Terje Solum is the author of the series "Saga of the Samurai". Over the past 14 years, he has published six volumes on the Kai Takeda clan. In late autumn, he will release his next volume dedicated to the Ōmi Gamō. We interviewed Terje in August 2017.
Q: Tell us a bit more about your background, preferably some details we cannot find on the covers of your books.
Yes, well, my background; I was growing up in a little town called Skotfoss, near present Skien in Norway. I got interested in history at the age of about 10 and read what I could get my hands on, to start with books in Norwegian, later English book, joined an English book club, this was most European and North American history, a lot on WW2. Loved reading nonfiction, but also some historical related novels – great idea to read both categories, especially if you want to become a writer later on. I didn’t plan it at that early stage though.
Sadly, I didn’t pursue this passion into higher education, not until later in life, so I ended up in industrial related work, at present I am actually working in an oil-related company – not at all my passion, but it brings money into my household – I need to feed my family.
Later on I took some history at Boe College along with English language studies. Some Philosophy and computer studies – a great combination. [laughs]
Q: What raised your interest in Japan, specifically the history of the Sengoku era?
It was a rather interesting start, when I think about it. During the late 1970s, I was just a teenager back then, I was watching Swedish television one evening. They were broadcasting Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” – a brilliant film, I thought, and this movie struck a nerve. From then on I was all-absorbing on the samurai, but sadly, there wasn’t that much literature out there. So it was a constant struggle to get hold of something to read on this subject. There was nothing in Norwegian, a few books in English at that time, like Stephen Turnbull, Samson, with a few others – but not much, I needed more.
In 1991, I took my first journey to Japan, I was in Tokyo for two weeks – there I discovered Jinbocho, the book paradise in Japan, an area with more than 150 secondhand book stores. Since 1991, I have stopped by this area on all my journeys to Japan, trying to find some good book bargains on history, most of it related to the Middle Ages of Japan (1100-1650). This “hunt” has given me a huge library of 4,000 books on the middle ages, and most of them related to the Sengoku Jidai (1467-1615).
On my first trip to Jinbocho, I went inside a bookstore which sold newly published books, and bought two bags packed with Sengoku-related literature. The only problem when I got back home was that I couldn’t read Japanese. This was, of course, also something I was fully aware of when I was in Japan, buying the books – therefore, at the same time I picked up a few books on learning kanji characters. [laughs] I started to learn a little Japanese before I went to Japan, but not the kanji system, not until I got back from my first journey. Spending a lot of time, trying to remember characters, and at the same time trying to get some information out of the books I bought seized a lot of my spare time.
This is how it all started, and through the years I learnt quite a lot of the daily kanji characters, and now I am able to read sufficient to get through a non-fiction book on Japanese history. I also took Japanese at the University of Bergen, but this was done when I already knew most of the kanji system: more in order to get some official papers on my accumulated knowledge on the Japanese language.
Q: What motivated you to launch your "Saga of the Samurai" series?
Well, Stephen Turnbull inspired me to follow this path – in fact it was more the style of the existing Osprey series that gave me the idea, but seeing how much history there was in Japanese, I thought; why not try making something along those lines. When I travelled around Japan and visited libraries, second hand book stores, and bookstores selling newly published books on the subject. I soon discovered there was a lot of information available, and there could be room for many more writers on this subject, why should Turnbull be the only one? This abundance of sources available was why I finally decided to do something about it, and joined up with Brookhurst Hobbies in 2003; which resulted in our first volume later the same year.
Q: Your series on the Kai Takeda comprises six volumes. What fascinated you about the Takeda clan?
The reason for this clan, was also due to Akira Kurosawa, his “Kagemusha” film back in 1980s-something, but not only this film inspired me. It was also the abundance in sources available on the Takeda clan that gave me the push. And not to forget – the fascinating tragic history of the clan itself.
Q: Tell us about your research. How do you discover your (Japanese) sources? Do you tackle them yourself or do you have assistance? How much time goes into the research and the publication of a volume?
My private library forms the basis of my research, and since I am apt in the Japanese language, I do everything myself. I am not saying that it is all easy. It is not, many linguistic challenges inflict serious headaches from time to time. So, on all my journeys to Japan I have also been searching for books on old Japanese, in kanji character understanding, grammar, spelling and so on.
The time I spent on a volume is almost impossible to answer. Like the two volumes on the Gamô, I started research on this project back in 2005. My wife and I rented an apartment in Osaka for three months, and while she went to a Japanese language school, I travelled around Japan doing my research. I went to all the places related to the Gamô clan, and searched for sources related to them. So, you see, already some years gone since then.
Q: Who is responsible for the magnificent colour plates?
The great color plates are done by several artists, two Norwegians, one Polish, and one Mongolian; Ganbat, he is at present working on the Gamô volumes. All of them done and doing great work, and they are all easy to work with. I feed them with what they need of reference material and tell them what I would like to see in a scene, and we take it from there. The one that I am currently working with, Ganbat, is good – in fact, more than good – brilliant.
Q: We are very much looking forward to your new two-volume series on the Gamō family. Can you reveal some of your future plans?
After the two Gamô, volume 7 and 8 in my series, I plan to publish two more volumes on the Takeda – I cannot leave out Takeda Katsuyori – it is great history, due to the fact there is a large amount of sources on this period from 1573 to 1582.
After Volumes 9 and 10, I am open for suggestions, but of course I have some ideas. I am thinking of the Sanada from Shinano province, the Hôjô from Sagami, the Murakami or the Ogasawara from Shinano, the Kazurayama or the Imagawa from Suruga, the Ii or the Asahina from Tôtômi, the Takeda from Aki, or from the Kazusa or from Wakasa, and even the mighty Tokugawa - I would like to write about them all.
My goal is to publish at least one volume per year.
Q: You seem to rely increasingly on Kickstarter to launch new projects. How important are financial backers?
Well, since this is a private enterprise I spend what I need to get every volume published, since Volume 5, and this gives me a challenge, because writing a book, paying an illustrator, an editor for proofreading, and the actual printing is not cheap. The great thing about Kickstarter is that people can help me publish the book, and as soon as it is out, they will receive a copy – in that sense it is a great pre-order system.
Q: Thank you for the interview. We wish you all the best with your new release!