Today we’re kicking back and chatting a little with Lucy May Lennox, the author of Flowers by Night. I had the chance to read it last year and wow, I was blown away! So, of course, an interview was in order ;D
Flowers by Night – Lucy May Lennox
Love affairs between men are completely accepted in Edo, even among men married to women, but low-ranking samurai Uchida Tomonosuke has never pledged himself to another man. Until one day he accidentally crosses paths with a beautiful blind masseur who challenges everything he thought he knew about love between men. Ichi is a member of the Tōdōza , the guild of blind men, who are trained in massage and music. The Tōdōza taught Ichi how to be independent and self-sufficient, but he’s still at the very lowest rungs of society. For the samurai and the masseur to be together, it will mean not only crossing class lines and negotiating Tomonosuke’s unhappy wife, but also surviving earthquake, fire and famine.
Why did you focus on 19th century Japan?.What was the process behind the story of Ichi and Tomonosuke?
The idea for the basic story came to me in late 2012. I had been a fan of the Zatoichi film series for a long time, and I knew there were other versions of the story. The character of Zatoichi (or Ichi the zatō) comes from a short story by Shimozawa Kan in 1955, which he claimed was based on legends he heard, that there was in the late Edo period a zatō (blind masseur) named Ichi in the town of Sawara in Shimōsa province (present day Chiba prefecture). Supposedly this Ichi was a wild character, a big drinker and gambler, and had somehow learned swordfighting, but he couldn’t tell if his sword was drawn or sheathed. Obviously there’s a lot of stereotyped ableism in this legend, and there’s no way to know if there’s any truth to it. But the Ichi character in many forms has been very popular in Japan. I had a sudden inspiration to reimagine the Ichi character not as a swordsman at all, but instead in the context of boys’ love manga, to make him a bishōnen type. And since homosexuality was totally normal in Edo period Japan, it all just kind of fell into place.
I got this sudden inspiration in 2012 and wrote the whole first chapter in a rush. But at the time I was still trying to finish my two other novels, Love in Touch and The Adventures of Tom Finch, Gentleman. So I set Ichi’s story aside, then I had kids, and it took a while to get back into writing. I was spending some time in Japan in 2019, which inspired me to finally make this one chapter into a full length novel.
What kind of research did you do before writing FbN? The care you put in every detail is astounding.
Thank you! I knew I wanted to portray the Edo culture of male homosexuality and the guild of blind men, the Tōdōza, as realistically as possible, so I looked up as much as I could, which in English is not that much. As for the rest, I added references to a lot of things I knew already, like The Tale of Genji, The Legend of Eight Dogs (Hakkenden), and The Tale of the Heike. The Edo period had very high rates of literacy (higher than Europe in the 18th century), so people would know these books by heart and be able to recite them, especially the very famous opening lines of the Heike, which I tried to work into the narration.
I also tried to use a lot of kigo or seasonal references, because it’s a huge part of Japanese culture even today. Once I really got started, I realized I needed to be super careful about how I referred to time, for example, there was no division into weeks or days of the week. And I tried to be careful about word choice, like not using English swear words which are all based in Christianity (damn, hell, etc). Having just finished a novel set in 18th century London, it was a big mental adjustment.
The disability theme is a leading one in all your books.
Yes, I think it is such a disservice to the lives of real people to reduce disability in fiction to a metaphor or to use it to generate angst or make the other characters feel sad. There have been so many real people in history who did not experience disability in that way. I think it’s important to expand our thinking, to represent people with disabilities as multifaceted individuals. I also think it’s important to see how disability was understood differently across time and cultures. The Tōdōza was a remarkable institution that unfortunately is not well known.
I really appreciated Okyō. She wasn’t a cardboard-cut villain, for lack of a better term, just there to hinder the relationship between Ichi and Tomonosuke, but a character that came alive page after page.
Thank you! Okyō is really important to me. Although I enjoy a lot of BL manga and m-m romance, I’ve been frustrated by a hint of internalized misogyny that I sometimes see in those genres. Sometimes these stories are only about men, as if women don’t exist, or when women do appear as characters, they are sometimes just cartoonish villains. I wanted to include a realistic female character who has her own character arc in the story.
You mentioned an audiobook version of FbN, is that right?
Yes, the audiobook was released in April 2021. I was so lucky to find a narrator, Payton Huang, who speaks Japanese. If you’re wondering what all the names and poetry properly sounds like, give it a listen! He did such a good job bringing the characters to life. It’s available on Audible and everywhere else audiobooks are sold.
Tell us a little about your writing routine.
I have young children, so the only time I have to write is at night after they go to bed. But it’s good to have some structured time set aside every day.
Are you already thinking about your next project?
Yes, I’m working on my next novel but it’s more of a present day New Adult romance, not historical fiction. I also have an idea for another historical novel, set in the US in the 1880s, but I’m not ready to start all the research for that. It’s a lot of work!
Thank you for your time, Lucy May! I really enjoyed chatting with you – until next time!