2014 / Sunday

Tales from the Mind of a Mistress of Storytelling

Devayani Girish Bodas 

Lian Hearn

Lian Hearn

“I walk a lot and daydream a lot about my books and various hopeful scenes address and suggest themselves to me,” said Lian Hearn.

Ms Hearn is the author of the internationally bestselling Tales of the Otori series (five books so far). In all, she has published more than 35 books across many genres; for children and young adults as well as adult literature. She reflected on the craft of writing and telling stories at the Festival session, Storytelling and the Storyteller, and on her appropriately named latest novel The Storyteller and His Three Daughters.

The Storyteller is set in 1884 in Tokyo, against the background of Japan’s first incursions in Korea. Her protagonist, the storyteller Akabane Sei, belongs to a tradition that began hundreds of years before, but is losing popularity. He realises that he cannot force a story and if he tries to do so, the story will die. Ms Hearn said she shared the same experience in her own writing.

When crafting her stories she never follows a synopsis or outline. “I have to start without knowing what’s going to happen, because for me the fun of writing, is writing and things come to you out of the blue,” she said. The way Ms Lian approaches writing may seem ambiguous, but there is still a structure to the process, what she calls the “over-arching rhythm” that remains in the book from start to finish.

Of course, a great deal of exploration and experimentation is central to her work. Once she has an inkling of a story or, after a long period of germination of that initial idea, the next stage is research. “This is really like being a sort of hunter-gatherer. I’m on the prowl, I’m looking for things that obviously happened historically,” she said. “From the way people spoke to each other to the way they ate their food, it’s being intensely immersed in that subject that is key to making the story come to life.”

On her many visits to Japan, she frequents museums, exhibitions and even bakeries as part of her research. “It’s a very opportunistic search in that I only want things that will make the work come alive. So once I have a sense of my story then I’m investigating scenes, buildings, plants, trees, animals, clothes utensils, weapons and anything else you could think of,” she said.

Keeping the authenticity of the story is another high priority: she reads Japanese history in Japanese rather than Western versions of Japanese history. She maps out historical facts on a timeline, which helps her to visualise the story and plan ways the plot may unravel.

Alongside sketchbooks, she also uses notebooks and writes by hand. At this stage of crafting a story, she is much more mechanical than free flowing. On the right-hand side page of her notebook she writes her story and on the left she writes her internal editing.

She is not interested in following traditional ways of crafting a story. For instance, character building techniques, such as asking your characters questions, appear to be “slightly false” if not an “outright lie”. Instead, Ms Lian’s process of crafting her characters is almost spiritual in a sense, since there is no set method.

“There is mystery to character, because to me it really is a mystery. People arrive in my head and I seem to know their backstory and everything about them,” she said.