Musashi Miyamoto is regarded as one of, if not the greatest samurai of all time. But because he lived in the 15th and 16th centuries, much of his life has slipped into legend. Which is why a number of authors, movie directors, and video game developers to add to his legacy through fiction. One of the most recent of which is author David Kirk, whose new historical novel, Sword Of Honor (hardcover, digital) is the second in an ongoing series that started with 2013’s Child Of Vengeance. Though in talking to Kirk about Sword Of Honor, it seems he’s more interested in the “historical” part than the “novel.”
To start, what is Sword Of Honor about, and how does it fit in, both chronologically and narratively, with the previous book in the series, Child Of Vengeance?
Sword Of Honor follows on immediately from Child Of Vengeance, and takes the swordsman Musashi Miyamoto from the age of 16 to the age of 20. At the end of Child Of Vengeance, Musashi made the choice to reject ever serving a Lord as a samurai retainer, and this novel is very much dealing with the aftermath of that choice. Stating you are independent and living independently are two very different things, particularly when you stack yourself up a dogma centuries old and the adherents of which all carry very sharp swords. Musashi in this novel is very far from the wise old sage that wrote The Book Of Five Rings, but we do perhaps see him take a step closer to one day becoming that man.
This series is based on the life of writer and swordsman Musashi Miyamoto, but how “based” on his life are these novels? Are you going for historical accurate but written like fiction, or are you taking a lot of liberties with the facts of his life? Or a mix of both?
You have to take a lot of liberties because a lot of Musashi’s life is unknown, particularly his early years. Sword Of Honor details 1600-1604, which was when Musashi basically vanished after the battle of Sekigahara until he turned up in Kyoto in 1604. He was on the losing side and bounties were out on the survivors, and so perhaps wisely he kept his head down. That’s a big gap I have to fill in there.
Broadly, however, I do try to stick to the big events in his life. He fought the Yoshioka school in 1604, this is undoubted historical fact. But the reasons I depict for his choice to engage them, and especially the resolution, are all fabricated. I place character and drama over verisimilitude. A glaring error is that everyone talks way too much for samurai, who in reality were a pretty mute bunch. But it’s hard for a modern western reader to relate to a silent protagonist, and so the concession must be made.
There have been a number of movies, television shows, comic books, and even an Iron Maiden song [“Sun And Steel” from the album Piece Of Mind] about Musashi Miyamoto. What do you think makes your novels different from them?
Mine is a far less romantic take on him. It explores the psychology of a man who ultimately killed sixty or so people in his life, and depicts the brutality of what actually killing someone with a sword might look or feel like. There’s no lightsaber “one swipe and you’re killed and silent on the floor” style violence in this book. Well, unless someone’s head comes off, I suppose.
Furthermore I deliberately set out to subvert the traditional tropes of historical fiction. Particularly, in Sword Of Honor, I explore romance and rebellion and the actual chance of either existing in a feudal society. No princesses, no lone wolves.
In writing the books, was there anything where you wanted to do but realized it would be historically inaccurate?
Nothing egregious. I set relatively strict limits when composing the plot and so on. I’ve studied the period quite a bit, and I know in most cases immediately if something is wrong or inappropriate. Obviously, as I mentioned above, I had to make concessions so that a reader without extensive knowledge of the era could comprehend it, so therefore dialogue is fairly modern, the plot resolves itself through western dramatic conventions, there’s a lot of shorthand for insanely complex social conventions the explaining of which would take paragraphs, and so on.
So do you know how many books in this series there will be?
I think five would be fitting, what with The Book Of Five Rings and all, but in truth all I have planned out thus far is four, and four only covers him up to the Siege of Osaka in 1614, when Musashi would only be in his mid- to late-thirties. I’ve written a significant portion of book three already, but I have signed no deals as of yet. Depending on sales, it may only be a two book series, alas.
More importantly, do you know if all the books will have the word “Of” in the title? Because if so, you’ll eventually have to write a novel called Eater Of Ramen. Which I would totally read, by the way.
You’d have to ask my publishers. Neither Child Of Vengeance nor Sword Of Honor were my preferred titles for the books. The third one is currently called Hell And Silence, if that helps.
Incidentally, Musashi was a pretty ascetic guy, I think a big bowl of steaming greasy tonkotsu ramen would be a little too fatty for him.
Ah. Anyway, we’ve talked a bit about what inspired what you’re writing in Sword Of Honor, but I wanted to go into that dreaded area of who inspired how you wrote it. In terms of your writing style, are there any authors who you think of as being really big influences on your style, but ones who might not be obvious because they didn’t write about Japanese culture or sword stuff?
I think the style of this book is perhaps like someone threw Cormac McCarthy and Bernard Cornwell in a blender. It’s not as oblique, or as beautiful, as, say, Blood Meridian, but the level of the prose in my opinion is more considered than in the standard “sword guy kills the bad dudes” heroic historical fiction.
In all honesty, it’s not really my natural style, this is a very stark, austere novel about grim, broken people in a bleak and callous society, and I tend to write with more elements of dark humor. But just like a musician shifting scales when the key changes, one has to adapt when writing period pieces.
Japanese sword stories are always big in the movies, on TV, in games, and in comics. Has there been interest in doing something with Child Of Vengeance or Sword Of Honor?
Absolutely none. I don’t think a movie or TV series with an entirely Asian cast would stand any chance of getting made in the West. I’d have to add in Tom Cruise swooping in and saving the day at some point.
Just out of curiosity, then, which form do you think would work best?
I’d be interested in any media. A game might be interesting.
Now, if they did make Child Of Vengeance and Sword Of Honor into a movie or a TV show, and the producers asked for your suggestions on who should director or star, who would you say and why them?
I reckon I could do a good job directing.
As for stars, I don’t know. Musashi is a giant weird looking ugly fella in the books, and the average modern Japanese actor is far too effeminate to play him. I’ve certainly never seen anybody in any media who I thought might carry it off.
The only character I really had a vision for was Musashi’s father Munisai in the first book, who I saw as being played by Tatsuya Nakadai, who was in the movie Harakiri. Though Nakadai’s eight-two now, so he might be a little too old.
Finally, if someone really liked Child Of Vengeance and Sword Of Honor, what other Japanese swordplay novels would you suggest they read next?
Shogun by James Clavell is the big one. My dad gave me a copy when I was young and it got me hooked. It’s kind of dated, and suffers from “white man saves the day” syndrome, but it is a great adventure nonetheless.
Also, The Thousand Of Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell is not a sword fighting novel, but is set in Nagasaki in the 1700s, and ranks as probably one of my top five books of all time.