Emiko Jean talks Japanese culture, themes surrounding identity, and writing in our exclusive YALLfest interview!
All hail the Empress of All Seasons! Emiko Jean‘s second novel just hit shelves earlier this month. It’s a mash-up of Japanese folklore and original fiction featuring fierce competition, rare and beautiful friendships, conspiracies, twists, and even a dash of romance.
Just days after the novel’s release, we caught up with Emiko Jean at YALLfest, an amazing Young Adult literary festival in Charleston, SC, to talk about the book, Japanese culture and mythology, relating to her characters, and more! Take a look below!
This is your first YALLfest. What are you looking forward to the most?
I think just meeting people who have read the book and other authors. I did a school visit this morning, which I think is my all-time favorite part of my job besides the writing. I was at a middle school and it was a great audience. It was 30 or 40 students that were hand-selected for being interested in writing, so that makes for the best audience. They were hungry and they wanted it ask about you and hear about you, so it was a great way to kick off this whole weekend.
YALLfest is chaos, but it’s good chaos. Though I can’t say from the author perspective.
It’s amazing to be among so many people who love to read, you know? Because I feel like those are my people! They love books. They have voracious appetites for books. It’s gonna be amazing!
Empress of All Seasons has a basis in Japanese folklore. What part of the folklore interested you first and how did you go about developing your plot from there?
The way I became interested, obviously, is that I’m half Japanese, so I wanted to connect with cultural heritage. I was familiar before with yokai, the supernatural spirits and demons in Japanese folklore, so that was really my jumping off point. There’s thousands of yokai and I barely scratched the surface in the book, so I would love to explore that more. That’s kind of where the inspiration came from. And I like that idea that there’s always really interesting female yokai in mythology that play really certain and specific roles, usually around men– either stealing things from men or tricking men or something like that. I kind of wanted to unravel that a little bit. The yokai I created in the book, the Animal Wives, are actually not an existing yokai, they’re a yokai that I made up because I thought it would be cool to explore a village of only women, but still keep that vision of yokai women and how they interact with men.
I thought it was funny that we had shared an excerpt on social media with the quote “Is this all there is? Marrying men, stealing their fortunes, and having babies?” Someone replied with something like “I dunno, I’m kinda down with the ‘stealing their fortunes’ bit.”
*Laughs* That’s the thing about fantasy! It’s kind of a reflection of our culture, right? So there’s some truth to it because that’s the way we raise girls: To believe that in order to be successful you have to marry a man that’s well off and that’s kind of where you reach your height, so I wanted to see how that really plays out.
If you were an Animal Wife, what kind of features and thus abilities would you want to have?
Well all the Animal Wives have the cool transformation with wings and they can fly, so I’d be into that.
So what are your favorite things about your three narrators in this book– Mari, Taro, and Akira?
I’ll start with my least favorite and work my way up. Taro– it’s funny when I read some reviews from readers and they talk about Taro and how they didn’t like him as much, I wanna be like “It’s because I didn’t like him as much.” *laughs* I’m being really honest about it! He was a guy, you know? I’m neither a guy nor a prince. I had trouble, in that way, connecting with him. He’s one that I struggled with, but I started looking at the idea of masculinity and what it meant.
Mari, I modeled at least a little bit after myself or at least how I saw myself when I was in middle school or high school. I think every girl you ask didn’t see themselves as being particularly lovely in middle school or high school. I thought about my body and what I didn’t like about it back then. I thought I was stocky or had a rounded face, and even thought about things other people have said about my body. I modeled her physically after me but also in her search for identity. Could she embrace the other part of herself, the Animal Wife part?
Akira was the one I loved the most. I connected with him because he’s a half-yokai, half-human in the book and I’m half-Japanese, half-white. In the book he talks about never being enough for one side or other, and that I really draw from real life. He talks about standing in the shadows and feeling on the outside, and I remember really feeling that way when I was younger in a mostly white community. “Where I do fit in?” He’s the one I love the most and identify with the most. His whole character arc was really present from the beginning. Taro, for example, I struggled with “Who is this character and what’s gonna happen to him? What are his flaws?” But Akira came to be in like… one beautiful light.
A big part of this novel is the seasonal rooms, which are wild and you never really know what’s going to come from them! Which was your favorite to write and which was the hardest?
I would say fall is the one I loved writing the most. In Japanese culture, fall is a big season. Seasons are big anyway in Japanese culture. Where Japan is located, geographically, it’s subject to all this crazy weather and that’s why I created the seasonal rooms, but fall is the time for festivals and there’s a big emphasis placed on the fall. It’s easy to write because you can just see the maple trees changing color and it’s my favorite season in real life. I guess the spring room was harder because there’s not as much dynamic weather in the spring in Japan, so I had trouble figuring out what I wanted that room to look like.
This is your second novel. How did writing the second compare to writing the first?
It’s interesting you should ask because I’ve been reflecting on that a lot. You have your debut– and I’m not sure if you’ve had a lot of interaction with debut authors, but we tend to be a jittery bunch. *laughs* I feel a lot more seasoned– no pun intended there– with the second one. I feel more confident with people when talking about it. I think that I’ve really started to hone my voice and I think that with every book you evolve. It’s been pretty great so far.
Lastly, I always like to ask about writing style. Plotter or pantser? Early bird or night owl? How do you go about the process?
I’m kind of a plot-ser! I’m not a huge plotter. I usually do giant storyboards and a really detailed outline, but I really don’t like the feeling of being locked into anything, so I give myself a lot of room to change and pivot. I write in sprints. I try to write about 2,000 words a day and I break it up into like 500 words an hour. If I don’t make that, I have to keep writing. Usually I can draft a novel in about two to three months, but it’s a hot mess. I literally have a folder on my computer called “HOT MESS” where I put all of my drafts. Then I re-draft and I re-draft and I re-draft. It usually takes about a year, but I really start growing it in those first couple months.
In a palace of illusions, nothing is what it seems.
Each generation, a competition is held to find the next empress of Honoku. The rules are simple. Survive the palace’s enchanted seasonal rooms. Conquer Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Marry the prince. All are eligible to compete—all except yōkai, supernatural monsters and spirits whom the human emperor is determined to enslave and destroy.
Mari has spent a lifetime training to become empress. Winning should be easy. And it would be, if she weren’t hiding a dangerous secret. Mari is a yōkai with the ability to transform into a terrifying monster. If discovered, her life will be forfeit. As she struggles to keep her true identity hidden, Mari’s fate collides with that of Taro, the prince who has no desire to inherit the imperial throne, and Akira, a half-human, half-yōkai outcast.
Torn between duty and love, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness, the choices of Mari, Taro, and Akira will decide the fate of Honoku in this beautifully written, edge-of-your-seat YA fantasy.