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2017 Nonfiction Award Finalists: An Interview with Pamela S. Turner and Gareth Hinds on Samurai Rising

cover art for Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune is the true story of one of Japan’s greatest samurai warriors and a finalist for YALSA’s 2017 Nonfiction Award. Today I’m thrilled to have the book’s author Pamela S. Turner and illustrator Gareth Hinds here to answer some questions about the book.

Congratulations on Samurai Rising‘s selection as a 2017 Nonfiction Award finalist! Where were each of you when you heard the news? Who was the first person you told about the big news?

Pamela S. Turner (PST): The big news (yay!) arrived one morning via an email from Donna Spurlock, the marketing director at Charlesbridge Publishing. I told my dogs right away but they were notably unimpressed.

Gareth Hinds (GH): I was at a school visit in Vermont when I got the news. They let us know a couple of days before the public announcement, so I was only allowed to tell my wife.

Pamela, what was the inspiration for Samurai Rising? In some ways this story could have focused on numerous samurai, including several of Yoshitsune’s relatives, how did you know you had found your next protagonist in Yoshitsune?

PST: I lived in Japan for six years during the 1990s and during that time read The Tale of the Heike. Yoshitsune impressed me because his tale is so much like King Arthur’s or Luke Skywalker’s: all are heirs to a great tradition, yet raised in obscurity; all become  a hero, yet discover that their greatest enemy is a member of their own family. But Yoshitsune’s story is true.

I never considered writing about anyone else from that time period. Despite Yoshitsune’s faults I find him a deeply sympathetic character. According to the standards of his time and culture Yoshitsune did everything he was supposed to do and yet was betrayed in the most cynical fashion. His military accomplishments had a deep and lasting impact on Japanese history; his personal tragedy had a deep and lasting impact on Japanese art and literature. If you go to my website at http://www.pamelasturner.com/resources/yoshitsune_world.html, you can see some examples of how Yoshitsune’s life has inspired generation after generation of writers and artists.

Gareth, illustrating Samurai Rising is not the first time you’ve created artwork about Yoshitsune. On your blog you mention that you have an intense interest in Japan and Japanese culture. You even did an illustration project in college about Yoshitsune. What was it like returning to Yoshitsune? How did your past experience influence the choices you made in illustrating this newer book?

GH: Yoshitsune is a legendary figure in Japan, which is to say that many legends have grown up around his life, especially the parts that are a bit mysterious, like how he became such a great warrior when he didn’t go through samurai training as a child. Those legends are what I first encountered and illustrated in college. Returning to illustrate the story of his real life was a fun process of (re)discovery. One thing that stayed the same was my desire to bring Asian influences into the style of the art. I used brush painting with stark silhouettes and strong gestural poses to evoke Sumi-e brush painting — though my materials and process were not exactly traditional.

Yoshitsune’s story begins with the years-long battle between his family (the Minamoto) and the rival Taira samurai. In Samurai Rising, the Minamoto are the heroes of the story but things could easily be flipped to see the Taira as the more heroic (or even “good”) clan. How did you choose how to frame this battle and rivalry, Pamela?

PST: Since I was writing about Yoshitsune, I wanted to show how the conflict looked from his side. But I don’t let anyone off the hook. I point out the stupidity and recklessness of Yoshitsune’s father. I note that this was a struggle between the elites, and that none of the samurai cared much about the sufferings they inflicted on common people. I suggest that Yoshitsune’s loyalty in his clan was misplaced because the ones who stood by him at the very end were not  Minamoto. And I don’t pull any punches when describing the many cruel acts of Yoshitsune’s half-brother Yoritomo, leader of the Minamoto samurai. I don’t view one clan as “good” and the other as “bad.” That would not be a) interesting or b) historically accurate. In the end, an off-shoot of the Taira ends up ruling Japan. Oh, the exquisite irony!

Gareth, on your blog you give a great explanation of the process involved in illustrating Samurai Rising from the initial assignment through your sketches and digital work for each illustration or map. How did creating these illustrations for Pamela’s existing manuscript compare to illustrating and writing your own graphic novels?

GH: The process is sort of similar, but graphic novels are much larger and more complex. For those I do rough sketches of the whole book digitally, arranging pictures and type exactly the way I want them. Then I get feedback from my editors, make revisions, and then do the final art with a combination of digital and traditional materials. For Samurai Rising, I didn’t have to arrange as many elements, I just had to come up with sketches that conveyed the feeling of each chapter, and compose them so they worked opposite the chapter headings. I would do a detailed sketch, make any revisions based on Alyssa (the editor), Susan (the designer) and Pam’s feedback, then do a loose brush painting based on the sketch.

What was the most interesting text you encountered while researching this book, Pamela? What is one fact you were excited to share with readers?

PST: There wasn’t one text that was the most interesting. What was interesting to me was the work of examining the source material against academic sources and making sense of why things happened the way they did. For instance: the period source material describes how the Taira retreat to the fortress of Ichi-no-Tani and the barricades of Ikuta-no-Mori. Why didn’t the Taira defend Kyoto? Why not meet the Minamoto on open ground, especially since they had the advantage of numbers? To understand why they did things the way they did, you have to understand the advantages and disadvantages of mounted archery as a military tactic. None of that is explained in the source documents.

But I confess that as someone who practices kendo (Japanese sword fighting) my favorite set of facts to share involved the classic katana blade: why it’s curved, why it’s sheathed edge-up, why it’s a certain length, why it’s made using two different kinds of steel. None of those things are obvious but when explained make perfect sense.

Gareth, did you have a favorite illustration to make for Samurai Rising? Is there any artwork in the book that you are especially excited for readers to see?

GH: The cover is probably my favorite piece. Of the interiors, one of the hardest pieces was the ship in a storm for chapter 8, but in the end I think it’s one of my favorites. It’s hard to compare them, though, because each piece (hopefully) hits a very different emotional note.

Can you tell us anything about your next projects?

PST: I have a picture book biography, COMET CHASER, coming from Chronicle Books. It’s a Cinderella-like story about Caroline Herschel, the first professional woman astronomer. We are working on finding an illustrator so I’m guessing it won’t be out until 2019.

GH: I have a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems coming out in August, and I am currently hard at work on The Iliad, which will come out in fall 2018.

Thank you to Pamela and Gareth for taking the time to answer my questions about Samurai Rising!

— Emma Carbone, currently reading Wildlife by Fiona Wood

One Comment

  1. Aaron Volner Aaron Volner

    “Samurai Rising” is one of the nominees for Wyoming’s Soaring Eagle Book Award this year. Its a teen choice award, where junior high and high school students across the state choose the nominees and then vote on the winners. The Voting happens in March. Non-fiction doesn’t always make it on the list, but tends to do well when it does. I’m quite interested to see how “Samurai Rising” does.

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