Keith Yatsuhashi is the author of Kojiki (2016) and its sequel Kokoro, which came out today (4/4/2017) from Angry Robot Books. In this interview, he talks about the inspiration behind his epics that feature gods, mechas, and amazing characters and the process behind getting these books from drafting to publishing.
About the Books
Was Kojiki your first book?
Kojiki is indeed my first book. I’ve read many authors write several books before they get published, but I was obsessive with Kojiki. I kept refining and changing it every time I received a rejection. I think each on made me work harder on it. Funny enough, I was just about to shelve it and continue with what became Kokoro, when my agent, Laura Zats, offered representation!
From where do you draw inspiration for these works?
I love anime. The visual imagery is stunning. The anime ‘look’ became the basis for Kojiki’s … I guess the word I’m looking for is ‘alchemy.’ I preferred putting the characters in shields to fly around instead of the standard American version of characters in flight. Not that either is right or wrong, I just preferred what the Japanese do. I wanted for something unique in what I gave the characters in terms of how they used their power and how I presented it. I also thought long about how I paced the book. Instead of the usual slow build, I decided to drop the reader right into the action. I’m a movie guy, and I wanted that same opening action sequence. No build up and no explanation. You get to learn along with the MC. I thought this was more real. No one gets all the information on what’s happening while it’s happening, right?
Who inspired your characters?
The main character, Keiko, came from my aunt, Kikuye, right down to her camera obsession. My aunt had this child-like innocence and happy personality. I wanted Keiko to be like that. Too many main characters, mine included, are angst-ridden. Again, I wanted to do something new – present a character without baggage; one who knew who she was as a person and was confident in herself. I developed the other characters based on how they reacted to Keiko. She spends most of her time with Yui, so she’s equal parts tormenter and conscience. Yui’s father, Takeshi, has a lot of my father in him. His crimson shield is a tribute to my father’s Alma Mater: Harvard. As for the rest of the cast: Seirin is essentially my wife, which makes Aeryk me. Even in her POV scenes, you’ll notice that the narrative has a lot of what would be another’s take on her. I love her character. She’s tough, complex, and driven. As for the baddie, Vissyus – he’s the story’s Billy Budd. The best of all of us in a very bad situation. He’s really the character you should root for. He’s the only one who acts unselfishly. The. Only. One.
What was your favorite scene to write?
If I had to choose one, it’d be in the middle of [Kojiki] where Seirin first unleashes her power. She’s hurt and angry and merciless, and once she hands out justice, she’s guilty and broken. I’d put all of Vissyus’s scenes right up there too. His story’s heartbreaking and seeing his insanity play out is truly tragic.
The Writing and Publishing Process
What came first: The world or the character arcs? Both are incredibly detailed and I wonder how you managed to get them to fit in so well together.
I’m a linear writer. I play the scene out in my head and then write it. I guess what I’m basically saying is that the two happen at the same time. Bear in mind that the final book goes through a lot of edits. I had an independent editor, Lorin Oberweger of Free-Expressions.com work really hard with me to get all the chapters right. Then the people at Angry Robot books, Phil Jourdan in particular, helped me make everything work.
As Kokoro was the project you started work on first, what was the process like for condensing the scope of the story to really make Kojiki work?
As you said, I had Kokoro in my head for a very long time. I wanted to write it when I was in college but didn’t have the patience or commitment to keep at it. I came up with an idea for Kojiki years later. The idea came, as it does for a lot of SFF fans, from pondering a favorite book and thinking about how I wanted to see it end. For me, it was The Wheel of Time. That was back when the series had several books left to go. I imagined the ending the way I wanted it to be. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I could turn this idea into its own book. I changed the setting to Mount Fuji, made the characters and situations my own, and took off from there. So all you fanfic writers take note: you can turn your fanfics into your own manuscripts with some intense rewrites and tweaking, and who knows? As a side note, I think it helped knowing the ending before I wrote the whole book.
I saw you participated in #Pitmad and found your agent. Tell me a bit more about what that was like. Was it your first time participating?
Yes, it was my very first #Pitmad. I came across it by accident on Twitter. I have to say, I loved the exercise of taking a huge story and condensing it down to a short blurb. You’re also not really ‘cold calling’. Agents see your tweets, like them, and ask for more. I sent off queries to each of the agent’s who asked for them and sat back and waited. This included my agent, Laura Zats from Red Sofa Literary. I can’t remember which tweet caught her eye, but she contacted me, asked for a few pages, then got back, requesting the full manuscript. The whole process took several months. Toward the end, we were emailing back and forth because a few publishers started asking for manuscripts. She was fantastic and helpful, though I made sure to be careful of her time. I never emailed her under the assumption she’d sign me. I needed help, and since she was so interested in the book, I wanted to make sure I kept her updated on any other interest. I thought it was the right thing to do. She then emailed me saying she wanted to talk. I was over the moon, as you can imagine. She’s been a fantastic agent, and I couldn’t be happier. Her agency, Red Sofa Literary is so supportive too. They treat all their authors like family.
When it comes to getting words on the page, do you have any tips for emerging writers for whom writing may not be their only focus?
Well, this will sound sacrilegious, but I’ve gone from staring at a blank page and typing slowly as the ideas come to using a dictation app on my phone. All you need is the app and a decent headset and boom – you’re in business. I used dictation with Kokoro’s first draft, and I think the book’s voice is stronger. Kojiki was the old fashioned ponder the words, work the scene, etc. I found I spent too much time rewriting and editing the early draft. I ended up moving way to slow. With dictation, I get the outline down quickly, about 1500 words per half hour, (perfect for my commute). I add notes while I’m dictating so I know where I thought a sentence was weak or redundant or needs revision. At night, I go on my computer, transfer the audio file and have Dragon Dictate transcribe it. A note of caution, Dragon’s not perfect, especially for SFF. Fantasy names are tricky, and no matter how hard I train Dragon, it rarely gets them right. To get around that, I’ll pick an easy name like Tom or Sarah, and then do a global find and replace. This turned out to be easier than fighting through the awful – sometimes funny – ways Dragon changed the names. Dictation/transcription lets you get your ideas down quickly for a first draft. Once that’s down, the hard work starts: the editing. I still do that the old-fashioned way.
You can buy Keith’s books here: