Thursday, January 18, 2024

Novella Project: Iori Kusano Interview

Today for the novella project, we're talking to Iori Kusano:

Iori Kusano is a queer Asian American writer and Extremely Ordinary Office Gremlin living in Tokyo. They are a graduate of Clarion West 2017. Their novella Hybrid Heart is available from Neon Hemlock Press, and their short fiction appears in various magazines. Find them on Twitter @IoriKusano and Instagram as iori_stagram, or at

You’ve written in multiple formats - I really enjoyed your short story “can i offer you a nice egg in this trying time” - how does novella compare?

It's so much harder than both short stories and novels! I really thought a novella should be manageable because 30k is around where I get sick of drafting a novel and throw it out anyway, but it turns out all the structural challenges are still there and you really do have to tie off at least some of the plot threads. 

How do you go about settling on a format for something you’re working on? Do you start with it in mind, or does the process lead you there? And if the latter, how does that work?

I've gotten to a point where I can look at my initial idea and have a sense for how "big" the story will be, but at the time I wrote Hybrid Heart I went in thinking I was going to write a short story. It was only several scenes into the first draft that I realized I was not going to be able to get things over with in seven thousand words or less.

What does the process of cutting/sizing up look like for you - how substantively does it change the content of your story? 

I tend to be very "point a to point b" in my storytelling, so sizing up tends to be about adding complexity. I have to retroactively outline the story to figure out where I'm going to shoehorn B and C plots into it, and then I'll work out the repercussions of the subplots on the main plot.

What do you think are the particular strengths of novellas as a format? 

As a reader, it's nice to block out my afternoon and enjoy one over a nice pot of tea—they're the perfect single-serving size to finish in one sitting. As a writer, the size constraint limits how much I can pack in there, which means I'm juggling fewer details in my thread during the writing process and thus am less likely to create an editing nightmare in which I scream things like, "Oh no, I forgot about [character] and left him abandoned on a bench three chapters back!" 

Do you have any thoughts on working with a small press specifically - strengths, weakness, differences, things you might not have expected?

This was my first time publishing outside a magazine, and I really didn't have any idea how it was going to work—I'd heard a fair bit about what it's like to work with trad pubs, but not indie pubs. I will say that everything moved more quickly than I expected, and that's probably one of the major strengths of a small press; there are fewer layers of red tape to navigate. I'd also been dreading a really drawn-out editing process, which was a fear informed by my experience as a sensitivity reader for trad pub projects, but we only spent a few months on it.

Your 2023 novella Hybrid Heart was published by neon hemlock - how did that come about?

I submitted to Neon Hemlock in the 2023 novella sub window, during the June BIPOC call.

It also has some gorgeous cover art - did you have any involvement in the process of that coming to be? How did you feel about it?

I think I've been absolutely spoiled by getting involved in the process of my cover art here and I'm in for a rude awakening if I ever move into trad pub. dave and I were in agreement that we wanted the cover to be done by a Japanese artist, but he doesn't speak Japanese and the artist we chose, Natsujirushi, didn't speak English, so I wound up translating some of the communications between them. I'm very lucky he asked me to help with it, because I had been using various pop culture references as shorthand to communicate various characters' vibes, and dave didn't understand those—but of course Natsu did!

I'm so pleased that Natsujirushi drew the cover for us. dave and I both scoured Twitter, fanbox, and pixiv looking for someone whose art style we liked, and Natsu was absolutely my first choice on the list.

Hybrid Heart feels like a very intimate character study - we come to feel like we know Rei very well by the end of the story. Did you find it difficult to manage that within the small scope of a novella, while balancing the rest of the story elements?

I'm not sure I did strike that balance, actually! But my priority with the story was to follow Rei very closely on her journey towards her breaking point, and I basically made my peace with sacrificing some of the nuances of the other characters and nearly all the background events I'd originally been thinking of in order to keep that tight focus and control the pacing.

Can you tell us a little about how Hybrid Heart came about? What was your initial inspiration for it/why was it a story you wanted to tell?

There's a lot of things that went into it: I had just quit academia and was coming to terms with how I'd let the sunk cost fallacy push me too far down a road where I was becoming a person I didn't like very much; Yamaguchi Maho from NGT48 had just publicly apologized for "causing a fuss" because another girl in her idol group gave her address to a couple stalkers who then went to her home and assaulted her; some people online had gotten parasocial towards me in ways that made me examine who I am when I'm not engaging with the public as Kusano Iori; I started processing and consequently getting really angry about how certain adults had failed me as a teenager by making up an image and personality for me without my input and then expecting me to conform to it.
It started out as a story about an idol on a personal quest who was engaging incognito with people who had developed parasocial attachments to her stage persona, but then one night I met a former chika idol at my friend's bar and we got to talking about some of the pressures that made her quit. Things took a turn. I didn't use a lot of what she told me because it got way darker than I was willing to go, but I definitely owe her a drink if I see her again.

Is there anything you’ve learned from working on the book - and from working with Neon Hemlock - that you wish you’d known before, or advice you’d give your past self?

I found out that I actually have a really low tolerance for the promotion side of writing. That's nothing to do with the writing itself, or with my publisher—I just can't handle too much being-perceived at once. A lot of my public appearances as Iori before had been in panel/group settings where I could always kick focus onto someone else, so this was sort of my first solo show, and it turns out I hate it! That might have implications down the line for whether I decide to keep publishing.

Do you read novellas yourself? If so, are there any you particularly admire, or ones you think more people should be aware of?

The one I always recommend to people is And What Can We Offer You Tonight by Premee Mohamed, but really all her stuff is great—she's a master of the form. I also really love Aliette de Bodard's novellas, which do not get nearly the hype they deserve, and JY Yang's Tensorate duet.

Agreed - the Tensorate duet is fantastic.

What draws you to novellas as a reader? What do you think makes a good one? 

As a general rule I am much better fed by characters than plot. I don't need to like a protagonist but I do need to feel like, "Oh, I wanna pop the hood and just get elbow-deep and greasy in their disastrous little brain." 

And finally, can you tell us a little more about your most recent work?

Hybrid Heart: Rei is a pop idol in near future Japan trying to push past middling success despite competition from Vocaloid-style digital singers. Haunted by both guilt and the insidious manipulations of a controlling talent manager, Rei is forced to question what parts of herself—and those around her—she will sacrifice on the path to top billing.

Thank you Iori!

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea