In Pulley’s The Lost Future of Pepperharrow (Bloomsbury, Feb.), the sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Victorian-era queer couple Thaniel, a translator, and Mori, who can manipulate the future, travel to Japan.
You take a unique, idiomatic approach to rendering Japanese dialogue in English. How did you come up with that method?
It arose because I got so annoyed with the way that Japanese is usually rendered in English, whether that’s in translation or in books that are about Japan. In the West, we tend to romanticize Japanese as a language. We write it as if it is endlessly proper and polite, but it really isn’t! You can be incredibly rude in Japanese. I would say it can sound more brutal to me than English does. It has slang and it has this wonderful grit to it.
Tell me about your research trip to Japan.
In 2013, I got a scholarship from the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation. Every year, they send six or seven people out to Tokyo to spend a year at a language school. Then you spend a month with a Japanese family elsewhere in Japan, and then come back to Tokyo to work for a Japanese company. It was weird and great and I would never have been able to do it if I hadn’t been sent out by this brilliant organization.
Mori and Thaniel are in love from the start of the book. What kind of research went into writing a gay couple in the 19th century?
I’ve had people say, “Oh, but did people like this even exist in Victorian England?” Well, obviously they did! There’s not a ton of primary source material, but my main theory is that humans are humans through history. Modern research says that both sexuality and gender exist on a spectrum and they always have, which means that there were plenty of gay people in Victorian England and Victorian anywhere—including Meiji Japan. If you read Japanese literature, the gay community was never stigmatized in quite the horrific way that it has been in the West, because religion is less prescriptive there, so people aren’t so interested in what goes on in your own bedroom.
Mori, who secretly orchestrated the move to Japan, is able to remember the future and manipulate events to get the outcome he desires. How do you keep track of the complicated threads that arise from this power?
Really clumsily. When I talk to readers, there’s always one person who says, “Oh, you must have a chart with strings and maps.” No, I don’t have a chart. I just bumble along and try to get it right. You get used to the idea that, if you change something on page 60, then you’re going to have to change something on page 3, because Mori always knew it would happen. It’s really involved and really inefficient, the process of writing about Mori. I’ve never had very much confidence that I’ve actually gotten it right.