Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Laura Joh Rowland wore a variety of hats before she found the one that suits her best. After earning a bachelor of sciences degree and a masters in public health from the University of Michigan, she worked as a chemist, microbiologist, sanitary inspector, engineer, and freelance illustrator. She found none of these right brained pursuits as satisfying as fiction writing. Science's loss was crime fiction readers' gain. Today, Joh Rowland is best known for her acclaimed Sano Ichiro series set in 17th. century Japan. In a departure from her Asian stories, she recently wrote The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte, a thriller that places the Victorian author and her family center stage. Her latest book in the Sano Ichiro series, which is comes out in November, is The Cloud Pavilion.

1. What made you choose fiction writing?

I didn't. It chose me. I studied science in college, worked at technical jobs afterward, and wanted to be an artist. I stumbled into a course on writing and illustrating children's picture books, and I discovered that I preferred the writing to the illustrating, and I was a lot better at the writing. I eventually realized that because mystery fiction was what I loved to read, it was what I should write.

2. How did the character of Samurai detective Sano Ichiro manifest itself?

He grew out of my research into Japanese history. I learned that during the Tokugawa period, in which my series is set, Japan was ruled by the samurai class. All government officials were samurai, including the police detectives who solved crimes. Therefore, Sano had to be a samurai. I also learned that conformity vs. individuality and duty vs. loyalty to one's master were classic conflicts in samurai society, and honor was the reigning principle. Sano exemplifies those issues.

3. Sano Ichiro's world is a world of social boundaries. So was that of Charlotte Bronte, the subject of your latest novel. Have you ever had to deal with such boundaries and how did you cope with them?

All worlds have social boundaries, even the contemporary United States, which is a free-for-all compared to medieval Japan and Victorian England. I grew up during a time when women had to struggle against old ideas of what women can and can't do. I come from a family that's geared toward careers in professions like medicine, teaching, and engineering, where nobody wrote fiction for a living. I began writing historical mysteries at a time when there weren't many, and mine had an unusual setting. So, yes, I have come up against boundaries, and I dealt with them by crossing them.

4. Several readers have described your Charlotte Bronte's voice as authentic, adding that she seems to be a living, breathing woman. These are characteristics she shares with Sano Ichiro. How do you breathe life into two such disparate characters?

I absorbed Charlotte's writing voice from her books, particularly Jane Eyre. She also left behind many letters, which I used to recreate her speaking voice and her personality. As for Sano, I read literature from his period of Japanese history. It's usually translated into modern English, which is what I use when I write him. But there's a point in every book when the characters come alive for me and begin telling their own stories. I just listen and write down what they say.

5. Sano Ichiro wife Reiko plays a very different role in your novels than that of traditional women in 17th Century Japan. Are any of her exploits based on fact?

No. Reiko is a completely fictional creation. I couldn't find any stories about women who did what she did during her time period. But there were women who had great influence over their men and wielded power from behind the throne. An example is the shogun's mother. And I believe that in every society there are outliers, folks who transcend the limits that restrict ordinary people. They're not always famous enough to be written into history, but they exist. Reiko is one of those.

6. Your parents are Chinese and Korean. What do they think of your Japanese characters?

They love them. Nobody is prouder of my books than my parents.

7. Who would Sano Ichiro's equivalent be in Chinese and Korean literature?

He would probably be an official in the court of the emperor or king. But there's no exact equivalent of the samurai class in Chinese or Korean history, so his character and his world would have been very different.

8. Would you consider the style of the novels beginning with The Snow Empress a departure from detective fiction?

No. They have the classic elements of detective fiction: a murder mystery, a detective, and a solution that involves suspects, alibis, clues, and deduction. I do like to vary the settings, the elements of Japanese history, and the narrative structure, to keep the series fresh.

9. You used the spirit cry, the kiai, as a weapon in The Samurai's Wife. Was that a calculated risk, considering that it requires the reader to suspend his disbelief far more consciously than if the weapon were a katana?

It was a risk because some mystery readers don't like supernatural elements, and books that cross the line between mystery and fantasy fiction may have trouble pleasing fans of either genre. But the supernatural was a big part of martial arts culture and everyday life in Sano's time. People who read my series and are familiar with Japanese history know that. I think they're more willing to accept supernatural elements in my books than in a contemporary American police novel. And the solution to the crime in The Samurai's Wife is grounded in solid, classic detective work.

10. Is contemporary Japan as fascinating a setting for detective stories as the Tokugawa Court?

Contemporary Japan certainly is fascinating. I've read some wonderful detective novels set there. But I will probably stick with historical Japan.

11. Do you intend to bring back Sano Ichiro?

He's already back. His last adventure, The Fire Kimono, was published after The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte. His latest, The Cloud Pavilion, comes out in November. And I'm currently writing the one that comes next.

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