Author Interview | Conversing with Japanese #mystery writer Susan Spann, on behalf of her epic historical suspense series: the Shinobi Mysteries!

Posted Friday, 21 August, 2015 by jorielov , , 0 Comments

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It’s hard to properly express my absolute joy in sinking into a Shinobi mystery, except to say, the 16th Century Ms Spann has created is a welcome reprieve and respite each time I soak inside one of her installments on this expansive Historical Cosy Mystery series! I have a strong preference for Cosies as a whole, but a lovely new *niche!* of joy for me is the Cosy Historicals, of which I’ve been happily championing and blogging about for nearly two years! (i.e. the life of JLAS!)

The incredible breadth of research the authors knit into their stories of suspense and the realistic clarity of their eras in time is what compells me forward into each new story that happily alights in my hands to read! When it comes to the Shinobi mysteries, Spann has such a dedicated eye for continuity and a convincing voice for historical narrative set in an era so far removed from our own, she convinces you dearly that your in the 16th Century! This is beneficial on many levels but for me personally, I love the time travelling component that walks hand-in-hand with meeting up with two of my now beloved characters of suspense: Father Mateo and Hiro!

They have their own unique way of relating to each other, full of respect and honour, but with a uniqueness all of their own. The setting is vividly represented and the cultural heritage as well as the traditions of the Japanese are eloquently described lending an internal lens on a country many of us might not have the pleasure of visiting otherwise. I appreciate finding the new little bits and bobbles Spann knits inside her Shinobi mysteries; new secondary characters, new locales, new little insights into her lead characters, and of course, — the innate level of suspense where a mystery (always quite murderous) greets you, and a task to sleuth wraps your mind and heart around this evolving series!

For the HFVBTs spotlight, I wanted to step through the series, and combine my curiosities thus far along into a lively conversation that spans the first three novels, as we all sit on pins awaiting book No.4 Mask of the Fallen in 2016! This is an author and series I immediately get giddy about reading, as it should be when you find a writer who curates a living story of characters who breathe as real as their composites in our living world!

Here is our conversation as it unfolds and notice the little revelations from the writer which might surprise you along the way!

On my connection to Susan Spann:

I started visiting the chats hosted by @LitChat in the latter months of 2013, as it was around the time of the conference at The Betsy in which I started to cross paths with regular chatters, amongst whom were Natalia Sylvester (début novelist of “Chasing the Sun”) and Susan Spann. I am unsure which month I first started to notice Ms. Spann as a friendly presence who always reminded me of myself — someone who provided cheerful commentary, engaging questions for each visiting guest author, and a wicked knowledge base on a variety of topics. Generally speaking, I always click-over to read a person’s Twitter profile, but whilst engaged in those #LitChat(s) I felt like it was this magical rendezvous for the bookish and those who are attuned to bookish culture.

In this way, it wasn’t until I learnt of Blade of the Samurai was going on tour through TLC Book Tours that I had decided to discover a bit more about her! In so doing, I learnt who she was ‘behind the curtain’ so to speak! I always considered her one of my ‘friends in the twitterverse’ but I never disclosed this to her until I was on the (Blade of the Samurai) blog tour in September 2014! Such serendipity as the tour has brought us a bit closer and I am grateful that Twitter is a social-positive method of reaching past our distances in geography to connect to people who share a passion for the written word. We have continued to remain in touch although we do not get to ‘meet-up’ on Twitter as often as we once did due to our schedules.

I am disclosing this, to assure you that I can formulate an honest opinion, even though I have interacted with Spann through our respective love & passion of reading inside the twitterverse whilst attending #LitChat or in private convos. I treat each book as a ‘new experience’, whether I personally know the author OR whether I am reading a book by them for the first time.

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Susan SpannAuthor Biography:

Susan Spann is a transactional publishing attorney and the author of the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her début novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. Susan has a degree in Asian Studies from Tufts University, where she studied Chinese and Japanese language, history, and culture. Her hobbies include cooking, traditional archery, martial arts, and horseback riding. She lives in northern California with her husband, son, two cats, and an aquarium full of seahorses.

Author Connections:

Official Author WebsitesSite | @SusanSpann | Blog

Converse via: #ShinobiMystery#ShinobiMysteries OR #FlaskOfTheDrunkenMaster

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You have such a clever way of etching into your stories lovely hidden clues that reveal a bit about the direction of the Shinobi mysteries – I was curious was this innate and organic evolving through how the stories inked themselves together or was it something you hoped to add to help readerly sleuths get caught up in the journey with a bit of insider edge?

Spann responds: The best answer is “a little of both.” I have a larger series outline which helps me track the larger arc. Since I know where the series is going, a lot of the foreshadowing drops in naturally during the writing process. That said, I also do insert some deliberate clues in the editing process. (Also: thank you for the lovely compliment about the books.)

You’re quite welcome – I truly do love how you are writing the series and complimenting your process and the way in which the Shinobi mysteries are unfolding is a delight. I love how you’ve given us all the ability to ‘follow along’ and ‘sleuth alongside’ Father Mateo and Hiro! Reminds me of many hours I spent quite happily soaking inside the Miss Marple mysteries – it’s clever how mysteries can be writ in such a way as to ‘add to our suspense’ yet garnish a delightment of joy to solve as the characters resolve their own puzzles of mystery. I never knew if it was purposeful or an organic part of the process to craft the stories – how fun, to have learnt it’s a mixture of both!

Last year, you revealed in my Q&A you have plans to expand the series into an impressive 18 novels in succession with plenty of room to go further. I was interested to know if any of the secondary characters known or not yet introduced might become more pivotal to not only the lead characters but perhaps the general continuity as the series progresses?

Spann responds: I have several pivotal characters who I’ve hinted at but not yet introduced (among them, the person responsible for the scars on Hiro’s shoulder and inner thigh). Several of the existing secondary characters play important parts in the larger story, too. Since I spend so much time developing them, I like being able to bring them back in later books (until and unless I have to kill them off…).

Ooh, my yes! You tipped the focus back on this mysterious ‘someone’ in FLASK (in regards to Hiro’s wounds), and I can tell the origin of those wounds combined with the person themselves is going to be a ‘big reveal’ for us! I had to giggle over that last bit – yes, I do imagine you have a heap of fun bringing key people back, but I should have asked, is it ever hard to decide who has to be offed and in what manner!?

When you visit Japan for research, what grabs your eye when you first set foot at a designated stop to soak in the locality and essence of that location? Is it the research you did prior to the trip that sparks a knowing sense you’ve ‘arrived’ at a setting that will take shape inside the next novel or is it something more intrinsic?

Spann responds: For the most part, the historical research comes first and the visit comes later. By the time I have “boots on the ground” I’m able to focus on what I see, smell, hear, and taste rather than having to learn about the history that occurred in that location. History lives in books and documents; in-person research is best for picking up the little details—the way the light plays on a pond, the smell of the trees, and the architectural details that wouldn’t necessarily appear in the historical record.

Keeping my eyes and ears open also lets me discover the little surprises that might require a story adjustment but also create a special spark in a plotline.

I have mentioned before how keenly observant your eye is into bringing the details of the ‘history’ and the ‘locale’ present to the reader’s attention. You have found a genuine balance in your writerly process to where everything congeals together in such harmonic fashion, as to attach ourselves directly into the timescape of your writing. You’re ace in the hole is being able to go physically to Japan; to bring back what you’ve internalised visually and add another layer to the plot.

You are transitioning Father Mateo and Hiro from becoming directly and quite inherently in danger to taking a step back and investigating crimes where they can be of assistance without mortal fear of their lives. I appreciated how the first two novels placed them center to the danger as it helped develop their unique relationship and bond; was this planned when you started creating the series? To help establish their connection first and then expand them into their living environment?

Spann responds: People learn a lot about themselves, and others, in dangerous circumstances, and it seemed both appropriate and necessary to threaten Hiro and Father Mateo directly during the initial investigations. Flask shifts the nature of the danger a little (and offers a chance for a little more humor), and the situation will change again in the fourth book—Mask of the Fallen.

Keeping the danger acutely personal only works for so long before a series begins to feel “scripted”; by shifting the setting and the degree of personal involvement, I hope to keep the stories all very different so they don’t become stale or predictable.

Hmm,… yes, your right on that score, too! I do not oft break it down in such a way to understand exactly why certain things happen between partners, especially crime solving partners, but if I were to be pensive a bit about my favourite crime dramas on television (American, British, and Canadian respectively) and crime fiction authors — they do have the tendency to bring their characters together through adversity. The way in which you gave Father Mateo and Hiro their growth of uniting together proved their bond was not only secure, but they have a healthy respect for opposing views and beliefs. No, I definitely can attest, your novels ‘never feel scripted’ or predictable — this is why I love the series, as it’s constantly evolving and keeping the reader (such as I) on the edge of suspense!

Being that your writing about the 16th Century how did you purport the texture of the comedy and humour which fits so cheekily into your novels? Where did you draw inspiration to understand how these two men would happily interact yet remain faithful to their respectful disciplines which set the bar of standard for how they live?

Spann responds: Many years ago, I heard someone say that the difference between comedy and tragedy lies mostly in our reaction to the events—the difficult realities humans face force us to choose between laughter and tears. When we look at reality and cry, the result is tragedy. Comedy lets us look at those same realities and choose to laugh.

The point is that most humor flows from taking a sideways look at difficult situations. The words we use to inspire laughter may have changed since Hiro’s day, but I have great fun translating medieval humor for a modern audience.

The inspiration for Hiro and Father Mateo themselves actually comes from a very personal place. In many ways, they represent two sides of my own personality—my inner cynical pragmatist has no choice but to coexist with the loving humanist that shares my internal space. Although neither of my two sides is identical to either Hiro or Father Mateo, and I certainly didn’t set out to exorcise internal demons on the page, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a personal relationship with the characters’ need to find common ground.

I love this keen insight into how to carve out humour from drama whilst understanding how the dynamics of humour and comedy can form a timeless bridge into the past. I oft note that some of the humourous phrases I would associate being mid to late 20th Century were in fact quite popular in the late 19th/early 20th — a fact I hadn’t realised until I became properly acquainted with TCM (Turner Classic Movies)!It was a surprise, and yet, as I thought on it afterwards, it felt quite fitting that something that tickles my funnybone in the latter half of the 20th & the early bits of the 21st were well versed at the end of the 19th!

On the personal disclosure on behalf of your title characters – I honestly never would have guessed this as the foundation towards their character arc and journey! It is an incredible bit of insight to share in this conversation, and the next time I read the mysteries, I might be looking at the text in a different frame of light to better understand your muse and how your channeling a bit of yourself into the fusion of your characters. Quite champion to curate such a keenly personal attachment and yet, re-direct away from your own experiences as well.

In my review for Claws of the Cat, I revealed this: Hiro was oft-times in awe of Mateo, for not only proving he was not as unaware as others would tend to believe, but for his courage in seeking out a hidden clue Hiro himself might have missed the thread to follow! How did you flesh out this unique structure of friendship, respect, and ingenuity which have become such a classic duo of suspense?

Spann responds: I’d love to claim responsibility, but in reality the characters did that mostly on their own. I originally planned—and plotted—Father Mateo as a true “Watson-style” sidekick, but during the drafting process, he evolved into someone far more interesting and important. The characters’ relationship has been more a case of leaving them “alone” and trying to faithfully represent the way they developed in my head. The more realistic a character is, the more interesting and layered his or her reactions and interactions will become.

I think looking back on the past three novels, you’ve honoured Father Mateo for breaking the mould of his part in the mysteries by not conforming his entity to the ‘Watson-style’. He truly does contribute such a strong presence in the stories themselves, he feels quite wholly true on his own merits and with his own personal history. Definitely nailed the realism, and giving them this intuitive guiding nudge towards developing their own essence as time passes in the series is a wonderful treat for the reader, I assure you!

How much creative control do you have with your book covers as I am genuinely happily impressed to pull out your novels from their bubblers and instantly feel as if the artist who rendered the covers knew exactly how to convey a glimmer of joy for the reader for each individual title! Meaning they clearly have a firm handle on continuity and how to bring the best bits of each story centerfold to cover. I was wondering if you have input on how the covers are achieved?

Spann responds: I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with an amazing cover team at St. Martin’s / Minotaur. Typically, my editor asks me for a list of elements that I think represent the story—for example, with Flask of the Drunken Master, I mentioned a sword and a sake flask. From there, the incredible cover team handles the entire design—all of the other elements sprang from their understanding of the series. I get to see and approve the mock-ups before the cover shoots, but to date I’ve never had any comment other than “Wow—you guys nailed it again.”

I would say you have one of the best cover art teams in the Mystery / Suspense genre right now – as the continuity and the consistency is quite impressive! I’d claim the Aunt Dimity series, however, I haven’t yet reached past the third novel, even if their cover art suits my fancy! I’d be able to claim the same for the Anna Lee Huber mysteries if I had been able to dig inside them as they released, but I fear, I’m still locked in on the first! Cover art has been a singular hobby of mine to admire and my fascination on how the artwork behind the covers is created never dissipates!

In my review for Blade of the Samurai, I revealed: Father Mateo still views the world with eyes full of optimistic hope and Hiro is still guarded by the knowledge of what his shinobi heritage and honour brings to his own world view. In this particular case, it is Hiro who has unwillingly placed the two in danger, and I found that only fitting as it were the actions of Father Mateo in the debut which pitted them against the guillotine. Each of them have such a firm foundation of moral, ethical, and philosophical beliefs they tend to exchange whose strength of conviction will win out per each situation they encounter. How did you underlit their beliefs by revealing more of their character in ways that felt natural rather than highlighting this specifically? How did you humanise them to where their stories feel more ‘living history’ than fictional?

Spann responds: Again, I think this springs from early planning. Before I started writing Claws of the Cat, I spent a lot of time developing the characters—including a lot of backstory elements and personal histories that don’t show up on the page. I suspect that Hiro and Father Mateo feel real, and consistent, in the novels because they feel like “real people” in my head. Obviously, I know they’re fictitious—but I try to treat them as if they were not. Sometimes that requires adjusting plotlines, scenes, and dialogue to ensure that I don’t ask them to do something inconsistent.

Ah, but even fictitious persons are hard to convince are bonefide real composites of living persons if an author hasn’t put in the extra time as you have to keep them transparent and fluid on the pages. I think this is why I can soak inside each new installment as if no time has passed me by since my last reading of the series; it feels like the transitions are seamless and streamlined into the next chapter of their lives; in essence as if you were continuing where their last journal entries left off and we’re merely reading along as their life unfolded. Again, this is hard to accomplish and when I find writers who nail it, I love to offer praise. It’s such a pleasure to read their series!

Also on my review for Blade of the Samurai, I mentioned: Further, what I found most striking is the attitude amongst the samurai themselves, as they all appear to have a disconnected conscience and emotional state of mind. Is this true across the board for high level martial artists who have a specialty and specific duty or was it solely a legacy of the Samurai? Did you uncover any ill-effects of this structured approach to their lives? Did anyone leave behind psychological observations on how their lives affected them or did you approach this from a different angle to thread it so realistically true?

Spann responds: Samurai warriors lived by a highly structured code that allowed for emotional expression only within carefully prescribed spheres. For example, a samurai was supposed to feel emotion when viewing a lovely piece of art, but to repress emotion (in favor of honor and duty) on the battlefield and in most personal interactions. Fortunately, we have lots of historical records (and personal accounts) written by samurai—and others—during the medieval era, which helps modern historians and writers understand the samurai state of mind.

This is not something I knew of on behalf of the historical records for samurai – however, the reasoning’s behind their emotional check-points is plausible for who they were and the duties in which they had to carry out. I loved finding out this little tidbit ‘behind’ the history of their character trait as I still find the samurai a bit mysterious as a whole. They only reveal ‘so much’ per meeting and I think that speaks of how they felt duty-bound to honour their calling.

As most of your stories highlight men more so than women, each time you bring forward a strong female (such as the housekeeper Ana) I happily love seeing what she can bring because there is a lot of masculinity to the Shinobi mysteries; as it would be perceived. In Flask of the Drunken Master there is another curious female stepping into the fray. Do you get a lot of joy of of finding ways to upset the apple cart and give Father Mateo and Hiro something to chew on about what women can contribute as much as how they should not underestimate them? As this parallels to Blade in a way as a woman surely caught them by surprise as well.

Spann responds: I believe that men and women play equal parts in “real history,” even though the historical documents often focus on the male perspective. (The why, and whether this is appropriate, are topics for another day.) Given that, I like to include strong women in my novels, particularly the types of women readers might not expect.

Women play an even more pivotal role in the next few books in the series, and I definitely enjoy upsetting Hiro’s mental apple cart. (Father Mateo’s, too.) When characters question their preconceptions, readers go along for the ride, and I think it’s healthy for all of us to shake up our preconceptions from time to time.

Ooh, definitely! Women were always a key part of history, even if the records reflect differently or rather are a bit remiss in keeping us in the active dialogue and recountments. That’s the mark of what I love about your style – you keep us refreshed and curious because your characters (esp the women as you said) are not the typical ones we’d expect to find occupying the novel’s heart. It’s a good turn to take a reader off-guard, as literature can feel saturated a bit if you read a heap of the same type of genre and/or time period. You’re always giving your readership a ‘game on’ challenge to see who and whom will become “the character(s)” to meet per story.

16th Century Japan feels as though you could step through a portal and live there as easily as transitioning between here and there with the lightest of footsteps – what parts of modern day Japanese life are influencing the past inside the Shinobi mysteries? Could modern visitors and residents of Japan find contemporary composites of familiarity?

Spann responds: The Japanese still appreciate beauty, and nature, and the taste of good food prepared from the best ingredients. That has changed very little since medieval days. Also, the culture of respecting others remains quite strong—perhaps even more so now, because it applies to everyone, rather than just to samurai.

They definitely do – I have had Japanese friends in the past, and our conversations were focused on the natural world and food made by fresh ingredients; when we weren’t speaking on behalf of the traditions of tea, which differ greatly from the Western world. It is impressive how much of modern Japan is reflective of Medieval Japan; this in of itself is vindictive of their passion for tradition and for celebrating life.

What comes first the title of the novel or the plot? You have such curious titles that not only bring to mind a scene of plausible occurrences but a forbearance of where we might tread next. They even fit the period of where the stories alight.

Spann responds: The plot comes first, and the title echoes the plot line. Ideally, each title contains an element that relates to the killer and one that relates to the murder weapon or the victim. Most of the titles have been fairly easy, though Mask of the Fallen took a little more time than most, because it was difficult to balance those required elements without revealing too much about the story.

Your titles give me something to think on as soon as I find out what they are – I hadn’t quite tapped into the killer/weapon aspect of it, but I knew it was a code of some sort relating to each novel in the series. It’s the choice of your words in each title and the combination therein that led me to ponder a bit about how they were created; thus this question.

How do you keep the crimes and the suspense effervescently fresh to the reader and yet convey such an intricate plot as to allow us the grace to live through the story alongside Father Mateo and Hiro? Is this from drawing inspiration from your own passion for Mystery & Suspense or something quite serendipitously part of how the stories come to you?

Spann responds: I bore easily. In writing, I need to shift the scenery a lot to keep myself engaged. I also enjoy taking the reader through a variety of exotic locations, and medieval Japan has a lot to offer in that regard. Shifting the scenery and setting creates a brand-new “world” for readers to explore in every novel, which helps to keep the series fresh and engaging—for me, as well as for everyone else!

Don’t we all? (as in finding ourselves properly bored) I tend to have a heap of passions and interests because I like to mix things up a bit and keep my mind alert as much as encourage my creativity by trying different mediums of artistic expression. I think it’s the best way to keep ourselves refreshed and current with where our heart is aligning our creative voice to head next. I can assure you, your instincts of bang-on brilliant!

Thank you so much for hosting me today, Jorie.
I’m delighted that you enjoy the series, and thank you for all the great questions!

You’re most welcome!

It was a true delight and honour to be able to extend our conversation about the Shinobi Mysteries, whilst keeping the series a bit unknown to the visitor who might be finding out about them for the first time! I wanted to ask the questions that left me wanton in curiosity whilst holding back a bit so not to run myself into a discourse of spoilt surprises for new readers! I am hoping my regular readers & new visitors alike enjoy where the conversation led and the insights it’s revealed! I love compiling the questions!

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This blog tour is courtesy of: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

{ click-through to follow the tour & find more reader’s impressions! }

{note: due to health and lightning storms this interview is posting outside the tour}

Flask of the Drunken Master by Susan SpannFun Stuff for Your Blog via

Likewise, please visit the compliment blog tour hosted by TLC Book Tours for FLASK.

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Previously, dear hearts, you may or may not have realised I have hosted the lovely Ms Spann for an author Q&A, whilst giving my ruminations on behalf of the Shinobi mysteries thus far published: Claws of the Cat (No.1), Blade of the Samurai (No.2), and Flask of the Drunken Master (No.3)! I am an enthused reader of her series and eagerly devour each new installment of this intricately woven historical (cosy) mystery series!

Similar to the Shinobi mysteries by era and location are the novels by Laura Joh Rowland, of which I was introduced too when I read The Iris Fan. For hearty depth and character centric story-lines within the historical realms such as these I’d also recommend: Lorna Sukuki (my chapter sampler introduction) of whom I look forward to reading in the future.

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Similar to blog tours where I feature book reviews, as I choose to highlight an author via a Guest Post, Q&A, Interview, etc., I do not receive compensation for featuring supplemental content on my blog. I provide the questions for interviews and topics for the guest posts; wherein I receive the responses back from publicists and authors directly. I am naturally curious about the ‘behind-the-scenes’ of stories and the writers who pen them; I have a heap of joy bringing this content to my readers.

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Kindly leave your comments & remarks for Ms Spann in the threads below!

Comment Box Banner made by Jorie in Canva.

{SOURCES: Cover art of “Flask of the Drunken Master”, book synopsis, author photograph of Susan Spann and the tour badge were all provided by HFVBTs (Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours) and used with permission. Conversations with the Bookish banner created by Jorie in Canva. Comment Box banner created by Jorie in Canva. Post dividers by Fun Stuff for Your Blog via Pure Imagination.}

Copyright © Jorie Loves A Story, 2015.

About jorielov

I am self-educated through local libraries and alternative education opportunities. I am a writer by trade and I cured a ten-year writer’s block by the discovery of Nanowrimo in November 2008. The event changed my life by re-establishing my muse and solidifying my path. Five years later whilst exploring the bookish blogosphere I decided to become a book blogger. I am a champion of wordsmiths who evoke a visceral experience in narrative. I write comprehensive book showcases electing to get into the heart of my reading observations. I dance through genres seeking literary enlightenment and enchantment. Starting in Autumn 2013 I became a blog book tour hostess featuring books and authors. I joined The Classics Club in January 2014 to seek out appreciators of the timeless works of literature whose breadth of scope and voice resonate with us all.

"I write my heart out and own my writing after it has spilt out of the pen." - self quote (Jorie of Jorie Loves A Story)

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Posted Friday, 21 August, 2015 by jorielov in 16th Century, Blog Tour Host, Bookish Discussions, Cosy Historical Mystery, Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, Historical Mystery, Japan, Japanese Fiction, Japanese History, Multi-cultural Characters and/or Honest Representations of Ethnicity

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