BookView Interview with Author Claire Youmans

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we interviewed author Claire Youmans, author of The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series,  an intoxicating mix of history, fantasy, and Japanese folklore, about her writing and her recently released The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy, Book 8: The Shadows of War, the eighth book in the series. (Read the review here.).


Claire Youmans first went to Japan in 1992 and was immediately captivated. After years of travel and study, she continues to be charmed and amazed by a fascinating history and a culture that’s both endearingly quirky and entirely unique.

In 2014, she started Tales of the Meiji Era with The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy’s unparalleled blend of magical realism and historical fantasy in the first book of the series, Coming Home. Succeeding books continue exploring the combination of history and folklore to share Youmans’ love and fascination with a very different country and culture.

Exciting adventures continue in this delightful fantastical yet historical world. Follow these at, and on Twitter @tokigirlsparrow, and, instagram tokigirlandsparrowboy, all places where she frequently shares poetry, updates and her tales of living in modern Japan.

What inspired the premise of your book?

Japan is very much misunderstood by western people who simply do not have an accurate conception of the culture. Japanese people aren’t just Gaijin in funny clothes! Yet most western writers and observers impose their own values on Japanese culture and characters, never questioning their interpretations of Japan, its people and culture.

Japan went from a decaying feudalism to a first-world power in around fifty years! How’d they do that? Japan is a strong presence on the world stage. It’s not going anywhere. If you’re going to deal with Japan–and everyone else in the world has to–it’s important to learn about how Japan really works. But Japan won’t tell you. That’s their secret weapon.

I wanted to give an accurate portrayal of Japan’s culture and people, making it accessible, fun and exciting at the same time. Japan is quirky, unique and endlessly fascinating. It’s probably the oldest continuous human culture on earth. That’s why I write The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series. Come, meet my interesting, dedicated and delightful friends! You’ll be as captivated as I am!

Do you Google yourself?

Writers are supposed to web-search themselves occasionally to make sure they aren’t being pirated. My bonus is that I have discovered two name-sisters in the world, and like them both!

How does your faith life/ethical outlook inform your writing?

I’m a Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist with connections to Japan dating back to my childhood. This gives me both the impetus and the ability to study Japan and learn to understand and enjoy its singular culture in ways that I don’t think most westerners view as even possible.

Would you rather read a book or watch television?

Books. Always books. If the TV is on, I’ll read a book at the same time!

Were your parents interested in literature? Did they read a lot? What books did you have in the house?

I grew up in a family of readers. My parents read everything and belonged to several book clubs. They also bought books separately. We had The Great Books, a huge set of classic and important books, and the Durant’s multi-volume histories. I read them all! We had “Stacks” in the basement, vast shelves full of intriguing hard and soft-cover books. These were always fascinating to explore on rainy days, of which there are plenty in Seattle. I never had a chance to get bored. My parents never censored reading material. They figured if you weren’t old enough to understand it, it would fly right over your head. As I grew up, I realized they were right and I did the same thing as a parent.

How long on average does it take you to write a book?

            I publish a novel a year, about. I will research for two to three months. Then I will write a first draft; that will take about three months. Then the whole revision process starts, with development, betas, editors, proofreaders and rests and revisions in between. That takes another few months. And then the publishing portion of our program begins, the latter two often overlapping research for the next. At various points I have to attend to the business of life, but not during first draft. I need to be totally absorbed in the story when I am writing first draft.

How do you select the names of your characters?

In Meiji-era Japan, few people had surnames. Then, in a keep-up-with-the-West move, suddenly everybody had to have one. One of my characters remembered that he did have a family name, that had previously only been used on official records. Others had to invent them by going through the process that many people followed. Easy – like using a place or a job? Hard – using a character attribute or aspiration? You’ll have to read the books to see how that worked out!

I like to match the meanings of names to the people, if I can. This is often possible through the kanji. In The Oni’s Shamisen, new parents go through this process in naming children. Just like I did!

How often you read?

I read everything, all the time. My Japanese reading study is mostly reading ads on buses and trains. I have two enormous non-fiction research books going now, plus my “fun” reading. I read constantly!

Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

Writing formulaic genre books appeals to many people. Many people love to read them, too. That’s not something that appeals to me. It feels too much like a job. If I wanted a job, I could find one that pays better.

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Perfectionism is a real trap for any writer. Write it all down. Revise it later. The other side of the same coin is failing to demand as much perfection as you can achieve by failing to let a manuscript rest before rereading, rewriting, getting feedback from others, rewriting, getting feedback. In other words, don’t publish too soon.

There are many books on the market now that were published long before they were finished. It’s only in the last five years or so that I have cast aside books unfinished because they have been so unsatisfactory, and, sadly, I do it more and more frequently.

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

I have two unpublished mystery novels, one cookbook, and one unproduced screenplay. The files are gone by now as this was a while ago. The mysteries and the screenplay were contemporary and would be dated now. The joy of historical material is that it stays current.

The cookbook I’d love to publish. I have a printout, but it was actually on floppy discs and those are long gone over several moves. Sadly, it would be hard to resurrect. It’s called Good Galley, for vegetarian/vegan cooking on cruising boats. The galley on my cruising sailboat was bigger than my kitchen in my Tokyo apartment, so I could use it now.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

The amount of research I do depends on the kind of book. The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series is historical fantasy. It’s very important to me to accurately present the history and culture of Meiji-era Japan, using folkloric and other preternatural beings to question and clarify in ways those who live in a culture do it. My research is extensive and often extremely academic. That doesn’t show in the books, but it grounds me in the history and the culture. It’s often fun, too. I recently got back from a boat trip to Okinawa, plus time on the ground, for the next book, tentatively titled The Reluctant Dragon.

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