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A Conversation With Lian Hearn
An interview with Alisa McCune
July 2004

Lian Hearn
Lian Hearn is a pseudonym. Born in England and currently living in Australia, the author attended Oxford University, has studied Japanese and has a lifelong interest in Japan.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Brilliance of the Moon
SF Site Review: Grass for His Pillow
SF Site Review: Across the Nightingale Floor
SF Site Review: Across the Nightingale Floor
Tales of the Otori

Brilliance of the Moon
Grass for His Pillow
Across the Nightingale Floor

Tales of the Otori is author Lian Hearn's fist venture into fantasy and the results are well worth a read. With a mix of Japanese folklore and medieval courtly drama, Hearn takes us on a journey that started with Across the Nightingale Floor, was continued in Grass for His Pillow, and concludes with Brilliance of the Moon. I highly recommend this series as both entertaining and thought provoking.

Across the Nightingale Floor introduces us to Takeo Otori and Kaede Shirakawa. These two are fated lovers on a grand scale. We learn why Takeo is seeking revenge and an inkling of what it may cost him. Grass for His Pillow deepens Takeo and Kaede's love, but they must face betrayals that are not resolved until Brilliance of the Moon.

Tales of the Otori is a wonderfully written work of fantasy that is enjoyable on many levels. The story has all the trappings of mythology -- revenge, death, love, betrayal, honor, and so on. While familial revenge is a major theme, the story is about much more. Hearn weaves so many layers into the story it takes more then one reading to enjoy them all.

In the US and Australia, the trilogy has been published as an adult fantasy title. In England, Germany, and France the trilogy is being treated as a young adult fantasy. It is hard to categorize this series. It crosses genres and generations to enthrall readers of all ages and nationalities.

After much correspondence, Lian Hearn agreed to the following interview.

Lian Hearn is one of your pseudonyms. Please explain why you used a pseudonym?

I felt strongly that I wanted to use a pseudonym for these books but at first I did not have a clear idea why, apart from the fact that Tales of the Otori seemed to be quite different from anything I had written before. I have problems with names and identity anyway as nothing about my exterior self seems to bear any relationship to the self that writes. It also seemed to be essentially Japanese: to change one's name to indicate a new phase in one's life, a new direction. Lian is a family nickname and Hearn means heron -- one of the key symbols of the book, as well as being the name of Lafcadio Hearn, the 19th century Japanophile.

What is your background?  How does it impact on your writing? Does being Australian give you a different perspective on your fiction?
I was born in England and emigrated to Australia in 1973 after marrying my Australian boyfriend. I think the main influences on my writing were my rather disturbed teenage years (I won't go into details: it's all so long ago) and studying modern languages (French and Spanish) at Oxford. I love languages and words: to learn a foreign language is to enter into a love affair with a country and its culture. It is to become a different person and begin to think in a different way.

Coming to Australia brought me closer to Japan, a country I had been interested in for many years. Australia has many links with Japan, and is in the same time zone, though a different hemisphere. Being an Australian means being between West and East and living in a society that has formed itself out of many different and contradictory elements. I identify with this.

What drove you to become a writer?
For as long as I can remember I have been a story teller, making up stories to entertain or console myself. I've always loved reading and wanted to write books that would enthrall the reader in the same way I have been enthralled.

What are you currently working on? 
I am researching a long term project to write a historical novel (not a fantasy) set in Western Japan in the mid 19th century.

Will there be anymore books in the Tales of the Otori series after Brilliance of the Moon?
I am writing two more: a sort of prequel which tells the life of Shigeru from age 12 until his rescue of Takeo in Mino and a final one which takes place 14 years after the end of Brilliance of the Moon. I wrote all the first three books out by hand before I typed up Across the Nightingale Floor, and I am doing the same with these two, as the stories have to echo each other. When I have finished the second one (I am about a quarter of the way into it), I will decide if I want to let other people read them, if they are going to add to the trilogy or if they will diminish it. It's hard to tell at this stage.

What kind of research did you do for the series? 
I started to learn Japanese first: it's hard to learn a language when you are over 50 so I am happy I can speak a little and read quite a lot. I received a fellowship from Asialink, the Australian foundation which encourages artistic and cultural exchanges between Australia and Asian countries, to spend three months in Japan in 1999 and 2000. During these periods, I spent some time in Western Honshu which provides the landscape for the series. I have made many other trips to Japan as well in the last ten years, since I first had the idea of the story and characters. I went to museums, old temples and other buildings, watched many movies and read many books, including Japanese literature and poetry. And walked endlessly through rural Japan reflecting on its history and character. My way of gathering material is very intuitive: I steep myself in it and then forget the research while I write the stories, using details to bring the world to life.

The Tales of the Otori series appears to be an Arthurian type story set in a medieval Japan. What inspired you to create this world and series? Why did you pick a Japanese-like location?
It's interesting that people see it as Arthurian as that was not a conscious choice of myth: many of the elements that seem to be Arthurian (the sword, the lost son, the blind woman) are also part of Japanese legends. Of course, I am a Westerner and the myths that I internalized as a child are Anglo-Celtic. But I did not pick a Japanese location as such: it was more a question of being in the location and knowing a little about the history, and the characters and the story coming to me and grabbing me. In fact, it was rather a terrifying idea: I did not think I was in any way qualified to write from another culture and I was filled with doubts and misgivings about attempting it. I tried to deal with this by setting the story in a fantasy world, but when I was writing one of my main concerns was to be true to the culture that had inspired the fantasy and not to allow the characters to act in ways that they might not have done historically. I think this gives certain realism to the fantasy.

The Tales of the Otori series has themes of love, betrayal, familial honor and honor as a warrior, death, and revenge. These seem to be prevalent in Japanese literature. Why did you decide to focus on these issues?
These are themes that recur in kabuki drama and in the many Japanese monogatari. As I was writing, these were the ideas that my characters seemed to be concerned with. I was writing about a feudal society with all its codes and restrictions. My characters are forced into types of behavior by the society they are in: their reaction to this coercion drives the plot. But I did not want to write about "good" and "evil" and the struggle between them. The struggle in Tales of the Otori is between human individuals who seek power. I think the character of Arai is a good example of this. Arai starts out as a hero and champion of Kaede, but his ideas for her future end up being quite different from what she wants. And his drive for power leads him quite naturally to betray Takeo (or outwit him to use a less loaded term). And even the "good" characters are driven to perform shameful acts which they bitterly regret.

One issue never resolved in the series is whether peace can be attained and maintained without violence. What are your thoughts on this issue?
This is one of the key themes of the books. Takeo, who has been brought up with the belief that it is wrong to kill another human being, finds himself adopted into the warrior class whose sole purpose is fighting and killing, and then taken into a secret society of assassins. He can join them or die himself. He always chooses to live, at great cost to his own emotions and soul. At the end of Brilliance of the Moon he takes upon himself the responsibility all states take: to control violence for the sake of all their people. The book I am writing now looks at how successful he is in this.

Takeo is such a strong, heroic figure. Was he based on anyone specific? How did you decide to create the mystery of his heritage with the Otori, Hidden, and Kikuta?
He is not based on anyone specific, though he may have elements of some historical figures. I am interested in flawed, gifted people with divided and vulnerable natures: his character just seemed to develop from that. I was also interested in the balance between compassion and ruthlessness that a feudal leader must need, and also in the way Japanese tradition combines the artist and the warrior.

In Grass for His Pillow, Takeo has a sexual relationship with one of his closest male friends. Why did you decide to add this to the story?
Like most young men Takeo has a strong sex drive and is susceptible. And, like most humans, grief sets desire alight in him. One reviewer wrote about the 'matter-of-fact eroticism' of the series being true to the spirit of mediaeval Japan. Again this was where I was trying to let my characters live in a historical world. Strong attachments between young men of the warrior class were very common: their sexual nature was not an important issue. Fidelity in marriage was also not expected of men, though women's jealousy was recognized and validated in many plays and stories, and I felt this gave a plausible basis for Shigeru's pledge to Lady Maruyama.

The Tribe seems to be a ninja type of group. Is this intentional?
The words "samurai" and "ninja" have become somewhat clichéd in western ideas of Japan. I wanted to avoid using these words and also to avoid romanticizing either of them. So the Tribe has skills that are all based on ninjutsu, but they are also money-lenders and merchants, extremely pragmatic and cynical.

The Hidden have aspects of early Christianity in their actions and religious practices. Why did you make them outcasts? Are the Hidden an early form of Christianity?
The Hidden come from two separate strands of Japanese history. One is the "hidden Christians" of the 17th and 18th century who were severely persecuted but who emerged in Meiji Japan (only to be imprisoned again) with vestiges of their faith intact. My story is set just before the first Westerners arrive in the Three Countries, and my Hidden are the remnants of a Nestorian type of Christianity which might have come from China hundreds of years before. The Hidden are not outcasts as such, but many outcasts are Hidden, because of the appeal of a belief that holds all people are equal in the eyes of their Creator.

Kaede is another amazing creation. She is both strong and feminine at the same time. She can be impetuous, and yet she loves her family and Takeo with her entire being. What was the inspiration for her character?
Kaede is my tribute to all the Japanese women who are nameless in Japanese history, who figure in samurai family trees simply as "onna": woman. And to my Japanese women friends who have little resemblance to the fragile Madame Butterfly type. But for all Kaede's strengths I wanted to show her realistically, constrained by a feudal, patriarchic society. She thinks she is riding into battle in Brilliance, but, even though she is armed, when it comes to fighting her physical strength is no match for a man's. The books contain a lot of unspoken references to the yin-yang nature of the universe, the balance between the masculine and the feminine. Kaede has to be strong according to her female nature. The love between her and Takeo is the balancing force that will bring peace to the Three Countries. Their marriage is a matter not only of romantic love but also of metaphysics, as well as, more mundanely, good strategy in war.

At the conclusion of Brilliance of the Moon, Kaede is horribly scarred on her neck and back.  I thought this was an interesting place for scarring as in Japanese culture, the nape of the neck of a Geisha is considered a very erotic notion.  Was this intentional?
Yes, the scarring of the nape of the neck is intentional: it is such an erotic part of the body in Japanese culture.

What are you currently reading and why? 
The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow. I don't like reading fiction when I am writing so I was looking for non-fiction. A friend recommended this. I read a lot of Japanese history and felt like a change. I am very interested in this book too from a research point of view as it shows a group of intelligent, energetic individuals exploring new scientific discoveries. It's very well written.

What inspires you to write? 
It's the way I understand the world, as well as an addictive pleasure, to create a whole world and people who have not existed before and to discover their stories.

Do you attend any writing groups?  If so, how did your participation enhance your writing?
I am a very secretive and isolated writer and never show my work to anyone or even talk about it when it is in progress. It's both strength and a weakness, I think. The strength is that the voice emerges strong and original; the weakness is in being cut off from other writers and what is going on in one's field. But then I don't really feel as if I have a field.

Are you planning on attending any Cons in the future?
No, I don't do any public speaking, and hardly any interviews. I find both take me out of the writing self and then it's very hard to get back into it again.

What made you a science fiction, fantasy, and horror fan?  What are your favorites and why?
I can't really describe myself as a science fiction or fantasy fan. I hardly read anything in these genres. The last one I read was Time Future by Maxine McArthur which I liked very much but I read it because Maxine gave it to me when we were in Japan together. I'm a great admirer of Diana Wynne Jones, but I haven't read her latest books. I like J.G. Ballard too. And another favorite author is Haruki Murakami.

What do you enjoy doing when not writing? 
I like being outside, doing physical things. Walking, swimming, kayaking, bird watching.

Any movies you particularly enjoyed?
I think my all-time favorite movie is Kaneto Shindo's The Black Cats from the Grove -- Yabu no naka no kuroneko: It's a stylized ghost story, very moving and sad. The moment when the husband meets his ghost wife is sublime.

Has anyone optioned the Tales of the Otori?
The film rights to the trilogy have been bought by Universal for Kennedy Marshall. The script is being written at the moment by David Henry Hwang. It's exciting as Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall are such great producers.

Copyright © 2004 Alisa McCune

Alisa discovered science fiction at the tender age of eight. She devoured The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and never looked back. She lives in Chicago with her husband, cat, and 5000 books. For more information please visit her web site at

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