Designing A Kitsune – A Guest Post by M.L. Brennan + IRON NIGHT GIVEAWAY
Join us at this first stop as we kick off the Blog Tour for Iron Night by M.L. Brennan! We here at the BiblioSanctum are thrilled to have M.L. with us today, sharing with us her inspirations and insights. Forget werewolves, gimme KITSUNE! Iron Night is the newly released sequel to the brilliant Generation V and if you enjoy Urban Fantasy, then you’ll definitely want to check out these books!
Also be sure to stick around at the end of this post for our giveaway information on how to win your very own copy of Iron Night!
by M.L. Brennan
One of the earliest decisions I made when I started writing my urban fantasy Generation V was that I was going to be working with vampires. With that one decision, I waded into perhaps the most excessively written and re-written monster in urban fantasy (rivaled only by werewolves, with elves a very distant third), so my next decision was that I needed to balance my vampires out with a monster that was a lot less typical. I also really wanted to work with something that wasn’t out of the Western tradition, and after a little bit of exploration, that led me to the Japanese myth of the kitsune.
Kitsune are a fox shapeshifter that has a strong presence in the fables of Japan, China, and Korea (with some distinct differences between cultures – I went with a Japanese version, which is why you won’t see my kitsune character, Suzume, hankering after human livers, which she would’ve had she been based off of the Korean kitsune!). My introduction to them came when I read Neil Gaiman’s beautiful graphic novel The Dream Hunters (a standalone in his Sandman series), which is a very lovely and tragic story about a fox who falls in love with a monk. This is actually a good example of how long a particular idea can percolate in the back of a writer’s mind – I read The Dream Hunters when I was a freshman in college, and it was ten years later when I made the decision to use kitsune.
The kitsune offered a lot for me – they haven’t been explored too much in urban fantasy, and I also liked that unlike werewolves (which as a creature we’ve almost communally agreed on as a fairly male-dominated and chauvinistic creature) there was a really natural opportunity to set the kitsune up as a largely female-oriented society.
And that was as far as my initial thinking went. Because that was as much as I knew about the kitsune, and it was all filtered through a secondary source. I wanted to get a better handle on the myth, so I wanted to get as close to primary sources as I could get. This wasn’t perfect – after all, I had very foolishly taken Latin classes rather than learning Japanese, so that held me back from the research ideal of reading stories and fables in the original language. (I drew a big line at learning the language to do research – sorry!) I read two books of translated folk tales – The Moon Maiden and Other Japanese Fairy Tales by Grace James and Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan by Lafcadio Hearn. There are a few really interesting stories of kitsune in these, and it was how I learned how very malleable the presentation of kitsune was. In some stories the kitsune were acting maliciously toward humans, but in others they were simple pranksters who could be scolded into proper behavior. Sometimes they even acted benevolently toward those who had done them favors – and in a few really lovely stories there were tragic romances between human men and fox women. There was a complexity that I thought was really fascinating, because the agency seemed to be on the part of the fox – they were the deciding factor of their behavior, not the humans who interacted with them. Reading the fairy tales was also important because folk stories are usually representative of the culture that they come out of – read the fables of a culture and you will see what traits are valued by the society, and what behavior is being held up as an example. The kitsune in my books is a third-generation Japanese-American, but her cultural heritage is from Japan – these were the stories that she would’ve been told as a child.
In addition to the fables, I also read Fox by Martin Wallen, which talked both about foxes as a species and foxes as a cultural icon in various societies. The final book (and the best) was a graduate thesis that I was able to get my hands on through a university library loan system called The Fox’s Craft in Japanese Religion and Folklore by Michael Bathgate. This was great not only because there were stories in it that I hadn’t seen in the fairy tale books, but it also analyzed what the kitsune meant culturally in Japan, which involved an analysis of women’s positions in society during the height of the stories.
All of that was crucial background… at which point I got to take all of that information and translate it into how I wanted kitsune to work in my books. For one thing, I wanted to have kitsune in Providence, Rhode Island, and I wanted them to have a strong sense of identity – these weren’t going to be New England housewives who changed into foxes on the sly (I think that’s the plotline to the kitsune version of Bewitched, actually!). I’d built the vampires as almost the feudal overlords of the East Coast, but I wanted the kitsune to be a powerful and individualistic group (if you’re a history buff, kind of like the Marcher Lords were in feudal England). So the kitsune who appear in my books are one family unit, and are all descended from the original immigrant from a post-World War II Japan: Atsuko, the White Fox. I ended up writing quite a few powerful (in every sense of the word) female characters and elder matriarchs in Generation V, but Atsuko was one of my favorites. She was a geisha who, following the death of her entire family in the first atomic bomb attack, came to a new land, made strong alliances, and rebuild a family. She’s only in one scene in the first book, but I always feel like she has a long shadow. My kitsune Suzume might not be afraid of much, but she’s always very aware of her grandmother, who is one of a very select few people who she knows she can’t handle or manipulate.
I actually got a little bit of flack from a few reviewers about making the kitsune family geisha – some people said that it was exploitative because it made them sex workers. Geisha society is actually a really interesting piece of history and culture, and extremely complex. Was there a bit of sex for money? Sure. But there was also a strong artistic presence – geisha were dancers, musicians, singers, and poets, and during their height in the 1800s many of them were purely entertainers. There was also a social aspect to the geisha – they would be hired to come to parties, but not to provide sex. Instead they provided conversation and hostess duties. The geisha houses themselves were what actually made my decision to have Atsuko be a former geisha – these were matriarchal societies. The women ran the businesses, handled the money, trained daughters or nieces to follow in their paths, and were economically independent. For my foxes to be able to preserve their own society and customs, but not have the fear that a group always in hiding would have bred into them, they needed a place in society that was in the general social net yet at the same time distinct and private. Out and about, they look like women, but in their homes they would always be kitsune – foxes first, then women. That wouldn’t have been possible if they’d been balancing duped husbands and nosy village neighbors (everything, ironically, that made poor Samantha’s life so tough in Bewitched – wow, I did not expect that reference to come full circle like it did!).
Of course, in America my kitsune family runs an escort business, but they’ve moved into the management roles. There is nothing even close to the geisha in American society, and Atsuko would’ve been building a new life for herself in 1950s America – not exactly a time conducive to a woman building not only her own self-sustaining business, but passing it forward to daughters and granddaughters who would not be bothering with husbands.
All of this is part of the framework that went behind Suzume. In Generation V her role was much more up in the air – I had longterm plans for her, but as a big plot point I wanted the reader to believe that at any minute she was capable of ditching my main character. That changes in the sequel, Iron Night. The friendship between Fort and Suzume is much stronger now, and as a result Suze is clearly strapped in for wherever things take them. Those cultural elements were really important when I was writing Iron Night, since as I was writing I never got a sense that she was just tagging along – my understanding of Suzume was that there was a big part of her that is convinced that without her looking out for him, Fort is likely to trade his car for magic beans or possibly even walk off the side of a cliff. In this friendship, she’s the stronger, tougher one – and Fort knows and respects that. Iron Night was also a chance for me to start showcasing more of the kitsune – the dynamics of this complicated and sprawling family as well as their stories and beliefs. I won’t give too much away, but there is a moment in the book where Suzume tells Fort a story that her own mother used to tell her as a child, and it was something that I was so incredibly excited to write since I’d literally had that scene in my mind since some of the early planning stages of the series itself.
Right now I’m working on the third book in the series, Tainted Blood, and I’m getting to explore the kitsune even further there. A few threads that are hinted at as early as Generation V are just getting fleshed out, and I’m really excited about where all of it is going!