For the YAshot bloggers tour, I’m delighted to interview Jason Rohan, author of The Kuromori Trilogy. (please click on the title to see my review). Having met Jason last April and had a deliciously bookish discussion in a Waterstones branch, Jason then kindly agreed to answer my questions for MinervaReads.com over the summer. Once again I must also thank Alexia Casale for all her work with YAshot. Please click the link to find out more about this event.
Hi Jason. You used to work for Marvel Comics. Who’s your favourite superhero and why?
My favourite super-hero has always been Iron Man and that goes back way before the movies. I like the fact that he’s a self-made hero. Tony Stark’s only powers are courage and intellect. He isn’t born with any special gifts; he isn’t an alien; nor is he the result of a freak accident. In the comics he used to carry the Iron Man armour around with him in a briefcase and, when trouble arrived, he’d run away to find somewhere to get changed, whereas everyone else thought he was a coward. There was a nice sense of humour and style that I admired. Also, his playboy lifestyle made for some James Bond-esque settings and witty repartee. But the best thing? Anyone could be Iron Man – all you needed was the suit.
Your trilogy, The Sword of Kuromori, is based on your time teaching in Japan. What is the biggest difference between Tokyo and London life?
How long have you got? Seriously, Japan is an incredible place but the differences are many and deep-rooted. When I first arrived, expecting to see temples and kimonos but instead encountering McDonald’s and KFC, I was disappointed, but over time I realised that those Western aspects were purely superficial and that traditional Japan was very much alive and present. If I had to single out one key difference, I’d say it’s the sense of conformity. People in Japan tend to go with the group for the sake of harmony, whereas in the West we tend to laud the individual who goes against the tide.
In that case, whilst setting the Kuromori trilogy in Japan, did you deliberately make your protagonist, Kenny, a Westerner to highlight the clash of cultural mindset? Or, is he a reflection of a younger you?
The idea with making Kenny a Westerner was a combination of things – the trope of the innocent abroad; the hero’s journey in an exotic land; the fish-out-of-water aspects; having an Everyman focus for the reader to follow as he comes to grips with a new culture – but you do highlight the two key points. One, that Kenny is a proxy for me and has some of the same reactions I had. Two, his special ability – the one thing which sets him apart from everyone around him, particularly his Japanese colleagues, is his unconventional thinking. It’s not intended as a critique of Japanese cultural norms – far from it, and there are many Japanese people who go against the tide – but I remember many times being told that I couldn’t do something because it just wasn’t the done thing. Of course, being a gaijin, they politely forgave me for not knowing better! Two quick illustrations of this come to mind: one, Japanese people will wait patiently for the lights to change before they cross the road, even on a deserted road with no cars coming; two, for what we call common sense, meaning ‘good judgement’, the Japanese equivalent is what we would call ‘received wisdom’. That’s a big difference. Common sense puts the onus on the individual to use their noggin to know if something is a bad idea; received wisdom draws on collective ideas of the norm.
So far in the trilogy, book one is about finding belief in yourself and book two explores the concept of duty. Which three qualities would you say are essential for the next generation?
As a father, teacher, manager and football coach, I am lucky enough to work with young people, and they get a bad rap in general. Many cranky older people seem to forget what they were like at the same age. But let’s face it, the next generation is going to inherit a messed-up world with a whole lot of challenges. If they’re going to start putting things right they’ll need resilience, courage and imagination. Resilience because the only guarantee is that it’s going to be tough and everyone will have to dig in and pull their weight. Courage because the solutions will not be pretty and the temptation will be to blame others, to be fearful and to duck the difficult choices. Imagination because, more than ever, there is going to be a need for new ways of thinking, of approaching issues, and of resolving seemingly intractable problems in order to enact a better future for all. When the old ways no longer work, you have to invent anew.
You infuse your work with an understanding of Japanese mythology. Is it important for you to impart knowledge as well as tell a good story?
Absolutely. I grew up reading the Willard Price Adventure series and I learned so much about the world from those books. As a reader, I’m always looking to learn something new, whether it be cutting-edge science from Michael Crichton or an insight into the human condition from William Golding. If I read a book and take nothing away, I feel slightly cheated. All the great stories teach something, whether they be parable, myth, play, poem or novel.
For me, a trait of modern children’s books is to feature dual protagonists – one male and one female. How important is it for you to portray gender balance when writing?
As a parent of both boys and girls, I see first-hand the damage that gender stereotyping can do, even from an early age, and I cringe at things like body-shaming. I’m a firm believer in equality of opportunity and I try to ensure that my own children aspire to achieve their ambitions, regardless of what society might say. That carries over into my writing and is why I refuse to write a simpering female character whose only purpose in a story is to cheer lead for the male hero or to be rescued by him. I’ve been surrounded by strong women all my life so for me it’s natural to portray female protagonists who can more than match their male counterparts and I think it’s important for girls, too, to see these role models in fiction as well as in real life.
YAshot celebrates libraries. In what way are libraries important to you?
Libraries are so much more than just places where you can borrow books. To me, they are the repositories of all human wisdom. Without delving too far into it, you could make the case that Europe entered the Dark Ages following the loss of classical learning and only emerged with the fall of Constantinople and the resulting dissemination of knowledge as scholars fled with salvaged texts. Of course, this is a gross oversimplification, but the idea of libraries safeguarding the cultural and intellectual wealth of a nation isn’t far off the mark. I read a recent thought experiment in which people were asked whether erasing history and starting afresh would be a good thing, as we wouldn’t have our grievances and enmities. The conclusion was that people would end up finding new reasons to squabble and that history is there to prevent us making the same mistakes repeatedly. Libraries house knowledge; without them you dumb down the world.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m currently reading Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and The Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. Before that, I read Kingdom Come, a Superman graphic novel. I like to mix things up!
Do you have the next idea simmering for when the trilogy comes to an end? And can you share it with me?
Kuromori was the first book I sold but not the first one I wrote, so I have a couple of earlier, finished novels already, which I’m dusting down. One is a MG all-action adventure which I describe as Thunderbirds meets Die Hard. The other is a YA supernatural horror which draws on Milton’s Paradise Lost. I’m currently working on a MG scfi-fi novel which is about space exploration.