Since you asked...
What was your starting point for the novel?
It began when I read that Hokusai had a daughter who helped him in his studio, who was a fine artist “in her own right” and who disappeared after his death.
How long did it take you to write it?
Nearly five years. I had to really work to familiarize myself with the world of Edo. And I traveled a lot to meet experts and to find the bits and pieces of Oei’s art that remain.
Is Rebecca really you, the author?
She is and she isn’t. Obviously I went through a lot of what she went through. But when enfolded in a fiction everything takes on a life of its own, including the author. It’s Oei’s story and it is her idea of “Rebecca” that we get.
What was it like working with a ghost as a narrator?
It was great fun. She can float up to the ceiling; she can eat people’s French fries. I had some decisions to make about how startled she was going to be by contemporary technology, for instance—Google really astonished her. But she couldn’t go around in a constant state of shock. For the most part she took things like airplanes and escalators in stride. Pun intended.
Can you tell us about that research? How did you discover what you did?
With a great deal of help! I made contact with some very generous art historians who directed me to sources. I spent a few years playing art detective. A second career! It was so much fun, and very revealing. At one point I put a person much like myself into the novel: you can read it in the Special Edition available in Canada only for Kobo and ipad. But since I still got a lot of questions from readers about where the facts ended and the fiction began, I wrote an Afterword. In it you can read about my discoveries and the questions it raises. It’s available in the US edition, and in the Canadian paperback.
Did you like Oei? Did you like Hokusai?
At first I thought Oei would be difficult to sympathize with. But when she began to speak I grew to love her. Hokusai has enormous charm and energy. You only have to look at all the pictures that are attributed to him to see that. But he used and abused his daughter. He was an alpha omega male who lived to twice the average life expectancy of his time. He probably used and abused everyone. But Oei was trapped by circumstances.
Is it your intention to deconstruct the idea of the great masters?
It is my intention to tell the story of one great, lost woman artist. If that deconstructs the idea of the “master” who was her father, then yes.
What are you saying about father/daughter love?
I think it is most highly charged of human relationships. A father’s love and approval makes or breaks a woman. Mothers are important too but with a father and daughter there is a sexual pull as well. A father of a gifted girl has to either challenge convention or sell her out.
Which did Hokusai do?
You tell me. He challenged the conventions of his society for sure. Especially when it
suited him. With his daughter perhaps he only went half way.
Will you write more about Oei and Japan?
I don’t know. I’m trying to decide. I would like to see what happened to her work after her death. I’d like to write about the dealers and the collectors. But we’ll see. There are so many books to be written! And only so much time.
Does Oei still speak to you?
Yes, sometimes. All my main characters are like old friends. Very occasionally I run into one of them—Cory Ditchburn from Angel Walk, for instance, if I’m in Georgian Bay. Or I’ll have an experience that reminds me of them. I miss them.