Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Interview with Zoë Marriott, author of SHADOWS ON THE MOON

Today we welcome author Zoë Marriott to the Inkpot to talk about her newest YA fantasy novel, SHADOWS OF THE MOON, a beautifully rich and detailed story inspired by the traditional Cinderella fairytale, but set in a fantasy world reminiscent of feudal Japan.

If you are a fan of fairy tale retellings, beautiful prose, and/or strong, complicated heroines, please find yourself a copy of this book! It's a compelling exploration of revenge and love, and though the main character endures much, I was left cheering for her and her companions.


Sixteen-year-old Suzume is a shadow weaver, trained in the magical art of illusion. She can be anyone she wants to be -- except herself. Is she the girl of noble birth, trapped by the tyranny of her mother’s new husband, Lord Terayama? A lowly drudge scraping a living in the ashes of Terayama’s kitchens? Or Yue, the most beautiful courtesan in the Moonlit Lands? Even Suzume is no longer sure of her true identity. But she is determined to steal the heart of the Moon Prince, and exact revenge on her stepfather for the death of her family. And nothing will stop her. Not even her love for fellow shadow weaver Otieno, the one man who can see through her illusions...

There's also a fabulous book trailer:



SHADOWS ON THE MOON is available now in stores, in both the UK and North America! You can read the first chapter for free here (note: link is a pdf). You can also learn more about Zoë and her books at her website!

Thanks for joining us here, Zoë! You've stated that SHADOWS ON THE MOON is inspired by the Cinderella fairy tale, and the question: "What if Cinderella wasn't a wimp? What if she was strong and brave and out for revenge all along?" Your first book, THE SWAN KINGDOM, is also inspired by a fairy tale. What is it about fairy tales that draws you to re-interpret them like this? Why do you think fairy tale retellings are so popular? 

I've been in love with fairytales my whole life. As a child - right up until I left home, in fact - my walls were plastered with dozens of sketches and photocopies of illustrations from books of traditional fairystories, Greek and Norse myths, Chinese and Japanese folklore, Beowulf, Arthurian legend, the Mabinogion: I craved those ancient stories in a way I can't even describe. Nothing made me happier than finding a huge book of fairytales and hiding away on a windowsill or staircase and reading until my legs went numb or some member of my family rooted me out. Looking back I really was a very strange child! I couldn't have cared less about the boybands my contemporaries screamed for; I was in love with Gawain and Tristan, Cupid, Orpheus, Cuchulain, the Beast (and with George, King of the Rogue, from Tamora Pierce's Lioness Rampant Quartet).

Recently I did a blog-post where I talked about the dark, scary origins of many fairytales, the rape and filicide and wickedness that was excised from traditional stories in the Victorian era to make them clean and 'child friendly'. I got into trouble with some people who thought I was saying that I didn't like fairytales, or that they weren't suitable for children. Nothing could be further from the truth! I think our desire to keep those ancient stories alive, to reinterpret them, find new meaning in them, and create within them all the individual romances and enchantments that speak to us personally is a fundamental part of what makes us human!

So I'm a fairytale addict, basically. When I read a fairytale or any piece of folklore or mythology my mind immediately begins to seek out the shadowed gaps and jagged edges of the tale - all the places where we're told what people did but not why, what someone said but not what they felt, who someone was but not how they became that way in the first place. I call these the liminal spaces of a story. They're what fascinate me, and they're the reason I'm drawn to retell fairytales, because they hold so many endless possibilities for creating new meaning within the framework of powerful archetypes which are a part of our collective unconscious.


SHADOWS ON THE MOON takes place in the Moonlit Lands, a fantasy world inspired by feudal Japan. Can you tell us a little about how you came up with the setting, and the research you undertook to make it so fully realized? What was the most fun or strangest thing you did to research this book? 

Japanese culture is one of my (many) obsessions. Ever since I accidentally stumbled on Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky one rainy Sunday afternoon as an eight year old I've tried to learn as much about Japan as I possibly could. I 'd wanted to set a story in some kind of Japanese inspired setting for a very long time, but even once I came up with the seed of an idea about a damaged, revenge obsessed Cinderella I didn't make the connection. It took my tenth re-watch of the beautiful film Memoirs of a Geisha for me to realise that the story and setting were perfect for each other: Cinderella is a tale about disguises, first impressions, and the illusion of beauty, and Japan is a culture which deeply reveres beauty, tradition and ritual.

However, nearly straight away I found that in order to invent a respectful faerytale version of Japan I was going to need to do much more research than simply re-reading all my Manga and re-watching all my Anime. I felt I had the mood and tone for my imaginary world fixed in my head, but details are what turn a setting from painted scenery to something sensory and real, and my grasp of the details was shaky. So I took a deep breath and wrote to the Society of Authors to ask for one of their work-in-progress grants to help cover my expenses in order to complete the book. I asked for a couple of hundred pounds so I could buy some very specific, very pricey reference books.

Months and months later a slim little envelope dropped through my door and I was stunned to find that I had won the prestigious Sasakawa Prize, an award made by the Great Britain Sasakawa Fountation for works which help to promote understanding between the British and Japanese peoples. The letter came with a substantial check, and I spent every penny of that money on making Shadows on the Moon as real as I could. I bought my books, and I splashed out on nearly a dozen albums of Japanese music. I bought a tea set and practised the tea ritual. I bought Japanese ingredients and learned to cook them. I visited the Japanese gallery at the British Museum. Probably the most extreme thing I did was to order an authentic kimono - along with nagajuban, obi and obijime, zori sandals and tabi socks - from Japan and learn to dress myself as a Japanese woman might. When they find this out, people often ask me to dress up that way again and take pictures or video of myself so they can see, but the fact is that as a 5 ft 8 inch tall blonde western woman I look ridiculous in traditional Japanese dress. That wasn't the point. The point was to understand how Suzume would feel, being wrapped up so tightly in these layers of exquisite fabric each day before she was allowed to move from her room, how she would hold herself, how she would make ordinary movements and walk. This hands on experience had a huge effect on the way Suzume was characterised and how I wrote the story.

One thing that surprised me about SHADOWS is how dark it gets. Some truly terrible things happen to Suzume, and she struggles with survivor's guilt, post-traumatic stress, and self-harm. I appreciated the painful honesty of this so much, even if it was difficult to read. I can only imagine it must have been very challenging to write. Did you expect the story to delve into such painful material? Was it difficult to write, and if so, how did you manage it? 

I knew the book was going to be darker than my previous fairytale retelling, because I knew that my heroine was going to have a darker aim: vengeance. But I had no idea how broken Suzume would be. I had no idea just how much she was going to hurt herself and the people that cared for her, before the end. I had no idea how themes of self-harm and self-loathing and self-denial would surge up under the surface of a story that was ostensibly about beauty and magic and illusion. When I first found myself telling my editor that I thought Suzume needed to be scarred - really scarred - and that those scars would be self-inflicted, I think I was as shocked as she was. I suddenly realised I was writing about a heroine who was genuinely mentally ill and as someone who has a family history of depression it was so, so tough to allow myself to be really truthful about what that is like.

I cried almost constantly throughout the writing of the story. I remember being on a train journey scribbling away in my notebook and looking up to see other passengers hastily glancing away, and only then noticing that I was silently weeping. But the worst moment was when I finished revising the first draft and finally sent it off to my agent. I felt as if I'd ripped the scabs off all my old wounds and the air on them as I waited (im)patiently for the verdict to come back, was cold, cold, cold. If she hadn't liked it I'm not sure I'd ever have dared to send her another manuscript again.

One of my favorite characters in SHADOWS is Akira, who plays a sort of fairy-godmother role for Suzume. Can you tell us a bit about how her character evolved? 

Before I answer this one I'm just going to say: SPOILERS! READ ON AT YOUR PERIL!

Ahem.

It's funny how you use the term 'evolve' there, because of all the characters in the story I think Akira changed the most from my initial vision to the final version. I'd decided early on that I wanted the role of the character who protects and nurtures Suzume/Rin right at the beginning of the story to belong to a man - the cinderman, Youta, a man who hid his own history and identity under a drab, humble exterior. So he became fairy godmother mark one. But of course there also needed to be a second fairy godmother to take the heroine on the next phase of her transformation. And since the first fairy godmother was a man, it seemed logical that the second should, in some sense, be masculine too. I'm fascinated with Japanese theatre and the artistry of the male actors who take on the female roles, and so it seemed perfect that Akira, who would turn my protagonist from drab, humble Rin into beautiful Yue, should be a stunning oyama: born as a man but identifying and living as a woman.

At first I envisioned Akira as a cold, isolated woman, paralysed by her own tragedy and unable to leave the pain of the past behind (like Youta). She would help my heroine from a sense of duty but be unable to truly bond with her, or anyone. Her character would serve as a warning to Suzume/Yue about the consequences of dwelling in memories. But Akira didn't want that. Straight away she displayed this sneaky sense of humour, and a boundless sense of compassion and warmth. She was like Suzume's moral compass, and instead of serving as a warning she became an example for Suzume/Yue to aspire to. Someone so strong that she was able to put her life back together after losing true love, and find happiness and fulfilment again. I love Akira. Everyone loves Akira! People are always asking for a prequel about her life, which is impossible because of course I've revealed it all in Shadows and it ends with such sadness. Although her backstory is an essential part of her, I now rather wish I'd figured out some other history for her, because I would love to visit her again.

You've written on your blog about the need for more diverse characters in fiction. Many of your own books feature worlds that are populated by characters of a variety of colors and abilities and sexual orientations. Can you tell us a little about any of the challenges or rewards in working on such books? 

The main challenge is fear. Fear that you'll get it wrong, and hurt people, and then be the target of a backlash where the ones you've offended call you out and expose your mistake, either on a one-to-one basis or publicly. The more aware you are of your own privilege the greater that fear is. I think it's this which stops many brilliant writers from just going for it. And unfortunately, regardless of how much research you do and how sincerely you care about getting it right, no writer - no human being - is perfect, so, inevitably, you will make mistakes, sooner or later.

The only way to get over this is to accept the risk. It's really hard. But you have to swallow that down and prepare yourself for the day when you face another human being whom you have accidentally harmed and say: I'm sorry I've done this thing which hurt you. I'm sorry you had to come and point out my mistake to me. Thank you for taking the time to read my work and to respond to it. I will try to learn from what you've said - even though it is not your responsibility to educate me - and do better next time.

But once you've got that firmly fixed in your head (not perfect? Check. Inevitably make mistakes? Check. Willing to apologise and learn and move on? Check), God, writing about all kinds of people in all kinds of settings is just so much FUN. It's great! There are no boundaries. Your imagination unfolds past the limits of your own personal experience onto all that blank space which was previously off limits and the stories you can tell and the characters you can get to know become so much richer and realer and better. And the more you do that? The easier it is! Gay and non cis-gendered characters and characters from all different ethnic backgrounds and cultures and characters with varied physical abilities just wander right into my brain and take up residence there as naturally as breathing. There are so many more stories I can tell now, so many more worlds to explore. So even if writers don't care about diversity for its own sake? I urge them to embrace it for themselves, because it's worth the risk, a hundred times over, to feel so free and creatively fulfilled.

Suzume is a musician, and music and dance figure heavily in the events at the end of the book, leading up to the marvelous Shadow Ball. Did you listen to a specific soundtrack while writing her story? Are there any particular traditional songs or recordings that inspired your descriptions of Suzume's own music within the book? 

So so so many! I could probably do a three part blog post just on the music of Shadows on the Moon, but I'll try to restrain myself to the key pieces here! I used a lot of soundtracks at first - Memoirs of a Geisha (Sayuri's Theme & End Credits) House of Flying Daggers (Lovers Mei & Jin), Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (The Eternal Vow) and The Curse of the Golden Flower (Ending Title) because they had the sweeping, romantic feeling I wanted. Then I moved onto listening to maaaany pieces of traditional Japanese music. The most notable were probably 'Sakura', from the album The Soul of the Koto and a whole album called Japan: Traditional Vocal and Instrumental Music. But there were also some other pieces of non-Japanese music that really symbolised various moments or characters. For example, 'The Meadow' from Andre Desplat's soundtrack for New Moon expresses Suzume's feelings of loss and lack of identity, 'Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra' played by Joshua Bell is the song I played constantly while writing the Shadow Ball scenes, and 'Devotion' by Lisa Gerard symbolised Otieno and the way he made Suzume/Yue feel.

While SHADOWS ends in a very satisfying way, I would love to see more of this magical world you've created. Would you ever want to return to Suzume's world, or perhaps to Athazie, the land of Otieno's people?

If you had asked me that, say, six months ago, I'd have said: sorry, no plans to revisit the Shadows world at present! And gone whistling on my merry way. But then I was innocently having a shower one day and the story fairy decided to drop by and smack me in the head with an idea that was so perfect for The Moonlit Lands, I just had no chance of resisting. It's a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, and you can see the inspiration board for it on Pinterest, here. I've got a synopsis but I haven't started work on the actual writing part yet. At the moment it's tentatively scheduled for release in 2015 (but of course that is subject to the capricious whims of the publishing industry!).

As a big fan of DAUGHTER OF THE FLAMES, I am thrilled to see you have a companion novel, FROSTFIRE, coming out in the UK this July. What else can readers look forward to seeing from you in the future? 

I'm currently working on something completely different: The Katana Trilogy, a romantic, action-packed urban fantasy trilogy set in contemporary London and drawing on Japanese myth and folklore. Book one is titled The Night Itself and will be coming out in the UK next year - I'm plugging away on Book two right now. You can find the synopsis on Goodreads and once again, I have a Pinterest board for it. This is my first book with a contemporary setting and characters and the first book where I've really been allowed to let my...unusual sense of humour out to play. Frankly, I've never had so much fun in my life! I can't wait to see what my readers think of it.

That sounds fantastic! Thank you so much for visiting us, Zoë!

*** 
Deva Fagan is the author of Fortune’s Folly, The Magical Misadventures of Prunella Bogthistle and Circus Galacticus. She lives in Maine with her husband and her dog. When she’s not writing she spends her time reading, doing geometry, and drinking copious amounts of tea. Visit her at www.devafagan.com

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  2. SHADOWS ON THE MOON is a big book, but it never feels too long. It is a fantasy of epic worth and length that will nevertheless fly by, appealing even to readers who don't often read fantasy. Suzume is a heroine for the modern-day reader, and Zoe Marriott's unique take on the Cinderella tale will have you soaring through its pages.

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