New Voice: Sandy Fussell on Samurai Kids: White Crane

Sandy Fussell is the first-time author of Samurai Kids: White Crane (Candlewick, 2010)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

Niya Moto is the only one-legged samurai kid in Japan, famous for falling flat on his face in the dirt. The one school that will accept him is the Cockroach Ryu, led by the legendary sensei Ki-Yaga.

He may be an old man overly fond of naps, but Ki-Yaga is also known for taking in kids that the world has judged harshly: an albino girl with extra fingers and toes, a boy who is blind, a big kid whose past makes him loath to fight.

A warrior in his time, Ki-Yaga demands excellence in everything from sword-fighting to poetry. But can the ragtag Cockroaches make the treacherous journey to the Samurai Trainee Games, never mind take on the all-conquering Dragons?

In a fast-moving, action-filled tale that draws on true details of feudal Japan, Niya finds there’s no fear they can’t face as long as they stick together –for their friendship is more powerful than a samurai sword.

Can a one-legged boy become a great samurai warrior? Meet some unique aspiring champions in this kick-off to an exciting new martial arts series.

How do you psyche yourself up to write, to keep writing, and to do the revision necessary to bring your manuscript to a competitive level? What, for you, are the special challenges in achieving this goal? What techniques have worked best and why?

I write because I love it. There is something inside me that only storytelling can satisfy. I couldn’t do it otherwise because time is always plotting against me. It’s a difficult juggle with a full-time job and a school-age family. My free hours begin at 10 p.m. (if I’m lucky), and I work on writing or related tasks until 1 a.m. every morning.

White Crane, the first book in the Samurai Kids series, is my debut novel. It was published in Australia in 2008 by Walker Books Australia and in the U.S. in August 2010 by Candlewick Press. However, in the intervening two-and-a-half years, I have had seven more books published in Australia. The Samurai Kids series now comprises five titles with a sixth on the way. My treasured writing time is now divided between promoting existing works and developing new stories. While I find this a challenge, it is one I enjoy.

I belong to two writing workshop groups and am involved in online critiquing with both emerging and established authors. I am active in the kid’s literature cyber community. Writing friends and colleagues keep me focused and encourage me to work hard to improve my craft.

I read widely, for pleasure and as a book reviewer, finding great inspiration in a story well written, a beautiful description or a character that comes to life in my head. I learn a lot from the words of others.

My greatest motivation, and writing secret weapon, is my readers. I spend considerable time in schools as a visiting author. I recently established ReadWriteZone, a blog-based project to encourage interaction between the classroom and authors. It’s early stages yet, but the feedback is exciting and I have a lot of fun. Ultimately, I hope to extend the project across a wide range of authors and schools.

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first-character, concept, or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

For me, it is always concept. I find many paradoxical issues in history, especially the ancient cultures I am drawn to write about. These immediately raise questions in my mind, and from the answers I imagine, stories evolve.

With White Crane, the thought process went like this: A person is born a samurai, but lineage won’t necessarily make someone a good warrior, and the samurai were at the time some of the greatest warriors in the world. What if a boy had a disability, physical or emotional, that made it incredibly difficult for him to claim his birthright? And what if a girl wanted to be a samurai? Then a sentence popped into my head: “My name is Niya Moto, and I am the only one-legged samurai kid in Japan.”

I read widely from primary sources, works written at the time. A constant companion was the legendary samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy (1645). This kept me firmly grounded in 17th century feudal Japan.

When I closed my laptop, it was never 1 a.m., it was the hour of the rat. Very fortuitous as I was born in the Year of the Rat and apparently Rats make good writers.

I also attempt to establish a personal physical connection to history. While writing White Crane, I went to sword fighting classes – I was hopeless, but this too was useful as not all my characters are expert with a sword. I did archery and am currently learning the shakuhachi flute.

Finally, I immersed myself in the Japanese popular culture of my readers – manga, animation, martial arts, cartoons and movies. This gave me a reader perspective to look at history from – to identify similarities and differences.

My various research activities resulted in the teachers resources available on the Samurai Kids website – WebQuests, a classroom play, craft, fact sheets and even interactive quizzes.

One of the challenges was finding the tone of voice for my characters. In the end, the Kids decided for themselves, as they are constantly talking inside my head. The Kids have a modern turn of phrase that makes their dialogue accessible to contemporary young readers, but at the same time, there is nothing they say that literally is not appropriate for feudal Japan. This was a tricky balance to establish – accessible and humorous dialogue without sacrificing any historical credibility.

Another difficulty was ensuring that my story, while having a humorous element, was respectful to the obstacles that disabled children face in everyday life.

In this respect, my inspiration was the children themselves. I was determined Samurai Kids would be a history-based celebration of difference.

A few months ago, I was in a classroom and a blind child approached me. “I’m Taji,” she said. “I’m the Golden Bat, and I can hear things from two rooms away. You don’t need to be able to see to do that.”

I hope her comment means I’m achieving what I set out to do.