Susan Spann: The Terribleminds Interview

When it comes time to ask if you can have an interview up at this blog, there’s a few surefire ways to get in, but one of them I didn’t expect: apparently, all you have to do is say the phrase “ninja detective,” and I’m all in. As such, please to meet Susan Spann, author of Claws of the Cat: a Shinobi Mystery, coming in June. Find her at susanspann.com or @SusanSpann!

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

A year ago, I was ambushed by ninjas while standing in my bathroom. Well, maybe it was just one ninja. An imaginary ninja. Who solves murders instead of committing them. Then he disappeared, leaving me holding an eyeliner pen and the basis for an awesome mystery series.

Ninjas are sneaky that way.

Why do you tell stories?

To silence the voices in my head. Sometimes it works.

When it doesn’t, I murder my imaginary friends.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

“Never give up, never surrender.”

Writing is a long game, not a sprint, and only the dedicated prevail.

Since I’m an attorney, and therefore genetically incapable of giving a short answer to any question, I’ll add that it’s impossible to stay in the game without keeping your butt in the chair and your fingers on the keys. Writers write. We make the time, we steal the time. We puts the words on the page, precious.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

For almost a decade, I told myself “don’t worry, you’re busy with law practice, family and (insert excuse du jour), you’ll find time to write when things ease up.”

FAIL.

Things never ease up. Writing time does not appear like a sparkling wish-fairy riding a rainbow unicorn. Writers are born of stolen minutes, pigheaded determination and a katana-wielding conscience that orders us to put down the remote and turn off TOP CHEF until we put words on the page or fix the dog’s breakfast we made of the manuscript yesterday.

Everyone is always too busy to write. The difference is that writers do it anyway.

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

For me, character building flows from world building. It’s much easier to write strong characters when I’m inserting them into a three-dimensional, fully developed environment. Knowing the layout of a character’s bedroom, house, and neighborhood makes it easier to understand what kind of person would inhabit that space.

Once the world is built, I write an outline for the novel itself and then journal entries in the voice of each character in the story – including the corpse. Letting the character speak – about anything that character deems important – is a great way to get a handle on voice and character quirks. Sometimes the information gets into the novel, sometimes not, but knowing what the character thinks is important helps me develop a layered personality (and backstory) that makes each character feel much more real when I let them all loose together.

That’s when they start killing each other.

As far as examples go, I’ll offer Ender Wiggin (from Ender’s Game). Orson Scott Card developed a fully-realized world with history, backstory and details, and then told us only the portions necessary to the tale. The reader has a sense that Ender really lived six years in that world before the novel begins, and that he’s a fully-developed person rather than an automaton who behaves as he does merely because Card “needed him to” for plot purposes. I don’t know whether Card goes in for journal entries, but he certainly understands character development.

World-building before character-building. Oooh. Tell me more: how long do you spend world-building? How do you know enough is enough and it’s time for the character to occupy that space?

I’ll tell you a secret about my world building process: I cheat by using history when I can.

The Shinobi series is set in Kyoto in 1565, just before the assassination of the Shogun. At that time, the Japanese capitol was a stunning, dangerous city filled with samurai and real-life ninjas and weapons and geishas and sake bars. I wanted the reader to walk the muddy streets, see the buildings, and smell the blood and hydrangeas at the teahouse where the samurai victim died. I studied medieval Japan in college (many years ago) and spent six full months in additional research to build the version of 16th century Kyoto that serves as a backdrop for the Shinobi novels.

But the truth is, I’ve never finished the process and probably never will. Each novel involves a different aspect of Japanese culture, a different victim, a different setting – and all of that requires additional world-building.

In terms of “enough is enough” – for me, the process has two stages. The first stage ends when I know enough about the physical “sets” for the characters to move around without knocking over the scenery (unless it’s called for). I create an architectural layout for every location the characters visit, place it on a map of medieval Kyoto and fill in details to make the location “real.” (This often involves writing backstory, most of which will never appear in the novels.) Then I develop characters to inhabit those spaces.

Phase 2 is the other half of the chicken-and-egg problem: final world building can only take place once I know about the characters themselves. This includes the characters’ individual histories (again, almost all for offstage use) and fine details – things like “what type of flowers would be displayed in a Kyoto teahouse in May of 1565?”

So: Phase 1 is macro level: historical, physical, architectural. Phase 2 is micro-scale: all the fine details.

Sometimes a plot point or major edit requires taking the phases out of order, but for the most part that’s how it works in my writing world.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

My all-time favorite comic book was Star Wars #1 (The original, from the ‘70s, and I’ll date myself by saying I bought it new. Sadly, I don’t have it any more.)

When it comes to film, I’m a fan of explosions and special effects. My favorites range from LORD OF THE RINGS to STAR WARS (Episodes 4/5/6), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and the original DIE HARD.

If we’re talking video games, it’s World of Warcraft. I raid as a level 85 holy priest & boomkin, Feathermoon server. (Your MMO-geek readers are smiling…and everyone else is now thoroughly confused.)

And since we’re talking story, the novel of choice is ENDER’S GAME (big surprise). After that one, my favorites will have to resolve it by author-on-author death match.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Favorite word? No question: DEFENESTRATE.

Favorite curse word: “Bother.” I’m familiar with plenty of others (including the ones most people actually consider “real” cursing), but “bother” raises the most eyebrows when I use it in public.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

The last time I drank alcohol, I ended up singing show tunes under the table. (True story…and one that makes me glad for the days before YouTube.)

Favorite beverage: coffee, in copious quantities. Hot or iced. No sugar, but lots of cream. Lots. In fact, just leave the cow.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?

I raise seahorses and rare corals, so I’m thinking we can use my tank to distract the robots long enough to make a getaway. If we can keep them watching long enough they’ll corrode and we can turn them into giant coffee makers.

Mmmm…. Coffee.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

I recently signed a three-book contract with St.Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne books for the Shinobi mystery series. The first novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT, is scheduled for release in Spring 2013, and I’m currently editing the second installment, outlining the third, and developing ideas for additional books. The series could run substantially more than three novels if readers like ninja detectives as much as I do.

I’m kicking around a few other ideas, both long-form and short-form – one of which involves pirates. Because pirates versus ninjas is the ultimate dilemma.

Okay, you just said “ninja detective.” Please tell us about this ninja detective right now before we all explode from urgency.

The Shinobi Mysteries feature the ongoing adventures of Hiro Hattori, ninja assassin-turned-bodyguard-turned-16th century detective. In Claws of the Cat, a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse and Hiro has three days to find the killer in order to save the beautiful geisha accused of the crime and prevent the dead man’s vengeful son from executing the Portuguese Jesuit Hiro is sworn to protect.

It’s a book about ninjas, bloody crime scenes, teahouses and geishas and swords, with a Portuguese priest, a weapons dealer, a female samurai and an unruly kitten thrown in for good measure.

Because every ninja book needs a kitten.

Hiro is everything I love in a detective – he’s smart, sardonic, and generally uncooperative. Best of all – he’s a ninja – and that’s central to the way he solves each crime. His worldview doesn’t always mesh well with that of his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, but they make a surprisingly good investigative team.

Why ninjas? (Or is the plural of ninja just “ninja?”)

Actually, I think the plural of “ninja” is “awesome.”

I’ve had a fascination with ninjas since college, where I majored in Asian studies. Medieval Japan was brutal and dangerous but also intriguing and beautiful.

Ninjas moved in the mainstream but didn’t follow normal social rules. They were highly trained spies and strategists as well as assassins. A ninja’s understanding of anatomy, weapons and poisons made him essentially a medieval forensics expert. I couldn’t think of a better detective. Plus … ninjas. Is there a better writing gig?

You wrote a mystery series: what’s the trick to writing a good mystery? What do some authors get wrong?

The key to mystery writing is the detective. The murder is important (and the gorier the better) but all the poisonings and exsanguinations in the world won’t save a novel if the detective is as boring as watching paint dry. It’s not our love of the corpse that keeps us reading – that guy was dead on page 1 and nobody cares about fictitious corpses. We read because the detective is fun, or cool (or sometimes even annoying) and we want to be there with him when he finally solves the crime. (Note: I use the all-inclusive “he” because it’s easy but I use it without prejudice – I’ve read some smashing female detective stories too.)

So, like everything else, mystery comes down to compelling characters and good writing. Neither is negotiable.

If you could be a ninja, what would your ninja-weapon-of-choice be?

I have enough experience with shuriken (throwing stars) to know that (a) I love throwing them, and (b) if my ninja-life depended on my aim I wouldn’t survive very long. Since I’m female, they’d probably want me to specialize in neko-te (cat’s claws), and though that weapon does appear in the novel my personal weapon of choice (and experience) is a sword.

In the immortal words of Solo-san: Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good katana at your side.