Self-Published Spanish Author’s Sengoku BestsellerCulture
A Prime Setting for a StoryINTERVIEWER
Why did you decide to set your first novel El Guerrero a la Sombra del Cerezo [The Warrior in the Shade of the Cherry Tree] in Japan?GIL
Once writers simply got ideas from what was nearest at hand, but now their cultural references have become globalized. Many Spanish writers have started working in genres like fantasy and science fiction, which used to be rare in Spanish literature.
In my case, around 20 years ago, before the Japanese literary boom in the West, I went looking for translations of works by authors like Mishima Yukio and Yoshikawa Eiji. I’ve always been drawn to Japanese culture, literature, and history, although I never thought that I would write my first novel about feudal Japan. It seemed to emerge naturally, so that I don’t feel I chose the setting. It may seem strange, but for those who spend their youth reading samurai novels and watching the films of Kurosawa Akira and Yamada Yōji, they become everyday cultural references.
The era the novel takes place in—the end of the Sengoku period [1467–1603] and the beginning of the Edo period [1603–1868]—is a prime setting for a story because it has everything: epic battles, itinerant warriors, social and religious disturbances, impossible love affairs . . . It’s such a rich time period that it’s surprising more Western authors haven’t made use of it.
A More Realistic JapanINTERVIEWER
James Clavell’s Shogun is one of the major reference points in the West for books set in Japan. However, it doesn’t seem that any big novels have appeared since then.GIL
It’s a great novel, but I have doubts concerning the historical approach and the way the Japanese appear. Some aspects are exaggerated and some characters behave inconsistently with the lives of Japanese people at that time. I was surprised to find Japanese characters kissing, which would have been unlikely or even unthinkable in those days.
I think that there’s a new interest in Japan today in the West. After Japonism spread across Europe in the nineteenth century, later cultural references came mainly from Hollywood in the 1970s and 1980s, and these offered a very simplified image of Japan. But in the last twenty years, due to cultural phenomena like manga, authors like Murakami Haruki, and Japanese cuisine, readers are beginning to discover a more realistic, more subtle, and more nuanced version of Japan.
Reading and ResearchINTERVIEWER
How long did you spend researching the novel?GIL
About four years. I continued researching while I was writing. For example, one part of the story takes place in an inn on the Tōkaidō road. In the history books, they don’t describe what the inns were like or the food served there, and it was very difficult to find information on everyday life at the time. I searched for materials in Spanish and translated into English, and when necessary I also got help from Japanese friends.
I was fortunate enough to get to know Japanese people who helped me with translations or provided lists of, for example, female names used in the late fifteenth century. They were very kind in searching for the facts that I needed. I knew the historical context well, because I have been reading history books and novels about the period all my life. But that’s the macro level. Knowledge of everyday life and other details were harder to find in Spain, although the Internet now offers some information.
Ukiyo-e, Manga, and HaikuINTERVIEWER
Your novel describes the lives of various social classes: a merchant, a peasant, an ashigaru [foot soldier], and a traveling doctor, among others. Was it difficult to write about so many different characters?GIL
I have always got the impression from novels and films that the Japan of the time was made up simply of samurai, ninja, and the great feudal lords, but in fact they only represented a fraction of society. Before the Edo period there was great social unrest in Japan. It is true that the samurai were the ruling class that ran society, but if a writer wants to tell a story that reflects the time, it is vital to show everything and not focus only on the ruling class. That was a challenge.
To write about the lower classes and the port areas, I studied ukiyo-e prints carefully, particularly the works of Hiroshige. Although most of these were from after the period I was writing about, the areas had not greatly changed. That was my visual inspiration. I also read manga by Koike Kazuo, such as Lady Snowblood, which talk a lot about prostitution and the underworld. But it’s also essential to know how to interpret manga.INTERVIEWER
Did you find any particular works useful in writing your novel?GIL
Among Western works on Japan, I’d say the comic Usagi Yojimbo, by Stan Sakai, a Japanese-American writer. Although the characters are anthropomorphic animals, it’s extremely faithful to the mood of Japan at that time. Sakai did a huge amount of research for the comic and he used to publish a detailed explanatory article at the end of each issue, including things that hadn’t featured in the story.
As for Japanese writers, apart from those already mentioned, I have to say that the haiku of Matsuo Bashō—especially those in The Narrow Road to the Deep North—were a major influence, particularly when describing rural environments.
The Struggle for PublicationINTERVIEWER
For a new author, it must be difficult to get published. How did you launch your novel and what has the public reaction been like?GIL
The book was self-published on Amazon, but that was never my first choice. I finished writing it in early 2012. At that time the Spanish publishing industry was suffering a double crisis due to the ongoing economic problems and the recent collapse in consumption of cultural products. It was clear that it would be very difficult to get published as a new author under those circumstances. So what I did was to submit my book for the Fernando Lara Prize, which is run by the Planeta publishing group. A reading committee has to screen all of the works, and this ensured that someone in the publishing industry would flip through my novel.
To my surprise, the novel not only got as far as the jury but it was also chosen as a finalist in the contest. Before the crisis, Fernando Lara finalists were always published, but that is not the case now. Planeta had the rights for a year, but only offered to publish digitally, so I turned the offer down. After the year was over, I took the manuscript to several publishers. They said that it was a good story, but that unfortunately it was an unusual setting for the Spanish market, and they turned it down. The fact that I was an unpublished author must also have played a part.
After two years of waiting, I finally decided to sell it on Amazon. The novel has been well received among readers. It began to get some very positive reviews—now it has more than 100—and the media started contacting me for interviews.
This is no easy matter, though. Amazon is like a desert and an author like me is a grain of sand in that vast expanse. Usually the authors who sell a lot of books on Amazon are those who have previously had books released by major publishers and bring their audiences with them.
A Return to Feudal JapanINTERVIEWER
Do you recommend self-publishing to new authors?GIL
It’s a good way to see your book as a published work and assess public reaction. But it’s very difficult to make a living by self-publishing on Amazon. It isn’t that easy with a print publisher either, but at least writers get help with distribution and promotion. Amazon doesn’t promote anybody, so you have to be active in social networks and win the support of your readers.
In addition to this, in Spain, digital book sales have a less than 2% share, so it’s almost impossible to reach the level of writers who self-publish in the United States, for example. Spain’s value-added tax is just 4% for paper books, but as much as 21% for e-books. And many people buy e-readers to download books illegally on the Internet.INTERVIEWER
Have you seen your book on a pirate site?GIL
From the first week it went on sale. I had expected this, though, and I try not to worry too much. The kind of people who illegally download novels would never buy them anyway. True readers are buying the book.INTERVIEWER
Can you tell us about your next projects?GIL
After I finished El Guerrero a la Sombra del Cerezo, based on the reactions from the publishing industry, I decided to write something a little more mainstream: a futuristic thriller set in the second half of the twenty-first century called Hijos del Dios Binario [Sons of the Binary Gods]. It isn’t connected with my first novel, but I slipped in elements of Japanese culture and a Japanese character. It will be published by Penguin Random House.
I’ve just started my third novel, which returns to feudal Japan. It’s set two decades before my first novel and the main character is a Jesuit interpreter who arrived with the first mission of Francis Xavier and then returned to Spain. This Jesuit, who is a kind of anthropologist, is forced to return to Japan to investigate a series of incidents in the missions there. There will be Spanish characters, but most will be Japanese.(Originally written in Spanish and published on July 21, 2015, based on an interview conducted on May 1, 2015. Banner photo: David B. Gil at Hama-rikyū gardens in Tokyo. Photograph by Gracia Berg.)