Tag Archives: Chicken House Books

Interview with Kieran Fanning, author of ‘The Black Lotus’!

Irish author Kieran Fanning recently published his debut novel, The Black Lotus, and it’s a fantastic romp through time, space and reality. Characters have super-human abilities; ancient katana swords bear untold power; a terrible Empire is sweeping over the world and only our three teen heroes can stand in its way… In short, if you haven’t read it yet, get on it!

Image: courtesy Laura Smythe

Image: courtesy Laura Smythe

I am the last stop on Kieran’s blog tour (for details of his previous stops, see above), and accordingly he has graciously agreed to submit to my nefarious questioning (mwahaha!) The blog today is host to an interview with him about his book, his writing ‘ritual’, his advice to anyone seeking to follow in his authorial footsteps and which superpower he’d claim, if he had the chance. Read on to find out more!

Image: chickenhousebooks.com

Image: chickenhousebooks.com

SOH: The Black Lotus is a remarkably diverse book, taking in different settings, countries, languages, ethnicities and genders. Was diversity a particular interest of yours before you wrote the book, or did it emerge as you wrote?

KF: I didn’t intentionally set out to write a diverse book, but I wanted the Black Lotus to be an international organisation, and the story to span time periods and continents. I wanted it to be large in scale. So it had to be diverse. I mean, I couldn’t populate this group of global freedom fighters entirely with Irish people!

In school, we were always taught to ‘write what you know’ but I think the opposite is better advice – write what you don’t know. Because this makes you get up and research – it makes you pay attention. It’s like when you’re in a new place, you notice every leaf on every plant, but you don’t do this in your own back garden. Writing about places and people I was unfamiliar with was exciting.

SOH: When writing The Black Lotus, which came first: the characters or their superpowers?

KF: They kind of came together, though the superpowers came early on in the characters’ development. As the story changed, the characters changed a lot, too. But the characters’ superpowers and names are one of the few things that stayed the same

SOH: How did you come up with/design your characters’ special powers? Can you imagine them ‘swapping’ their abilities, or are they intrinsically tied to their personalities?

KF: Ghost was always going to be a petty criminal, so I needed an ability that would be useful to him. Invisibility was the obvious answer.

That scene where Cormac is chased by bullies was one of the first chapters I wrote. Before I knew it, he was trapped in a dead-end alley and he needed a superpower to get him out of his predicament. So that’s how his came about.

I knew my book would appeal to boys so I wasn’t worried about that. But I wanted female readers too. The one thing that most girls love is animals so I thought the ability to communicate with them would be ideal for Kate.

Her opening scenes were originally very different, featuring lions and a car which breaks down in an African safari park. You can guess what happens!

I was also very conscious of not making my superpowers too super, in a Marvel kind of way. I didn’t want characters that could fly, or turn into beasts. I wanted their abilities to be plausible.

Fade by Robert Cormier was probably the first story which made a superpower credible for me, and was possibly the inspiration for Ghost’s ability to turn invisible.

By now, the special abilities are so firmly linked with my characters I couldn’t possibly imagine them being swapped around.

SOH: If you could have Ghost’s, Kate’s or Cormac’s special power, which one would you choose?

KF: Ooooh, good question. When I was younger I probably would have liked Ghost’s ability, but I’m not sure I’d have much use for invisibility these days. Except when it comes to doing the washing up!

I’m not really an animal person so Kate’s superpower might be wasted on me. Though I think if I had it, I might become an animal person. I always wanted to know what goes on in a cat’s head – you know when they give you that ‘I’m better than you’ look!

So, by process of elimination, that leaves me with Cormac’s ability. How cool it would be to be able to run up the sides of buildings and sprint past speeding cars!

Image: courtesy Laura Smythe

Image: courtesy Laura Smythe

SOH: Where did your interest in Japan come from – clearly, you have a lot of knowledge of that country and its history and traditions – and how much research did you have to do into medieval Japan, samurai, ninjas and martial arts?

KF: We never went to the cinema as kids but my first big screen experience was at a Boy Scout meeting in an old town hall. Projected on a wall, Bruce Lee performed his acrobatic martial arts, and I became hooked. It later led me to take up karate which gave me my first taste of Japanese language and etiquette. Since then, I’ve been a Japanophile, with a fascination for all things oriental.

I did quite a bit of research, much of which was probably unnecessary as it never made it into the final book. You see, the original draft had many chapters set in Feudal Japan and were full of historical detail, but these got cut in the editing process. At the time, it saddened me, because some of them were my favourite chapters in the entire book, but looking back on it now, I see it was the right decision. My editor, Rachel, is a very clever lady.

I found the research difficult and resorted to reading fiction or watching movies set in medieval Japan. Not sure if this counts as research but it certainly gave me a feel for the period.

SOH: Do you have any writing rituals? Do you listen to music, or prefer silence? Do you have a ‘routine’? What’s your worst writing habit?

KF: Unfortunately, I don’t have a strict writing routine, relying instead on snatched moments between work and family. But being a teacher, I have long summer holidays, so July and August are very productive months. I don’t really have any rituals, except I like to write in silence, and reward myself with cups of tea. My worst writing habit is probably taking too many breaks. For me, writing is like building a house of cards. If I get a couple of cards to stand I feel I should stop in case I knock the whole damn thing down.

And Twitter. That’s another bad habit.

SOH: Does your work as a teacher impact on or inform your work as an author? Do you think there is any cause to worry that children aren’t reading ‘enough’, or as much as they used to? Do you use creative writing as a tool in the classroom, and do you think it has a role in education?

KF: I’m not sure my work as a teacher directly influences my writing but it definitely doesn’t do any harm. It keeps me tuned into what kids are reading – what they like and what they don’t. Being continually surrounded by your target audience allows me to hear how they speak and think, as well as witness the politics and social structures of the playground jungle. These observations are not always what you want to see as a teacher, but they’re good material for a writer!

I’ve never had a class in which everyone is a reader. The challenge will always be to get those reluctant kids to pick up books. A lot of kids still read avidly, but there are more ways for kids nowadays to spend their free time, and sometimes reading gets left out in the cold. TV, video games and the internet are huge distractions that compete with reading on a daily basis. But I think reading for pleasure will always survive. If kids get a taste for it when they’re young, they’ll always return to it at some stage, even if something else takes over for a while.

I think creative writing has a huge role in education, and it is a big part of what I do in the classroom. Every year, my pupils write and illustrate their own books which are then published in San Francisco and printed in Holland. Once they arrive back in the classroom they become the reading material for a term, allowing the pupils to read and talk about books written by their peers.

SOH: What are your top 5 favourite books? (They don’t *have* to be YA or MG… :))

KF: It’s hard to narrow it down to five, but I’ll try. It might be easier if I stick to YA and MG.

1. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
2. Chaos Walking by Patrick Ness
3. Holes by Louis Sachar
4. Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce
5. Any of these titles by Robert Cormier – Fade, The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, The Chocolate War, or I am the Cheese.

SOH: The Black Lotus took you several years to complete. What was your favourite part of the process, and your least favourite?

KF: My favourite parts were writing some of the scenes for the first time, and of course when I got the publication offer from Chicken House, as well as other highlights that followed – seeing the cover for the first time, selling the foreign rights and holding the physical book for the first time. I found those last three things enjoyable because they didn’t require blood, sweat and tears from me. They were like treats for all the work I’d put in previously.

My least favourite parts of the process were those early stages when I wondered if I was wasting my time. I also hated the waiting to hear from prospective agents and publishers. And of course, the rejections. They’re never nice.

SOH: How do you find the editing process – painful, or rewarding?

KF: Editing without an editor was painfully hard, and lonely, because you never knew if the changes you were making were for the better or worse.

Editing with an editor was much more reassuring, and ultimately rewarding.

SOH: If you had three pieces of advice for any aspiring author, particularly a young author, what would they be?


1. Read
2. Listen to good advice
3. Persist

SOH: What’s next from you, book-wise?

KF: I’m working on a new children’s novel which I think will be MG, but I’m not sure. It’s very early days so I don’t want to say too much, but it’s a dual narrative about two kids who find a mysterious object buried underground. Until I figure out what the rest of it’s about, I don’t want to say any more.

Thank you, Kieran, for your great answers to these fiendish questions, and for agreeing to spend some time hanging out here at Clockwatching… One thing’s for sure, I’ll be keeping a keen eye out for your next book, and recommending The Black Lotus to as many eager readers as possible. You can find out more about Kieran, his books and his upcoming releases on his website, and/or by following him on Twitter (but be aware he’s got ninja powers, so you’ll have to be careful if you’re sneaking up behind him!)
The Black Lotus is published by Chicken House.

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Black Lotus: The Samurai Wars Book 1’

With thanks to the publisher, Chicken House Books, and the author, Kieran Fanning, for organising a complimentary copy of this book for me in exchange for a review. Cheers, big eyes (as Ghost would probably say)!

Image: chickenhousebooks.com

T Image: chickenhousebooks.com

I’ve never read a book quite like The Black Lotus before, which is a fantastic thing to be able to say of a debut novel. It’s really a story which has something to offer everyone, and which takes in so much, imaginatively, that it has a cinematic quality which adds hugely to the enjoyment of reading it. The action is fast, the dialogue is fun, the characters are great and the settings are diverse, interesting and well-imagined.

The first character we meet is the one who turned out to be my favourite – Ghost. He is a thirteen-year-old boy living in a favela in Rio de Janeiro – or, at least, a version of Rio de Janeiro which exists in a reimagined future, one in which a villainous Empire has spread across most of the world. The realities of life under this regime are skilfully expressed, particularly when Ghost speaks of the giant statue of Jesus which used to loom over the city; this gently sad reference to the Christ the Redeemer statue, immediately familiar to every reader, helps to site the story and also underline the dangerous new world we’ve entered. Ghost, we soon learn, is a boy uniquely well equipped to deal with his hardscrabble life. As well as his innate intelligence and courage, he also has a talent; given the right conditions, Ghost can become invisible. He calls this Bleaching, but he doesn’t quite know how he manages to do it. As the book opens, he is involved in a robbery, experiencing a close brush with the long arm of the law, until he encounters a mysterious man with a patch over one eye. He thinks he has shaken off this new pursuer, only to find he will not be evaded quite so easily.

We then switch to an Irish setting, meeting another teenage boy named Cormac who is on the run from bullies. In his attempt to escape, he demonstrates that he, also, possesses a superpower – one which allows him to run so fast that he can scale walls, or overtake almost anything on the flat. He, too, encounters the strange one-eyed man, who – as he’d done to Ghost, back in the favela – gives him a black flower. The final teenager is a young girl named Kate who lives on the streets of New York, alone since losing her family to the Empire. Her special ability is that of communication; she can speak to animals, and she also has a remarkable facility with human languages. As we might expect by now, Kate also encounters Makoto, the one-eyed man, who also recruits her into the Black Lotus by giving her the strange dark flower and telling her she, and her skill, will prove indispensable to their struggle.

But what is this struggle, and who is behind it?

Makoto is a member of the Black Lotus, a resistance movement which has struggled for centuries to keep the power of the Japanese Empire at bay. Its members guard the Moon Sword, an object of immense power, and have done for over five hundred years, keeping it from the clutches of anyone who would wish to use it to do harm. The youngsters learn gradually about the movement and their roles within it, training as ninjas (or ‘shinobi’), coming into contact with all manner of cool technology and equipment as they explore their new home of Renkondo, the underground HQ of the Black Lotus. All is progressing smoothly, until the Moon Sword is stolen from the heart of Renkondo and taken somewhere that nobody can follow – nobody but Ghost, Cormac and Kate, at least…

The story leaps through time, from city to city, utilising technology and equipment from sixteenth-century Japan and modern-day America, as the children race to recover the stolen sword. They each make use of their ability, but far from being a ‘get-out-of-all-situations’ card, the plot clearly shows the limitations of each teen’s power, whether it’s the toll it takes on their body or the sheer near-impossibility of what they’re trying to do. Throughout, they must rely on their friendship, learning to rebuild trust when it shakes (as it inevitably does), looking past the obvious, putting together clues and figuring out which adults are on their side and which are not, all the while keeping one step ahead of the Empire and its fearsome leaders. The showdown in New York is great, with unexpected help coming from a fantastic source, and the book finishes on a high note, with plenty of plot threads tied up perfectly – but leaving enough unanswered to whet the reader’s appetite for a sequel, all the same.

I particularly enjoyed Ghost’s verbal ‘tics’, or his tendency to misunderstand English phrases, which means he often mangles his words. I also felt he had the most interesting and emotional backstory, which was used to great effect through the book. He is naturally hilarious, and several scenes with him had me giggling aloud. I thought Kate was a strong and interesting character, though it did bother me slightly that her looks and figure are dwelt on at several junctures in the book; she is only thirteen, after all, and this sort of description, to me, feels unnecessary. As well as that, she is capable of being an anchor character without also needing to be ‘blonde and beautiful’ – the boys’ looks aren’t considered important to their roles! Cormac is a typical Irish teenager, and I enjoyed his fiery temper and courage. I also thought his special ability was wonderfully utilised and well described. The story also makes great use of incidental and more minor characters, particularly Savage, who stole my heart – but I’m not saying any more about him. You’ll have to read the book to find out why.

This is a great read from an Irish author, and one I’d recommend for anyone of perhaps 10+ looking for a fresh, unexpected and exciting adventure story which takes in multiple settings and voices, showcasing diversity and great storytelling. And if you’re still not sure, why not check out this interview with Kieran Fanning for an insight into the book, its background and the process of writing – I hope you’ll soon be as big a fan of Ghost as I am.