Your series, Hattori Hachi, is about a girl who finds out she descends from Japanese ninja warriors, where did the idea come from?
Some years ago I picked up a slim book in a Japanese shop in Covent Garden entitled “Everything you need to know about Ninjutsu”. As I knew nothing about the subject at that time, it was extremely informative! But much more than that, it was truly inspirational, telling me how ninjutsu was a forerunner to all our contemporary spies and assassins, like James Bond. People really did train to a very high level in fighting and unarmed combat, infiltration into enemy camps, disguise, deception, even how to appear fly through the air and walk on water. I loved everything I read in this little book and immediately bought loads more ninjutsu reference books. What I also love about this martial art is that its purpose was to maintain peace, not to start wars. Underlying everything, there’s a wonderful, spiritual Zen philosophy that teaches its pupils to be in touch with nature and with themselves.
Hattie actually lives in London, practically the other side of the world from Japan, what made you set the books in England’s capital?
I wanted my lead character to feel really displaced when she discovered her ninjutsu heritage. Hattie Jackson is half Japanese, but has lived in England nearly all her life. I wanted her to struggle to balance the everyday life, being a normal metropolitan teenage girl, with the discovery of her ninjutsu legacy and all the training and pressure and terrors that go with it, as she takes on the world’s deadliest assassin. By letting Hattie Jackson discover all these things in the first book, I hoped that it would help readers become involved and engrossed at the same time with a new and different world.
What kind of research did you carry out about the world that Hatti comes from?
I read loads of books, googled everything I could think of, watched loads of ninja films – then took myself off for a 6 day lightening tour of Japan! It was easy for me to write about Camden where Hattie lives as, at that time, I lived up the road in Belsize Park. For book 2, I went to Kielder in Northumberland to soak up the atmosphere and get some specific details. But to write about Japan, which is where book 3 is mostly set, I knew I had to spend some significant time there and travel a lot as well. Their culture is so different and so many things about everyday life are nothing like I could have imagined. So with the help of their amazing transportation system and the super fast bullet train, I was lucky enough to visit Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagasaki and a ninja theme park in Nikko!
Theres a point in the book where Hatti is looking at pictures and postcards of Japan and Suzi is talking about the mountains where she grew up, These pictures became real in my head when I was reading about them and I was wondering if you had a specific part of Japan/village in mind for Suzis homeland? Did you visit these places at all?
When I wrote book one I hadn’t been to Japan, so I used travel guides to get a feeling for the landscape. I already knew where I wanted Hattie’s family to come from, because I’d already had the idea for book three about her having to travel back to her mother’s homeland. Because so much of the story is about trying to stop war and maintain peace (although Hattie has to be the most supreme fighter to achieve it!), I wanted her family to come from an area near Nagasaki, so she could see for herself the devastation caused by the atomic bomb that put an end to World War 2. I’m delighted that you got a very clear picture of Suzi’s village in your head. I knew what I wanted to describe in book one, even though I’d only seen those places in pictures at that time, not visited them. I’m very pleased it came across.
I understand your background is in TV script writing, how did the move to YA Books come about?
I was visiting Piccadilly Press to see if they had any books that I might be able to option to adapt for TV. I had never thought of writing a book myself. But when I asked if they had any action adventure books, and maybe with a girl in the lead for a change, they looked at me and said ‘there aren’t any’. When I came to look into it, at that time there really weren’t. Piccadilly said that all their girl-lead books were about dating or boyfriends or ballet or ponies, but that if I had an idea for a female action adventure story, then they’d be very interested to commission it. I’d been thinking about Hattori Hachi for a while, and when I described it, they loved it and so they went ahead and asked me to write the idea as a book. It was one of the most fun commissions I’ve ever had.
Have you got any other YA book projects underway at the minute and if so can you tell us anything about them?
I’m just delivering book 3 of Hattori Hachi – Curse Of The Diamond Daggers. Hattie is summonsed to Japan to try and restore peace within the warring factions of her family. There are some new terrifying enemies and some the earlier ones that also reappear. Hattie is a fish out of water in a culture she struggles to understand, at the same time as having to master the four highest levels of training to acquire “the eyes and mind of the universe”. At the moment, I’m just polishing a great big action sequence and I’m having a great time!
Do you use soundtracks as a method of concentration when planning and writing your books?
No, I like to write in absolute silence if possible. I’ve recently moved to the New Forest and love just hearing the sounds of the birds and ponies as I write. At any other time, I adore music. But when I’m living in my head, creating and moulding another world, I want the fewest distractions possible.
Do you have any aids or lucky charms that you like to have near when you are writing?
My two cats! I have a blind cat, Buffy, who is very sensitive, who we call our Zen kitty. We have to be very peaceful, calm and kind around her. The other one is Mitten and she loves cuddling – all day if I let her. When I’m struggling for an idea, I’ll often lie on the sofa with Mitten purring on my chest and we think up ideas together. It was a great turning point in my writing career when I realised this was just as valid as sitting at my laptop typing. When I’m writing the Hattori Hachi books, I also have a little ninja figure, about thirty centimetres tall, who’s in the full black outfit with ninja hood, split-toed tabi shoes with a pretty nasty grappling hook.
Does your writing follow a particular pattern? Do you stick to a set time period within the day or do you just go with the flow?
First thing in the morning is my best time for writing. I get up and start before my head gets filled up with other things. When I’m in the early part of a project, thinking up ideas, I’ll wander off to the shops or go for bike rides while I’m thinking, but once I’m getting close to delivery, I shut myself away and work from early morning till the evening. At that stage, I find it’s just easier just to do it rather than to be distracted on other things and worrying that I should be doing it, and if I don’t get my act together soon then it might never get finished… That’s a really horrible feeling.
Have you got any other writing projects underway at the minute and if so can you tell us anything about them?
Book 3 of Hattori Hachi – Curse of the Diamond Daggers! And I’ve already had some ideas for book 4. I hope loads of people are going to support book 3 at www.unbound.co.uk so that it gets published and I can start writing the next one!
A few more personal quick-fire questions:
Favourite author: Harper Lee, ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’, for its clarity, humanity, politics and warmth.
Favourite band: So many! With an older brother and sister, I was brought up on the Beatles, Led Zepplin, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac and I still love hearing music from those bands. I recently discovered Elbow who I really like (yes, I know they’ve been around for ages, don’t know how I missed them…), I love Adele’s voice and Jessie Jay is always fun and entertaining. But then I can also really enjoy watching a new girl band evolve, like Little Mix, who I thought did a great job winning X Factor this year and can actually all sing as well.
Favourite colour: Electric blue. When I look at an azure ocean, I get such a rush of energy, it feels as though I’ve plugged myself into the mains.
Favourite animal: Cats! And anything that lives in the ocean. I’ve been lucky enough to swim with dolphins; sharks; humpback, sperm, pilot and killer whales; and also a really weird looking manatee in Belize.
Favourite dinosaur: Stegosaurus. Great no-nonsense name and so cool to look at. Small head though, so probably not a very big brain…