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
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!
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
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?
2. Listen to good advice
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.