Jay Kristoff interview, September 2012
Alice Wybrew interviews Jay Kristoff, author of the recently published Japanese-inspired steampunk fantasy, Stormdancer.
Congratulations on publishing your first book! Tell us a bit about Stormdancer (is it true you got the idea from a dream?)
Thanks very much! And thanks for having me here.
Stormdancer is a story about a girl who can speak telepathically to animals, and her friendship with the last griffin left alive. It’s set against a backdrop of a steampunk empire on the edge of ruin, inspired by the samurai age of Japan.
It is true I got the idea for the book from a dream. I was querying my first novel at the time, and I had a dream about a boy and a griffin standing in a field of dead grass. The boy was screaming at the griffin to make it fly, but it’s wings were broken and it couldn’t take off, no matter how hard it tried – friends who read too much into dreams say the little boy was me, and the broken griffin was my first novel.
But the image of a griffin with broken wings stuck in my head. Three years later, here we stand.
The connection Yukiko shares with Buruu is a fascinating feature of Stormdancer and is something that becomes really prominent in the final chapters. What inspired you to develop this aspect of the story and is the affect the couple’s bond has on them (that traits of their personality become absorbed into each other) something that will be explored more in the sequential books?
Thanks, that’s lovely of you to say. Writing Buruu’s evolution from feral and animalistic to intelligent and sarcastic was really fun to write. I suppose I was trying to say something about the effects our friendships can have on our lives – how if the right person (or creature) comes along, they can teach us about ourselves, and can awaken the better or fiercer parts of our nature. The people we choose to spend our time with shape us in very real ways, whether we see it or not. You know the old saying – show me a person’s friends, I’ll show you the person.
The effect of their bond definitely plays a role in later books. Yukiko’s power begins to swell beyond her ability to control in book 2, and Buruu’s unswerving loyalty and growing humanity is challenged by the bestial part of his nature. Their friendship isn’t something either can take for granted. But if I say any more, the spoiler police will break my door down
The emergence of Asian-set fantasy stories has been building in prominence over the last few years and the fusion of an Asian setting with steampunk elements is an exciting step in this direction. What is it about Japanese history and culture that made you use it as a basis for this dystopian story?
I love the aesthetic of the samurai age, and there are great story hooks to be found within the cultural structures and concepts of the era. Western audiences have always been fascinated by it. But many steampunk authors seemed to be focused on Victorian England and Colonial America, and that seemed like a real shame to me. The world was an amazing place in the 19th century, and there were some incredible cultures that could serve as inspiration for a fantasy setting.
There are some aspects of Stormdancer that seem to be influenced by various different historical periods and events. Besides Japan, what other societies or cultures throughout history made an impression on the story?
I took inspiration from parts of Chinese culture, some of their aesthetics and mythology (Japan and China have been exchanging concepts and structures for thousands of years). I based Shōgun Yoritomo (the villain of the piece) on the Emperor Nero from the Julian dynasty of ancient Rome – a boy who came to power too young and for all the wrong reasons, and then abused it when he got there. The relationship between Shima and Morcheba (the gaijin territories) is based in part on the relationship between Russia and Japan at the turn of the 20th century. The ecological aspect of the story – the blood lotus flower and the environmental havoc it’s wreaking – is really inspired by the world around us today. Our dependence on fossil fuels. Our foreign policy being dictated by the need for resource acquisition.
Japan is the main inspiration, but the setting is fantastical, so pieces and ideas from throughout history and the present day have crept in there.
Kigen City feels a world away from Buruu’s forest home and the narrative takes on a very different feel when we’re in each location, making the return to Kigen city after the time spent away quite shocking. Will the sequel to Stormdancer introduce more of Shima’s wilderness to readers?
It was a lot of fun to write that clash between untamed wilderness and decaying urban sprawl. We see a little more of the Iishi wilderness in the sequels, yes. We also spend some time to the far north of Shima, in a place called the Razor Isles. But if I say any more about that now, I’m begging for a visit from the spoiler police. Think of my poor front door
The characters and story of Stormdancer make it likely to appeal to a very broad audience. Is this something you were conscious of when you were writing it?
Hah, no. I’m barely conscious of my need to eat when I’m writing, let alone something like market appeal. I just wanted to create the kind of story I’d like to read.
I didn’t want to write a male protagonist – as the story was taking shape in my head, a female MC just seemed to fit far better with the story and conflicts I had in mind. But I’d been reading a lot of YA books at the time (I still don’t what YA means, exactly), and I found a lot of the stories and the heroines therein seemed to be focussed almost exclusively on the romantic elements, rather the inevitable impending Armageddon – which usually served only as a foil to keep the lovers apart. I wanted to write a heroine who could stand on her own two feet – who wasn’t defined by the boys in her life. That just seemed natural to me.
Your website profile says you don’t believe in happy endings – is this an indication of how The Lotus War Trilogy will come to an end?
In my opinion, victory without sacrifice is meaningless. I want my readers to be afraid for the characters they love. There are no certainties in life. No guarantees everyone will live happily ever after. Good fiction is the same.
No-one is safe.
If Stormdancer was adapted into a film, who would you like to see play Yukiko?
I’ve played the “dream cast” game a few times, and I can never come up with a good answer for Yukiko. If you could rustle up a time machine and head back to when Chiaki Kuriyama was sixteen, that would totally work, but she’s too old now. I think she’d have to be someone we haven’t seen before.
Presuming anyone is mad enough to make this thing into a film, of course.
For information on Jay and his work you can visit http://www.jaykristoff.com/