Pen Names

When I handed in my manuscript of Spartacus: Swords & Ashes, I decided to call myself J.M. Clements. I thought it would be a smart move to stop Amazon spamming everybody who’d bought one of my non-fiction books and expecting them to like my fiction, too. I mean, they might. But I figured Spartacus is for Spartacus fans, and my name on the cover shouldn’t influence them one way or the other.

“It’s pretty obvious who you are,” sniffed the Editrix. “It’s about as likely to fool the public as Iain ‘M’ Banks.”

“I know,” I said. “And I’m proud of the book. I’m just trying to keep fact and fiction in separate areas. I hate it when some douche on Library Thing decides I shouldn’t be allowed to write about one subject because he thinks I can only write about something else.”

“That’s stupid,” said the Editrix. “That never happens.”

“It always happens!” I protested. “And they’ve got a particular hard-on for people who switch between fact and fiction, which people often do if they write for a living. I dread to imagine what these one-track people are like in real life, as if they don’t think it’s possible to be a father and an insurance salesman, or a Saturday footballer and a chef. They probably have conniptions if they have to do two things at once. Then they review themselves and say: ‘I cannot possibly walk and chew gum, for those activities are mutually exclusive. Worst gum-chewing walk evarrr.’”

“You are over-reacting,” said the Editrix.

“If they ran the world,” I ranted, “they’d say Neil Gaiman could only write about Duran Duran. Lynda la Plante would be good for nothing but Rentaghost. Robert Silverberg could only write popular history. And Tolkien can piss right off and stick to Anglo-Saxon etymology.”

“All right,” sighed the Editrix. “Have it your way.”

The next day, the Editrix was back.

“The distributors want to know about the other things you’ve written,” she said. “It’s so they can tell booksellers how brilliant you are.”

“But won’t that make it really obvious who I am?” I said.

“Yes, probably,” she said, without pause or apology.

So I told her about The Destroyer of Delights, which was a Doctor Who audio I was very pleased with, which had a recurring subtext about the nature of slavery. And since there were lots of fights in it, I thought that my Highlander story Secret of the Sword, was probably worth a mention. I decided it probably wasn’t worth bringing up the biography I once wrote of the president of Finland. He doesn’t crop up much in Spartacus.

A day later, the Editrix was back again.

“The distributors want to know where you live,” she said.

“Jupiter’s cock! Why!?”

“They like it. Their sales people like being able to say, ‘he’s a local boy’, to a bookseller near you.”

“But isn’t it more productive if everybody thinks I am a local boy?”

“Do not question the House of Random!”

“All right, all right.” So I told her where I lived. It felt a little bit like I was handing over my bank details to a Nigerian prince.

All of which meant was that by the time Spartacus: Swords & Ashes was up on Amazon, some bright spark had already worked out precisely who I was, and it was listed with all my other books. My attempt to carefully separate my fact and fiction had failed again.

“I’ve got a translation of The Art of War coming out in the summer,” I protested. “But shelvers at book-stores are going to look me up online and order their copies on the basis of the sales of this novel, which is full of sword-fights, swearing, rape and adverbs. It will be the most heavily over-ordered classical text in living memory.”

“You say that,” said the Editrix, “like it’s a bad thing.”

J.M. Clements is the author of Spartacus: Swords & Ashes, available now in paperback and on Kindle. He has written a few other things, too.

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Structuring Absences

From 1990 to 1992, I lived in a world without television. The first year was in Leeds, living in student digs, getting up to speed in Chinese and Japanese. Then, I was in the Far East in the days before the internet, when a simple question and answer to distant correspondents was a two-week round trip by aerogramme. Snippets of news drifted in, spied in arcane newspapers, mentioned in letters from home. Isaac Asimov died. So did Freddie Mercury. And entirely without my realising, the Soviet Union collapsed. I got home to discover that the Cold War was over, the map had been redrawn and Red Russia had been swept away.

Which is why, perhaps, I feel a certain affinity for the hapless sometime hero of David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – the Dutchman who finds himself at the edge of the world, in Dejima, that foreign field that was the easternmost terminus of the great Dutch trading empire. Dejima, as prominently featured in last year’s The Secret of the Sword, was a fan-shaped island in Nagasaki harbour, where foreign devils from Europe were quarantined by the Japanese. In Secret of the Sword, it was the finish line, the protagonist’s symbol of ultimate escape. In Thousand Autumns, it is a prison in all but name, from which de Zoet yearns to fly free. It all depends on which side of the bridge you’re on.

I have heard Mitchell called an acolyte of Haruki Murakami. Is this because he is the only Japanese author reviewers have heard of, or because they see in Thousand Autumns an echo of Murakami’s parallel narratives and structuring absences? Mitchell’s book is obsessed with those moments where the world can change with the tick of a clock, and in the long, seemingly eventless periods where nothing busily happens, even as the storm gathers. There are parallels, seemingly inadvertent, with today’s financial crisis, as de Zoet discovers his money is worthless, and, yes, there are echoes with the early novels of Murakami, such as Hear the Wind Sing, in which the text would curve oddly around an unspoken gravity well, daring the reader to deduce what it was.

Jacob de Zoet is on Dejima, under duress, stuck with an unpleasant multinational band sailing under Dutch flags. Moreover, he is there at a crucial moment in history, when the world order of the 18th century crumbles suddenly into the world order of the 19th. Overnight, literally, at midnight on New Year’s Eve at the turn of the century, the Dutch East India Company, that association of wily merchants and privateers who had fought against Coxinga and wheeled and dealed in the China Seas, was suddenly no more. Within a generation, the Dutch in Asia were replaced by the British, commencing a whole new era in Asian history. Mitchell’s text is swimming with period dialogue and concepts, knee-deep in Dutchness, as the world de Zoet once knew is revealed to disappearing forever.

And there is a romance, of sorts. There are many women in de Zoet’s life, although we only see one close up, and she is somehow beyond his reach. Sometimes, one wonders if the Thousand Autumns is not a single novel but a file containing three abortive attempts to begin. De Zoet himself is marginalised after the first third; his Dejima frustrations forgotten as Mitchell’s story takes on more fantastical elements, eschewing his pin-sharp reconstruction of Dejima for tantalising speculations about the monastery of a fictional wacko sect. Elements come to the fore of a Tokugawa-era Handmaid’s Tale, as Mitchell slaps the reader with the realisation that a heretofore minor character is far more central than one thought. It is, in a sense, a remarkably Japanese experience, confronting the idle reader with the abyss of meanings unexplored. To the attentive real-world linguist, every day in Japanese feels that way, drama or not.

But this is Mitchell’s theme throughout, a surgical metaphor of trauma and healing, hinted in the opening gore of a troubled birth, and picked at throughout like a scab. None of us ever really knows which character we are truly playing, or in whose story. What De Zoet believes to be his own failings as a traditional hero are later revealed to be crucial links in a chain of events that change a number of lives. And in the final, moving time-lapse sequence, encompassing decades in a page like some prose version of the end of Zardoz, we see de Zoet getting the only reward he can expect in this life, but maybe not the next.

"I have not told the half of what I saw."

Although they may be self-indulgent and self-regarding, I’ve really been enjoying everybody else’s round-ups of the ten years since the numbers rolled over from 19– to 20–. Herewith the last decade as it looks from here.

2000. In the first week of January, I discover that I am not going blind after all. Instead, the screen is dying on the laptop I have used since grad school. The purchase of a new desktop unit brings the internet into my home for the first time, and with it, an avalanche of Amazon parcels. Manga Max magazine is shut down in July, two days before I receive a Japan Festival Award for editing it. I write six episodes of Halcyon Sun, and briefly work on an IMAX movie project that falls at the first hurdle. Then, I’m hired to storyline and then co-script a console game that has been part-funded by a crazy arms manufacturer.

2001. The mad game is cancelled, apparently because of 9/11. By this time I am already working on another console project, writing three new “episodes” for a much-loved sci-fi franchise. It is only after the voices are all recorded, with the original cast, that the manufacturers decide to pull the plug. Something to do with the game being a stupid idea in the first place. All this gaming money gets funnelled into the Anime Encyclopedia, which eventually breaks even for me in 2007. I love working on that book so much that I look forward to getting out of bed every morning (a condition regularly repeated over the following years — I really do love my job). My first trip to America: Atlanta, for the book launch.

2002. Having superb fun working on the Dorama Encyclopedia. I am a presenter on the Sci Fi channel’s bizarre and mercifully forgotten Saiko Exciting, which first involves me reading the anime news, and later speed-translating and performing modern pop classics into Mandarin. I am offered the editorship of Newtype USA seven times, but decline because I have just got my dream job: a publisher has commissioned my obsession of many years, Pirate King. First DVD commentary, for Appleseed; I’ve since done many more for Manga Entertainment, Momentum Pictures, Artsmagic and ADV Films. Consultant on the first season of the TV series Japanorama. Film festivals in Italy and Norway.

2003. Working for a famous toy company on the “story” that will accompany their new line of toys. Fantastic fun, and very educational. Back to Japan for the first time in years, Kyoto and Tokyo; Dallas for another anime convention, and Turku, Finland. Writing the Highwaymen novelisation, and a whole rack of Big Finish scripts, including Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and Sympathy for the Devil. Start learning Finnish, because life’s not difficult enough.

2004. Sign a deal to write a book a year about China ahead of the Beijing Olympics. This year, Confucius: A Biography. Back to Atlanta for another anime convention. Buy half a flat in London.

2005. A Brief History of the Vikings presents a fantastic excuse to poke around old sagas for a few months. Present my History of Japanese Animation lecture series at the Worldcon in Scotland, and later sell it as a series of magazine articles. I also write a massive 12-part History of Manga for Neo magazine. Start writing the Manga Snapshot column, which is still running five years later. Publication, somewhat late, of my novel Ruthless.

2006. The First Emperor of China. Off to Xi’an and Beijing. A new edition of the Anime Encyclopedia. Consultant for The South Bank Show on anime, although I am largely ignored. Write the novella Cheating the Reaper.

2007. Got married — honeymoon in Estonia after Mrs Clements vetoed Georgia. Wu. Not a book title that is easy to bring up on search engines, although you can hear me doing a great interview about it here on Radio Four. Before it’s even published, there are excited feelers from a TV company, which hires me to work on the outline of a 16-episode drama series based on the early Tang dynasty. Nothing comes of it, although I do spend the money going to Japan to get materials for another book: Nagasaki and the Amakusa archipelago.

2008. Beijing: The Biography of a City is published. But my next book, Christ’s Samurai, is left in limbo when Sutton Publishing can no longer afford to pay for it. Luckily, Haus Publishing has decided it wants a massive multi-volume history of the Paris Peace Conference, and has me writing the biographies of the Chinese and Japanese representatives. Big Finish scripts for Highlander and Doctor Who. Titan Books ask me to start this blog.

2009. Switzerland for the Locarno Film Festival. Back to Japan for a month getting materials for three new book projects. Then Shanghai, Sydney, Melbourne, Honolulu, San Francisco, Vancouver and New York on the way home. Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy is a Christmas bestseller… in Finland, although it goes down a storm at the launch in London’s Finnish Institute. Big Finish scripts for Robin Hood, Judge Dredd and Doctor Who. My collected articles and speeches appear as Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. I am rendered poor as a church mouse by an exploding boiler.

2010. Next year, I am supposed to be going to Taiwan for the filming of Koxinga: Sailing Through History, a documentary for National Geographic. I have two big publications coming on Admiral Togo and A Brief History of the Samurai — although if it’s got more than 300 pages, can we really call it brief? I’ve got a deadline for another book in January, and after that, who knows…?

I don’t know about you, but that little list sure scares the hell out of me. This, I guess, is the flipside of those cheery little adverts in the broadsheet press, that trill “Why Not Be a Writer?” That’s why not. Because unless you love your job so much that you need to be dragged away from it, you will never put in the required hours. And yet, like Marco Polo, “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

Happy New Year.

Bad Luck

In New York for a meeting with Ari Messer, publicity guy for Stone Bridge Press. At least, that’s the official excuse. Unofficially, I am here to drop in on the New York Met, whose exhibition on the Art of the Samurai features a whole bunch of old friends.

Well, I am not sure we would have been friends in real life, but after spending many months writing the Brief History of the Samurai, I feel I already know them. A suit of bright crimson armour with golden horns dominates the entranceway, and belongs to the Ii clan, whose legendarily “accidental” charge against orders kicked off the regime-changing Battle of Sekigahara. There are sword-guards and daggers, signalling-fans and arrows, but amidst it all is Exhibit 96.

Exhibit 96 is a sword. Others on show are deemed more expensive. There are older and newer blades, many with airtight provenances that they were held by this general or that general, conferred as gifts by the great movers and shakers of history. But this one has mottled blotches of dark mist on the blade, as if the metal is alive but somehow rotting, clouds boiling on the steel as if it is not a sword but a silver abyss. Etched into the tang with characteristically choppy handwriting are two simple characters: Mura Masa.

It isn’t the first time I have seen a Muramasa. I do have a habit of hunting them down whenever I get a chance. As a child, I found one in London, sitting on a rack at the Toshiba Gallery at the V&A. In 2003, I found another, in pride of place in a Tokyo Museum. This one at the Met comes with a sign that readily acknowledged the badly-kept secrets of the Muramasa blades: that in the 18th and 19th century they were believed to carry a curse against the family of the Shogun.

Muramasa swords, it was said, were cursed. In 18th century kabuki theatre, acquisition of a Muramasa did the same for one’s well-being as building a hotel on an Indian burial ground. The swords were indubitable works of art, but brought such awful woes upon their owners that people did everything they could to get rid of them. Many were destroyed.

In the late 19th century, as the tide turned against the Shogun, Muramasa swords acquired an unexpected, rebellious frisson. Suddenly, they were the thing that all the coolest samurai wanted to carry, and as a result, there were many fakes. Exhibit 96, however, is the genuine article.

The Secret of the Sword

“It seems that there were three generations of smiths signing their names Muramasa. As Muramasa’s work was considered unlucky for the Tokugawa family, the “mura” was sometimes obliterated and the character “mune” inscribed beneath the remaining character, thus transforming the remaining character into the far more palatable Masamune. It might have been this process which gave rise to the popular belief that Muramasa was a pupil of Masamune of Soshu, yet his earliest-known work is dated 1501, almost two centuries after Masamune’s time.” –  Harris and Ogasawara. Swords of the Samurai. London: British Museum Publications, 1990.
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