An Interview with Christina Courtenay

Christina Courtenay Nicola here! It's my very great pleasure today to welcome back Honorary Word Wench Christina Courtenay! Not only has Christina's first historical novel, Trade Winds, recently been shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists' Association Historical Novel Prize, her second book, The Scarlet Kimono, is set for publication at the beginning of March. Today Christina is here to talk about The Scarlet Kimono and the fascinating setting of 17th century Japan. Christina writes:

"Thank you very much for inviting me, it’s great to be back on your lovely blog again!

 I thought I would tell you a little bit about the research for my second historical TheScarletKimono_front romance, The Scarlet Kimono, which is coming out soon.  The story is largely set in 17th century Japan, a time when hardly any Europeans had ventured that far east and those who did were either missionaries or merchants.  The Japanese were very reluctant to receive foreigners and although Portuguese and Spanish priests were allowed at first and some of the locals converted to Christianity, they were soon being persecuted.  The traders were confined to the port of Hirado near Nagasaki (and later on a small island called Dejima) and usually weren’t allowed to venture any further.

 There was one exception to this, however, the Englishman Will Adams, whom many of you might know about from James Clavell’s novel The Shogun, (whose hero I believe was loosely based on Adams).  He seems to have become a protégé of the shogun (ruler) Tokugawa Ieyasu, and stayed in Japan until his death.  I decided that it would be interesting to explore this theme, but with a female foreigner rather than a male, and so my heroine was born.

 As a teenager, I lived in Japan for a few years, and naturally this helped me with a lot of the basic research such as the language, food and customs.  However, being young, there were a lot of things I didn’t notice so a couple of years ago my family and I went back for a visit and this time I concentrated on taking note of everything I needed to know for my story.  One of the things I’d never done while living there was to go and see a Japanese castle and since one features in my novel, this was a must.

 Himeji3 In Tokyo there is only the Imperial Palace, which doesn’t allow visitors except in the gardens, so we had to venture further afield.  As we wanted to go to Kyoto anyway (a lovely city with a much more “laid-back” feel than busy Tokyo), we decided to take the bullet train, the Shinkansen, and make an extra stop along the way in the town of Himeji.  I’d read that there was a wonderful castle there, not far from the station, and this proved to be the case.

 Himeji is one of the finest (if not the finest) surviving examples of 17th century Japanese castle architecture, and I believe it’s also the largest and most frequently visited.  It was one of the first recognised UNESCO World Heritage sites in Japan and is a national treasure.  The word ‘impressive’ doesn’t even begin to cover it, as we soon discovered!

 Coming out of the station, we wandered along a high street that sloped up towards this magnificent castle built in the traditional Japanese style.  Situated at the top of a hill, with a large central multi-storied keep, it has high roofs with the corners turned up and some sort of mythical tiger-headed fish (!) as decorations.  Surrounded by lots of smaller buildings and high walls, all white-washed above solid foundations of perfectly fitted stonework, it is a formidable place and definitely the kind of castle I had in mind for my hero, who is a samurai warlord.  We were doubly lucky in that we happened to visit during cherry blossom season and the entire castle compound was surrounded by trees covered in sakura, the delicate white petals so beloved of Japanese poets.  It seemed like a magical place to live – how could my heroine not fall in love with both it and its owner?  I certainly loved it.

 Inside, we were allowed to climb to the highest floor of the central tower building, the tenshu.  The HimejiBlossom floors and staircases (some quite steep!) are all of gleaming wood, polished smooth by thousands of feet no doubt, and I immediately got that lovely feeling of stepping back in time.  At the top, the view over the surrounding countryside is breath-taking – that sounds clichéd, but there really is no other word for it.  As the castle is so high up, the views are far-reaching and I doubt any enemy army could ever have surprised the inhabitants.  All in all, it is quite simply perfect.

 I have to admit to being a great fan of castles of any kind – I’m sure my fascination with fairy tales as a child had something to do with it – and although the Japanese variety are built in such a different style to ours, I think the feeling of awe induced in any visitor is the same.  The grandeur, the sweeping views and the sheer scale of the buildings are always a thrill, at least to me." 

Christina, thank you very much for sharing some of your research with us today. I loved Trade Winds and I am looking forward very much to getting my hands on The Scarlet Kimono and reading about such a fascinating historical background. Here is a little bit more information about the book to whet the appetite!

The Scarlet Kimono is published by Choc Lit on 1st March, ISBN 978-1-906931-29-2 and is available on www.amazon.com or www.bookdepository.co.uk (post free worldwide).  For more details see www.choc-lit.co.uk

TheScarletKimono_front Blurb:

 Abducted by a Samurai warlord in 17th-century Japan – what happens when fear turns to love?

England, 1611, and young Hannah Marston envies her brother’s adventurous life. But when she stows away on his merchant ship, her powers of endurance are stretched to their limit. Then they reach Japan and all her suffering seems worthwhile – until she is abducted by Taro Kumashiro’s warriors.

 In the far north of the country, warlord Kumashiro is waiting to see the girl who he has been warned about by a seer. When at last they meet, it’s a clash of cultures and wills, but they’re also fighting an instant attraction to each other. 

 With her brother desperate to find her and the jealous Lady Reiko equally desperate to kill her, Hannah faces the greatest adventure of her life. And Kumashiro has to choose between love and honour …

 My website and blog are at www.christinacourtenay.com

Christina is offering a signed copy of The Scarlet Kimono to one lucky commenter and I know her question is one that will get the discussion going! "I’d love to know which castles have inspired other authors or, as readers, which are your favourites?  Also, which ones you’d love to visit if you had the opportunity – next on my wish list are the German ones along the river Donau.  You can’t get more “fairy tale” than that! If you’d like to win a signed copy, please leave a comment below about your favourite castle (or castles?) and why you love that one in particular." Over to you!