Kieran Fanning: Ninjas, Favelas & Writing for Children
Writing.ie’s Elizabeth Rose Murray recently spoke to debut author Kieran Fanning about his new novel for kids Black Lotus, here’s what she found out…
EM: Tell us a little about Black Lotus, Book One of Samurai Wars.
KF: Black Lotus is set in a fictional future where the Samurai Empire stretches from Japan to Europe, and across to South America. The Empire now have their eyes set on America, one of the last free nations on Earth, and war is imminent.
The Black Lotus are a secret resistance group who recruit teenagers with supernatural abilities, and train them to become shinobi or ninja. Their latest recruits are Ghost (from Rio de Janeiro) who can turn invisible, Cormac (from Ireland) who is super fast and can run up buildings, and Kate (from New York City) who can communicate with animals. They are taken to an underground school deep in the mountains of Japan where they are trained in the ancient arts of the shinobi.
When the Moon Sword, a weapon of unimaginable power is stolen by an evil Samurai warrior, Ghost, Cormac, and Kate must battle through medieval Japan and present-day New York to stop him from destroying the city.
EM: There’s a lot of discussion about a lack of diversity in children’s literature at the moment – but this sounds super diverse (and super amazing!) What challenges did you face incorporating such exciting themes and characters, and how did you overcome them?
KF: To be honest, I don’t really understand this ‘lack of diversity’ in children’s literature, or art in general. I mean, a book is only NOT diverse if the characters in it are the same as the reader, and I’ve never come across a character like me (thank God!) in a book. Show me a book that’s not diverse, is what I say. For example, a book set in rural Ireland may not be diverse to me, but it will certainly be diverse to the rest of the world.
Because my book is international in flavour, I had to have diversity. I mean, it couldn’t only be populated by Irish characters. Though I do have one – Cormac. He was easy to write.
Ghost, on the other hand, is from a favela in Rio de Janeiro, so this is as far removed from my experiences as is possible. How did I overcome this challenge? Research. I read lots of books and watched videos and films set in Brazilian favelas, in an attempt to understand Ghost, and the way he might think, talk, and act. ‘City of God,’ both the book and film, were really useful sources of research.
Kate is also a diverse character to me, not just because she lives on the streets of New York City, but mostly because she is a girl. Being the opposite sex to me is about as diverse as it gets! But one of my female critique buddies really helped me to develop this character. She would slap my wrists if I veered into the land of cliché. What resulted in our combined efforts is a very strong, intelligent, witty and compassionate girl.
EM: City of God is one of my top films of all time and I can see why that would be helpful. But where do you draw the line with research? Do you plot and plan every detail before you start writing, or do you meander your way through the story and fill in the gaps later?
I really made a mess of the research, spending months immersing myself in it when all I wanted was to write the story. As it turned out, much of my research never made it into the book and I feel I wasted a lot of time researching irrelevant things. However, even though the research may not have featured in the final draft it did provide a solid foundation on which to build a story. I guess it gave me the confidence to write about a place or era I wasn’t familiar with.
But I think if I had to do it again I would write the story first and research only when I needed to cross a certain bridge. But then, perhaps my writing wouldn’t come across as assured without all that background knowledge…
So research is something I’m uncomfortable with. I know it’s a necessary evil, but like studying for the Leaving Certificate, I’m not fully sure how to go about it!
As for planning, I have a rough idea of where I’m going but mostly it’s a journey of discovery. It’s perhaps not an ideal way to write as it leads to a (heartbreaking!) lot of cutting and rewriting. But it is an exciting way to write.
EM: Were there any characters that didn’t make it to the final draft, and are any of the characters based on you?
None of the characters are based on me but I guess there are bits of me in all of them.
The only characters who didn’t make it into the final draft were minor characters so I didn’t really mind losing them. One of these was the leader of the New York City division of the Black Lotus. I named him after my friend so I suppose I was a little sad I didn’t get to put my pal’s name in the story. But there’ll be plenty more stories. Hopefully!
EM: All writers have a different routine – so what does yours look like? Music, or no music? Treats or no treats? Any special rituals or requirements?
With a full time job and a young family, I don’t really have a writing routine, but grab moments of writing time whenever I can. However, I do my best work early in the day so I reserve mornings for new material. Editing is usually done at night.
As to what my writing looks like: definitely no music – I can only work in silence. I usually work on my PC in my study but sometimes I’ll take my laptop to the local library for a change of scenery. Because I’m a teacher I get long school holidays so sometimes I even go into school during my free time for some peace and quiet. Seeing the teacher’s car outside the school during holidays is the equivalent to Mussolini’s propaganda light which he left switched on in his office even when he wasn’t there. Makes locals think I’m more dedicated than I actually am!
I don’t really have treats, special rituals or requirements. I write in short intense bouts, usually stopping when a scene ends, regardless of word count. For me, it’s a bit like building a house of cards. If it’s going well, I feel I should stop in case I knock the whole thing down. No wonder it takes me so long to complete a book!
EM: How long did it take you to write Black Lotus – and why do you write books for children? Is that what you set out to do or was it a complete surprise?
KF: It’s been seven years since I wrote the first sentence so it’s taken quite a while. But I really hadn’t a clue what I was doing when I started writing it. I cut my teeth on this novel and learned the hard way by making every mistake possible. At the time, it didn’t feel like I was making progress, but looking back on it, I think it was a good way to learn.
Of course, not all that time was spent writing. Some of it was spent finding an agent, finding a publisher, and then editing the book.
I write for children because that’s where my heart lies. It’s perhaps the only genre where story outweighs everything else – character, language, metaphor, theme, voice, etc. Of course, these things are all important tools in the writer’s toolbox, but for me, story will always be king, and children’s literature is the one realm where it still rules.
And magic, of course. Perhaps children’s books are one of the last frontiers of magic in this technological world we live in.
So yes, I always set out to write a children’s book. It’s who I write for. I have tonnes of ideas but they’re all for children, so I think they’ll always be my audience.
EM: It’s great having lots of ideas. Do you mull them in your head for a while or do you write them down so you don’t forget? And what form do they take – is it plot or character or something else that comes first?
KF: Someone once said (and I’m paraphrasing) the trouble with ideas is once you learn how to handle one, they come along so thick and fast you can’t keep up with them. I have found this to be true. Which is why I write them down in case I forget. Then I leave them to simmer in my head for a long time. My current WIP has been slowly cooking at the back of my mind for nearly twenty years! It’s a fusion of two separate ideas which came to me ten years apart.
For many writers it’s a character that comes first. But for me, it’s always an idea – a one sentence original idea. Once I have a ‘big idea’ I let it simmer in my head for as long as it takes. For me, this simmering process is very important and shouldn’t be rushed. A slow simmering idea allows plot and characters to emerge without the pressure of word counts or deadlines.
So I always have a few things mulling about in my head. New ideas get jotted down and then queue up for simmering.
I recently had a great idea for a book, only to see an advertisement on Sky for a new TV series which is very similar. At first I was quite upset, but because I knew I wouldn’t be writing this particular book for a long time, I knew it wouldn’t be a problem. By the time it goes through the simmering process and the writing process it’ll be original again. And I made sure not to watch the TV show. So I guess there can be advantages to mulling something over for a long time!
EM: Talking about TV – tell us a bit about your amazing book trailer.
KF: Well I stumbled across this amazing cut-paper animator on Twitter called Eric Power. He’d just made a movie called Path of Blood. Although it’s a movie for adults I loved some of the scenes in his trailer so I asked him if I could use them for my book trailer. I really expected him to say no, but he didn’t. I’m continually amazed by the kindness of strangers on the internet.
So I bought the movie, cut out the scenes I wanted and re-arranged them to fit my story. Then I added some royalty free music and words. I used Windows Movie Maker to put the whole thing together and Hey Presto! Here it is:
EM: So, with Black Lotus now on the shelves, what’s next?
KF: At the moment I’m in the middle of another novel I started some time ago. It’s for the same age group, has two points-of-view (Jamie and Sarah) and centres around the discovery of a mysterious object under the sea. I don’t like talking about my work-in-progress because I never really know how good it is until it’s finished, and until I’ve had feedback on it. So I’m afraid that’s all I can say.
After that, I’ll probably start the sequel to The Black Lotus.
After that, who knows… I have too many ideas and not enough time.
(c) Elizabeth Rose Murray
About The Black Lotus
“A powerful new voice in children’s fiction … I loved this book.” Eoin Colfer, author of Artemis Fowl
Ghost, Cormac and Kate are not like other kids.
Ghost can turn invisible, Cormac can run up walls and Kate can talk to animals – all abilities which make them perfect recruits for the Black Lotus, a training school for ninjas. But when the Moon Sword – a source of unimaginable power – is stolen by samurai, the three are forced to put their new skills to the test in sixteenth-century Japan …
The Black Lotus is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!