Tuesday 8 September 2015

An Interview With Kieran Fanning

Maybe it's growing up with tales of leprechauns and giants. Or is it something in the Liffey water? Whatever the reason, Ireland seems to have its fair share of talented children's authors: Derek Landy, John Dougherty, Eoin Colfer, Shane Hegarty, Oliver Jeffers, to name a few - and now we can add Kieran Fanning, described by Colfer as "a powerful new voice in children's fiction."

Kieran's latest novel, The Black Lotus, hit bookshops last month and, as it's chock-full of action, ninjas, humour, action, Japanese culture, and action, MGSB sent me along to find out more.

Kieran Fanning


What was your starting point for The Black Lotus? In other words, what was the inspiration behind the idea?

It was a culmination of many things. I wrote two books when I was a kid – The Magic Sword and The Samurai and I’ve had a lifelong fascination with Japan since I practiced karate as a child. I wrote a very cinematic scene many years ago, featuring Lord Goda looking down from the top of his windswept castle at his approaching enemies. I was very happy with it, but I wanted to write a children’s book and Lord Goda wasn’t someone kids would identify with. So I turned him into a villain. Everything else evolved from this.

A very early draft

You've written several books for younger readers. What was different in how you approached The Black Lotus, bearing in mind it's intended for an older audience?

Writing for an older age group gave me more freedom to explore darker topics, write more intricate plots, develop more complex characters, and be more descriptive and elaborate in my language. At times, I even lost the run of myself with this freedom and strayed into YA territory until I realised I didn’t want to write a story for teenagers. The Black Lotus is very definitely action/adventure and Middle Grade is the home of action/adventure.

Tell me a little about how you approach writing. Do you plot everything meticulously first or do you fly by the seat of your pants?

I do have a general idea of my destination but, I’m afraid, I mostly fly by the seat of my pants. This is great in one way, and not so great in others. It’s great because it means your writing is exciting. When you sit down in front of the blank page you never know what’s going to happen. I think it lends an energy and immediacy to my writing that I may not be able to achieve if everything was carefully planned.

On the downside, writing like this can lead you up many a garden path, and you can waste hours, days and even months (and I have!) exploring territory that will eventually be cut when the editor gets her hands on it. After cutting large tracts of text that I’d spent ages researching and writing, I swore I’d be a Harry Plotter for my next book. But I couldn’t face knowing everything that was going to happen before it did, so I ended up making it up as I went along. Again.

For my next book, however, I’m going to plan everything.

You believe me, don’t you?

When I read the blurb about ninjas running around in New York, I immediately thought of Frank Miller's innovative work on Daredevil. Did that have any influence on you and the story?

I’ve never read Daredevil or even seen the TV series, so I guess the answer is ‘No’. Though you’re not the first person to ask if I read graphic novels. I don’t, but I’m a visual thinker so perhaps that’s why my writing is often labelled as graphic or cinematic.

Tell me more about your interest in Japan. What aspects of the culture appeal to you and why?

We never went to the cinema as kids but my first big screen experience was watching a Bruce Lee movie at a Boy Scouts assembly in a rural town hall. I know Bruce Lee is not Japanese but he did get me interested in martial arts. I later took up karate and became very interested in the language, culture and etiquette of Japan. Over the years I’ve always been drawn to all things Japanese. Everything about the samurai and Japanese way of life fascinates me, probably because it is so different to the western world.

As a child, I loved The Way of the Tiger game books by Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson which are all about ninjas. And I grew up watching 1980s TV, in which the bad guys were often ninjas. So I guess that’s where my interest in ninjas comes from. But I wanted to put a new twist to a tired stereotype – what if the ninjas are the good guys?

Inspiration for young minds

Who or what would you say is the biggest influence on your writing?

I don’t really know, but if I had to choose one thing, I would say stories. I love stories in every form, from bar-side anecdotes to the stories I experienced in my childhood imagination. I love all stories, be they in comics, video games, paintings, poetry, theatre, TV, movies or books. Stories are all around us, and nowhere more so than in Ireland, where Celtic storytelling is in our blood and in our stones.

You've taken a brave approach in setting the novel in an alternate reality. What were the artistic reasons behind this decision and how much research did you have to do to make that work?

My book is set in two alternate realities – feudal Japan, and a near future in which the Samurai Empire rules most of the world. Obviously, I had to research medieval Japan. I found this difficult, because reading history felt like work to me, especially when all I wanted to do was write. So I resorted to reading what I enjoy – fiction! I read novels and watched movies set in sixteenth century Japan. It didn’t give me an in-depth understanding of the period but it did provide me with enough details to pull off some medieval scenes. I looked at it like making a movie. I just needed to know enough to create a convincing set. It wouldn’t matter if everything around that set wasn’t remotely historical or Japanese, as long as the set transported my audience to another time.

Diversity is a hot topic in children's literature these days and you feature a multi-cultural cast of characters. How important was this to you when creating your main characters?

Diversity never crossed my mind when writing this book. Yes, I have a lot of diverse characters, but not for the sake of diversity. I wanted my book to be huge in scope. I wanted The Black Lotus to be an international organisation, so I had to populate it with international characters. I mean, it would have looked odd if all the members were rural Irish boys like me! So the story chose diversity, rather than diversity being the reason I have a multi-cultural cast.

What is your next writing project? Are there sequels planned and if so how many?

I’m working on another children’s book which I started some years ago. It’s upper MG, with a sci-fi flavour. There will definitely be sequels to The Black Lotus, at least two, maybe more – we’ll see. I have the next one kind of planned out. You see, I told you my ‘flying by the seat of my pants days’ are over!

Finally, what is the one question you wish someone would ask but they never do, and what would be your answer?

Question: Did you ever dream The Samurai Wars would be as successful as Harry Potter?
If this ever happens I’m sure I’ll come up with an answer!

Ghost, Cormac and Kate are not like other kids. Ghost can turn invisible, Cormac can run up walls and Kate can talk to animals - all abilities which make them perfect recruits for the Black Lotus, a training school for ninjas. But when the Moon Sword - a source of unimaginable power - is stolen by samurai, the three are forced to put their new skills to the test in sixteenth-century Japan.

The Black Lotus by Kieran Fanning published by Chicken House.

Follow Kieran on Twitter @kieranjfanning and find out more at www.kieranfanning.comand http://www.chickenhousebooks.com

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