Today I welcome my friend Susan Spann, author of the popular Shinobi Mystery series set in sixteenth century Japan. Susan has just published the fourth novel in the series. In THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER (which I reviewed yesterday), master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo investigate the murder of an actor's daughter from the Kyoto theater district--an investigation that soon reveals a mysterious golden coin, a forbidden love affair, a missing mask, and a dangerous link to corruption that leaves both Hiro and Father Mateo running for their lives. I hope the following interview with Susan will have you running to your nearest bookstore for a copy of THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER as soon as you reach the end!
THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER is set in the theater district of sixteenth-century Kyoto, with actors as primary characters. What about this milieu particularly appealed to you as a rich setting for a historical mystery?
Medieval Japanese culture was multifaceted, with each social or mercantile group coexisting but also living distinctly separately from the others. I love exploring a different aspect of the culture in every book, and the theater world had such fascinating customs that I wanted to bring it to life. For example, the custom that only men could act on the stage made women far less prominent in the acting guilds than they often were among merchant families. The idea that an actor’s daughter might not accept her societal role—and what might happen to her as a result—intrigued me, and that in turn gave birth to THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER.
What is your favorite scene from THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER and why? Which scene was the most difficult to write?
My favorite scene is one that actually didn’t appear in the original manuscript. My fabulous agent, Sandra Bond, read the completed story before we sent it on to my editor, Dan Mayer, at Seventh Street Books. When she finished reading, she sent me an email that basically said, “it’s great . . . but it needs another death.” Without giving away too much (or any spoilers) I added a scene in which Hiro and Father Mateo have to deal with an unexpected (and unwanted) body.
All of the scenes involving the victim’s family were difficult to write, because of their high emotional charge. The victim was a teenaged girl, and portraying that loss realistically was difficult, both in the writing and on an emotional level.
Last year you were able to travel to Japan for research. How have your descriptions benefitted from your sensory experience of Japan? Did cultural or historical discoveries influence the trajectory of your plot?
I adore Japan, and spending time there definitely impacts my novels. The biggest benefit is walking in the footsteps of my characters—seeing the temples and shrines that form the settings of many scenes in the novel helps me set the scenery in a more realistic and accurate way. For example, visiting Fushimi Inari shrine helped me recreate the nō play that takes place near the base of Mt. Inari in THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER.
I spent a lot of time researching nō theater and the performers’ customs, particularly the treatment of the special, often sacred masks the performers wore on stage. Although most of that research did not make it onto the page, my fascination with masks did inspire and influence one of the story’s major subplots.
Since I’ve never written a mystery, I’d love to hear how you construct one. Do you begin from a forward-looking “what if” sort of question or work backwards from a desired end result? Do you layer in different characters’ reactions and alibis in subsequent drafts or do you have most things worked out before you begin? As you write, how do you judge whether misdirection and red herrings are working?
Since I write series mystery, I already have my detectives and their basic world in mind before I start each book. Because of that, I normally start with the setting and work from there. THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER is unusual, because it was originally supposed to be set among the outcaste classes—butchers and tanners—but I switched it to a theater book about halfway through the initial draft when I realized my original setting wouldn’t work for the plot I had in mind. (Fortunately, I already knew I wanted to write a theater book, so it was more a matter of overlaying the theater on the existing skeleton than a total rewrite.)
With most of my mysteries, including next year’s BETRAYAL AT IGA, I start with a setting—for that book, the mountain village that’s home to my detective’s Iga ninja clan—and then decide what kind of death would likely occur in that particular time and place. Since the Iga ninjas were assassins, and Hiro and Father Mateo are traveling there to keep the peace during tense negotiations with the rival Koga clan, the most alarming death I could imagine was the murder of the Koga ambassador, by poison, under conditions that made it look as if the Iga clan was responsible for his death. The rest of the plot, the suspects, and the story grew from there.
I write an 8-10 page outline before I start drafting, and most of the alibis, red herrings, and major clues get figured out at the outline stage. Once I start writing, however, the outline always changes. New characters show up unexpectedly, existing characters act in ways I hadn’t anticipated, and I often discover subplots and additional clues as I go along.
Hiro and Father Mateo have worked together now through four novels. How has their relationship changed since the first book? What obstacle/character flaw/cultural restriction poses the greatest threat to their friendship? Do you foresee a time when their mutual trust might become sorely tested?
Hiro and Father Mateo’s relationship has definitely deepened, and their friendship strengthened substantially, since CLAWS OF THE CAT. They’ve begun to trust one another more, which allows me to share more about them with readers (through their communications). Their different perspectives—Hiro’s pragmatism and Father Mateo’s faith—continue to be stumbling blocks on occasion, but their growing mutual respect allows them to get along despite their differences.
Their mutual trust will absolutely be tested in future books, starting with the next installment, BETRAYAL OF IGA.
Of the numerous secondary characters who populate your novels, which intrigues you the most? Has any character turned out very different from what you first envisioned?
I love writing secondary characters, because they can be so unique and so different—and because I don’t necessarily have to bring them back in every book. Many of them do surprise me, mainly by becoming more important to the story than I originally anticipated. In THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER, my favorite secondary character is the victim’s younger brother, Haru. The scene in which he saves a giant Japanese beetle runs a close second for my favorite scene in the book.
THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER is your fourth published novel. How have you progressed as a writer since penning the first, CLAWS OF THE CAT? How do you challenge yourself to improve and grow, especially within the confines of a series?
I try to improve my craft with every book I write (and hopefully, I succeed!). My dialogue skills have definitely improved since CLAWS OF THE CAT, and I think my characters have more depth now, too. I’ve learned to tap into deeper emotions, which was important for THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER.
From a series perspective, I don’t let myself get away with repeating tricks. Each novel has to involve a different kind of murder, in a different setting, and my ninja detective, Hiro, has to use a different kind of ninja skill or tool in every book. In the future installments, I’ll also be putting my medieval Japanese spin on a few classic mystery tropes, like the “locked room murder”—but presented in a fresh, new way.
To quote the movie GALAXY QUEST: “Never give up—Never surrender.” Publishing is difficult, and the journey to publication can be long, hard, and apparently never-ending. It took me ten years and five full manuscripts to find my agent and secure my first publishing deal. Many times, I wondered if the effort was worth it or if I should just give up. The problem is, you never know if the last rejection really was the last one, and the next response you receive might be the “yes” that you’ve been waiting for.My advice is keep writing, keep believing, and keep pushing forward. As soon as you finish one book, start the next one. Each manuscript you write will make you stronger, and bring you that much closer to fulfillment of your dream.
You can learn more about Susan Spann and her books at her website.