How would you describe Blood Ninja to potential readers?
Good question – partly because I don’t really know the answer! I guess I’d say that it’s a sort of horror adventure. It features a teenage boy who gets drawn into the mysterious world of ninjas in feudal Japan, and a secret feud between two deadly warlords… all while slowly realising that he might be more than he seems. If you don’t like decapitations, I’d give it a miss. But if you like samurais, swords, throwing stars, beautiful princesses, secret lairs and assassinations, then it should be right up your street.
I don’t think we are giving too much away by saying that Blood Ninja is about vampire ninjas. This is such a great idea, do you remember when it first came to you?
I wish I could give a better answer to this but the truth is that it came about as the result of a joke. I was talking to a fellow editor – I edit children’s books as my day job – and we were trying to come up with good concepts for teenage boys. I mentioned vampire ninjas – not at all seriously – and instead of laughing, she said I should write it. So I did.
Blood Ninja is the first in a series. Do you know how many books you hope to have in the series and have you plotted out the storylines for these already?
Yes, it’s always been planned as a trilogy – and there is a very definite end point, so it wouldn’t go any further than that. I’ve written the second book already, which will be out this time next year. Also, this seems like a good opportunity to say that there might be some surprises coming. On the face of it, this may seem like a familiar ‘boy with a destiny’ story – but things are not necessarily what they seem... Fair warning!
I’ve had some lovely reviews in the US, but a couple of them have said, ‘oh, the story’s a bit predictable because there are lots of children’s books about boys with a destiny’. I want to say, ‘wait till you read the next two books!’ I mean, the question you have to ask yourself is – spoiler alert here – do we see Taro fulfil his destiny in book 1? No, we don’t. It’s all still up in the air.
What do you see as the main influences on your writing?
I don’t know, really. That’s a rubbish answer isn’t it? I suppose everything I read and watch and listen to. In particular I’d have to say James Clavell’s Shogun, Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori, and Stephen King. I think Philip Reeve, in the Moving Cities series, has set the standard for books that blur the obvious lines between good and bad, morally speaking, and I’d like to think that some of that ambiguity is in Blood Ninja – more so in the second book! Kenji Kira is actually my favourite character. Taro annoys the hell out of me, and he will pay for it. Trust me, he’ll pay.
You obviously have a passion for Japanese history. How did you carry out the research when writing Blood Ninja? Have you ever lived in Japan?
No, I’ve never even been there. This is my second book, and the first one was set in the Arctic, which I’ve never been to either. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m starting to think that I can’t write anything set in a place or a time that I know too well, and I’m going to just keep writing stuff set in places I don’t have much of a clue about. Maybe that’s because I find books set in present day Britain boring as a reader. I read to get away from my day-to-day life, not to see it reflected.
Hmm… I’ve got away from the question, haven’t I? Um – research. The truth is I didn’t really do any. People never believe me but it’s true. I think I just picked stuff up from reading novels set in Japan. I’m a bit of a mythology freak so I had read a fair number of Japanese fairy tales and ghost stories anyway. Some of those have ended up in the books.
Did you research into Japanese mythology to help you in writing the book?
Yes, absolutely. Or at least, it helped me to put together 80,000 words, or however long the book is. I like to include little side stories in there because otherwise I get bored and worry about how I’m going to fill so many pages! In the first draft the book wasn’t working, though, and that was when I read the story – which is real – of the Ama diver and the Buddha Ball. It just seemed to me that I could use the Ball to tie everything together, so I was happy about that. In that sense, the mythology provided the extra dimension that allowed the story to work.
Vampires are everywhere at the moment. What do you think it is about them that has such great appeal to kids and Young Adults?
I actually don’t think vampires appeal to boys that much – boys are much more about the zombies. Vampires have a predominantly sexual appeal, I think, for girls in particular – and that’s for all kinds of reasons that it would be too boring to go into here (not to mention a little bit gross). I have a feeling that if boys are drawn to the book it’s probably more because of the ninja thing. We love a bit of ninja action, don’t we? Ninjas kick ass. And the only thing that could possibly kick more ass than a ninja is a vampire ninja. I like Shusaku because he could completely own Edward. The Cullens don’t have throwing stars. (Though I have to confess here that I do really love the first Twilight book. So shoot me.)
Blood Ninja has some pretty gory moments (I loved them) – how do you gauge the right level of violence to use when you are writing?
I don’t, at all. I actually had more violence in there but my agent thought I should tone it down a little bit. He’s probably right. I honestly don’t think about it at all – I just have lots of people’s heads cut off. I mean, I’ve literally never sat down and worried that it might be too violent. That’s terrible, actually, isn’t it? I’m pretty much a corrupting influence.
The thing is, though, the stories that interest me are about people who go through some kind of extreme experience, and come out the other end. That’s something that’s definitely happened to me, though there weren’t any swords involved. I’m sure there are kids who’ll read the book who’ve lost parents, or dealt with serious illness, or any number of terrible things. But they get through it. Human beings are built to survive, and I think that’s something stories help us to realise. You know, Taro’s dad gets killed horribly, but in the end he finds a reason to fight. Horrible things happen in real life – I don’t see the point of leaving them out of stories, even ones for children. Horrible things happen to children, too. All the time.
I don’t really know what I’m trying to say. I guess it’s that I think the violence is an integral part of the story. It’s important, because if there weren’t real consequences and real horrors in this fictional world, then there would be no challenge for the hero. Anyway, there are different kinds of violence. I actually find things like the Saw films quite unpleasant and weird. I don’t get the appeal at all. This is much more cartoonish violence.
There are many great characters in Blood Ninja – do you have a personal favourite?
Kenji Kira! I love him. I identify with him more than with Taro, which is pretty worrying. I suppose because I can understand his fear of death, of putrefaction. He’s completely terrified by the prospect of his body rotting and being eaten by worms and so on – because he got trapped on a battlefield, and saw his comrades rotting around him. I get that. Also, he’s just horrible – it’s so much fun to write a scene where the villain chops an old man’s head off, just because he annoys him.
The UK cover of Blood Ninja is probably my favourite of the year so far. What did you think when you first saw it?
It’s awesome, isn’t it? To be honest I was a little bit worried when I heard that Corvus were going to design their own cover – because I really loved the American cover, even though it’s very different. But when I saw what they’d done… I was pretty stunned. The idea of using an illustrator who usually does skateboards and album covers and stuff was just a stroke of genius. It’s cooler than I deserve.
Are there any books or authors that you would recommend fans of your books to read?
Yes – Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant series (I edit Derek, and I think his books are the funniest and most action-packed around).
Can you recommend one book that you think every boy should read at some point?
Er… Gormenghast, maybe? Every boy has to fantasise about being Steerpike at some point. He’s the ultimate antihero.
Can you give us any hints as to what we can expect from your next book in the series and when it might be published?
Book 2 will be out in April 2011. What to expect? Mayhem. Lots of blood. Some surprises, definitely… Oh, and Yukiko becomes really, really evil. I don’t think that’s giving too much away.
Is it true that you are a vampire ninja yourself?
I can’t confirm or deny that. But I don’t recommend tapping me on the shoulder when I’m not expecting it.
Is there anything else you would like to say to readers of this blog?
Yes! Buy the book. It’s very gory, and there’s lots of sneaking about with swords.
Thank you Nick for a great interview. I have to say that I am incredibly envious that you get to read the Skulduggery Pleasant books before the rest of the world.
Please watch this space as in the next few days I will be running a fantastic Blood Ninja book giveaway.