Interview with Kevin Radthorne
by Kat Goodwin
We chatted with author and artist Kevin Radthorne about his new book, The Pool of Shikama, Parts 1 & 2 in his The Tales of Tonogato series, available in mid-April 2009. The author will be attending Norwescon, April 9-12, in Sea Tac, WA,http://www.norwescon.org/
Question 1: The Tales of Tonogato introduce us to a country and a world with a decided ancient Japanese influence. How did you get interested in doing an Asian-themed series?
I’ve always had an interest in medieval Japan, ever since first watching, and then reading, James Clavell’s Shogun. I also enjoyed a number of Asian-inspired books, including The Initiate Brother series by Sean Russell and the Daughter of Empire books by Janny Wurts and Raymond Feist. So when it came time to choose a setting for my first novel foray, it seemed a natural enough starting point. I was also looking for something not-quite-European so as to set my story apart from the flock, so to speak. In doing so, I made a conscious choice to not go the full historical setting route, for a couple of reasons. One was that I wanted the flexibility to tell the story, and explore the lives of my characters, without the constraints of having to squeeze it into an exact historical context. The other was based on a recognition that my audience is primarily a Western one, steeped in Western storytelling traditions and culture. Too deep a jump into Eastern storytelling and culture, I felt, risked losing some of the mainstream readership. As a result I created more of an Asian-themed world, suffused with the essence of things Japanese but resting on a base of traditional Western character archetypes and story concepts that readers can more easily identify with. Which is not to say there are no Japanese cultural or philosophical concepts involved, since they do run throughout the story; but the goal was to write an entertaining and captivating tale, not try to impress readers with how much Japanese history I’ve read.
Question 2: In your first book, The Road to Kotaishi, Parts 1 & 2, a pilgrimage sets out to try and unify very different kingdoms to fight against a coming darkness that most don’t believe in. What can you tell us about the story, and about its main characters, an apprentice monk and a wayward princess?
The first book introduces Shiko, a young apprentice monk, who finds himself a participant on a pilgrimage to cross the kingdoms of Tonogato. Their goal is to locate the Kotaishi, a legendary figure who in the distant past had united the kingdoms against the first coming of the Darkness. The prophecies speak of the Darkness returning, but since the Kotaishi stories took place a thousand years before, there are many who discount them as nothing more than fables. The pilgrimage faces a great deal of resistance from those either not interested or who view any sort of ‘unification’ as detrimental to their political or commercial interests. As Shiko and the pilgrimage travel across the land, they are also subject to mysterious attacks, from whom and for what purpose they are unable to fathom. And Shiko himself finds that the journey brings many unexpected discoveries, not only about a world in which he has never traveled before, but about himself, and the kind of person he is, and his commitment to the things he believes in. At the pilgrimage’s conclusion, all that he has experienced is put to the test and he is faced with seeing himself, and his role in the world, in a completely different light.
Parallel with Shiko’s story is that of Mikasama, a somewhat spoiled Princess of Hajimeshi, the kingdom from which the pilgrimage originates. She has fallen in love with a soldier, far beneath her station, and in order to put a stop to it her father sends the man along with the pilgrimage escort. Mikasama is nothing if not headstrong, and with the aid of her caretaker, a curmudgeonly old servant woman, makes her escape from Hajimeshi in pursuit of her love. But things do not go as planned, and her track takes her far away not only from the course of the pilgrimage and Hajimeshi, but from everything she knows and is familiar with as a lady of the court. Her situation turns from bad to worse once her caretaker falls ill, and soon she is bereft of all council and faced with surviving on her own wits alone. Something, though, seems to be calling her forward, when by all rights she should simply turn around for home. Her journey forces her onward, into a harsh wilderness, and she learns through much hardship, both physical and emotional, what it truly means to be a Princess, and what responsibilities that entails. At her journey’s end she too discovers, like Shiko, that her world has now changed forever.
Question #3: Although Shiko discovers in the first two Tales that he has some unusual abilities and an important destiny, he doesn’t get a great deal of help being a hero or a leader. He doesn’t have the power to blast things out of the sky, for example, nor does he learn deadly martial arts with a magical sword. Mikasama, on the other hand, rather than being the hapless princess, does have amazing abilities and must use an important weapon. Was this a deliberate plan of yours or did their characters just sort of develop that way?
The short answer is they just developed that way, because when I started I had only laid out the first book, with just a general idea of what would happen in the second one. Originally Shiko was going to be the “A” story, if you will; and Mikasama was going to be one of several “B” storylines. What ended up happening is that the Mikasama storyline grew into an “A” story of it’s own, with commensurate expansion of her character. Shiko is pretty much as I had first envisioned him: a leader not by choice, but who has to grow into that responsibility entirely on his own merits. At any time he might easily turn aside from the difficulties he is faced with, and no one would blame him in the least; but he sticks to his convictions and assumes burdens far beyond what he would have expected would come his way. Mikasama the hapless princess undergoes a significant metamorphosis on her journey, evolving from a sheltered and somewhat pampered girl into a responsible and courageous individual. I was nearly one third of the way through the first book when I realized that her character needed to be a great deal more than what I had first come up with, in which she stayed a haughty princess throughout. So I changed her quite a bit and gave her a significant character arc of her own.
When I started the second book I knew that Shiko would still be journeying, but that Mikasama would be staying put in one place. This presented a challenge as to what to do to drive her story along, and this had a bearing on the important events that occur to her, and ultimately in making her do some pretty dramatic things. In effect, by imposing a “limit” on myself as to where I could have Mikasama go, it forced me to be very inventive with what happens to her, which made it quite fun, really.
Question # 4: In the second novel, The Sands of Sabakushi, you introduce us to new cultures different from the ones in Tonogato, and the characters face some pretty nasty villains in a complicated war. They also have to make several very hard choices. Do you enjoy throwing your characters into these torturous situations?
BwwaaaHaaaHaaa! The evil mastermind at work… Seriously though, the essence of what makes characters compelling to readers is how those characters overcome adversity. The “bonding” that happens between reader and character is what makes a reader want to “keep reading to find out what happens,” and is intimately connected to what that character is thinking and feeling and the choices they make in dealing with what’s thrown at them. In this context, shades of gray are much more interesting than simple black and white scenarios.
In The Sands of Sabakushi, a new culture of desert nomads is introduced into the mix, and this collides with the established and more refined cultures of Tonogato. The result is (not surprisingly) a certain amount of conflict, forcing the more peaceable populace of Tonogato to deal with a new and little-understood threat. While all this is going on, the reader is introduced to the politics and infighting of the Zaitan magicians. In the first book, the magicians and their power were only observed from the “outside,” as the book’s main characters saw it. In The Sands of Sabakushi we are able to observe from the inside how the magic works and the key role it plays in the ultimate salvation of all the kingdoms.
Question #5: Your new Tonogato novel, The Pool of Shikama, Parts 1 & 2, takes place some fifty years after the events of the first two books in the series, and deals with Shiko and Mikasama’s descendents, who have their own baggage but must also deal with unfinished business from the past. Why did you decide to have such a time gap, and connect the old with the new?
In part this was because the overall story arc, and the character arcs, of The Road to Kotaishi and The Sands of Sabakushi were now complete. So in coming up with a new Tonogato book it made sense to start with a fresh slate of characters and new conflicts, but using the “world” that readers were familiar with. It also allowed me to explore some new themes. The overall theme of The Road to Kotaishi is that of self discovery, as Shiko and Mikasama learn more about themselves and their roles in the world. In The Sands of Sabakushi, the emphasis is on relationships, as there are various pairs of character who learn (with varying degrees of success) how to relate to one another, build trust, etc.
So in The Pool of Shikama I went in a new direction, which is the theme of family. The main character, Satora, is a mature man who has lived a life of many regrets, and we follow him as he has to come to grips not only with his past but with new challenges that force him to exercise his inherited magic – a magic, I might add, that he soundly rejects and had thought buried and gone. Along the way, he and many of the other characters experience both the pleasures and the trials that accompany any family, and with which we are all quite familiar (assuming, of course, that your family includes those with sometimes errant magical powers…) Ultimately the story is about the triumph of a person conquering his demons, and accepting himself for what he is.
Question #6: In The Pool of Shikama, readers get to learn more about the Supreme Shizen, the mysterious creatures who helped save Tonogato, and the very strange alternate realm which they inhabit. Was it difficult to create a world where the regular rules of time, space and corporeality don’t apply?
It was, but it was also a fun challenge. Beyond having to deal with mundane things like where your characters are standing, one has to really consider all the laws of physics and of physical sensations – sight, sound, smell, the whole lot. And then, of course, make it all work from a storytelling point of view. When I originally created the Supreme Shizen in the first book I had not planned on ever traveling to their “place,” and thus had not worked out the details of where they were and how they exist; they were only visible to Shiko and the other characters through a “portal.” So I literally had a completely free reign in The Pool of Shikama to come up with whatever I thought would be interesting. I’ve always been fascinated by concepts of time and space and the idea that other “beings” in other dimensions might have a completely different reality than ours, based as it is on what our physical bodies can perceive. So I took the idea of the Shizen all existing as a shared consciousness in a place with essentially no concept of linear time or of physical space, and went from there. Of course I had to make some compromises once my human characters showed up, in order for the story to make sense. But on the whole I hope it turns out to be not “just another world someplace else” but something truly different and unexpected for the reader to experience.
Question #7: One of the pleasures of the Tonogato series is that your minor characters are as carefully crafted and as vivid as your main ones. Whether their role in the story is to be wickedly funny or dramatic agents or a combination, they come across as real and complicated people. Are they an important part of the stories for you?
They are, very much so. In fact, many of my readers have commented on how attached they’ve grown to some of the secondary characters, and they take great umbrage if I end up having to “off” one of them during the course of the story. But to me, bringing those characters to life is part of what gives the story depth and a sense of realism. The world the main characters travel through is not populated with cardboard cutouts. The people they encounter, or those who choose to leave whatever they were doing and go off on some adventure, all have “lives” of their own in this world. When the reader can see that, or at least get a taste of it, those characters can seem as real as the primary ones. Also, I spend a lot of time thinking about the personalities of those extra characters, to make sure that they are not just there to give the main character someone to talk to, but to help throw into relief the main character’s traits, both good and bad. A number of these secondary characters also have story arcs of their own, running in parallel with the main characters, so that by the end of the tale they too have grown and become something other than what they were at the beginning. By spending that amount of time constructing these kinds of characters, they become “minor” only in the sense that the main story is less about them than it is about the primary characters. But hopefully they each have interesting little stories of their own.
Question #8: You mentioned that some of the developments in your stories simply evolved. How did you go about writing the Tonogatoseries? Do you outline at all or just change things as you go? (Like many SFF authors, you also have a day job.)
Yes, I do have a day job, and it is sometimes a challenge (particularly with large books) to keep at the writing to see the thing through. But I’ve managed to get a routine going so that I can work on it at least every weekday. One thing that helps me is that I am an outline writer. Much like a moviemaker creating a set of storyboards before the start of filming, I develop the overall story and all the main characters in a comprehensive outline. I tend to have a lot of characters, and a number of interweaving plot threads, and using an outline helps to sort everything out. Also, with this technique I can work out where I want all the emotional “highs” and “lows,” where I might need more or less action, and ensure that everything hangs together as a story. Once that is done I start the actual writing. The finished book usually ends up being about 80% close to what the outline was, since I do make changes or come up with new ideas as I go along.
Question #9: Working with a small press, you had the unusual opportunity to design the art for your covers, and have developed a reputation as a digital artist, doing artworks and other people’s book covers. Can you tell us a little about how you got into that medium?
I’ve always had an interest in computers (which is also what I do for a living), and in particular for creating digital pictures. As the hardware and software have evolved, it has allowed me to expand my creative abilities far beyond what I ever thought I would be able to do. For the first two books in The Tales of Tonogato series, I used a tool that is primarily a landscape-generation program. About the time that The Sands of Sabakushi came out, I started using a figure-manipulation program, and have since found a great deal of pleasure and excitement in creating original works of art with people in them. In addition to obtaining commissions for other writers’ book covers, I also display and sell original works at SF and fantasy convention art shows. In a number of ways I am now getting almost as much attention for my art as I am for my writing, which is quite gratifying. In fact, updates to the art gallery were a major factor in my recent website upgrade. While I do my writing in the mornings (and at lunch while at work), most every evening is given over to creating art.
Question #10: Now that you’ve closed the chapter on the Tonogato stories with The Pool of Shikama, at least for the moment, what other stories might we get to see from you in the future?
A writer’s work is never done. At least, their minds never stop dreaming up new stories to tell. After the manuscript for The Pool of Shikama was delivered to the publisher, I almost immediately started work on a new series. This one makes use of a different setting, somewhat Middle Eastern in flavor as opposed to the Asian setting of The Tales of Tonogato. It will still feature my trademark multiple storylines, and enough new characters and interesting magic to keep it all very exciting. At present this is looking like a two-book series. I’ve completed an initial draft outline for both books, and once that’s finalized I’ll get busy with the detail writing. My goal is to complete the first book through to final editing and then start making the rounds with it while I start work on the second book. With luck maybe I’ll even sell the first one before the second one is done! And, of course, I’ll still be creating new art along the way as well. So many more creative things yet to come!
Find out more about Kevin Radthorne’s fiction and artwork at his website www.KevinRadthorne.com. He also has an author discussion forum here at SFFWorld in the Official Author Forums section.