Please welcome Steve Bein back to the blog! Disciple of the Wind, the third novel in his Fated Blades series just came out, and he kindly answered a few of my questions.
I adored Daughter of the Sword and am deep into Year of the Demon (and enjoying it immensely). What can we expect from Disciple of the Wind and Mariko Oshiro?
Thanks so much for having me back to My Bookish Ways. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the books.
Disciple of the Wind isn’t particularly kind to Mariko. She starts off in the frying pan and jumps right in the fire. Her heroics in Daughter and Demon have drawn the attention of a highly decorated captain. He wants to cash in on her celebrity, but Mariko has other plans. As usual, she shoots off her mouth, and this time it gets her in serious trouble. But whatever punishment he’s about to mete out gets forestalled when a major terrorist incident erupts right in the heart of Tokyo.
Mariko ends up in the thick of that, and for her things keep getting worse from there. People who have read Year of the Demon have a good guess of what “the Wind” of Disciple of the Wind refers to; if you haven’t gotten that far yet, suffice it to say that there are people far more dangerous than the yakuzas, drug dealers, and cult fanatics Mariko has dealt with so far. But in many ways she’s her own worst enemy, which from my perspective means she’s her own best adversary. She’s got an unshakeable moral compass, so that’s the real adversary I pit her against in this book. I give her uncrossable lines and then see if I can force her to cross them.
I can’t imagine the amount of research that these books required in order to create such a fully realized world, past and present. Was there any particular research that you did for the new book?
This one required a surprising amount of research into the relationship between law enforcement and the media. (In Japan, they’re entangled in a very strange marriage.) It also involved asking some pretty sensitive questions about how police respond to a well-orchestrated terrorist attack. Honestly, it makes me a little apprehensive to investigate such things. In Year of the Demon I had to understand a lot of chemistry about making amphetamines and high explosives, and I always wonder if googling some of that stuff will put me on an FBI watchlist somewhere.
Disciple of the Wind turned my apprehension up to eleven. I interview cops as a part of my research, and asking them for specific details about responding to terrorist attacks can raise an eyebrow or two. But I think realism is a vital element in sustaining a reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief. It’s important to me to get the details right, and sometimes that makes me go to dark places. At least now I can show them the first two books when we start the interview. When I was writing Daughter of the Sword—which is to say, before I had an actual novel to show anyone—the first Narcotics guy I interviewed wouldn’t answer most of my questions. He suspected I was trying to figure out how to be a drug dealer and get away with it.
When you start writing, do you already have an ending in mind, or do you just let the narrative go where it takes you? Do you already have a set number of books that you plan to write in the series?
I’m a plotter, not a pantser. In terms of creative horsepower, almost as much effort goes into the outline as into the novel itself. Those few dozen pages take a long time for me, but once I’ve got them, it’s off to the races. As for the ending, I almost always end up where I planned to go from the outset, but I’ve never yet followed the intended path to get there. Unexpected twists and turns are inevitable.
I’m leaving open the possibility of writing more Fated Blades novels in the future, but they’ll probably take a different form. What I’d really like to do is focus on one character at a time. Daigoro deserves a book all to himself, maybe his own series of books. (Even before we signed any contracts, I told my editor that Daigoro is my Horatio Hornblower. I can write endlessly about him.) Kaida’s another good candidate for her own series; as elevator pitches go, “think ninja Katniss Everdeen” seems pretty good to me.
In our last interview, I meant to ask if you’ve always wanted to be a writer! Will you tell us a little more about your background and that progression?
I guess it depends on what you mean by “being a writer.” I am a writer, inasmuch as I’m usually writing something. When it’s not fiction, it’s philosophy, and I don’t know that a month ever goes by without me working on both. But if “being a writer” means quitting my day job to write full time, I’ll say thanks but no thanks. Writing doesn’t come with vision or dental.
That’s a little flippant, but it’s close to the truth. I came to the art as a hobbyist, not an Aspiring Novelist. The fact is that I write primarily to entertain myself. TV never really did it for me; I don’t like being advertised to, and sitting still for a long time isn’t really one of my strong suits. (I must admit that Netflix has solved one of those problems and age is working steadily on the other.) I guess I’d just as soon tell the stories myself as have them told to me.
As for my progression, my parents tell me I’ve been writing stories since before I can remember. I took creative writing courses all through college, and I was steadily writing stories on the side, but I never intended any of them for public consumption. I didn’t send out my first submission until I was 29, and even that was under duress. A friend read what I’d written, liked it, and said I couldn’t lose anything by sending it out. He was right. That’s still one of the best pieces of writing advice I have to offer: don’t self-reject.
The upshot of all of that was an awfully nice 30th birthday present to myself: I published my first piece of fiction and my first philosophy article in the same summer. If that first story had been rejected, I don’t know that I’d ever have submitted again. Seeing it in print gave me a new kind of validation. After that I started writing more, and submitting more, and collecting rejection slips, and every now and then I’d sell a story. More importantly, I met other writers and got more serious about understanding writing not as an art but as a craft.
How do you distinguish the two?
The potter Warren MacKenzie put that distinction in my head. He’s a master, an elder statesman of American pottery, and he’s as artful as they come. But even he goes into the studio every morning with a “making list.” If he’s not feeling especially inspired that day, it doesn’t matter; he just makes whatever is first on the list. That’s the difference I see between art and craft: craft is something you can put on a to-do list and eventually strike off the list. It’s pragmatic. I want to practice the art too—to write evocatively, to say something meaningful—but it’s bullheaded pragmatism that gets a book across the finish line. Art makes it good; craft gets you to submit the damn thing.
What’s one of the first things you remember writing?
Superhero origin stories. I was fascinated with them. When I was growing up, our local library had these two huge volumes of comic book reprints, one from Marvel and one from DC. There were countless heroes in there, and all of their exploits began with the story of how they got their powers and why they turned to fighting crime. My brother and I would read them over and over again, and eventually we started creating heroes and villains of our own.
Come to think of it, I don’t know that I ever got around to writing any actual stories about them, but every one of them got a backstory. I think I was more interested in creating the characters than watching them do anything. They all had this single-page existence, a picture of the costume on one side and a bio on the other. Some of them got an Aunt May sort of character, someone they’d have to perpetually rescue if our heroes were ever picked up for their own comic series. They had archenemies, weaknesses, all that stuff. I don’t know how original any of them were—we were pretty young—but they were fun.
How do you balance your writing with your day job as a professor?
I think teaching is probably the best job there is for someone who wants to write. I always have access to a good library and I can always surround myself with interesting people who can teach me something new. Most significant, though, is that most of my workweek happens on my schedule. Teaching is the most important part of what I do, but it’s really only half of what I do—the visible half, so to speak. In any given week I spend more hours preparing, grading, or doing research than I do teaching. Those invisible things can be crushing, but I get to pick when to get crushed. If I want to devote an entire Friday to writing until 2:00 in the morning, I can do that, and then move everything else around to get it all done on time.
This is one aspect of my profession that we professors haven’t done a great job of explaining to the rest of the world. Ask people to imagine a professor and they’ll picture someone standing in front of a classroom. Since we’re not doing that forty hours a week, people assume we’re not working forty hours a week. That’s not a safe assumption. (A case in point: I spent forty-some hours last week just grading papers.) But it is correct to say that my weekly schedule is a lot more flexible than most, and that facilitates writing in countless ways. For creative types, I don’t know of a better life.
It’s been a while since we’ve caught up. Have you read any good books lately? Is there anything you’re looking forward to reading this year?
Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves is the next big one I’m looking forward to. Ken Liu’s a friend of mine, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting his first novel, The Grace of Kings. (This makes me one of approximately seven billion people eagerly awaiting that book.) That’s next on my list.
The one I’m in the middle of at the moment is Jerry Brotton’s A History of the World in Twelve Maps, which is exactly what it sounds like. Brotton is a historian of cartography, and he shows how a map isn’t just a record of physical space. It records intellectual achievements, cultural values, evolutions of language and religion and even mathematics. It shows the divisions of Us and Them.
What’s next for you (crosses fingers for more Fated Blades)?
Samurai cowboys versus space invaders. Think Firefly, but in this version the Reavers get a 3,000-year head start on weapons technology and they’re all devilish tacticians. The research for this project has been fascinating. I’ve had consults with a physicist and a geologist to talk about how to construct my planets, and then exchanged emails with Jeff Carlson (he of the unputdownable Plague Year novels) about how nanotech can destroy them.
So yeah, a bit of a departure from historical fiction and urban fantasy, but I think you’re going to like it. (And don’t worry, I’m not prepared to close the door on the Fated Blades just yet.)
About Disciple of the Wind:
When Tokyo falls victim to a deadly terrorist attack, Detective Sergeant Mariko Oshiro knows who is responsible, even if she doesn’t have proof. She urges her commanding officers to arrest the perpetrator—an insane zealot who was just released from police custody. When her pleas fall on deaf ears, she loses her temper and then her badge, as well as her best chance of fighting back.
Left on her own, and armed with only her cunning and her famed Inazuma blade, Mariko must work outside the system to stop a terrorist mastermind. But going rogue draws the attention of an underground syndicate known as the Wind. For centuries, they have controlled Japanese politics from the shadows, using mystical relics to achieve their nefarious ends—relics like Mariko’s own sword and the iron demon mask whose evil curse is bound to the blade. Now the Wind is set on acquiring Mariko.
Mariko is left with a perilous choice: Join an illicit insurgency to thwart a deadly villain, or remain true to the law. Either way, she cannot escape her sword’s curse. As sure as the blade will bring her to victory, it also promises to destroy her….
Steve Bein (pronounced “Bine”) is a philosopher, photographer, traveler, translator, martial artist, and award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Interzone, Writers of the Future, and in international translation. His first novel, Daughter of the Sword, was met with critical acclaim, and his second novel, Year of the Demon, was named one of the top five fantasy novels of 2013 by Library Journal. Steve’s newest book, Disciple of the Wind, is in stores now, and his new novella, Streaming Dawn, is available now for your e-reader. You can find his work at Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Audible.
Steve teaches philosophy at Texas State University. He lives in Austin with his partner Michele and their Lab, Kane.