25 May 2015

The Story of AIKO part 3

Last evening I went out to dinner with a friend and was asked the question I love to answer: Where do you get your book ideas? Yes, I could wax poetic for several minutes trying to answer that question. The short version is: I don't know. 

I explained that it's rather like an infection. One germ grows into many, doubling then tripling in size, over and over until I am so full of that virus it explodes through me. I can no longer think or do anything else but write the damn story. Sometimes I try to write too soon and I get bogged down. Sometimes I wait too long to start writing and the story fades. By now, I know when to start and I try to choose the best time, set up the right environment, and close off the world to lay fingers to keyboard. Then magic happens. If I'm lucky, that is.

To understand how I came up with the idea for my newest novel AIKO, you can read my previous posts:
How I got the idea.
How I changed the idea.

Even now, I told my friend, I have a story boiling in me which started probably a year ago. Nothing specific happened that I can recall: just a few disparate images, words, maybe a meme on Facebook or a quirky tweet on Twitter--something jogs my brain and I let it stay. The germ will fade on its own or it will grow. The currently boiling idea occupies my waking moments. I have decided how it will begin and how it will proceed but not yet how it will end or what the actual arc of the story will be. See how it unfolds, partly following my commands and partly at random, is the fun part of writing.

Before I can write the new book, however, I must see the latest through to bookshelf status. I've dealt with the story of AIKO the previous two blog posts this month. Now it is time to do what is commonly called -da da da da da da daaaaaaah! the cover reveal. (In my linguistically-challenged psyche, I would argue that it should be a cover "revelation" not a "reveal"--but not worth a fight at this time.) I've teased readers on the previous two blog posts, so here is the -trumpets again- cover of my newest novel AIKO.

You might wonder about the elements of the cover. The famous woodblock print of Hokusai's The Great Wave of Kanagawa works well because the sea is a major plot point throughout the story although it is not a seafaring tale. The child image is important because the entire story revolves around what to do with this child. The Japanese characters (kanji) inside the O of AIKO serve to spell her name in the characters which are meaningful to the story--and explained in the book. SPOILER: One kanji character means 'love' and the other means 'child'.

So there you have it! AIKO is available in ebook for Kindle edition now and in print soon. It makes a great Father's Day story, as father and daughter meet and decide their future together.

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

17 May 2015

The Story of AIKO part 2

I took off from blogging for Mother's Day. Had motherly things to do. Besides, everyone would be blogging about the virtues of motherhood and I didn't feel I could contribute much, never having been a mother. Now, being a father...?

Well, I do have some experience. In fact, my cute little baby is graduating from high school tomorrow, already with a full life and career mapped out. I still remember the thrill I got when I told my father that I could celebrate Father's Day for the first time because I had a little one on the way. It was thrilling because for so many years of my youth he had sternly lectured me on staying straight and clean, focusing on school, and staying away from loose women who wanted nothing more than to trap me into a thankless marriage by allowing herself to get pregnant. His words. Bygones now....

Which brings me to Father's Day and the launching of my latest novel AIKO. It is about a man who finds he is a father. However, in order to celebrate Father's Day, he must overcome a lot of obstacles to claim his child. Perhaps it is a simple story. The details make it special. And yet, it is strangely similar to one of the grand opera stories of my youth: Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini(Here is the Metropolitan Opera's synopsis.)

As a music student in college, I was not averse to attending an opera or two. Some were more interesting musically than others. My mother, who always promoted my musical interests, took me to my first opera in Kansas City when I was a boy: Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, about a ghost ship doomed to sail the seas forever. (Why is there no movie version today? It would make a great paranormal film.) But it was Madama Butterfly that became my favorite, and the only opera I can enjoy just listening to without having to see the whole stage production.

In the opera, an American naval officer visits Japan and because he is staying there a while on business, he arranges to have a "temporary" wife. The inevitable happens: his business is concluded and he leaves, promising to return, and later she discovers a child will be born. He does eventually return, but with his American wife in tow. He is surprised to find his Japanese lover has a child but he is determined to bring the child home to America. The Japanese woman is so distraught over that verdict that she commits suicide in one of opera's most tragic scenes.

While I was living in Japan in the late 1980s, teaching English to the middle school students of a small city, I wrote a story of an American man who meets a Japanese woman. They have a relationship then must inevitably part. A child is born. Eventually the man learns of the child's existence and wants to do the right thing. Despite his American wife's objection, he goes to Japan to check things out. I'm skipping over a lot of details, of course, but you can see how the basic plot is similar to the Madama Butterfly story. That was purely unintentional--unless a deeply rooted remembrance of the opera I had last seen a decade before somehow wormed its way through my brain and down to my fingertips clicking at the keyboard....

Seeing that similarity, I decided to exploit it and revised my story to use some elements of Madama Butterfly in a more overt fashion. First, I wanted to tell the story from the man's point of view. The opera is all from her side. Before I knew much about Japanese history and customs, I had always wondered why Cho-Cho-san (literally "Madame Butterfly") decided to kill herself to solve the problem. She should have killed him for trying to take away her child! Not to say any killing was acceptable, of course. Being in my Western mindset, I could not understand her motivations. Now I do. So in telling the story from his side, I would need to show him as a rational, responsible, do-the-right thing kind of guy who has all the best intentions in dealing with a tragedy.

The next thing I wanted to change was the time period. The opera is set at the turn-of-the-century when American naval forces first begin to rule the Pacific. In changing the setting to the late 1980s and early 1990s, I could exploit the new "internationalization" focus of Japan. Because of a booming economy and other nations' criticism of Japan's unfair trade practices, the government initiated (among other acts) the importing of foreign English teachers from the four English-speaking nations: USA, UK, Canada, and Australia. I was part of that influx of teachers who went to Japan through the Japan Exchange Teaching Program. So I was there at the exact time period of the story, and I described the clash of generations: the older World War II seniors and the pop culture youth who knew little about the war. It was an interesting yet awkward time. And it fit perfectly for my version of the story.

So there you have it: Art imitating a life which imitates art. 

Being a guy, of course I wanted the guy in my story to not be a jerk, to do the right thing. But he is human and thus has flaws. He also faces the clash of customs, lost among people who think differently, where the acts that make no sense to him seem perfectly logical to the local folk. Japan in the 1990s is a modern place, but in inaka (the rural, "backwoods" regions), the old, traditional ways still hold sway. So our hero, Benjamin Pinkerton (yes, I borrowed the name from the character in the opera, just to make the connection more obvious), tries to do the right thing: save a child he never knew he had while risking everything in his life back home. It is another stranger in a strange land scenario I like to write. 

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

02 May 2015

The Story of AIKO

Last month in this blog, I revisited Korea and got a good dose of nostalgic thrill. Further back in this blog I wrote about another trip to Korea. It's ironic, however, that much more of my time in Asia was spent in Japan. Five years total, in fact, which is a tenth of my life--or a sixth of my adult years! 

As a foreign teacher, my everyday mundane activities were not very exciting--unless you happened to be family members who were curious about everything I was doing there or you were interested in semi-rural and small town Japan life in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As it was, Japan was beginning its "internationalization" program, which included bringing thousands of English-speaking young people from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia to Japan to help teach English in the public schools. 

I was one of them. It was an experience that was equal parts fascinating and frustrating. The fascination came from discovery of a completely new and different culture from what I had known in my own country, not the tourist sort but right down to the everyday getting through life kind of things. The frustrating part was trying to adapt to a set of customs that did not come naturally to me as well as trying to see things from a different perspective and understanding how in the world it could possibly work just fine that way.

I went first to Saga City, capital of Saga prefecture (state), on the southwest major island of Kyushu, and lived there for two years. I rotated with another American teacher among the city's nine middle schools--when the kids first start to learn English. The city was surrounded by rice fields as far as you could see. It had the remains of a castle. I rode a bicycle everywhere, sometimes the local bus. I ate mostly the Japanese food available to me although there were also plenty of fast food restaurants in town.

Enjoying the English teacher life, I decided it might be a good career move fpr me to become an official English teacher in the U.S., so I returned and entered an Education program back home. I completed everything but the student-teaching semester when I got an offer to return to Japan that I could not pass up.

With more credentials, I arrived in Okayama prefecture, mid-way between Hiroshima and Kobe on the main island of Honshu. I served as the one and only English teacher for three middle schools up in the mountains, living in the village where my main school was and commuting once each week to the other two. It was a picturesque landscape and I settled in rather comfortably. It felt odd when visiting relatives in America for Christmas holiday to "go home" to Japan; my apartment in Nariwa, Okayama felt more like my home than the Kansas City where I'd grown up.

I'm not sure where all this love for Japanese culture began. I can pick out a few starting points, but the main idea of telling all of this is to contrast my actual life in Japan with all the reports about Korea I've posted. They are two very different places--yet to the casual Western tourist somewhat similar. In blogging, I've tried to offer mostly the humorous side of my travels: the stranger in a strange land scenario, where I struggle to understand, often insisting my way is the best way, even the only way, then being soundly corrected. In such a way the stranger comes to appreciate, even prefer, the new culture.

It's kind of like James Clavell's Shogun, where the shipwrecked Englishman gradually becomes Japanese and takes his place in that feudal society. A similar transformation is depicted in the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai. Those may have been full of cliches and stereotypes, of course (although I trust Clavell to get the facts straight). For some of us, there is something attractive about that culture. I gradually slipped into that culture, too, and I became a stranger when returning to the country of my birth. (Plenty of other examples of this kind of scenario exist that involve other cultures than Japanese.)

This "stranger in a strange land" theme seems to have become my writing focus, my stock in trade. All of my novels deal with characters being in a new and different place than they grew up in. I even took it so far as to have them visit another planet in THE DREAM LAND Trilogy; the Earthling travelers were both amazed and frustrated by what they found. That "stranger" theme usually involves someone also speaking a foreign language and speaking English imperfectly. I'm an English teacher by trade, after all, and a linguist by training, so the language aspects of characters have always fascinated me. (You can see a chart here of what places and languages are in each of my novels.)

So it should come as no surprise that my forthcoming novel AIKO follows that same theme: the stranger coming to the strange land and having to make his way and reach his goal, thwarted at every turn by the rules and customs he does not know, does not understand, or refuses to adapt to. The novel is also set in Japan, a place I feel thoroughly confident in describing--at least from the Western stranger's perspective. I lived in two places there and visited many other locations--all of the big tourist spots as well as places tourists do not visit. I also visited the locations in the novel. 

The story of AIKO is a quest to make things right, to restore a balance in the protagonist's and everyone else's lives. As with any good story, it begins with a conflict, a problem needing to be solved. Our hero tries to solve the problem but finds obstacles. He tries to overcome the obstacles but things get worse. He starts to believe he won't succeed yet fights harder, refusing to give up. Will he succeed or not is the story, of course. In that sense, it's quite simple. The beauty is in the details. 

I've chosen to set this plot in the Japan on the cusp of its internationalization program, a time in the early 1990s when old thinking clashed with modern thinking. The fate of a child is left to the effort of this stranger struggling through this strange land, who is trying to do the right thing--even at the risk of destroying his marriage and losing his career. The situation gets quite desperate for him as he is soon fighting the calendar as well as the bureaucracy Japan is famous for. And then there is the waitress who wants him to take her back to America and the gangster wannabes who just like having fun with this foreign guy.

It was only after writing the initial draft that I recognized some similarities between my story and the story at the heart of the opera Madame Butterfly--similarities which I sought to emphasize, even exploit, in subsequent drafts. I'll tell you about that next time.

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.