve read two versions of Aisuru but not the final version.  I am really excited to be interviewing her about that here today.

Can you give me the elevator pitch for your novel?


The quick one-liner elevator pitch is that a dying 18-year-old girl finds her walls of self-isolation crumbling after she opens her home and her heart to a yokai prince hiding from his murderous brother.  That is the very very short, quick summary of Aisuru.


A good follow up question to that is:  can you tell us what a yokai is?


A yokai is… It’s kind of a catch-all term in Japan for supernatural being.  It’s more wide-ranging than just saying “ghost” in English, but it covers a huge range of supernatural beings; from ghosts to spirits to oni - which is one people may be familiar with if they've watched or read anything Japanese - then more specific creatures like kappa.  If you've ever seen the movie Princess Mononoke then the gods would be considered yokai.  Those adorable little kendama with the little head-things, those would also be yokai.  It is a very wide catching term of a supernatural being in general.  The subgroup like mononoke is also a term for specifically ghostly, spiritual-type beings, but, they still are considered types of yokai as well.  It really is just a catch-all term for something supernatural and just a little beyond our world.  It’s something you’ll find in a lot of Japanese mythology.


If that’s popular in Japanese mythology, you had mentioned it was in some anime, is it relevant in Japanese culture today, kind of the way that vampires and werewolves have come back into our mythos?


Yes.  While they don’t have a dominant religion, in terms of Christianity kind of in the U.S., but they do a blend of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs.  A lot of people in Japan are still very supernatural believing.  They still honor their ancestors, they worship them, they give them breakfast for their ghosts; because they expect they’re watching over them.  For them, a lot of times they will still blame anything that can’t be explained on some sort of yokai or other supernatural being.  In their culture, it’s still very popular, especially in the anime and manga realms, but also in novels and movies, to feature different kinds of yokai.  It’s something that’s very recognizable.  Even today it’s like “Oh, your door didn't close right.  It’s this,” or “Make sure you do this, or you’re going to tick somebody off.”  You’ll have some ghost hunting after you.  It’s fun.  It’s interesting when you think of Japan as such a modern society, you think modern society.  You don’t think as much supernatural, other than “fun fiction”. But for them, it’s still very much a part of everyday life in many ways.  It’s pretty cool.


Another aspect of Japanese culture that you've brought into the novel is the inclusion of several Japanese words, which you have given explanations of in the book.  Just as a sampler, can you tell us what aisuru means?


Aisuru is actually the Japanese word for “to love.”  It’s kind of the root form of different ways of saying “I love you” or “love” or that someone loves someone else.  Early versions of the novel, I actually called it Aisuru - To Love, which then I was just basically saying “to love - to love”.  It’s like, “Okay, we can drop the second one.”  It’s a base word for “to love”.  Which was fitting for me; the whole arc of the story is the two characters both learning to love each other.


We definitely look forward to learning more Japanese in the novel.  An obvious answer to this is Japanese culture, but, what are some more specific influences for you for this story?


Its been a long time since i wrote the first draft, so I have to kind of think back.   One was the idea that if you were dying what would it be like to suddenly find yourself connecting with someone, knowing that you were dying.  What sort of emotional feeling would that invoke if you were someone who was very caring and sensitive?  How would you feel if you were essentially setting them up for heartbreak? We've seen that in American novels like The Fault in our Stars.  I haven’t read it but I know it’s a similar style in that there is a dying person who then finds love towards the end of life.
Also the obvious richness of the yokai; being able to pull in all sorts of characters and really have fun with a secondary world that is completely different from ours while still blending in the realistic.
And then trying to make sure the story that is the Japan side is still very true to life, other than the fact that there is a yokai walking around.  
And then the health care systems there and medicines there and why it would make it possible for this to even happen to a girl.  In the US it would almost be unheard of for someone to be dying from what we might consider treatable but in Japan, it would be very possible.  
My writing style as a whole is very influenced by anime and manga and light novels.  Most years its 70 - 80 percent of what i read and i have picked up a lot of the Japanese-style storytelling tropes and common things that they do and common storytelling mechanisms. That definitely influenced where the story went off to, in that way.  


I can definitely say that the first time that i read through this I was thinking, “This is kind of like anime!”  When I started reading your novel I had just started watching anime a couple months beforehand.  I was thinking “I understand what is going on!”


My sweetie, the first time he read it, he said “Wow, its like a manga in novel form.”  I said, “Yes, it’s readable!”  I did go to my influence.  


To follow up on what you mentioned about the differences in medicine, between Japan and America, what kind of research did you do to prepare for the story?


It's interesting because I almost never research for the first draft.   Most of the first draft I ended up having to correct a lot from what I remember.   And I wanted to make sure that I wasn't just relying on Japanese anime and manga for what I believed was real so I fact-checked some of that stuff.  For example, it is not that uncommon in manga to have characters that are alone.  Like you know , a teenager living alone.  We see that in the US stuff to but we know that it is bull.  But in Japan, it’s very possible.  At 14 someone could live alone, which is very odd considering that their age of adulthood is 20.  How do you reconcile that? The official age of consent is 13 but you are not an adult until you are 20.  It puts an interesting twist on things.  
The story is set in Hakodate, so I did a lot of research because I wanted to be accurate on descriptions.  I have a Google map where I have placed where Sakura’s house is, where the hospital is, where her school is, and so forth so that I can describe the areas well and describe the general atmosphere and weather.  It was interesting because in earlier versions there is a little bit where they go to Mt. Hokadate.  My brain said its a mountain, therefore I wrote it like it’s a mountain.  Then i discovered that Mt. Hokadate is a big hill… its not a mountain.  It’s mountain in name only.  I said, “I need to completely rewrite this scene!”  And so, it was definitely important to do that geographical research because anyone that had been to it would be like, “You've never even been here!”  
Mount Hakodate - Wikipedia
And obviously with Sakura’s has health conditions I needed to know about the medical side of things.  For example, the fact that she could not have had a transplant, which would have been the logical way to deal with her having damaged heart and lungs.  They don’t do it.  It was illegal in Japan for many years.  It was illegal for children up until 2013.  When I first wrote the story she definitely couldn’t because she was too young.  They didn't even have their first transplant until the 2000’s.  They are very rare now because of that belief in the connection to your ancestors, it would be desecration to your body.  More importantly,  for a society so stuck on politeness, they are afraid that the doctors would kill you to get your organs.  I was like, “That would not be polite!”  It really amazed me that in such a modern society, so many people truly believe that doctors would kill them for organs if they were organ donors.  So most people are not organ donors.  With kids it’s almost completely unheard of because of the value of children.  It was illegal for anyone under 16 to even have one when i first wrote the story.  When I was researching for the last draft that you got to read and for the final version, I found out that they finally legalized it but I don’t think they had never actually had one.  In one of the footnotes I noted that, as far as I could find, they have only ever had one heart-lung transplant, period.  So that was definitely a big, “Wow, well, it works for me in my story.”  If you have enough money you could just go to another country and have it done.  But, many of the other countries have blocked them from doing that because, even here in the US and Europe, there is such a big pool of people needing organs, and such a small amount of donors, they do not want to give them to people who are not their citizens.  There is not a big market for medical tourism.
Then there is just the difference in their health care system in general.  For example, there, it is not that uncommon for your doctor to give you some of your medicines directly.  They actually buy them in bulk from the pharmacy companies and resell them to the patients.  Their health care system is not allowed to be for profit.  No hospitals or doctors are allowed to be for profit.  Apparently that has caused some issues with the drug thing because that is the only way that they can make some extra money.  So there are questions about potential corruption.  They do have pharmacies, and if the doctor doesn't stock a specific medicine then he will give you a prescription and you can go to the pharmacy.  For common medicines, especially antibiotics,  it is very common for the doctor to give them to you.  Another thing is the way you are treated when you go there.  Here, you might not even see your doctor when you go to your doctor’s office.  You will see his nurse practitioner or something like that, and then he will come in and talk to you for two minutes and then leave.  Where there it is much more common that during your whole visit your doctor would be with you.  It is very hands on, very much “I am your doctor, I am not throwing you off to someone else.  I am the one treating you.” The nurses are support for the doctor.  It is not uncommon for the doctors to have a close relationship with the patients that they see regularly.  Which we see reflected with Sakura’s relationship with her doctor who has been her doctor for years.  It’s beyond just, “Okay, well you’re so-and-so, here’s your stuff.”  One, because he has treated her for the last ten years of her life, and two, I mean, he’s a caring doctor, but that’s how it works.  It would not be uncommon for him to do the tests and other work himself.  Another thing interesting about their medical system is that they pay up front.


At my doctor they have actually started doing that now, they don’t want you to skip out.  For regular appointments, at least, they want you to pay first and not show up, then skip out.


What they do have is lower cost because it is a national insurance system.   You have two choices.  I think that the main difference is that if you are working, one is partially supported by the company that you are working for, and the other you have if you are not working.  But it is also generally affordable.  For Sakura, it is not a big deal because she has money.   It's definitely very different writing about a different health care system from what you are used to.  Some of it I thought, “Man, I would like it if my health care was like this!”


Besides obviously the difference in medicine, and you also mentioned they are very polite, are there any other differences an American reader should have a heads-up for while reading?


I suspect many readers may question why Sakura is even letting Kazuki stay with her.  It is something that sometimes trips people up because, granted, he was wounded, but why would she bother?  In that scene, which is early enough that I am not going to consider it a spoiler, he regains consciousness long enough to say her guardian’s first name.  He calls him Hiro instead of Ito-san.  In Japan there is this whole system of honorifics that determine your relationship with people.  The fact that he used his given name without an honorific means a very close relationship.  You only do that with extremely close friends, and spouses, and actually there are many people who get married and still call each other with an honorific for their entire marriage.  You just get used to that name.  So for Sakura, for him to say that was an immediate indication that this was someone that was very close to her guardian.  She would actually bring him in, make him dinner and so forth.  It is all part of how you treat a guest.  
Its kind of a joke, some people have joked that Japanese are ridiculously polite.  You could leave your bag somewhere and someone will chase you down to give it back to you.  Versus, “Wow, cool, free money.”  I’ve heard stories of people that traveled there and two years later they went back to the same hotel and something they forgot was waiting for them there.  It’s one reason crime rates there are relatively low; you don’t do that sort of thing.  
For Sakura, one, he’s a guest, two, he’s a close friend of Ito-san’s, so it would be natural to her.  “Okay, I need to be polite.  I need to treat him, feed him,” so forth.  Letting him stay is a combination of that same extension of courtesy, that he’s almost like family at that point, and her own growing loneliness.    She’s finally acknowledging to herself that she’s tired of being alone.  She’s getting scared as the end’s getting closer, and she’s like, “Here’s somebody that I ‘know’.”  
You would see it in the school.  For example, there the students take care of the building.  There are no custodians.  The students clean and set up the classes.  If there’s a seating change in class you pick up your desk and move it, the whole nine yards.  I can imagine the uproar if a US school said, “Alright kids, scrub the floors!  Clean the walls!”  Parents would be going crazy.  There, it’s because it’s your responsibility to take care of your school.  This is your school, it’s your responsibility to take care of it.  It’s to teach them responsibility and caring for the things that they use.  
To the same degree, in Japanese culture you don’t really see people yelling at each other or even being rude.  You go out of your way to use polite speech.  Speech is very polite, almost excessively polite.  Sometimes you want to go, “Will you just yell at them?”  Some people get very good at the, “I’m not yelling and I’m not being rude but at the same time I’m being so rude.”  You have to get very skilled at the passive-aggressive sorts of responses if you’re ever ticked off at somebody.  


Do they use sarcasm?


Some will, but those people are often considered to be rude.  If you’re someone who would be snide or rude, if you speak your mind, you generally have trouble.  People are like, “Oh, you’re a very rude person because you’re speaking your mind too much.”  With Sakura, people call her cold and bitchy but all she does is just not say “Hi” back to them.  It’s not like she has to work hard to give them this impression, just suppress her natural instincts to speak to them.  There are entire books on breaking down that politeness.  
Whether or not it’s a good thing or a bad thing is up in the air.  I don’t really make a judgement call in the book but it’s something I had to keep in mind as I was writing.  How would she respond to this or that?  In some places I put very subtle things.  People may or may not pick up on them.  For example, she’s not very fond of her assistant principal at the school because he’s kind of a jerk.  When she talks to him, she uses very good sarcasm that he doesn't pick up on very well.  When she’s thinking of him she always drops the honorific as an insult.  It’s a weird thing that you can drop the honorific if you’re very close to someone, or as an insult.  Then you’re denying, especially if they’re someone that should be above you, denying that respect.  You’re being insulting because “You’re not close to me and you’re acting like it.”  It’s almost like the, “I didn't give you permission to call me by my first name, so why are you doing it?”  
That would be another thing is calling them by their first name, or using the wrong honorific.  In the anime Rurouni Kenshin, there’s an ongoing gag with the youngest member of the Kenshin crew where some people will call him “-chan” instead of “-kun”.  “Yahiko-chan,” “-chan” primarily being the honorific for little boy.  He’d be like, “I am not a child!  Call me ‘-kun’, call me ‘-san’, but don’t call me ‘-chan’!”  It’s basically translated as “little Yahiko”.  He’d say, “I’m not little anymore! I’m twelve!”
Yahiko-kun - Rurouni Kenshin Wikia
Correct me if I’m wrong.  Their family names are first in order, and their given names would be second.  


Yes, when they introduce themselves, they always put the family name first and the given name second.  Depending on the closeness of your relationship, you would start by using the last name and the appropriate honorific.  If you get closer to them or they are below you in rank, then you can do first name and an honorific, and it goes from there.  It’s not stratified to the level of medieval Europe or something like that, but the honorific system is a way to very clearly define relationship.  You are senior to me, or you are more important than me, or you are above me, or have authority over me, and then going down that line.  It’s one way to acknowledge that without being all, “You are my master!”


I feel like it would be really unfair to ask you what your favorite part of the story is.  I think that’s kind of like saying to somebody, “What’s your favorite part of your child’s body?”  It’s my child.  So what part was the most fun to write and to work on in this process?


One is a scene that happens later.  It made me laugh writing it and it makes me laugh reading it.  Kazuki trying to cook for Sakura.  Karasu is just like, “I have to do what you say, but you have no idea what you’re doing!”  It was also a little challenging because I had to try to write it in a way that it made sense to someone who wouldn't know the recipe, most people won’t.  He is completely messing this up.  If you have any basic knowledge of cooking, you should pick up that this is not how it’s done.  Please do not follow the recipe.  Unless you just want nasty.  
Also, in this revision, Karasu’s introductory scene where he’s meeting Sakura for the first time.  Every time Kazuki’s looking at him he’s all sweet, then when Kazuki turns his back, Karasu’s giving her the nasty face.  “You evil human, I hate you,” kind of thing.  He’s doing this quick change of his face every time.  “Oh, I love you, Kazuki!” “Oh, I hate you, human!”  It’s just kind of fun doing that because it let me have fun with his little boy side.  He’s very much a child even though he’s older than Sakura by several dozen years but he’s still a child in most ways that matter.  I played into that a bit.  
I had a lot of fun writing their first scene where Kazuki and Sakura become more aware of each other more as a man and woman versus just friends.  And then their first kiss, which would be frowned on in Japanese society, but I played loose with that.  “Eh, there was no one around to see them do it.”  Public displays of affection are also not very common.  But, there was no one on the street, so that was my excuse.  I had fun writing that.  Picturing the scene is always fun; her kind of having a moment of being flirty and discovering, “Hey, I can be flirty!  I am a woman!”  That discovery process of a girl starting to recognize the power of being a woman.  
And of course I had fun writing the current ending, but I’m not going to tell you too much about it.  You have to read the book for that part!


Going back to the child analogy, all children can be difficult at times.  What was your biggest challenge in writing this story?  


The biggest challenge was the revision.  Six years of revision!  It’s the first one I've revised to this level.  The earlier years were more about finding my own confidence as a writer: to get the story where it needed to be and to improve my skill level by writing other stories.  When I got to the last two revisions, it was more being willing to trust my own instinct and saying, “This is where it needs to be.”  It’s okay that it’s not normal.  It’s not following typical adult romance tropes, it’s not even necessarily following all the normal anime tropes, it’s just the story that needs to be told.  That was definitely a challenge.  
And then just getting myself to finish it.  At this point I’m also starting to think that the launch process is also ridiculously challenging just because it’s the first one I've done.  
Other than that, I think trying to balance out the level of detail.   I have this image of the yokai world, I have this image of Sakura’s world, and I could write many many many more words about them.  But you want to balance it, because you don’t want to overload your reader with stuff that isn't relevant to the story.  As you noted in reading one of the earlier drafts, I went way too light on the yokai side.  In the more recent drafts, I upped that quite a bit to balance it out more.  Then sometimes got a little happy in enjoying my descriptions of the places I looked up on Google maps and pictures -


“Look at all the research I did!”


It’s like, “This place is so awesome, let me tell you all about it!”  Or, maybe I could just tell you this little bit.  Doing that blending and balancing of detail.  I don’t want to pull a Jane Auel on people and write 300,000 words that could be cut down to 100,000 and still tell the same story.  


I will compliment you on your child a little bit.  Definitely, my favorite part of the story was that it doesn't follow all the young adult tropes, or at least some of the traditional young adult love stories, in the fact that Kazuki is never trying to save Sakura from her internal struggle.  He’s not trying to fix her.  He sees that she’s hurting and he wants to help her, but he’s definitely supportive of her doing that process on her own.   I really like that about this story.  


I didn't want him to be the hero.  He does have heroic tendencies.  He would certainly want to be a hero, especially with his over-the-top nature.  That’s how he met Karasu, he saved Karasu.  But he realizes very quickly that he can’t save her and what she really needs is just someone who’s got her back and is in her corner.  But it has to come from her because it’s all internal.  It’s not like he could fight a monster for her.  If someone was attacking her, yeah, he could defend her, he’d be good.  You can’t defend someone against their own internal struggle.  And then he has his own internal struggles to deal with.  
In the same way she supports him but she’s not trying to fix him.  That’s one thing I've always hated whenever I’m reading romance.  Especially young adult romance tends to be bad for the whole “I can fix you!”  You can’t fix another person.  You can support them as they fix themselves but I don’t really believe you can wave a magic wand and make someone better.  It’s kind of a playing on the saying that “Those convinced against their will are of the same mind still.”  If you try to force them to be what you think they should be, and they themselves are not the ones leading the effort, it’s not going to stick and it’s not going to help them.  It’s definitely something I keep in mind with all of my writing.  I don’t like that trope.   
I also tried to avoid the mean girls trope.  Almost every young adult now, either the main character themselves is mean and horrible, and I think, “Why do I support them?”, or everyone around them is.  Not all people are mean!  People can be hurtful without being mean people.  I wanted to avoid the typical, “Oh, the cheerleaders are the bullies,” or something.  I definitely didn't put any of that in there.
I think that aspect of that though is what makes them work.  It’s the kind of thing that, for me, helps show why they work together, versus just licking each other’s wounds and feeding each other’s darkness, too.  

Yep.  Their struggle is very complimentary.  
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Thanks for checking out part one of the interview!  Here's some goodies, redeemable at http://anmanatsu.com/store/
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You can read part two of the interview here.

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