Anthologist and writer Esther Friesner is the author of Spirit’s Princess. Spirit’s Princess is the story of Himiko, a young woman who defies her society’s expectations to become a shaman and powerful ruler.
Questions for Esther Friesner:
I’ve always found it admirable that you’ve promoted women writers in fantasy, and done it while maintaining a cheeky sense of humor. Some of your anthology titles are just hilarious. Where does this mix of social consciousness and comedy come from?
Blame my parents for both. My father was a Holocaust survivor who still managed to come through the horrors of that experience with a fantastic sense of humor. He introduced me to “Pogo,” by Walt Kelly, to the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show, and –wait for it–to the Three Stooges. He loved the works of most of the great comedians, especially Danny Kaye, Red Skelton, and Victor Borge.
He held women in great respect. Both he and my mother had full-time jobs, and at a time when society saw nothing wrong with a woman doing all the housework even when she was working outside of the home, too, Dad did a fair share of the domestic chores without making a big deal about it. I remember asking him about it and he said, “It wouldn’t be fair otherwise.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone saw fairness and equality as something so simple and natural?
A final observation: When you make people laugh, you make people think about why they are laughing, and if you want people to think about matters of social consciousness, a bit of comedy gets the job done a lot better than a sermon.
You were a college professor before becoming a professional author. What did you take into your fiction from your past life as an educator?
If I brought anything to my fiction from my time teaching, it’s probably nothing direct (though since I taught Spanish I do think it would be fun to choose a future -Princesses of Myth- heroine from Spanish history!). I write historicals, and that calls for research. I loved being able to ferret around in the various Yale libraries, so I regard research as a quest, not a chore. While teaching, I was also able to observe and interact with lots of different, interesting people, but that’s something I’ve done in all facets of my life, not just as part of my academic experience. Also, Yale campus is a visually and culturally rich environment, so I’d say it was invaluable as a source of inspiration, even if it was indirect inspiration. (”Wow, look at those stained glass windows. I would love to use them as part of a scene in a story. Hmm. How can I do that?”)
Your most recent book, Spirit’s Princess, takes place in feudal Japan. You must have done a lot of research. Are there any books or other sources that you found especially useful?
Spirit’s Princess takes place long before the feudal era in Japan. Himiko’s story belongs to the Yayoi culture and is set in the 3rd century, before the line of Yamato emperors was established.
I found J. Edward Kidder, Jr.’s book, Himiko and Japan’s Elusive Chiefdom of Yamatai very helpful as well as the wealth of information available online. The Heritage of Japan site provided a lot of information and fabulous illustrations. Speaking of which, the Osprey Military series provided an artist’s rendering illustration of Himiko in their Early Samurai [200-1500 A.D.] volume. I think this might have been the first place I heard of Himiko, so it’s very special to me.
Your protagonist, Himiko, rebels against what is expected of a proper young woman to become a shaman, among other things. Did you rebel against anything when you were Himiko’s age?
I am going to have to play the Blame the Parents card again. In this case, I’m going to blame for not giving any real cause for rebellion. They were wonderfully supportive people who always encouraged me to follow my dreams and use my talents to the full. (My mother’s parents were the same. When the neighbors asked Mom’s father why he was “wasting” a college education on a daughter when he had two sons, he replied that his daughter was at least as smart as his sons and maybe smarter! I never got to meet my grandpa, but how I wish I could hug him for that!)
I suppose I could have rebelled for the sake of rebellion itself but. . .why bother? (And for this you can blame me: Too much laziness, not enough Unexpressed Drama in my life.)
I’ve not read terribly much about women and shamanism. Is there a historical basis for Himiko’s story? Did you take any creative license for the sake of the story?
There is definitely a historical basis for Himiko’s story. There is documentary and archaeological evidence that she did exist. She is mentioned in the Chinese Chronicles of Wei for having sent tribute to the ruler of China. She received an embassy form China in return, with reciprocal gifts. The story of this trip to Japan is included in Kidder’s book and is beautifully detailed, not only about Himiko herself but about the Yayoi land and people. The report includes mention of Himiko using her powers to “enchant the people.”
However, the Chronicles of Wei make no mention of Himiko’s girlhood, so that is definitely where my creative license comes in!
Without giving anything away, can you tell me a little bit about Himiko’s journey and who opposes her?
Ummm. . .sorry, if that is possible, it still isn’t possible for me to do. But I will try:
The best I can do is say that journeys take many forms–through the real world, the spiritual world, and even into ourselves. Himiko’s journey embraces all of these. Identifying those who oppose her depends on where her path is leading her at a particular moment. Remember: Sometimes your most challenging opponent is yourself.
I’ve heard rumors that this is the first book in a series. Are they true?
The rumors are true! I admit everything! The stories of Helen and Nefertiti were told in two books each and Himiko’s will be told that way, as well. The second book is called Spirit’s Chosen and is all done, submitted, edited, and will appear. . .I’m not sure exactly when. But the important thing is, it’s done. (I mention this for the benefit of readers who worry that something dreadful will happen to the author of a series in mid-series. I’ve often felt the same way, so I understand.)
Complete this sentence: “If you like _____ then you’ll love Spirit’s Princess.”
I’m going to edge out onto what might be a perilous limb and say. . .the films of Hayao Miyazaki. An inner voice is now chiding me: “Who do you think you are, comparing your work to his?” It’s my hope to at least partly excuse myself by saying that other people who have been a part of the process of seeing Spirit’s Princess into print have mentioned that it reminds them of Miyazaki. I revere and respect his talent, I love the films he has created, and I hope I haven’t overstepped any bounds by this comparison.