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Noah: Now, that’s a good reaction. So, you say the numbers are good for American fantasy. Is that really the case, now?
Yani: Compared to sci-fi. You do see fantasy books on bestseller lists. You don’t see sci-fi books anymore unless they are Star Wars novelizations. It used to be the case, in the seventies, for example, Clarke would write Rendezvous with Rama and it would be a bestseller. But serious sci-fi no longer has that mass market. Whereas the Jordan-esque fantasy still does sell a very large number of copies. We were trying to tap into that with our hardcover formatting. But we switched to a kind of “light novel” presentation.
Erin: We have a friend who reads a lot of science fiction and fantasy books. She no longer buys hardcovers. She’s always waiting for the mass-market paperback. It’s not a budget issue; it’s a personal preference.
Serdar: I know that hardbacks tend to be a very prestige kind of thing. Whenever there is an A-list author with a 500,000 print run for a new book, it always has to be a hardcover. They can put it front and center in the store, it looks important on somebody’s shelf… There really is a lot of marketing involved that people don’t know about. Things are starting to change because it is getting really expensive to produce this stuff. Frankly, I don’t care what the form factor is. If someone was releasing these tiny Japanese versions I’d snap them up, but I know it’s not a viable option in the U.S.
Yani: In Japan too, usually the books come out in hardcover first and then in paperback. What they did with The Guin Saga, though, is that this is the original format, the small paperback. Five bucks. The term “light novel” didn’t exist when The Guin Saga first came out, but this really is the mother of light novels. The Guin Saga and Vampire Hunter D.
So, what are “light novels”? They come out in paperback, they have illustrations, they’re multi-volume and something supernatural is going on. If it is set in a school, someone usually has ESP.
Noah: So light novel implies genre. You don’t get just regular prose light novel?
Yani: They usually have illustrations. Never “realism.” They tend to be feats of the imagination. You are always impressed with the author’s imagination.
Noah: I think that it is likely that a real niche could be established in the American market.
Yani: Vertical is trying that, but other larger publishers with more money and force—
Noah: I don’t know if you want to reveal this or not, but what numbers do you need, in terms of readership, to put out the next story arc, to put out the second five?
Yani: The minimum is 3,000 of each, but hopefully 5,000.
The thing is, from the beginning, this property has attracted Hollywood’s attention. In 2004 we got to the stage of a production company submitting a treatment to us. Unfortunately, I had to say no because they were changing the story way too much. The idea was that no major actor was going to attach himself to a feature if his face isn’t going to show. But there are other ways; there weren’t any famous actors in 300, but it did well. It was just the style of the thing.
Serdar: [opening to p. 224 of Book Three] All you have to do is put this on the poster and people will rip the hinges of the doors of the theaters to go see it.
Erin: It is pretty good. So there was an anime series announced recently?
Yani: Aniplex. The thing is, Kurimoto-san had been approached many times for a visual adaptation but had always said no, because she believed only Hollywood could afford to do it. Also, the actors needed to be Caucasian. She felt it had to be live action for justice to be done to it, but the whole anime thing has taken off to such a degree internationally that she finally said yes. And also, it’s now passed Book 100.
Serdar: So there’s plenty of material. And they (Japan) can do that so well, that medium, so expressively. For fun, after I finished reading Book Five, I started to write a 30-page script. It’s great when you have something that great to begin with.
Yani: Which was fantastic, really fantastic. I loved the way you treated this.
Serdar: It was just on a lark. I said, “Hey, if I can do this in my spare time, surely they can do a decent job with it.” If they want me to sign some paper or something to waive my rights, I’m cool with that. My desire to see a movie made from this book is bigger than any ego I could have about it. The mere fact of having it on screen would be enough of a thrill.
Yani: And if that happens I can guarantee we’ll do more installments.
Noah: Or if the anime comes to the U.S.
Erin: I have two quick questions. In a lot of fighting games, like Tekken…
Serdar: The character King was very clearly a Guin tribute. I am almost positive.
Erin: You (Noah) don’t think so?
Noah: I know very little about Japanese wrestling, but I know there was a Tiger Mask wrestler, which—I don’t know if it predates Guin. I don’t know if it’s Guin-inspired.
Yani: Well, I think it predates Guin. But the masked warrior, it’s a pretty old archetype.
Erin: It’s a little unclear in the book. Is it a mask or is it a head?
Serdar: They play with that directly. The way I was reading that was as someone who doesn’t quite realize that their face structure has changed.
Yani: The best way to think of it is that it’s a result of sorcery. Don’t think of it physically, it’s a magical transformation.
Serdar: I was talking to a friend. If they do a movie, would they do CGI or a mask. And then he showed me some CGI clips of a human face. And I said okay, I guess it’s gonna be CGI.
Yani: I’m not going to give anything away, but the first five books are the Marches Episode, set in Nospherus, the no man’s land. In Books Six through Ten, we suddenly go to Parros, to the crystal city, the most civilized place in the Middle Country. The author handles that as well as the desert action—the urban intrigue. That’s the point where I really, really started to respect Kurimoto-san, because Books One to Five are great, but to be able to do that urban thing too, within the same story, was so impressive for me.
Serdar: This is something I see in a great deal of entertainment in Japan, or Asia, Korea also, where you’ll have a different mode or concept all wrapped up in the same rubric, and the material will shift through them very fluidly. You’ll have comedy followed by serious drama and then some really horrific thing happening, and it’s all part of a continuum, it doesn’t feel like a bunch of stuff colliding. And I think it’s once they have your heart, anything’s possible. You’re going to follow them through to the end so all this stuff feels like it’s part of a base.
Yani: On the one hand The Guin Saga feels very original and on the other it’s the most eclectic series ever. Like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Chinese epic, that’s totally reflected here. Gohra, Cheironia, Parros. Of course there’s that 20s American pulp, too. It’s almost a cannibalistic series.
And Kurimoto was very conscious about this. She said I’m going to write the super-novel that’s going to have good elements from everything that’s been written in the way of adventure fiction.
You should start looking for allusions, it’s actually a great exercise. I wonder if you’re familiar with Walter Scott? His Waverley is considered the first historical novel. And there’s a scene from that work that’s basically a template for something that happens in Guin. In Book Four, Count Marus glares at Istavan after he is betrayed, and Istavan can’t forget it—he won’t forget it for many books. The identical thing happens in Waverley. There’s tons of stuff like that.
In a way it’s a very postmodern work. It was written by a critic who made her debut in the late 1970s when postmodern was all the rage. She went out and said, I’m going to create a work of pure entertainment that is going to steal from everybody. She succeeded, that’s what’s amazing. Not many critics go out and write the book they keep telling everyone to write, and actually succeed.
Serdar: Actually that was something you had touched upon at the panel at NYAF last year (2007). I thought that is exactly what needs to happen. I think it was François Truffaut who said the best way to criticize any one movie is to go out and make another. And that was pretty much what he would do. He would go out and make a movie in response to something he felt had not been done well, or the way he wanted to do it.
And I thought that it was probably the best way to look at it. It also means that criticism is more than just pointing at something saying, “This stinks.” It means: “Okay, people like this thing, clearly there’s something here, and it’s good. Let’s break that down.” And then when you get in the habit of doing that, you also get into the habit of taking those things and putting them into your own words. I started to follow that model myself.
One of my biggest influences was Roger Ebert. And I would read his stuff incessantly because he would be able to say here’s why this is good and he’d be able to back it up. And if he said here’s why this is bad, he’d be able to back that up as well. He never just went in and dismissed anything blank, he always had something to bring to the table.
So the fact that Kurimoto was a critic made a light bulb go off in my head. She decided to not just complain about the state of things, she actually went and did something about it. Kudos to her, that’s a huge achievement.
Noah: As it was coming into the U.S., was she tempted to make any changes? How involved was she in the process?
Yani: No, she has, since the beginning, put a lot of trust in us. She’s been very good to us. She didn’t ask to make any changes, and she was pleased we were publishing it. Manga was beginning to take off, when we talked to her in 2001, but with novels it was far from what we’re seeing now. Any Japanese author would have been flattered to have their work published.
And in a sense, I was shocked that the thing had never been translated. I felt the same way about many other authors. Which is why we founded Vertical.
Erin: I would assume that any publisher in America would look at it and say it’s 120 volumes long, that’s a big commitment.
Serdar: Or you could look at it another way and say it’s a money machine. If you get people hooked on it. It is a huge gamble.
Yani: We also had those reservations but were glad that the first five books formed a story arc. So we got a written contract for the first five books and a verbal agreement for the first 16 because that’s kind of a larger story arc there too. And of course, we did tell our investors, “If this thing takes off, we can go public on this alone.” At that point it was 87 books.
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