Haikasoru: Editor Nick Mamatas on the New Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror Imprint
Nick Mamatas has worn many hats in the publishing business over the years, including as editor of a Hugo and World Fantasy-nominated science fiction magazine. However, his current position with Viz Media may be the most interesting yet. Mamatas is the editor of Tradebooks, which constitutes Viz’s non-manga titles. His main area of focus is Haikasoru, a new imprint of Japanese novels and stories in translation that focuses on science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I spoke to him recently by phone about this exciting new project.
Amazon.com: How long have you been editing for Viz? And are you an acquiring editor, or the conduit between the Japanese and an English audience?
Nick Mamatas: Just over a year, and my supervisor and I decide together. We'll get, say, ten sample chapters from ten books per quarter and pick four.
Amazon.com: Does your supervisor read in Japanese? In other words, someone is reading a whole book before it's decided, or...?
Mamatas: Yes, my supervisor is a native Japanese speaker and SF fan. She read a lot of English-language SF in translation as a youth and adult, and now keeps up with the Japanese scene.
Mamatas: So she picks the ten, basically, and brings them to me and then we decide on the four
Amazon.com: Have you ever had to ask her, even with the English translation in front of you, for an explanation of something that's innately Japanese in terms of culture?
Mamatas: Not really, thanks to the power of Google, plus I generally work with the translators very closely, and get the cultural tidbits from them. A few things, as far as the idiom, I do work with my supervisor with such things as how scenes are presented in a novel, "closing" flashbacks, structural differences
Amazon.com: How much editing do you do on the translations? And how literal are the translations when they get to you?
Mamatas: We try very hard to keep the translation authentic, though I have occasionally reordered a few scenes. It's difficult to get a translator with the ear for language of a novelist, but I've found a few and am happy for it. I don't normally hire "rewriters", though I am not against doing so if necessary. Really, it's just easier for me to do a mighty line edit than to deal with the translator and rewriter.
Amazon.com: You've said in another interview that Japanese SF is "more closely tied to Western science fiction than manga is to the mainstream of American comics." So is the line you're editing indistinguishable from American SF or are there still differences. Seems to me the Japanese have mainstreamed horror a lot more than we have.
Mamatas: There are differences, definitely. Think of a band doing a great cover version with a new arrangement of a classic pop or rock song. Manga is certainly an influence, like film is clearly an influence on Western SF (and commercial fiction in general)
Amazon.com: You've also said that the Japanese have retained more of a sense of optimism in their SF. This seems to be somewhat at odds with their horror, which is more extreme and pessimistic than American horror for the most part.
Mamatas: Well, U.S. horror is very often not horror, but just thrillers or adventures with horrific interludes. Though despite the pessimism, in Japan horror is "beach reading" for summer vacations. The chills one gets from reading horror leads to goosebumps, pleasurable on the long hot days.
Amazon.com: I guess what I'm getting at is: Are you offering something unique or is the brand simply about offering up Japanese authors who don't otherwise have access to North American readers?
Mamatas: The experience of reading Japanese SF is unique; there are a number of wild differences, but ultimately most of the pieces can be easily placed, taxonomically, in the genre.
Amazon.com: So, recently, you released The Lords of the Sands of Time and All You Need Is KILL. What's the reaction been to the titles in terms of reviews, and have you begun to get reader feedback, too?
Mamatas: The reaction has been great. Alasdair Stuart called The Lord of the Sands of Time "one of the finest science fiction novels of the last five years", and Pop Culture Shock, a review website, gave a novel an "A" rating (and they grade on a curve). We're getting a fair amount of feedback, most of it very positive, and interestingly from both the manga audience and the SF audience. Steve Davidson, a self-proclaimed "Crotchety Old Fan" called All You Need Is KILL a classic along the lines of the Forever War and Starship Troopers. So we've got the youngsters and the oldies so far.
Amazon.com: Here’s a quote from All You Need is KILL: "She had healthy, tanned skin and larger than average breasts...Of the three types of women the human race boasted--the pretty, the homely, and the gorillas you couldn't do anything with save ship 'em off to the army--I'd put her in the pretty category." Would you say your readership is primarily male?
Mamatas: No, I'd say we have a fairly even split so far, though of course some individual titles may appeal to men more or women more. As far as the gorillas line, that is the statement of a first-person narrator, who at that point in the book isn't portrayed as very worldly, sensitive, or even necessarily all that intelligent.
Amazon.com: Tell me a little bit about ZOO by Otsuichi. There've been several Japanese horror writers who seem to have hit it big in the U.S., or at least gained a following. Where does ZOO fit in?
Mamatas: Otsuichi is very popular in Japan; ZOO sold nearly 750,000 copies there. He's had a couple of books published in the U.S. already, and ZOO was made into a feature film (anthology style). The DVD is available as an import. We think he'll do quite well in the U.S., partially because he has a strange, almost affectless tone. It's as though he doesn't know how creepy he is. Also, the stories in ZOO are often quite funny, and are not solely horror. I see a lot of Bradburyesque dark fantasy, some SF, etc. in his work. Otsuichi may be a bit more accessible than other Japanese horror authors; he's a younger author and his themes are pretty broad. So far, U.S. horror readers and writers seem to have taken to him. Brian Keene, for example, enthusiastically blurbed ZOO.
Amazon.com: It looks pretty interesting, just doing a skim of the text. It seems a lot more nuanced than, for example, Lord, which has a lot of exposition going on. They're all first-person stories, too, but not the same narrator, right?
Mamatas: Most are first-person, but not the same narrator, correct. He has young children, teen, old men, etc. He's all about the ordinariness of the extraordinary, so he casts a wide-net with his first-person narrators.
Amazon.com: What can readers expect in terms of the type of horror story, then? You say humor and Ray Bradbury, but these seem like character studies as much as anything else. Not to say they're not plotted, but these are not Twilight Zone-like twist stories?
Mamatas: Well, Twilight Zone has great characters; at least the Serling scripts did. The details make TZ a perennial favorite, even after all the twists have been memorized. That said, Otsuichi does love himself a twist. The first-person narration in many of the stories does allow him to explore character and plot in a unique way.
Amazon.com: Do you have a favorite?
Mamatas: In ZOO? "In a Falling Airplane"--it's hilarious about someone trying to commit suicide on a hijacked airplane. Not the hijacker I mean; one character keeps trying to buy a syringe full of lethal poison from another to avoid dying in a plane crash
Amazon.com: Between now and the end of the year, are there any other releases you're particularly excited about?
Mamatas: Well, Usurper of the Sun--our first hard SF title. It's a planetary adventure about aliens who build a ring around the Sun using planetary material from Mercury. It's interesting for several reasons: it's got scope, we follow the main character from high school to late middle-age as she dedicates herself to understanding the Builders. There's some strange humor in it (Paul Levinson namedropped Murakami in his blurb for a reason!) and a fair amount of it takes place in Berkeley, my current hometown. Also, Battle Royale: The Novel. It's a reissue, with a revised text and a long afterword by the author. At 22 pages, [the afterword is] the longest thing Takami has published, I believe, since Battle Royale itself. It's in the form of a Q/A: we cover everything from his literary influences to his favorite pro wrestlers.
Amazon.com: As you say, Usurper has a female lead character. That's somewhat unusual for hard SF. How does it affect the book, and what makes her unique?
Mamatas: Aki Shirashi is a very interesting character; the book starts with her as a high school nerd, goes through her political rise as savior of the world (and then the subsequent fall as anti-alien hawks outmaneuver her), and then ends with her as a middle-aged woman who flirts with a much younger computer genius while aboard an alien ship.
Amazon.com: This thing about following a character through high school seems very much a manga thing. Like, we're going to show you the heroics and the mind-blowing SF stuff, but first...high school.
Mamatas: Certainly, lots of books are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, but there is a care Nojiri gives to Aki and her growth that is touching. We just don't see a lot of older women in hard SF, unless they happen to be The World's Greatest Space Admiral or a queen.
Amazon.com: I guess my point is the manga I've read manages to wed mundane-ish stuff with the speculative element in a way that I don't see in a lot of American SF. I could be wrong.
Mamatas: There is certainly a manga element there, and also an attempt to get younger people interested in science, but the high school scenes are also crucial to the hard SF element of the story: it's easy enough to drop in a warpgate or something and have the aliens show up after two weeks, but then the science fictional conceits get diluted. The crisis of first contact is something that changes humanity over the course of a generation, and that's even before the aliens actually show up in person. So it's an interesting structure.
Amazon.com: Do you think this infusion of translations into English will eventually influence Anglo SF?
Mamatas: Global publishing will certainly influence Anglo SF. Writers will go further afield with both their characters and novel structures. Certainly, we're hoping that Haikasoru is the tip of that iceberg.
Amazon.com: Is there anything about your line of books that we haven't talked about that you'd like readers to know?
Mamatas: Come visit the website. It's a blog! I post pictures of my dog on it!