While it might seem like the ultimate in vanity to do a self interview, the idea was actually inspired by a chapter in Richard Hugo's autobiography The Real West Marginal Way (Norton). This piece originally appeared on my blog, June 30, 2009, which was before the novel was published.
Q: Let’s get the inevitable question out of the way first. What motivated you to write The Samurai Poet?
A: I fell in love with Shisendo the first time I visited it in 1998. I went again the next year before returning to Canada. To me, Shisendo was simply my favourite locale out of all the places I visited in Kyoto, Nara, Himeji, Nikko, you name it. What appealed to me was the intimacy of the location and the sense that one could understand the builder’s personality by walking the grounds. I was hungry to learn more about Ishikawa Jozan, but found very little information about him available in English. What little I did find, albeit precious, only tantalized me more. Consequently, I began to imagine the spaces in between the details.
Q: That was nine years ago. What took you so long?
A: I returned to Japan in 2002 to do more research about Ishikawa. I wanted to see the place he was born, the battlefields he fought at, and the city where he lived as a scholar.
Q: And Shisendo?
A: Of course. I also went to Kikokutei, a garden of Higashi Honganji Temple in which he is said to have had a hand in designing.
Q: I understand you made an interesting discovery during this visit to Shisendo.
A: Yes, I found a Japanese biography of Ishikawa available at Shisendo. It was pricey, but I had to buy it. My wife graciously provided a summary translation of it, which was a mixed blessing.
Q: Because. . .?
A: Well, it confirmed some of my speculations, but also provided factual evidence that contradicted some of the scenes I had imagined. Rather than stubbornly insist on my fictional portrayal, I rewrote certain sections. By and large, this additional information helped me structure the novel and find more incidents to write about. For example, the entire chapter “1602” was based on a single line in the biography that said Ishikawa spent twenty odd days nursing a friend back to health.
Q: Did you ever feel constrained by the facts?
A: Not at all. I loved being able to weave the known and the unknown together to create a portrait of the man and his times. Readers are sophisticated enough to know that a novel is not a history, even if it is informed by history. They will judge the novel by its ability to immerse them in another world.
Q: Some might criticize you for straying from the facts.
A: I suppose. I just hope they don’t assume that all of my mistakes are the result of ignorance. For example, the garden I describe at Myoshinji did not exist until the twentieth century. I still used it as the backdrop for the chapter in which Ishikawa learns to garden because it’s safe to assume that he learned to garden somewhere, and that garden must have been impressive to form the aesthetic sensibility we see on display at Shisendo. Even if we knew which garden he actually learned his craft in, who’s to say that it looks the same today as it did then? Seen in that light, I think most readers will accept the internal logic of the novel and avoid playing fact or fiction all the way through. Leave that to the academics, assuming they find anything of interest in it.
Q: What’s been your biggest challenge in attracting interest to the novel?
A: I think it’s just getting past people’s preconceptions about samurai. Some people hesitate to read it because they think it’s just going to be a sword fighting fantasy. Others see the word “poet” in the title and assume it’s going to be pretentious.
Q: And the truth is somewhere in between?
A: Not this time. Yes, there is fighting and swordplay, but the effects of this violence on the protagonist are explored. There are also moments of art and beauty, but they are just as fleeting as they are in our lives. Beyond that there are political themes, elements of Chinese and Japanese philosophy, and an examination of the idea that withdrawal from the world is a legitimate response for an individual with a conscience living in a military state.
Q: So you see the novel as relevant to today in some ways.
A: I’d like to think so. I see parallels between aspects of feudal Japan and North Korea and Afghanistan. Kim Jong Il’s cult of personality finds antecedents in the way the Tokugawa family legitimated their power from 1600 onward. The clan rivalries in Afghanistan also remind me of pre-1600 Japan’s warring states.
Q: But don’t we read novels because we want to connect with characters on a personal level?
A: True enough. There might seem like a sense of detachment in the novel because Ishikawa doesn’t dwell on the events of his life so much as he presents them. If readers take the time to stitch them together, I believe they will connect with his dilemmas and supply the reflections that he refrains from. It might make for a more satisfying reading experience in the end.
Q: I know the book hasn’t been published yet, so this next question might be premature, but could you see this book being made into a film?
A: I probably shouldn’t say this, but no. My realistic dream is that NHK (Japan's public broadcaster) will make a historical drama based on the novel. Wouldn’t viewers enjoy the novelty of watching a Westerner’s effort to revive the memory of an unjustly forgotten figure from their history? A movie would have to eliminate large portions of the novel and create a new structure. I guess it could be done, but I’m not ready to think about that yet.
Q: Final question. Why do you say that Ishikawa is unjustly forgotten?
A: As famous and well loved as Shisendo is, I think it’s a shame that so few people know the name of the man who built it and lived there for forty years. On another level, I think Ishikawa was a fascinating man who interacted with many of the biggest names of his time, including the best known shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Should history only be about the warriors and famous thinkers? I think a multi-talented artist like Ishikawa deserves to have his story told too.
Q: Good luck getting that story out to a wider audience.
A: Thank you.
Congratulations, you read the whole interview. I can’t believe it! Why not check out The Samurai Poet and see if it lives up to the interview hype?