Series: Nogiku #1
Genres: New Adult, Post-Apocalyptic, Romance, Science Fiction
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Duty knows no family. Love has no price. Secrets can cost you everything. Twenty-year-old Sanaa Griffin, a sweet and smart half-Japanese girl, is about to get more than she bargained for when she wishes for love and excitement on New Year’s Eve 3103. Mark Sakai, who knows more about her than any stranger should, thinks Sanaa is the perfect person to spy on the heads of the three biggest Japanese clan leaders in Nishikyō. He wants her to gather enough evidence to keep them from going to war when they land on Earth’s colonization planet, Yūsei. Nishikyō, built by the Japanese 300 years ago to house the rest of mankind, is failing and everyone is preparing to leave. Sakai has known Sanaa’s family all her life but she knows nothing of him! And despite all the time they spend together, he keeps his distance from her. Then one day, he brings her to Jiro, his nephew, to learn sword fighting, and it changes her life irrevocably. Between falling in love with Jiro and the information she is gathering on the clans, Sanaa realizes Sakai is holding back secrets about her family and her deceased parents, secrets as to why she was chosen for this job, and learning the truth puts her and all of Nishikyō in danger.
Book two (Released) of the Nogiku series has just been released.
Interview with Author S.J. Pajonas
Can you talk a little about what the book is about?
When I pitched the first book in the Nogiku Series, I called it “SHOGUN meets DUNE on a post-apocalyptic earth” so that should give you a pretty good idea of what the story theme is! It’s about a bright, young, half-Japanese woman, Sanaa, who finds out her life is far from ordinary when she’s pulled from her job to spy on the main Japanese clans of her city. She’s plunged into a world of secrets and lies, she falls in love, she learns to sword fight, and she’s confronted with the biggest secret of all, her family legacy.
Where did you get the idea for the book?
I had always wanted to write science fiction since I was a kid, and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels were my favorite. I enjoyed the themes and stories about humans who had colonized the galaxy, but I always wondered about the generation that had picked up to leave Earth. What kind of people were they? They had to be brave pioneers to leave everything behind and start over someplace else. This idea stayed with me for years but I didn’t know how or what to write. Then the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, Japan in 2011 happened, and I was devastated by it. I’ve been in love with Japan for over 15 years and studied its culture and language for a long time. I have friends who live (and have lived) there and seeing the destruction changed me. Two months later, I saw photos in the Atlantic Monthly of the clean-up efforts and was floored. The before and after photos were amazing.
I looked at those photos, and I said, “If anyone is going to survive the end of the world, it’ll be Japan.” And my idea was born. I would make the last generation on Earth mostly Japanese, I would borrow traditions and language and meld them together, and I would make my heroine hafu (a mix of Japanese and Western) stuck between two different cultures. There had to be romance (which I have since come to love writing) and a great mystery. The rest came naturally.
What message do you want readers to get from reading the book?
Readers can find a lot of messages in my books, and, ultimately, it’s up to them what they take away from it. Honestly, my main goal in writing these books is to educate my readers in some Japanese traditions and language. To most westerners, Japan means sushi, electronics, and since the earthquake, nuclear power. But I want readers to see the richness in the old cultures, the wide variety of foods, the humbleness, loyalty, and honor the people there embody. I’ve turned quite a few readers into Japanophiles! And I’m not sorry about that one little bit.
How long did it take to write the book?
I started writing REMOVED in June 2011. It went through nine drafts before I self-published it in September 2013. For a while, REMOVED was a Young Adult novel, I had agent representation, and it was being submitted to publishers. But I had a feeling that the market was saturated with Young Adult dystopian novels. So my agent and I parted ways, I took REMOVED and I aged all the characters up into their 20s, the New Adult category. Suddenly, their storylines of the need for independence and living in an adult world with new responsibilities came into clearer focus. Then further revisions were done to hone the prose and copy edit. I started writing RELEASED, the second book in the series, in November 2011 and published it in December 2013. But these first two books needed to lay a lot of ground work. I’ve already written two drafts of Book 3 and a short synopsis of Book 4, and I don’t expect either to take two years from start to finish!
Who is your favorite character, or what character was the most fun to write?
Mark Sakai is my favorite character because I still find him a mystery. He comes into the story in his forties, and he has a significant history with Sanaa’s mother. I want to know what happened in his past so badly. I’m probably going to have to write his books too. In fact, I’m sure I will. Sigh. I’m pretty sure this universe (because I have ideas for books past the original four in the Nogiku Series) is going to consume me for over ten years.
Can you talk about how you wrote it? Did you do any outlining? Did it take you in any unexpected directions?
Since college, I had always been told that the only way to write was to outline your story and then sit down with that map and write it. But, man, I HATE OUTLINES. Really hate them. So every time I had an idea, I would try to outline it, get frustrated and upset, and give up. This is probably why I am now only making progress 15 years after college! I told a writer friend of mine in 2011 I wanted to start writing again, fiction this time because I was a screenwriter in college, but that I hated outlines. She told me to sit down and just write. Forget the outlines. Let my fingers move and see what came of it.
So now I’m a pantster. I write and see what happens and sometimes better ideas come to me after several drafts. In an earlier draft of REMOVED, I made Sanaa depressed and prone to anxiety attacks. Then I decided with feedback from beta readers that was boring, and I completely changed her from the 4th to the 5th draft. I’m not afraid of revisions. I’m not afraid of racking up the drafts. But I will admit that now that I’ve been writing steadily for a few years, I’m getting better at writing cleaner first drafts. They’re no longer as messy as they used to be. So, practice makes perfect, I suppose! (Though I don’t believe in perfection in anything which is another very Japanese thing about me).
If you could go back and change anything in the novel, what would it be?
Nothing thematic or about the characters. I’m pretty happy with them all. I would run another round of copy editing on it, and I will for the next edition, so I can’t really say there’s anything I need to change!
How did you come up with the cover?
I debated for a long time on the cover. I wanted people on my covers, but, sigh, finding good Japanese (or even Asian) couples that looked even vaguely like my characters was next to impossible in stock photography. I would have had to hire a photographer and models, and I just didn’t have the budget. So instead I dove into my archive of photos that I took while on a trip to Japan and found images for 3 of the 4 books in the series. The papers on REMOVED’s cover are omikuji wish papers that are typically given out on New Year’s Eve and are a part of the story. The cranes on the cover of RELEASED are also referred to in that particular story. Each cover’s photo or object is significant to that book.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Oh, I have no idea. I wanted to be an astronaut FOREVER and if I were given the chance to go into space, I’d take it in a heartbeat. I’ve been an avid reader all my life and have always had a good grasp of the English language and its quirky grammar rules. I think I decided I really wanted to write when I was in college. I was taking screenwriting classes and wanted to go on into that career path. But then I graduated, had an extreme amount of debt, and realized I couldn’t afford grad school. So I learned how to build websites. I’ve been designing and building websites for the past 15 years. It paid the bills, and I’m so happy to have all that knowledge now as a self-publisher. I no longer build websites for a living (I’m a stay-at-home mom now) but I use my skills to build my blog and other things for my books.
What are you favorite books and authors?
My favorite book is The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, and I’ve read almost everything he’s ever written. I just love him to death. My other favorites are Margaret Atwood, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Marian Keyes, and Banana Yoshimoto.
What are you working on next?
More in the Nogiku Series because I love that world and now that I have readers I want to deliver the rest in the series in a timely manner. But I’m also working on a contemporary romance that will be a part of a kind-of series. All the books can stand-alone but they’ll be connected with similar characters. I hope to have that out in the late spring.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Find what works for you and stick with it. See, outlines were awful for me! Now that I know I write better as a pantster, I’m sticking with it because it works for me. No need to rock that boat.
How do you juggle writing with family time?
Now that my kids are in school for a few hours each day, I make sure that I take that time for writing. Sometimes I choose to exercise during school hours, but eighty percent of the time, I choose to write. I don’t do dishes. I don’t clean. I write. Sometimes, I also take evenings or early mornings to write when I’m really into the groove or on a deadline. But a lot of my writing time comes on the weekends when my husband can cover for me. When the kids are both in school full time, I will probably work fewer hours on weekends, but, until then, I grab the time when I can.
**Contains spoilers for those who have not read REMOVED (Book 1) Left in the desert to recuperate from her injuries, Sanaa Itami paces the floors and contemplates her mistakes. She trusted too easily, and now people she loved are dead, killed at the hands of men coming to assassinate her. Sanaa feels beaten, but life awaits her at home. While Nishikyo recovers from the earthquake, negotiations for Sanaa’s eventual rule on Yusei continue. New allies must be made, new friendships brokered, new skills acquired — at all costs. Life at the top of the chain is complicated and lonely, though. With relations in Sakai clan rocky and uncertain, Sanaa must learn to trust others again more than she’s willing. Who amongst the clans is left holding a grudge? And will the new family Sanaa has found with Jiro support or betray her? From Nishikyo to Yusei, RELEASED, Book TWO of the Nogiku Series, is the second book in a captivating New Adult post-apocalyptic romance series that harnesses the cultures and traditions of Japan and sweeps them into the future between Earth and a faraway land.
You can find Released on Goodreads
Check below for excerpts from both books.
Excerpt from Removed, Book One
Behind these two men are the brothers our age Miko referred to earlier. The older one is around twenty-four or twenty-five and his brother a few years younger. Yes, Miko, they are definitely cute but the younger one is more my type. He is seriously handsome with longer, floppier hair than his older brother, a strong chin, and what looks like a white streak in his hair just over his ear. He reaches up and tucks his hair back before turning and spying the three girls staring from the bar.
“What did I tell you, Sanaa-chan?” Miko whispers. “The older one’s mine.” A slow, seductive smile comes over her face, and I do my very best not to roll my eyes. Miko has her sights set on him. He’s done for.
But I’m watching the younger brother. Yes, just my type, I can tell already. Strong and confident in the way he holds himself. I love longer hair on men, and that black kimono. Sigh. I love men in kimono. His eyes are on me and now that we’re staring at each other, my breath is slowing, slowing, slowing down until I’m holding it and not breathing at all. I don’t blink. I don’t move. I am completely entranced.
“It’s a good thing neither of these two are my type,” Helena whispers at me, but I barely hear her. The younger one has turned from me at the behest of one of the other men, the two brothers bow to Miko’s father, and turn to exit the izakaya through the back door. No! Wait!
No, wait. He’s looking at me again before he goes. Did I say that out loud? I don’t know. Smile, Sanaa.
I smile, trying not to be too eager nor too subtle. I’m usually at one end of the spectrum or the other and know nothing of moderation. Moderation? What’s that? No clue.
A smile brightens his face for a moment, but he’s gone. They’re all gone.
Excerpt from Released, Book Two
Never before this moment have I ever felt the crushing desire to marry and have children, to have a real wedding, to expand my tiny family and be joined with another. Ugh, I’m so selfish. Why can’t I just be happy with what I have?
Jiro looks at me and despite the festive atmosphere, the people around us talking and laughing, I’m not smiling. I just can’t smile when I’m trying to keep the thoughts away, the thoughts about my own future and what’s in store for me on Yūsei.
He pulls me in, and I close my eyes and wrap my arms around him, resting my head on his chest. We don’t say anything, but this is exactly what I need. I need to know Jiro’s fine with all the terms and conditions that come with me. A bright flash illuminates everything around us, and I know our hug has been captured by the photographer. I hope I don’t look ridiculous.
“Come on, Sanaa. Miko and Yoichi are at the door.”
Sure enough, they come into the dining hall propped up by the thundering of our applause. Mr. and Mrs. Itō. Miko Itō. She told me she was thinking of keeping Tanaka because of the izakaya, but, ultimately, she likes the idea of changing her own name and leaving the business name as-is. Maybe I should legally change my name to Sanaa Itami. Maybe a change would make me feel more in control.
Gods, some days I think my brain is broken. I can’t stop thinking about this mess I’m in. If I choose to stay with Jiro, I’m robbing him of his ability to marry, too, and that’s important for the leader of a big family. Beni tried to convince me everything would be fine. But I’m watching Miko and Yoichi walk to each table and talk to their guests as the waitstaff serves dinner, and I’m not sure.
I’m really not sure.
My leg is bouncing under the table, and my knee knocks up against Jiro’s. His hand comes down on my leg, and I try to tuck my hair behind my ears like I used to do when I was nervous and can’t. I have very little hair left on my head.
I search the room from my chair for support or distraction. Lucy and Sakai are laughing and drinking together, and they both seem so happy. Helena is at the next table over being introduced to Usagi’s parents. Oyama is standing next to them, smiling and nodding his head. My knee bounces even more.
Jiro turns to me with sadness in his eyes again, like he did during the ceremony, and my stomach sinks. He’s regretting this, isn’t he? Regretting us because we can’t have what everyone else has. Looking around at the table full of people I love, they all have the freedom to choose and be with whomever they want. I want to be with Jiro. I am with Jiro but suddenly it feels so temporary, like our relationship can’t last.
I can’t sit here anymore.